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.

Politics and Prophecy: Binyamin Lau’s Jeremiah

Politics and Prophecy: Binyamin Lau’s Jeremiah

Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Laus Jeremiah is not about the biblical book of Jeremiah so much as it is about the prophet Jeremiah himself. While in some sense a commentary on the book of Jeremiah, Jeremiah is structured according to the chronology of Jeremiahs life. Thus, while the book goes through and explains each chapter, the order of the chapters has been drastically rearranged, due to erratic chronology of the book of Jeremiah. As each chapter is explained, Lau draws the readers attention to what the prophet must have been feeling and struggling with at each point in time. In this, Jeremiah emphasizes one of the unique facets of the biblical book of Jeremiah. More than any other biblical text, the book of Jeremiah details the inner life of its hero, describing his pain and frustration with the people, and with God, in great detail. Jeremiah is commanded to rebuke a nation that, from the very beginning, he knows will be unrepentant.

However, Jeremiahs focus on the prophet often comes at the detriment of understanding the book of Jeremiah. Lau readily chops up the book of Jeremiah in order to arrange it chronologically, but he in no place provides even a guess as to why the book might have been in its original, non-chronological, order to begin with. The closest to be found is an off-hand comment in the introduction.

The Book of Jeremiah is hard to follow. Some chapters seem coherent and complete, while others appear to be disjointed, as if the pages of the original manuscript had been scattered and haphazardly rearranged. Perhaps its time they should be. (pg. xxi)

The lack of any attention given to why the original Jeremiah is in a non-chronological order means that reading Jeremiah will make little difference in the ability of a reader to read and comprehend the biblical book. A discussion of the thematic breakdowns of the biblical Jeremiah and the way that affects the division and placement of the chapters would be much more helpful in enabling independent access to the biblical text.

Lau’s Jeremiah

One theme that Jeremiah does focus on heavily is Politics. Each section of the book starts with a discussion of the historical and political background of that time period. Lau discusses the rise and fall of the international empires of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia and the way these empires affected the small kingdom of Judah, often subsumed under one of the empires as a vassal state. To this end, Lau marshals historical records from all over, from Assyrian and Babylonian records to the writings of Josephus. This also allows for ample discussion on the foreign policies of the various kings of Judah and the political events behind them. Jeremiah also draws the reader’s attention to the domestic politics at play in Jeremiahs time — the tensions between the upper castes of society, both the religious and political leadership, and the lower classes.

While the common people of Judea were generally intractable, they did occasionally begin to listen to Jeremiahs rebukes. The leadership, however, was a very different story. It is the role of the prophet to challenge the status quo and the power structures behind it, and this launched Jeremiah into direct conflict with the Kingship and the Priesthood. Lau details how Jeremiahs relationship to the Kingship changed with each king. His relationship with Josiah was entirely positive, while his relationship with Jehoiakim was entirely negative, and his relationship with Zedekiah was more complex, changing as the king vacillated back and forth between following Gods word and fearfully following his advisors.

The discussion of the priesthood highlights Jeremiahs anti-establishment position. As Lau points out, though Jeremiah was himself from a priestly family, it had long fallen out of political favor and no longer performed the services in the Temple. Because of his lineage, Jeremiah represented a threat to the existing priestly power-structure, even before he began prophesying. After becoming a prophet, however, he was enough of a threat that he saw pushback, not just from the priests but from another, more sinister, group — the false prophets. Lau’s Jeremiah shows how the false prophets, like Jeremiah and the real prophets, represented a group that stood outside the establishment. Unlike the real prophets, however, the false prophets preached complacency in the face of the word of God, and maintaining the status quo no matter what its iniquities.

This emphasis on the political is more than just part of Laus method in understanding the book of Jeremiah. The whole goal of Jeremiah is to affect the political arena. The book is an attempt to build a bridge within Israeli society in particular, and the Jewish community in general, between modern cultureour world todayand the multilayered Jewish tradition over the generations(pg. xi). It was written to show how great and relevantthe Bible can be (pg. xiii). Lau hopes that his book will affect Israeli society (pg. xiii), bringing the words of the prophets into the heart of our political, social, and cultural discourse(pg. xiv). His aim is that Jeremiah will be part of the effort to rectify the ills of the Jewish stateto reduce socioeconomic disparity, to break down the walls that divide us, to bridge language gaps, to include rather than rejectto rebuild a Jewish identity, a Jewish culture that will shed light and goodness upon all that it touches(pg. 225).

This political orientation is not alien to Jeremiah. As Lau points out,

The prophet might be regarded as something of a public intellectual, a man of letters. An eternal critic, an outsider to the system, a gadfly who mustpersuade his audience of the truth of his wordsand of the mortal danger of ignoring them. (pg. xiv)

Prophecy is inherently political. Its purpose is to engender change in society. Prophets of God arise when the status quo is corrupt and needs to be shaken up. Jeremiah carries forward this prophetic role, by trying to show the messages Jeremiah was tasked to deliver to his society and to ours. The biblical book of Jeremiah served as a witness to the people of antiquity, regarding the very political life and lessons of the prophet. Lau’s Jeremiah does the same for a modern audience. 

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.

Rav Saadiah Gaon on Trusting a Prophet and the Place of the Intellect in Religion

Rav Saadiah Gaon on Trusting a Prophet and the Place of the Intellect in Religion

Rambam begins the eighth chapter of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah with a discussion of why the Israelites believed in Moshe. He rejects the position that they believed on the basis of the miracles they witnessed in Egypt and instead says that they believed Moshe because they witnessed Moshe being spoken to by ‘א at Har Sinai (notably, they first part of this statement clearly contradicts Shemot 14:31, but the second part works well with Shemot 19:9). In this he stands directly agains the position of Rav Saadiah Gaon in his work Emunot VeDeot, where he states that the reason Moshe was believed, the reason any prophet was believed, was because of the miracles they performed.

Rambam objected to this approach because he saw it as a manifestation of a larger trend where religion is seen as a tool for the betterment of life in this world (See also Hilkhot Tefillin 5:4). For RaSaG this issue is a non-starter, because while the emphasis was not on this world, RaSaG did see the mitsvot as being essentially for the sake of mankind. He begins the third essay of Emunot VeDeot by stating that ‘א created the world as an act of kindness, and that the giving of the mitsvot was a similar act of kindness, intended to enable the earning of reward, a motivation Rambam was very against. RaSaG therefore had no problem affirming the idea that a miracle might be the basis for Bnei Yisrael trusting a prophet.

Throughout the third section of Emunot VeDeot RaSaG develops this concept of the prophet as someone who proves the divinity of his message by performing miracles. He says that a prophet must predict the miracle beforehand, in order that it be clear that he performed the miracle. He also says that a prophet cannot be an angel, only a person, because people don’t know the capabilities of angels, and so the angel might be doing the miracle of his own power and authority, not ‘א’s. RaSaG develops a complete theory of prophetic confirmation by miracle.

He also, therefore, discusses the limits of this model. He asserts that a prophet cannot lie, because even if a prophet demonstrated that he had a divine message, who could then trust that he would transmit the message faithfully, and creatively interprets Tanakh to fit this model. He also discusses the possibility, in his discussion of the opinions that say the Torah of Moshe was already nullified, that a prophet might arise and perform miracles but say that the Torah of Moshe should not be followed. He rejects this, giving a more formal description of the process of a prophet giving instructions to the nation(3:8).

RaSaG says that, counter-intuitively, the prophet does not perform the miracle, thus establishing his authority, and then proceed to deliver his now-authoritative message. Instead, step one is that the prophet delivers his message. Then, the message is evaluated based on whether it contradicts both the intellect and the received tradition(2 of RaSaG’s 4 sources of knowledge from his introduction). If the message of the prophet contradicts either of these, it is rejected immediately. The people do not ask the prophet for a miraculous proof, nor do they care if he provides one of his own volition.

Importantly, by “the intellect” RaSaG does not mean logic, but the plainly obvious, the truths that are inherent in the human mind, including moral truths. The reason for putting so much faith in the power of the intellect, to the point of letting it reject potential revelation, is that for RaSaG both revelation and intellect has the same source. Both are given to man by ‘א. The received tradition is comprised of the written and oral traditions of the people, which of course themselves were revealed to Moshe via this process, and so were also subject to rejection if they contradicted the intellect. Thus perhaps the most important arbiter in accepting prophecy as divine is the human intellect.

Nowadays, we don’t necessarily believe that there are certain divine truths inherent in the intellect of man. In the age of globalization and the internet we are more than aware that not everyone automatically agrees with us, that the ideas we think of as plainly obvious are in fact culturally conditioned. However, our intellect remains without a doubt a gift from ‘א. He created man with the mental complexity to create societies and improve the world, with the intellectual tools to realize the Image of God and the blessings He gave to man (Bereishit 1:26-30). Thus while we cannot necessarily make the clear statement that our intellect is the final arbiters of the truth of revelation, we absolutely should be using our intellect to grasp revelation critically. Rav Saadiah Gaon doesn’t just invite us to analyze the torah with our minds, he enjoins us to do so, saying that the explication and realization of the Torah is only possible through the use of the intellect (3:10). We have an obligation to approach the Torah with our minds alert, ready to grasp and explore the will and wisdom of ‘א.

Parashat Toledot – Rivkah’s Oracle and Interpretive Responsibility

וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

Parashat Toledot opens with the story of the childless Rivkah and Yitzhak praying for a child, and then conceiving. Rivkah experiences a tumultuous feeling within her body, and so she goes to inquire of ‘א (Bereishit 25:22). She receives a detailed prophetic response depicting the future of her progeny. “There are two nations in your belly; Two peoples will depart separate from your womb. One people will be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger” (25:23). This seems like a clear and straightforward statement. Rivkah has twins in her womb, each of which will grow to be a great nation, and the older one will serve the younger. However, if Rivkah is presented with this clear message, then understanding the rest of Rivkah’s story (25:19-34; 26:34-28:9) presents us with numerous difficulties, not the least of which is the question of why Rivkah did not simply tell Yitzhak that Esav was destined to be in charge. However, if the oracle is understood as somewhat more ambiguous, then we can learn not only the story, but also about the way we relate to the Word of ‘א.

The first textual difficulty we are presented with is found in 25:24, “And the days of her term were full; and behold, there were twins in her belly.” The second half of this verse repeats information that we have already received not once, but twice before. Not only did it appear in the oracle in the previous verse, but the verse before that specifically references that she has more than one son within her. Thus this verse presents a redundancy that must be explained. Rav Dovid Kimchi (רד״ק) explains that this verse ought to be understood as “And behold, the twins were born.” This understanding is problematic however, as the verse explicitly mentions that the twins were in her womb, something that Radak’s understanding leaves out. Rav Shemuel Ben Meir (רשב״ם) and Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch understand the verse to be speaking from purely Sarah’s perspective, indicating that she was surprised by this fact. This explanation runs into the problem that Sarah already heard in the prophecy of verse 23 that there are two nations in her womb, and therefore there would be no reason for her to be surprised. However, the answer of R’ Hirsch and Rashbam makes a lot more sense if we simply assume that the prophecy is unclear. When Rivkah goes to inquire of ‘א, this is following the Torah mentioning that she is pregnant with multiple children in verse 22. However, the narrative voice of the Torah speaks from an omniscient, divine perspective, wherein it is already known that Rivkah gives birth to twins in just a few verses[1]. We, as readers, are therefore privileged to also know this, but Rivkah is not. Thus when we read the prophecy in verse 23 that says, “There are two nations in your womb,” we think, “Oh, so each of the children mentioned in verse 22 becomes a nation.” Rivkah, however, has no prior knowledge that she is pregnant with more than one child, and thus she might simply understand the prophecy as, “my child, and his descendants after him, will develop into two nations.” She also might consider both possibilities. But only when the children are born in verse 25, does she discover that the oracle really had been referring to twins currently within her womb.

The second, and perhaps more critical, textual difficulty this approach solves is the question of why Rivkah did not tell Yitzhak about the prophecy. Even if one wanted to argue that this would not have changed his mind about loving Esav, doesn’t he deserve to know that one of his sons has received the divine imprimatur, that ‘א has decreed one to be superior. Moreover, while verse 28 makes it clear exactly why it is Yitzhak loves Esav, a reason is never given for why Rivkah loves Yaakov. It is certainly possible, as Rashbam suggests[2], that the reason she loved him was because he was favored by ‘א (this would imply a certain moral superiority that Rivkah may have favored)[3]. Certainly her actions in chapter 27, where she instructs, encourages, and enables her son Yaakov to deceive his father and steal his older brother’s blessing, would seem to be an attempt to bring to fruition the final line of the oracle, “And the elder shall serve the younger.” However, this all once again assumes a privileged reading of the text, where we know that in the end Yaakov received the blessing of the firstborn, and thus we assume that the phrase “וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר” really must be understood as “and the elder will serve the younger.”[4] However, the syntax here is ambiguous. It could just as easily mean “and the elder will enslave the younger.”[5] Depending on how you interpret the word “וְרַב,” it could even mean that the younger will do an incredible amount of labor[6]. Thus Rivkah did not necessarily receive a clear message about which child was favored by ‘א, and she really had nothing concrete with which to approach Yitzhak. For all the text tells us she may have told Yitzhak, and the Torah simply didn’t feel it necessary to say so because no concrete course of action could be based off of the oracle.

This immediately raises the issue of why Rivkah preferred Yaakov to Esav (in contrast to Yitzhak), going so far as to plan and execute his stealing the blessing of the firstborn. As mentioned above, it is often assumed that this is due to the final verse of the prophecy indicating that Yaakov was favored by ‘א and was meant to receive the blessing, but as we have shown the prophecy says no such thing, and thus a new explanation must be found. Lacking any special prophetic insight, Rivkah remains the mother of Yaakov and Esav, and thus can be assumed to have a good understanding of their character[7]. The Torah itself does not tell us much about their character, but the Torah is generally very minimal in its exposition, using a minimum of text or a maximum of characterization. What it does tell us then, however minimal, will likely indicate what it was that Rivkah saw that caused her to favor Yaakov.

Towards the end of the story, Esav swears to kill Yaacov, and Rivkah knows this. However there is no indication of any murderous tendencies in the earlier parts of the story. Going back to the beginning, we are told two things each about Yaakov and Esav, besides for their physical state upon birth (25:25-26). We are told that, as they grew up, Esav knew how to hunt and was a farmer[8], while Yaakov was a wholesome man and a shepherd[9] (25:27). While seemingly minimal, this description actually tells us quite a bit. Firstly, the depiction of one brother as a farmer and one as a shepherd is very important. The dichotomy of the farmer and the shepherd is very common in Tanakh and, while the exact reason for this can be debated, it is very clear in the eyes of the Tanakh that being a farmer is something of a moral failure. Some good examples of this are Kayin and Hevel, where Kayin’s only apparent transgression before murdering his brother is being a farmer (4:2-5), or when Yaakov’s family descends to Egypt and must hide that they are shepherds in this new agricultural country (46:31-47:4). Thus the depiction of Esav is a clear indication of moral inferiority on his part. Since the second part of each brother’s description (“farmer” and “shepherd”) are a pair, it’s worth looking at the first part of each description with an eye to whether or not they are a pair as well. At first glance, this approach would not seem to bear fruit. While Esav is “a person who knows how to hunt,” Yaakov is “wholesome.” We don’t usually think of hunting and wholesomeness as necessarily opposed. However, as Ibn Ezra points out (ad loc.), there is something innately deceitful about hunting, as it involves tricking or forcing an animal into a position of weakness in order for you to kill it. Thus Esav’s knowing how to hunt should more likely be seen as a symbol for his deceitful nature, something that is absolutely opposed to being “wholesome.” As the first part of each description is then paired, this can help us understand why Rivkah loved Yaakov, as opposed to Esav. Verse 25:28 records that Yitzhak loved Esav because he gave Yitzhak meat that he had hunted[10], and that Rivkah loved Yaakov. This last phrase is conspicuously missing a reason like the one provided in the first half of the verse. However, as Yitzhak loved Esav because of the first half of his description, that he hunted, so too Rivkah loved Yaakov because of the first half of his description, because he was wholesome[11]. Thus Rivkah did not cause Yaakov to steal the birthright because the Word of ‘א told her that was proper, but because she understood that one of her sons was worthy and the other was not.

Rivkah was confronted with ‘א’s Word in the form of a prophecy regarding the destiny of her children. It comes to us in the form of the Torah. In terms of understanding the text itself, the Torah is not entirely clear. There are often many possible interpretations for a word, or a verse, or a passage. When we try and understand the relevance that the Torah possesses for us today, these difficulties are multiplied a hundredfold. Interpreting the prophecy she received was a dangerous game for Rivkah; it is perhaps more so for us. As both followers and interpreters of the Torah, how we interpret it bears great meaning for our lives and our practice. Moreover, we often share our interpretations, and to do so with a mistaken interpretation can be catastrophic. Possessing ‘א’s Word is an incredible gift; Interpreting it demands of us incredible responsibility. Rivkah did not simply interpret the prophecy as she saw fit, and we cannot bend the Torah to our needs. If Rivkah had thought the prophecy meant that Esav was meant to dominate Yaakov, she still could not have just acted upon that, as it would have been an immoral interpretation. So too, we cannot interpret the Torah in an immoral manner. We have a responsibility to read it with an eye towards the values of ‘א, Life, and Holiness.

[1] Ibn Ezra, ad loc.

[2] In his comment on verse 23.

[3] However, see Rashbam’s comment on verse 28.

[4] This reading also makes certain assumptions about the meaning of the phrase “will serve.” If we take it as referring to who will receive the blessing of their father, certainly not the literal meaning of the phrase, then it would obviously refer to Esav. If it refers to being submissive, then it might very well refer to Yaakov, who spends his last encounter with Esav referring to Esav as his master and to himself as Esav’s servant (Bereishit 33). If it refers to rulership and dominance, then one has to look beyond the scope of the Torah itself, out into the rest of Tanakh and beyond, and it could be referring to either brother (For more see the end of Radak’s comment on Bereishit 25:23).

[5] Radak 25:23.

[6] Hizkuni 25:23. This interpretation is perhaps odd in light of both the way that the word has been interpreted historically and the fact that the immediate context is speaking about both sons, not just one.However, it is worth pointing out that this explanation might actually make the most sense of all, in light of the lack of the hebrew vowel indicating the demonstrative adjective “the” (as in “the elder”) is suspiciously lacking in the phrase in question.

[7] One could argue against this by pointing out that Yitzhak, as their father, ought to be assumed to have the same amount of insight into their character as Rivkah, and yet he loved Esav. However, the Torah itself indicates that Yitzhak did not understand the morality, or lack thereof, his sons were exhibiting, in saying that Yitzhak had become blind (Bereishit 27:1). A similar expression is found in Sefer Shemuel 3:2, wherein the Kohen HaGadol, Eli, was unaware of the immoral actions that his sons had forced upon the populace. Blindness as a metaphor for a lack of understanding in terms of another action is also found in Shemot 23:8, where it is said that taking a bribe “blinds those who can see.” The midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 68:5-7 specifically points to the food that Yitzhak took from Esav as if it were a bribe that he took, that blinded him to Esav’s shortcomings.

[8] For this understanding of the phrase “איש שדה,” see Ibn Ezra and Seforno’s comments ad loc.

[9] For this explanation of the phrase “ישב אהלים,” see Ibn Ezra, Seforno, Hizkuni, and Rashbam ad loc. Also see Bereishit 4:20.

[10] Latching on to the essentially deceitful nature of this characteristic, the midrash understands “כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו” not as “because that which Esav hunted was in Yitzhak’s mouth,” but as “for Esav hunted Yitzhak with his mouth,” meaning that Esav would speak before Yitzhak with respect, and thus deceived Yitzhak about his character (Tanhuma Toledot, 8).

[11] Rashbam 25:28.

Parashat VeZot HaBerakhah 5775 – The Written Torah, The Oral Torah, and the Post-Mosaic Void

וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה

Parashat VeZot HaBerakhah closes Sefer Devarim, as well the Torah as a whole, with two final passages. The first records Moshe’s final farewell blessings to the Tribes of Israel, and the second depicts his death on Har Nevo. Beyond creating a sense of closure to a Torah that has been in large part marked by Moshe’s presence, the 34th chapter of Sefer Devarim goes out of its way to make it clear just how large the void of Moshe’s absence is. It first does this by stating in no uncertain terms that Moshe was totally and irrevocably gone from the midst of Bnei Yisrael. “So Moshe the servant of the Lord died there, in the Land of Moav, at the command of the Lord. He[1] buried him in the valley in the land of Moav, near Bet-Peor; and no one knows his burial place until this day” (Devarim 34:5-6). More important, however, is what might be considered the Torah’s final epitaph for Moshe Rabbeinu. “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moshe—whom the Lord singled out, face to face” (34:10). Not only is Moshe gone, but he can never be replaced. This begs the question, in what way will he be missed? What absense is Bnei Yisrael left  with after Moshe’s death that can never be filled? Discovering the answer to this requires exploring a verse that contradicts the final chapter of the Torah, taking a look at some peculiar midrashim, and comparing the functions of prophecy before and after Moshe’s death. All this in turn will point us toward the mean of Moshe and his Torah.

The basic idea of Devarim 34:10 is that there would never again be a prophet “like Moshe.” This would seem to be contradicted by Moshe’s statement that ‘א would raise up a prophet like him. “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself; him you shall heed” (Devarim 17:15). In contradiction to the idea that there will never be a prophet like Moshe, Devarim here seems to be saying that ‘א will specifically raise up a prophet like Moshe. This contradiction can be solved by looking at ‘א’s statement in Bamidbar 12:6-8.

When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moshe; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord.

Devarim 34 seems almost to build on these verses. Both refer to Moshe as ‘א’s servant (Bamidbar 12:7; Devarim 34:5), and where Bamidbar depicts Moshe speaking to ‘א “mouth to mouth” and seeing His “likeness” (12:8), Devarim combines these two as Moshe speaking to ‘א “face to face” (34:10). More importantly, this passage groups Moshe with other prophets while simultaneously distinguishing him from them. While Moshe is a prophet, and therefore other prophets can be said to be “like Moshe,” his prophecy is somehow unique and qualitatively different from that of all other prophets. Unfortunately, these verses are not quite clear regarding the nature of this qualitative difference.

The most obvious and understandable difference stated is that Moshe was able to receive prophecy while awake, where other prophets dreamt their prophecies. Secondarily, Moshe was spoken to by ‘א, “plainly and not in riddles,” implying that other prophets received cryptic messages they then had to interpret, rather than clear instructions. While these differences are clear, they are also most technical, and do not quite seem to be the qualitative difference implied in the verse. Presumably that difference can be found in the last distinction, which is the most striking, and unfortunately also the least clear, which is that Moshe spoke to ‘א face to face. It’s impossible to know for certain what this might mean, all that is really clear is that it is very significant. Ultimately, all these verses can give us is technical differentiation in terms of how the prophecy was conveyed, and the a vague statement that tells us of Moshe’s greatness.

Another route to determining exactly what was different about Moshe’s prophecy would be to compare Moshe’s prophetic behavior in the Torah with that of other prophets throughout Tanakh. This would seem to be a more fruitful approach, as there is one distinction that is immediately obvious: Moshe is a lawgiver, and the other prophets are not. Throughout Tanakh, prophets are sent to Bnei Yisrael when they are breaking the laws of Moshe, but not in order to remind them of the laws, or to bring them new laws, but in order to rebuke and exhort them, to motivate them to be better. Not only did Moshe transmit the commandments to the people, but in cases of doubt, such as Benot Tselophehad (Bamidbar 27:1-11) or the Blasphemer (Bamidbar 24:10-16), Moshe was able to speak to ‘א and to receive the new law. Post-Mosaic prophecy is meant to remind the people of the stakes of their covenantal obligations, not to create new ones. When Bnei Yisrael lost Moshe, Prophetic Law was lost with him.

This loss is expressed profoundly in an aggadah depicting Yehoshuah’s early experiences as leader of Bnei Yisrael[2]. The gemara depicts Yehoshua standing before Moshe in his final days, and Moshe tells Yehoshuah to ask any questions he might have. Yehoshua responds that as he never left Moshe’s service even for a moment, there is nothing he does not know, at which point he promptly forgets 3,000 laws. Fast-forward to the period of mourning for Moshe, when the people approach Yehoshuah and ask him to restore the laws via prophecy, as Moshe would have, to which Yehoshuah responds “It is not in Heaven,” meaning that the time for prophetic law has passed, and therefore he cannot use prophecy to restore the forgotten laws.

Initially, Yehoshuah failed to appreciate the vast chasm separating himself from Moshe. Despite the verses making it clear that ‘א would be with Yehoshuah as he was with Moshe (Yehoshuah 1:5), the one supreme difference between them is that only Moshe could prophesy the law. The midrash represents this failure as 3,000 halakhot being forgotten, caused by misplaced confidence in his ability to prophesy the law when necessary. It is clear from the midrash that Yehoshuah figured out his mistake quite rapidly, as within the thirty days of mourning for Moshe he has already realized that the law “is not in Heaven” anymore.

This is a reference to the famous aggadah of Tanur Shel Akhnai[3], in which the halakhah is decided according to the majority of the sages against not just miracles, but even against a voice calling out from Heaven. After the voice rings out, R’ Yehoshuah stands up and says, “We do not listen to a Heavenly Voice,” and the law is decided like the majority. The reason[4] for this is that the law of the Torah, as laid down by Moshe, is that the halakhah follows the majority[5], and no prophet or heavenly voice thereafter is able to go against it[6]. The Law was sealed with the death of Moshe, and it cannot be changed. It can only be interpreted.

The Written Torah came from Heaven, and now the Oral Torah lives on Earth[7]. The switch from Prophetic Law to earthly law has significant ramifications. the most significant, perhaps, is according to what the law is decided. When Moshe did not know the law, he went to ‘א to ask what the law was (Bamidbar 27:1-11; 24:10-16), and ‘א would relate to the Moshe the Heavenly Truth of the Law. When Moshe asked ‘א about the case of the Daughters of Tselophehad, the midrash said that they had spoken the Law as it was written before ‘א in Heaven, according to the Heavenly Truth. Post-Moshe, in the era of the Oral Torah, a judge must decide the law only according to what his eyes see[8]. The law is not decided according to divine ideals, but in the application of divine law to gritty human reality.

Perhaps the most important difference between prophetic and earthly legislations is the function and purpose of the Law. In a situation where laws not only spring forth from the mouth of the prophet but can be updated, abrogated, and revised by the divine impresario at a moment’s notice, the law functions as a way of responding to or manifesting the will of ‘א. Moshe told the people what ‘א commanded them to do at that moment and they responded by carrying out that command. After Moshe’s death, the law serves a very different function. Instead of representing what ‘א thinks the people should do in that specific case, the law expresses what ‘א thinks should be done by the people in general. The law code becomes a framework for living a life according to godly principles, rather than a specific set of commands fulfilling a specific set of godly purposes. The Torah of Moshe becomes the guiding story through which we interpret, experience, and contextualize our lives.

After Moshe’s death, the Torah went from being a set of immediate divine commands to a legislated framework for Jewish society. We stopped looking to ‘א to see what to do next, and started creating a society. Thus Moshe dies as Bnei Yisrael are about to enter the land of Israel, as a human society in an earthly land requires laws organized around its living reality, not around a divine ideal. Moshe gave Bnei Yisrael a Torah of divine commands, and we have inherited as a communal way of life (Devarim 33:4). This is not to say that the divine ideal is cast aside, but rather that it is applied practically. The laws of the Torah became horizontally oriented, focused on creating a godly society, instead of being vertically oriented, focused on fulfilling the immediate Will of ‘א. Though that change is not necessarily a bad thing, that dynamic connection is what we lost when we lost Moshe.

[1] The Hebrew here allows for a delightful ambiguity wherein the subject of “He buried” could just as easily be Moshe or ‘א, as brought up in the gemara (Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Sotah, 14a), and it is left up to the reader to decide if it is more logical that Moshe buried himself or that he was buried by ‘א. The simplest explanation of the phrases “he buried him,” namely, that a person whose identity was unimportant in context, possibly Yehoshuah or one of the tribal leaders, buried Moshe, is ruled out by the end of the verse, “and no one knows his burial place until this day.”

[2]  Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Temurah 16a.

[3]  Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Baba Metsia, 59b.

[4] Tosafot, Masekhet Hulin, 44a; Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah 9:1; Kesef Mishneh Ad Loc.

[5] The fact that Hazal derived a biblical commandment to follow a majority from a verse that states quite plainly that the majority should not be followed into error is part of a much larger discussion about the relationship of the Written and Oral Torahs and the nature of Midrash, for which this composition is not the place.

[6] The question of a “Time to act for God” (“עת לאשות להשם”) or a “Temporary Instruction” (“הוראת שעה”) wherein a prophet violates a biblical commandment, or instructs others to do so, is a function of what Rambam describes, in Moreh Nevukhim 3:34, as the nature of a generally-applied system. Any system that is created to function on the general scale (for all the individuals of a group, for all moments in time, etc.), will inevitably come across specific points on the scale where it does apply perfectly, as it is intended for the general situation, and thus cannot account for every possible eventuality. In such a case the Prophet can be instructed by ‘א to violate the general law in a specific instance.

[7] The dichotomy depicted in this paragraph is roughly that between Rationalism, which originated in the Greek Theoria (determining via perfection of the mind the nature of the Divine reality, upon which law and behavior could the be based), and Empiricism.

[8] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Baba Batra, 131a.