The God of Broken Things: Thoughts on Maimonides and Rav Tsadok

Introduction

As a general rule, we like it when things work the way they’re supposed to work, when things go according to plan. And yet, across the range of human experiences, this is not what actually occurs. In contemporary society, this perhaps most commonly takes the form of technology failing to live up to the expectations of its owners. Beyond the functioning of tools, this is a basic problem of human will, where we want to do one thing and yet end up doing another. In ancient Greek philosophy this was thought of as the problem of akrasia, and Freudian psychology has generated a massive theoretical discourse exploring this facet of human existence. In theology and religion this problem arises in terms of evil in the world and attempts at theodicy. If a good god made the world then why does it fail to be good? While the technological problems tend to be minor annoyances in our day to day lives, the anthropological and theological problems concern fundamental issues in how we think about God, reality, and what it means to be a person.

In this essay I want to explore three texts, one from Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” and two from Rabbi Tsadok Rabinowitz Hakohen’s (Rav Tsadok) “Tsidkat Hatsadik,” which touch on these issues. In doing so, these texts place God in the uncommon, and perhaps uncomfortable, position of the source of failure. These texts suggest that, in one form or another, God is the reasons that things don’t “work.”

Before launching into the texts, I want to make a methodological note. I am not going to attempt here to present a thorough and broad understanding of the theologies of either Maimonides or Rav Tsadok (with the former, at least, I’m not even sure that is possible); I am simply going to look at these texts in and of themselves. My goal is to examine the theological intuitions and ideas contained within the texts, rather than explain what Maimonides and Rav Tsadok think more broadly.

Guide II 32 – The Failure of Prophecy

Maimonides discussions of prophecy in the Guide for the Perplexed cover all of the traditional issues bound up in the concept: what it is, what type of information it conveys, who can get it, how they get it, are there different levels, etc. In one of his discussions of it, in Guide II:32, he suggests that there are three primary opinions about the nature of prophecy. Only the third is of relevance to us, but it must be understood agains the background of the first two.

The first is that of the people, including Jews, whom Maimonides calls “ignorant people”:

Among those who believe in Prophecy, and even among our coreligionists, there are some ignorant people who think as follows: God selects any person He pleases, inspires him with the spirit of Prophecy, and entrusts him with a mission. It makes no difference whether that person be wise or stupid, old or young; provided he be, to some extent, morally good. For these people have not yet gone so far as to maintain that God might also inspire a wicked person with His spirit. They admit that this is impossible, unless God has previously caused him to improve his ways. (Guide, II 32, Friedlander translation)

According to the first group, the ignorant people, prophecy is a totally miraculous event (notably, this group seems to include Rav Sa’adiah Gaon. See “The Book of Beliefs and Opinions” chapter 3). It occurs when God decides to impart it to a person, regardless of any other conditions. Moreover, it is entirely driven by God’s initiative, rather than man’s; it is entirely “top-down” as it were. Prophecy is, in this sense, entirely chaotic and arbitrary. There can be no question of prophecy “working” or going according to some plan, because there can be no plan.

This is in stark contrast to the opinion of the second group, the philosophers:

The philosophers hold that prophecy is a certain faculty of man in a state of perfection, which can only be obtained by study. Although the faculty is common to the whole race, yet it is not fully developed in each individual, either on account of the individual’s defective constitution, or on account of some other external cause. This is the case with every faculty common to a class. It is only brought to a state of perfection in some individuals, and not in all; but it is impossible that it should not be perfect in some individual of the class; and if the perfection is of such a nature that it can only be produced by an agent, such an agent must exist. Accordingly, it is impossible that an ignorant person should be a prophet; or that a person being no prophet in the evening, should, unexpectedly on the following morning, find himself a prophet, as if prophecy were a thing that could be found unintentionally. But if a person, perfect in his intellectual and moral faculties, and also perfect, as far as possible, in his imaginative faculty, prepares himself in the manner which will be described, he must become a prophet; for prophecy is a natural faculty of man. It is impossible that a man who has the capacity for prophecy should prepare himself for it without attaining it, just as it is impossible that a person with a healthy constitution should be fed well, and yet not properly assimilate his food; and the like. (Ibid.)

According to the philosophers, prophecy is not miraculous but natural. It is a capacity with which all people are born, though they have to develop it properly. If someone does develop their moral and intellectual faculties properly, and they have the necessary imaginative capacity, then they inevitably attain prophecy. This might be characterized as a “bottom-up” approach. Prophecy “works” in the sense that I have been discussing; it goes according to plan. If you attempt to achieve prophecy, and you meet every condition, you will necessarily receive prophecy. In contrast to the divine chaos of the first opinion, there is an entirely natural order.

The third opinion, which Maimonides attributes to Tanakh and to the fundamental principle of Judaism, is a significant variation on the opinion of the philosophers:

The third view is that which is taught in Scripture, and which forms one of the principles of our religion. It coincides with the opinion of the philosophers in all points except one. For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may yet happen that he does not actually prophesy. It is in that case the will of God [that withholds from him the use of the faculty]. (Ibid.)

Prophecy, according to this opinion, is achieved by way of a natural process wherein a person develops their moral and intellectual capacities to the point of perfection. As opposed to the opinion of the philosophers, however, achieving prophecy is not inevitable for the person who reaches the end of this process. A person could reach this peak of moral and intellectual perfection and still not attain prophecy, because God can prevent her from doing so. God intervenes in and disrupts the natural prophetic process.

To sharpen this a little bit, I want to correct a common misunderstanding about this text. I have often heard or read this third opinion explained as a combination of or midpoint between the first two. If the first is top-down and the second is bottom-up, then the third, it is said, is when the two sides meet in the middle; a person develops herself to a certain point and then God decides whether or not to bestow prophecy upon her. However, it is pretty clear from Maimonides’ words that this is not the case. The third opinion is not a midpoint or combination of the previous two, it is simply a variation on the second. Prophecy remains an entirely natural process; God only comes into the picture when the process fails.

This point is driven home in the continuation of the passage, where Maimonides expands this concept from prophecy to miracles.

According to my opinion, this fact is as exceptional as any other miracle, and acts in the same way. For the laws of Nature demand that every one should be a prophet, who has a proper physical constitution, and has been duly prepared as regards education and training. If such a person is not a prophet, he is in the same position as a person who, like Jeroboam (1 Kings xiii.), is deprived of the use of his hand, or of his eyes, as was the case with the army of Syria, in the history of Elisha (2 Kings vi. 18). (Ibid.)

According to the natural order, someone fitting to receive prophecy will necessarily do so. It is only through miraculous intervention that such people on in some instances do not receive prophecy. Moreover, this miraculous intervention is the same in form to all other miracles; they all consist of God interfering with and disrupting the natural order. Maimonides brings two proofs from Tanakh to show that this is how miracles work. Regardless of the existence of counter-examples, Maimonides could not have found better proofs if he wrote them himself. The first is from 1 Kings 13, when God saved an unnamed prophet from the Israelite king Jeroboam by causing the king’s hand to wither, and the second is from 2 Kings 5, when God blinded the Assyrian army. Maimonides argues that the withered hand and the blindness, rather than being direct acts of God, result from God disrupting the regular functioning of the natural order. Prophecy is a natural human capacity just like seeing and use of the hand, and God’s role in prophecy is solely causing it to fail.

 

Tsidkat Hatsadik 102 – “God sets up problems and obstacles for a person”

Rav Tsadok dedicates a good deal of his notebook, Tsidkat Hatsadik, to meditations on sin and repentance and their interplay with the divine will. In one piece on the topic, #102, he presents a creative reading of the rabbinic statement that people who have sinned and repented are on a higher level, in whatever sense, than people who have never sinned.

This is the meaning of the saying that in the place where repentant individuals stand, even the completely righteous cannot reach. God sets up problems and obstacles for a person, and the person must then repent and atone for his “sin.” Through this process he extracts treasure from garbage. (Excerpt from Tsidkat Hatsadik 102; translation is mine. [The linked version is missing a section that was censored out beginning with the second edition and only restored in more recent printings.])

Rav Tsadok is working with an intuition very similar to that of Maimonides, but he is talking about human sin instead of prophecy. The way most people think of sin is that there is a theoretical list of things that people should not do, and sometimes people attempting to adhere to this list fail to do so. Rav Tsadok argues, in contrast, that sin is not simply a function of human failure to adhere to this list, but is in fact, or can be, God making a person sin (cf. Tsidkat Hatsadik, 40, 43). Much like Maimonides’ natural order, human willpower works. A person can decide to do or not do something, and follow through on that decision. Sometimes, however, a person will fail to follow through. While note ruling out other potential reasons for this failure, Rav Tsadok says that, at least sometimes, it is because God wanted the person to sin. In this passage, Rav Tsadok suggests that God wanted the person to sin because the process of repenting for this sin is itself valuable. In some of the passages that appear after this one, Rav Tsadok meditates on other possible reasons. He maintains throughout this basic idea that God directly causes a person to sin. Notably, this is a distinct step beyond Maimonides assertion that God merely keeps people from getting prophecy, though the basic idea is the same.

 

Tsidkat Hatsadik 101 – Nothing Works

Both passages that I have looked at so far, from Maimonides and Rav Tsadok, asserted that God causes systems or processes to fail, for whatever reason. This idea is built up on the assumption that there are systems or processes that, barring external intervention, work the way they are supposed to work. I want to turn now to a passage from Tsidkat Hatsadik, the one directly preceding the last one we looked at, and see how Rav Tsadok reads a famous rabbinic statement about the creation of the world in a way that direct challenges that assumption (there are ways of resolving the tension between these two pieces, but I’m not concerned about that in this essay). As it is somewhat shorter than the other pieces we looked at, I will quote it in full:

In practice it is impossible for a person to stay within the boundaries of the law (shurat hadin), as the verse says, “there is no righteous person on earth who does good and does not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). A righteous person (tsadik) is careful not to stray outside the boundaries of the law [it is common knowledge that in the realm of practice (Olam Ha’Asiah) there are many kelipot, at all levels, but that is beyond the scope of this piece]. This only possible in thought, not practice, and in a person’s inner conscious will, where he decides in his mind that he will act in a specific way and not sin, only there is it possible for him to desire and think like this.

In truth, in the thought and will that transcend the worlds, that sinful act is also part of the plan and does not go outside the boundaries of the law, for everything is within the law (hadin).

This is what the rabbis meant when they said that initially God thought to create through his attribute of law [but God saw that the world could not exist like this, so he created it with compassion (rahamim) as well -LM]. Action therefore necessarily means going outside the boundaries of the law, while thought is the attribute of law, and does not exceed the boundaries of the law. In the verse, “God is righteous in all his ways, and pious in all his deeds” (Psalms 145:17), “his ways” means words of Torah, as the beginning of Tractate Kiddushin says and in line with the verse, “He made his ways known to Moses” (Psalms 103:7). God, too, behaves according to the Torah, but when it comes the deed he is pious, meaning not according to the strict boundaries of the law, as discussed in Tractate Shabbat (120a, and see Rashi there).

This is in line with the verse, “I will be gracious to anyone I want” (Exodus 33:19). This too is a verse in the Torah and is known to be one of God’s ways, just as “it is a time to act for God and reject the Torah” is an established halakhah, just as, when we get back to the level of thought, this too is part of the plan and the proper boundaries. (Tsidkat Hatsadik 101; translation is mine, as is the emphasis)

In this piece, Rav Tsadok argues that failure is built into the system. People and the world are not supposed to perfectly live up to their ideals. As a support for this, he references a rabbinic narrative describing how God intended to create the world such that it would function according to strict laws. However, God saw that such a world could not be sustained, and so he created the world with compassion instead. Compassion, Rav Tsadok claims, is just one form of exceeding the boundaries of the law, and now it is an inherent part of the world. People fail to live up to their ideals because that’s part of how people work. As opposed to the assumption underlying the passages we saw from the Guide for the Perplexed II 32 and Tsidkat Hatsadik 102, systems don’t work. Thinking that things work out the way they are supposed to work out is a mistake, verging on self-delusion. God does not directly cause failure, but God built a world that is broken, along with everything in it; none of it works as it ideally should, and that’s how it is supposed to be.

Conclusion

In this piece we have seen two different ideas positing God as the source of failure, built around two different intuitions about how whether people and the world “work.” The first says that things basically work, and God interferes with their functioning, causing things to fail. The second says that things don’t work, that failure is built into people and the world, and that God made it that way. These two ideas bear some significant implications for our religious lives.

Religion is in many ways about living up to certain ideals of action, belief, or both, something in which we are not always successful. We need to consider the degree to which we are really meant to succeed in this goal all of the time (Rav Tsadok says in piece 101, quoted above, that the system of halakhah includes its own violation). If we really are meant to succeed, if the system works, then failure might just mean that we didn’t do our part properly, and we have to work harder on our end. The real possibility exists, however, that we will find no fault of our own, and the fault for our failure must fall to God (cf. Bavli Berakhot 5a, “יסורים של אהבה”). In such an instance, we must reconsider how we understand failure. It shifts from being sin to “sin,” as Rav Tsadok put it, from failure to the first step of success.

If, however, failure is built into the system and success is never assumed, then it may be impossible to know why we failed in any given instance. However, failure also becomes less dramatic. It might not even be “failure” in the way we normally mean it. Failure is a part of what it means to be created by God, and humbly accepting our creatureliness means accepting the fact that we fail all of the time.

Finally, I would note that this is an issue of obvious significance for the days of Elul, when Jews have repentance on the mind. Both of these ideas take the edge off of sin, meaning that perhaps it should not be the focus of repentance. Instead, repentance should either focus on how the sin can be the first step in something better (the first approach), or in accepting the fact that we are not divine, and thus sin is to some degree an unfortunate inevitability. Either way, the primary emotion of repentance is not guilt but determination or humility.

 

 

[This post was influenced by lectures by Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar and an editor of his writings, and an interesting thinker in his own right. An English interview with Prof. Alan Brill about Mevorach’s new book, “A Theology of Absence” can be found here, and Mevorach’s Hebrew lectures on a variety of topics can be found on his youtube channel here.]

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Preoccupation With Glory and the Deferral of Hope: Hayyim Angel’s ‘Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi’

What is the relationship between Prophecy and History? This is question that underlies Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s “Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi” (HZM), a newly-released commentary on the three biblical books by the same names. These books are traditionally considered to be the latest of the of the Bible’s prophetic writings, attributed to prophets living in Israel toward the beginning of the Second Temple Era. Angel’s basic approach to understanding the often obscure oracles in these books is to understand them against the background of their historical context. To this end, HZM includes several sections dedicated to explicating passages from Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as a chapter-length analysis of the book of Esther. These books are more historical in style than the prophetic oratories of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and Angel analyzes them to create a historical context for interpreting the other books. Then, in the sections dedicated to understanding the prophetic oracles, Angel both analyzes the details of each prophet’s visions and explains the historical situation to which each prophet was speaking.

Throughout the book, Angel paints a vivid picture of the spirit of the nation in the period of the Second Temple discussed in the biblical texts, a picture he divides into two distinct eras. The first era is based on the book of Haggai and the first parts of the books of Ezra and Zechariah. In this era, the prophets are dealing with a people who are entirely obedient, but are preoccupied with “glory” (Angel uses this word throughout, presumably thinking of the common English translation of Yeshayahu 6:3, such as it appears in the King James Bible: “And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”). The prophets are therefore consistently occupied with attempts to convince the people that, despite the destruction of the first temple and the ultimately lackluster second temple, God reigns supreme throughout the world. This job is made particularly difficult in the face of Persia reigning supreme throughout the world in a more empirically verifiable manner. In the face of this empirical reality, the prophets agree that Persia currently reigns, but they attribute Persia’s dominance over the Jewish people to the sinfulness of the Jews themselves. From this follows the prophets’ promise/prediction that if the people can maintain proper behavior, a messianic king will rise in the near future to restore the Jews sovereignty and to make God’s glory obvious for all to see.

These prophecies become the locus of an important discussion throughout the book, namely, the meaning of prophecies that did not come true. Angel sets up two approaches to this topic, both of which have support in classical sources. The first approach, which is probably the more widespread in Orthodoxy today, understands that when a prophecy fails to manifest itself (or a positive prophecy, at the very least), it means that we simply misunderstood the prophecy, which was really referring to the future.When Haggai talked about “the Branch” that will be the messianic king, we would be mistaken to think that he meant his contemporary Zerubavel. According to this approach, a prophecy cannot fail to come true; if one does seem to have failed to manifest, that just means that we, the readers, misunderstood the prophecy.

The second approach, which Angel attributes to the Malbim and other traditional figures, as well as texts in Tanakh, understands that prophecies are directed to a specific moment in time, and they have a meaning that is obvious at that time. When Haggai talked about “the Branch,” he really was talking about his contemporary, Zerubavel. However, prophecies are not definite promises or divine fiat. Instead, this approach argues that prophecies are meant to inform the people of the potential nestled within their historical moment. Haggai isn’t promising that Zerubavel will be the Messiah, he’s saying that Zerubavel could be the Messiah. If the potential fails to manifest, that is because the people failed to do what was necessary in order to bring the prophets’ visions to fruition. The vision is recorded in Tanakh not because it tells us, Tanakh’s readers, about specific historical events yet to come, but because of what it tells about the potential that has inhered in past historical moments, and is destined to emerge again in our future. It is this second approach that Angel takes throughout HZM, and it turns his interpretive focus from the nature of the predicted events to the actions of the people that caused those potential events to wither on the vine.

Whether because of religious/ethical sins (such as intermarriage) or more concrete political sins (like the majority of Jews who stayed in Babylonia instead of returning to Judea), the promised return of widespread Divine glory simply never appeared (Angel brings these two suggestions from a variety of commentators). This initiated the second era that Angel depicts, based on the books of Esther and Nehemiah, as well as later parts of the book of Ezra. In this period, the people have the same problem of the absence of God’s glory, which is much worse now that the second temple has been a disappointment and Zerubavel has failed to amount to anything significant. This gloomy atmosphere is matched in the prophecies of Zechariah and Malachi from the time, which do not promise immanent political redemption like Haggai and Zechariah once did. Instead these prophecies reject the people’s basic assumptions about the nature of Divine dominance.

Whereas the earlier prophecies had accepted the people’s basic problem that God’s dominance was not evident and reassured the people that the evidence would be arriving shortly, these prophecies challenge the people’s evaluation of reality. Who says that God’s dominance of history has be obvious the way human political dominance is? Maybe Persian political success does not impinge upon Divine supremacy. Maybe the covenant between God and the people of Israel transcends such limited understandings of “success.” This is the basic idea that the prophecies of the second era are trying to get across, according to Angel. More concretely, the prophets tell the people that the situation on the ground, Israel’s subjugation to Persia, is not going away, but that this doesn’t mean anything about their relationship with God. God is just as much with them and just as all-powerful as God was before the destruction of the first temple. Their political situation is a purely political problem, and the prophets do promise/predict an eventual political savior, but the political problem has no theological significance. The hope for redemption has been deferred indefinitely, and that’s ok.

The idea that there is no theological significance to political success (or failure), has its roots in books of Tanakh that Angel doesn’t mention, like Yirmiyahu and Yehezkal, but it runs against the dominant trend in both Tanakh writ large and the Torah itself, as well as, I think, some pretty basic religious intuitions. The Torah promises extended dwelling on the land of Israel for obedience to God’s law and proclaims exile as punishment for disobedience. The book of Melakhim depicts a tight correspondence between obedience to God and the length of a dynasty, until ultimately the people are exiled and the temple is destroyed. And if God is the sovereign lord of history (Angel uses the term “miracle of history” throughout the book), there is a basic degree of logic behind the idea that those who receive God’s grace will experience it on the historical, political, stage. Cutting the other way are all kinds of intuitions about the limitedness of human conceptions and evaluations, but these prophecies remain rather radical and innovative. Unfortunately, Angel glosses over the theological-political significance of these prophecies without much fanfare. He gets close when discussing Zechariah’s prophecy of Jerusalem without its walls from the the earlier era, but the discussion doesn’t quite make the leap from biblical interpretation to theological significance, and it, in my eyes, is a noticeable lack in the book.

Overall, the book is excellent. It is well-written and engaging, and it contains ideas that are important both in terms of the interpretation of Tanakh and in the religious lives of Tanakh’s readers. It just doesn’t seem to be aware of how important some of those ideas really are.

Thoughts on the Theological Value of the Tsimtsum and a Note on its Relationship to Purim

Thoughts on the Theological Value of the Tsimtsum and a Note on its Relationship to Purim

“The Tsimtsum” is the term used to refer to a mystical description of Creation that originates in the teachings of the great Kabbalist R’ Yitzchak Luria, better known as the Arizal. The Arizal described creation[1] as beginning with ‘א’s Infinite Light. Then, ‘א contracted (“Contraction” being a translation of “Tsimtsum”) His light, creating an empty space at the center. It was in this empty space that ‘א made His Creation. The Arizal’s depiction of Creation continues with the creation of a variety of mystical entities, but none of them come close to the greatness of the concept of the Tsimtsum. Before we can discuss that, however, we need to take a look at an essential split in the ways this idea has been understood historically.

Within a century, it began to be hotly debated whether the Arizal had meant this story literally or allegorically, as recorded in the book “Shomer Emunim” (שומר אמונים) by Rav Yosef Irgas (רב יוסף אירגס). This split gave birth to entirely opposite understandings of the meaning of the Tsimtsum. The allegorical approach understood the Tsimtsum as parable meant to teach a particular theological concept, or as a description of human perception rather than divine reality. The upshot of this approach is that the Tsimtsum didn’t literally happen; there is no space empty of ‘א. The literal approach understands the Arizal to have been teaching a historical truth. ‘א literally created a space where He wasn’t in order to enable the creation of things other than ‘א in that space. This approach has been less the less popular of the two, perhaps because of how incredibly bold it is. It talks about ‘א in very real, very human, terms, and makes very absolute statements of the nature of ‘א’s existence. But it is that sense of absolute reality that makes the depiction so compelling, because it flows from an understanding that the Tsimtsum had to be, that Creation could not have happened otherwise, rather than simply being a man-made parable. As this essay is on the theological value of the concept of the Tsimtsum, we will be taking an allegorical approach, but it’s important to keep the sense of existential need for the Tsimtsum in mind.

The basic idea underlying the Tsimtsum is the incompatibility of ‘א and his creation on an existential level. ‘א’s existence and the existence of that which is not ‘א cannot coexist. Therefore before there can be creation there must be a space that is empty of ‘א. This is most strongly felt in the literal understanding of the Tsimtsum, but the ideas and teachings of the allegorical approach flow from this incompatibility as well.

This sense of incompatibility also lies behind the early midrashic concept that the Torah speaks in the human language (דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם). This concept is a limiting force when it comes to interpreting the text of the Torah, stating that the words of the Torah convey meaning the same way that people do and that we should understand the Torah the same way we understand human speech. This idea is built on the sense that divine revelation in the abstract would convey so very much more than people are capable of understanding, that divine communication and human cognition are essentially incompatible. Thus, in order to enable people to understand the Torah ‘א had to limit his revelation therein to within the bounds of human language.

Taking this approach forward to our time, it becomes a valuable model for understanding many contemporary theological issues. Perhaps the most pressing issue for people living in the aftermath of the 20th century is the question of ‘א’s presence in history. The first point to bring up in that discussion is always that human initiative and free will cannot exist in the presence of divine preordination and determination. There is an inverse correlation between the degree to which a historical event can be attributed to man and the degree to which it can be attributed to ‘א. This has actually been used as a method of explaining ‘א’s apparent absence from some of the historical events of the last century, with thinkers like Eliezer Berkovitz and, to a lesser degree, Abraham Joshua Heschel arguing that human initiative is important enough to ‘א that contracts his historical presence instead of intervening in even the most tragic events. Even if we are unwilling to make such a morally and theologically bold statement, this tension is important for the questions we ask and the way we frame them.

This model is also valuable for discussing the nature of shabbat and the prohibition of melakhah, creative work. If we look at the original biblical shabbat, at the end of the first depiction of creation in Bereisht 2:1-3, it is clear that shabbat concludes ‘א’s “week” of Creation. However, if we look at it from the perspective of man, created on day 6, shabbat would function roughly as the beginning of the “week”. After the “first shabbat” of Bereishit 2:1-3, man is placed into the garden “to work it and to keep it,” thus beginning the creative work of man. Shabbat thus functions as a hinge joining the past week with that to come, marking both the end of ‘א’s work and the beginning of man’s. On shabbat we acknowledge that all the work of the past week should in truth be attributed to ‘א, that none of it should be chalked up to human initiative. As with the work of history, the work of the week can be that of man or that of ‘א, but not both simultaneously. Thus as we begin each week’s work we experience ‘א’s Tsimtsum as he makes room for man to create, and as we enter shabbat man performs a Tsimtsum where he recognizes than none of his work can really be attribute to the strength of his own hand. Tsimtsum is thus not only valuable in terms of the way it can frame the divine, but also in the way it helps us understand the human.

As noted above, some Tannaim saw the text of the Torah as something highly restrained by the limits of human cognition. However, it has long been acknowledged that the content of the Torah, the mitsvot[2] and the narratives[3], should also be understood this way. As humans we are all historically situated. We live in a certain place at a certain time, and that affects the way we understand things. The same is true of the ancient Israelites. Thus the Torah that was given to Bnei Yisrael in the desert had to be fit to the understandings of their specific historical situation, or they would not have been able to grasp it. Therefore ‘א contracted his revelation into the forms relevant to Bnei Yisrael historical situation, resulting in a very human text conveying divine laws and ideas.

Beyond the Torah of Moshe there is a whole realm of prophecy, all of which is subject to this conception of the Tsimtsum. It will be instructive to look at three understandings of the nature of Prophecy. Rambam understood prophecy to be essentially a human faculty. Through the perfection of both their intellect and imagination, a person could connect to the active intellect and draw divine knowledge from there (depending on whether you give more weight to the Mishneh Torah or the Moreh Nevukhim[4] ‘א may or may not be involved in occasionally blocking this connection). In this understanding ‘א remains in His infinite state, and the human individual develops themselves away from their limited human state until they can grasp a much more divine truth. However even this truth is limited by virtue of the prophet’s humanity. At the opposite end of the extreme is the way some people understand the biblical phenomenon of Prophecy, where the prophet essentially becomes an empty vessel through which ‘א speaks. In this understanding the prophets personality and consciousness are entirely overridden in moments of revelation, though they return afterward. In this understanding, the human mind cannot exist in the presence of divine communication and so it disappears during the process of revelation. In the middle is what seems to be more or less the proper understanding of biblical prophecy, where the prophet is a conscious partner in the revelation. The prophets receive revelation and communicate it to the people, a process that inevitably involves the personalization of the message. The same way that no two people explain the same topic in the same way, similarly no two prophets conveyed their prophecies in the same style[5]. In this understanding ‘א has to not only minimize his revelation to within the limits of human cognition in general, but also ‘א allows the prophet to express it within his own specific style. The common thread in all of these understandings is that Humanity and Divinity cannot share the same space, and the more of one involved in prophecy, the less of the other.

Taking a step back from the nature of prophecy to the very fact of its existence as a phenomenon, this too is a function of Tsimtsum. Prophecy involves the relationship between the Infinite (‘א) and the all too finite (the prophet), thus requiring the infinite to work on a finite level. Choosing a nation requires a similar focusing on the finite, as does stepping into history and working within a specific historical framework. That ‘א chose to work within human history means limiting Himself to the tools of human history and experience. All of Jewish history, from Yetsiat Mitsrayim to the Days of Mashiach, and all of the laws and prophecies that shape that history, constitute ‘א opting out of his infinitude in order to work in the finite sphere.

 

It’s also worth discussing this idea of the Tsimtsum in regards to the recently passed holiday of Purim[1]. The textual basis of the holiday of Purim is from Megillat Esther, a text that is unique in the canon of Tanakh in that it does not once mention ‘א, in any context. It represents the entire story as on of human intrigue and historical causation. The mitsvot of the holiday also markedly focused on the human instead of on the divine. Other than the commemorative reading of Megillat Esther, the mitsvot focus on feasting and building interpersonal relationships. The holiday would seem almost to be a celebration of humanness. However, a look at the Jewish tradition indicates that it is not generally seen this way. Instead, the story of Megillat Esther is seen as an indication of the way ‘א’s hand guides human history. In this respect it is particularly instructive to look at Mordechai’s “pep talk” to Esther in the 4th chapter of Megillat Esther.

Then Mordechai told them to return [with his] answer to Esther: “Don’t think to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews. For if you keep silent at this time at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish; and who knows, it may be that for this very moment you came to royalty?”

Mordechai’s speech is intended to motivate Esther to save the Jews. This requires a sense that human initiative is what drives historical events, and thus Esther can change the course of history through her actions. However the rest of the speech continues to say that if Esther doesn’t act, “then will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place,” implying that human initiative doesn’t really have any historical impact. Similarly, the speech ends by Mordechai suggesting that the reason Esther came to her position of power was so that she could save the Jews, despite the fact that Mordechai knows that the reason Esther came to power was that the king was looking for a new queen and he took a liking to Esther (Esther 2:1-17). Mordechai is saying that there is a greater will guiding historical events, one that supersedes all human initiative, in the middle of a speech about the importance of the actions of one human, namely Esther. This paradoxical approach is how Jews have often understood the entirety of Megillat Esther. The text itself depicts an entirely human story, but as part of a religious scripture it’s been understood that the divine will guides all of the events of the text. Purim as a holiday is about rejecting the Tsimtsum paradigm. Instead of seeing the human and the divine as incompatible, they are seen to be seen as mutually reinforcing. Esther is supposed to act because the divine plan brought her to the palace in order to act, but if she doesn’t then the divine plan will function anyway. Similarly the mitsvot of purim reinforce human social bonds and worldly experience, but they remain divine commands and ways of fulfilling the divine will. Thus Purim is about looking at the human and seeing the divine, without ever forgetting the fact that you’re looking at something truly human.

[1] דע כי טרם שנאצלו הנאצלים ונבראו הנבראים היה אור עליון פשוט ממלא כל המציאות ולא היה שום מקום פנוי בבחי’ אויר ריקני וחלל, אלא הכל היה ממולא מן אור א”ס פשוט ההוא ולא היה לו בחי’ ראש ולא בחי’ סוף אלא הכל היה אור א’ פשוט שוה בהשוואה א’, והוא הנק’ אור אין סוף. וכאשר עלה ברצונו הפשוט לברוא העולמות ולהאציל הנאצלים להוציא לאור שלימות פעולותיו ושמותיו וכנוייו (אשר זאת היה סיבה בריאת העולמות כמבואר אצלינו בענף הא’ בחקירה הראשונה) והנה אז צמצם את עצמו א”ס בנקודה האמצעית אשר בו באמצע אורו ממש וצמצם האור ההוא ונתרחק אל צדדי סביבות הנקודה האמצעית ואז נשאר מקום פנוי ואויר וחלל רקני מנקודה אמצעית ממש כזה.

~עץ חיים-שער א ענף ב

[2] See Rambam, Moreh Nevukhim 3:32.

[3] See the Hertz Chumash, essays on Parashat Noah,

[4] This is borne out in both the Kapah and Ibn Tibbon translations.

[5] “אֵין שְׁנֵי נְבִיאִים מִתְנַבְּאִים בְּסִגְנוֹן אֶחָד.” ~סנהדרין פ”ט

[6] This article was originally meant to be published before Purim.

Parashat Ha’azinu – Divine Providence and Human Responsibilty – Redux

כִּי לֹא דָבָר רֵק הוּא מִכֶּם כִּי הוּא חַיֵּיכֶם

Parashat Ha’azinu consists of one chapter of the Torah, Devarim 32, which is itself taken up almost entirely by a song (32:1-43). This song is often referred to as Shirat Haazinu or as the Song of Moshe. The composition and teaching of this song is one of the last things Moshe does before he dies, an event made obvious by the way the song is followed immediately by the command for Moshe to ascend Har Nevo where he will be buried (32:48-52). The song is about the cycle of sin and destruction that reigns throughout Bnei Yisrael’s time in the land of Israel. There is no mention of Exile, nor of Repentance followed by Redemption from Exile[1]; there is simply the conquest of Bnei Yisrael and the comeuppance of the would-be conquerors. This comeuppance is not due to Bnei Yisrael deserving it, but rather a way of protecting ‘א’s Name, that the conquering nation should not think it was responsible for the conquest, instead of ‘א. This section of the song makes statements regarding Divine Providence, which are often troubling to the modern ear. However, careful reading of the song and its context shows that these statements are less about Divine Providence, and more about the imperative nature of taking responsibility.

The Song of Moshe is often compared with the covenant depicted in Devarim 27-30. As stated above, the key difference is that in Shirat Ha’azinu there is no mention of repentance as a cause for redemption. Instead, redemption is depicted as a way of protecting ‘א’s Name (32:26-30).

I would have said, “Let Me wipe them out,

let Me make their name cease among men.”

Had I not feared the foes provocation,

lest their enemies dissemble,

lest they say, “Our had prevailed,

and not the Lord has wrought all this.”

For a nation lost in counsel are they,

there is no understanding among them.

Were they wise they would give mind to this,

understand their latter days:

O how could one chase a thousand,

or two put then thousand to flight,

had not their Rock handed them over,

had the Lord not given them up?

 

The future redemption of Bnei Yisrael is not depicted here as an act of merit, or even as an act of love, rather it is necessary in order to keep the conquering nation from viewing itself as controlling history, when in fact it is ‘א who directs history’s course. This is a typical prophetic point of view, and is something that reappears throughout the Tanakh (as does the idea of Salvation for the Sake of Heaven[2]). ‘א is the God of History, and therefore historical occurrences, especially those involving Bnei Yisrael, are products of direct Divine Providence. However, while this idea was the basis of many a prophetic attempt to inspire Bnei Yisrael to do teshuvah, it can be very problematic in the eyes of the modern reader.

Jewish Thought in the second half of the 20th century and beyond must bear a weight greater than that of any generation that came before it. Many of the explanations regarding the nature of Divine Justice and Providence that have been given throughout Jewish History are no longer workable, and many of those that are need to be reconfigured and rephrased in order for a modern audience to find them compelling. Attempts to justify evil, and the mindless slaughter of innocents as occurred in the 1940’s in particular, have been found to be morally problematic. An action is justified by saying that, while it might otherwise be wrong, it is right because of certain abnormal circumstances. The problem with this idea is that it can be summarized as “X was the right thing to do because of Y,” which can be flipped around and formulated as “If Y, then X is the right thing to do.” The idea that there is any set of circumstances under which a person would endorse, or even condone, genocide is about as immoral a thought pattern as can be imagined[3]. Many modern Jews therefore try to avoid explaining or justifying historical occurrences, as the implications of doing so can be monstrous.

One could argue from the fact that Shirat Haazinu is meant to be “put in the mouths” (31:19) of Bnei Yisrael, that Jews are supposed to attribute tragedies to the Hand of God, as the song does, and this would not be entirely incorrect. To do so, however, would be to miss the point of the song. The song is put in the mouths of Bnei Yisrael, not in order to teach them that ‘א is the Lord of History, though it conveys that idea as well, but in order that it can serve as ‘א’s “witness against the people of Israel” (Ibid). The song is meant to serve as warning to them that violating the covenant that they forged with ‘א will bring suffering upon them, and that ‘א will save them, but through no merit of their own. The song thus puts the responsibility for the suffering of Bnei Yisrael not on ‘א, but squarely on the shoulders of Bnei Yisrael themselves. The song is meant to teach the generations of Israel that live in the land, long after the miracles of the desert, that the proper way to respond to crisis and calamity is by taking responsibility, not shirking it.

This is reinforced by the contrast between Bnei Yisrael and the conquering enemy as depicted in the song. While Bnei Yisrael are depicted as neglecting ‘א and straying after idols, the possibility that they have misattributed an action of ‘א is never raised. The cardinal sin of the enemy, however, is just that, and it is so great that it warrants their destruction and the redemption of Israel. So while the song makes it clear that the success of the enemy really is the work of ‘א (32:26-30), it isn’t necessarily important for Bnei Yisrael to know that, only the enemy. What Bnei Yisrael are meant to take away from the song is that their conquest by the enemy is a direct result of their abandoning and despising ‘א (32:15). The responsibility is being placed totally on Bnei Yisrael.

More than anything else, the Tanakh depicts ‘א’s Providence not as minimizing Human Initiative, but as making it imperative. ‘א guarantees major consequences, good and bad, as a response to the actions of Bnei Yisrael. Therefore, ‘א’s guiding history is not meant to be seen as taking power out of mankind’s hands, but as obligating them to be responsible in the use of said power. A perfect biblical example of such responsibility is found at the very end of Sefer Bereishit, where Yosef asks his brothers, “Am I in place of God?” (Bereishit 50:19)[4]. Yosef goes on to explain that ‘א, not the brothers’ misdeeds, led him to that particular point in history, and therefore it is incumbent upon him to respond to ‘א’s guidance with responsibility. Attempting to explain ‘א’s role in the great events and tragedies of our era diverts attention from what we should really be focusing on. When considering tragedy, it is incumbent upon us not to ask why ‘א did what He did, but to ask what we could have done. Our response needs to be not “Why did this happen?” but “What can we do now?”

Much of the Rosh HaShanah liturgy is dedicated to affirming the Kingship of ‘א, specifically in terms of the historical process. “And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; on that day there shall be one Lord with one name” (Zekhariah 14:9) We stand in prayer and declare that ‘א is King. In doing so, we declare that, as His subjects, we are responsible for our actions. We take it upon ourselves to not shirk our responsibility when confronted by anything that might occur over the next year of our lives. Accepting Judgment on Rosh HaShanah doesn’t mean just that anything that occurs to us in the next year should be thought of as a consequence of our actions, but also that we have taken it upon ourselves to be responsible in the face of anything that comes our way.

[1] For more on this, and the song’s relevance to our lives, see this essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[2] I have written at some length about this here.

[3] This isn’t to say that everyone who tries to justify the tragedies of the 20th century would condone or endorse such things a priori, most probably don’t think about the fact that such is the implication of their words.

[4] I have written more about this verse, and the general interplay of Divine Providence and Human Responsibility, here.