Elul 2019: Is This The Real Life? Rosh Hashanah and the Purpose of Life

 

Sources:

  1. Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b

Our Rabbis taught: For two and a half years were Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel in dispute. The former said, “It would have been more pleasant for man not to have been created than to have been created,” and the latter said, “It would have been more pleasant for man to have been created than not to have been created.”

They finally voted and decided that it would have been more pleasant for man not to have been created than to have been created, but now that he has been created, let him investigate his past deeds or, as others say, let him examine his future actions.

 

Birth

 

  1. Tefillah of Yom Kippur


My God, until I was created, I was not worthy. Now that I was created, it’s as if I was not created. Dust am I in my life, all the more so in my death. I am before you as a vessel filled with embarrassment and shame.

 

  1. Rav Kook, Olat Hare’iyah, vol. 2, 356

Before I was created, the whole infinite time from eternity until I was created, there was certainly nothing in the world that needed me. Had I been lacking for some purpose or completion, I would have been created. Thus, the fact that I was not created is a sign that I was not worthy to be created then, and there was no need for me except at the time when I was created, because the time had arrived when I needed to fulfill some purpose for the completion of reality. If I dedicate my actions to the purpose of my creation, then I am now worthy, but since my actions are not intended for the good of this purpose, then I have not achieved the purpose of my creation and I am still unworthy, as before.

 

Death

 

  1. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah, Selection

Since free choice is granted to all men as explained, a person should always strive to do Teshuvah and to confess verbally for his sins, striving to cleanse his hands from sin in order that he may die as a Baal-Teshuvah and merit the life of the world to come. (7:1)

A person should always view himself as leaning towards death, with the possibility that he might die at any time. Thus, he may be found as a sinner. (7:2)

Even if he transgressed throughout his entire life and repented on the day of his death and died in repentance, all his sins are forgiven. (2:1)

If a person’s sins exceed his merits, he will immediately die because of his wickedness (3:2)

Just as a person’s merits and sins are weighed at the time of his death, so, too, the sins of every inhabitant of the world together with his merits are weighed on the festival of Rosh HaShanah. If one is found righteous, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If one is found wicked, his [verdict] is sealed for death. A Beinoni’s verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur. If he repents, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If not, his [verdict] is sealed for death. (3:3)

When does the statement that these individuals do not have a portion in the world to come apply? When they die without having repented. However, if such a person repents from his wicked deeds and dies as a Baal-Teshuvah, he will merit the world to come, for nothing can stand in the way of Teshuvah. (3:14)

 

  1. Rav Shagar, Shuvi Nafshi, 77

The day a person dies is not a predetermined date set for a person’s judgment day, it is simply an immanent result of their situation. The judgment is nothing other than the person’s state at the moment he dies, and this is his eternal fate. This fact heightens the tension surrounding repentance and judgment, a tension that expresses the combination of the incidental–man’s fleeting existence–and the fact that this incidental thing has an absolute, total, and infinite character. The anxiety of judgment, its fateful and decisive character, comes from exactly this combination. The fleeting receives eternal force. The fact that a person dies at a specific moment, something typically entirely incidental, and that this is what determines a person’s eternity, causes the fleetingness itself to gain the urgency and fatefulness of eternity.

 

  1. Rav Shagar, Shuvi Nafshi, 81

It seems that a single day judgment–Rosh Hashanah–was established in order to emphasize in actual practice the acuteness and intensity of existence, the ethical consciousness according to which we should live every day of the year. This is why Rambam constructs Rosh Hashanah on the model of the day of death. Rosh Hashanah is the judgment and the life in the shadow of death that is eternity.

Rambam puts in effort to solve the problem of why a specific day of judgment was established, because a person’s judgment is a function of his inner condition, something that is true each and every day.

According to Rambam, the selection of Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgments to a large degree arbitrary and incidental. He compares this happenstance to the happenstance of the day a person dies, and thus sets up the fatefulness of the judgment on Rosh Hashanah. Just was the day a person dies is incidental, so too is Rosh Hashanah.  That’s when a person’s fate in this world is decided. There’s something specifically both incidental and arbitrary about this judgment, but that is its nature. The concept of judgement as absolute happenstance is the basis of this day.

 

Apocalypse

 

  1. Blessing of Kedushah, Tefillah for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, etc.

You are holy and Your Name is holy and holy beings praise You every day, forever.

And so, grant that Your awe, Adonoy, our God, be upon all Your works, and Your dread upon all You have created; and [then] all [Your] works will fear You, and prostrate before You will be all [Your] created beings.

And may they all form a single band to do Your will with a perfect heart. For we know Adonoy, our God that rulership is Yours, strength is in Your hand, might is in Your right hand and Your Name is awesome over all You have created.

And so, grant honor, Adonoy, to Your people, praise to those who fear You, good hope to those who seek You confident speech to those who yearn for You, joy to Your land, gladness to Your city, flourishing of pride to Dovid, Your servant and an array of light to the son of Yishai, Your anointed, speedily in our days.

And then the righteous will see [this] and rejoice, and the upright will be jubilant, and the pious will exult with joyous song; injustice will close its mouth, and all the wickedness will vanish like smoke, when You remove the rule of evil from the earth.

And You Adonoy will reign alone over all Your works on Mount Tziyon, dwelling place of Your glory, and in Yerushalayim, city of Your Sanctuary, as it is written in Your holy words, “Adonoy will reign forever; Your God, Tziyon, throughout all generations. Praise God.”

Holy are You, and awesome is Your Name, and there is no God beside You, as it is written, “And Adonoy Tzevaos is exalted through justice and the Almighty, the Holy One, is sanctified through righteousness.”

Blessed are You, Adonoy, the King, the Holy One.

 

  1. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 165-166

In order to understand these wondrous, magical depictions, which are not of this world, we can look to a somewhat parallel literary phenomenon, science fiction. Both science fiction and the rabbis’ homilies (midrashim) about the future redemption describe an alternative world. This world’s primary purpose, if we can speak of such a thing, is to lay bare the mystery (mistorin) of our lives, aiding the collapse and destruction of our banal, boring everyday life.

In the rabbis’ days there were no rockets; the eschatological homilies don’t talk about distant galaxies or about worlds full of robots and beyond-human creatures. However, they contain just as much magic and wonders just as great [as science fiction contains]. They provide the realistic possibility of a substantive alternative to this world, an alternative that many of the rabbis certainly thought would arrive one day. […] In this way, the miraculous and wondrous bursts into the world and disrupts its factual, scientific stability.

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Texts Transform Readers Transform Texts: Fleischacker and Maimonides

Texts Transform Readers Transform Texts:

Fleischacker and Maimonides

 

I have recently been thinking a lot about a passage from Samuel Fleischacker’s excellent short work, The Good and the Good Book, which develops an argument for taking traditional texts to be good guides for living. In the first chapter he discusses a story of a wise man who tells a miser where he can find treasure. In going to that place, the miser finds people living in squalor, is moved to dedicate his money to improving their lives. This experience transforms him, and he realizes that the transformation was the promised “treasure.” He later returns the wise man, protesting about the misleading advice, and the wise man points out he originally would not have been motivated by the idea of such a “treasure.” Analyzing this story, Fleischaker notes:

fleischacker

And finally, following an authority makes best sense if one is carrying out an extended course of action and can periodically reinterpret what the authority says as one goes along. If the point is precisely to transform oneself, radically to change one’s character or orientation in life, then that is likely to take a while, and to lead one to have a new, deeper understanding of what one’s authority says after the change than one did before. This last point is the reason why authorities may employ obscure or indirect ways of saying things: what they want to convey cannot be properly understood by their listeners until those listeners have been transformed. And in the course of transformation, the authority’s utterances may well shift from a literal to a metaphorical register, or acquire new literal meanings that we did not expect them to have when we first heard them.[1]

Any statement or text that tries to change a person, moving them from personality A to personality B, risks the possibility that only one of the two personalities will be able to comprehend it, not both. Alternatively, it has to be capable of meaning two different things to each personality.

This is basically the problem Maimonides is struggling with throughout the Guide for the Perplexed. The Torah and its laws are meant to improve the people, as individuals and as a society (I:2, III:28). That means that it has to make sense to them both before and after it has improved them. This is all the more urgent a problem as the Torah is meant to improve the people’s cognitive understanding and beliefs as well (ibid.). The Torah has to make sense to people who think God wants sacrifices, but also to people who know that God doesn’t want sacrifices, or possibly even prayer; instead people should ideally just meditate (III:32).

maimonides

Maimonides solves this on a legal level by allowing the legitimate authorities strong powers both in interpreting the Torah’s laws and in creating legal enactments (Hilkhot Mamrim; intro to MT). On the level of the Torah text and how we interpret it, this is a project that occupies much of the Guide. The words of the Torah, he says, can have more than one meaning (intro to Guide). He therefore must go through and explain to the reader which meaning is the proper one, in all places trying to move away from corporealizing and “primitive” understandings of God.

While the Torah can more obviously be meaningful for someone who shares those understandings, people who have already moved away from those understandings may have a harder time (ibid.). Moreover, encouraging such a person to take up those understandings would actually be harmful (III:34). Therefore the Torah cannot mean the same thing for them that it meant for people who had those understandings.

In a real sense, this problem underlies all interpretation, and gives rise to the need for an Oral Torah. If the Torah is to speak to different people in different historical realities, it must be subject to significant interpretation. What Maimonides work points out is that this problem is internal to the Torah and its goals. If the Israelites had never been exiled, if international politics essentially froze during the First Israelite Commonwealth, the Torah would still eventually require reinterpretation. As society and individuals conformed more to the Torah’s laws, they would become more like the ideal society and individuals. They would then read the Torah and see that it must mean something different than what it had meant to them previously.

[1] Samuel Fleischacker, The Good and the Good Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 23.

Yom Iyun for Rav Shagar’s 9th Yartzheit – Encounters

The topic of the Yom Iyun is Rav Shagar’s encounters with various figures, with each lecture focusing on one. What follows is my notes on each presentation. They’ve been edited slightly for clarity, but they do remain notes. Any specific issues requiring clarification can be directed to me and I will be happy to oblige. I also took pictures of the source sheets and inserted sources in the relevant points in each presentation, to the best of my ability.

 

Dr. Eitan Abramovitch – The Rambam

Rav Shagar and the Rambam are very different so it’s not intuitive that their would be a connection between them.

Shagar: Postmodern Religious Zionist is an Unorthodox Orthodox person. (לוש״ל, הצד״פ)

Shagar and Rambam 1

So too the Rambam was trying to connect between two different and opposing worlds.

However, Rav Shagar was changing things under the surface, in the realm of consciousness, without changing anything practically. It makes it a little difficult to interpret sometimes. Rambam was much clearer about what he was doing, much more explicitly changing how we relate to religious language, etc.

Rambam mostly showed up in R. Shagar’s teaching of gemara, rather than in his philosophy

 

Shagar: Rambam emphasized immanence of divine wisdom in history and nature. (הליכות עולם, נצחיות הסטוריה ואקטואליות).

Shagar and Rambam 2

Rav Shagar shared this sense of willingness to encounter the world as it is, without losing the sense of the Divine in the world, without losing the Tradition and adherence to halakhah.

 

MN I:71: We have to take the world as is, as opposed to the Kalam who added things from their imaginations.

Shagar and Rambam 3

Taking things as given is not something people do automatically. People always add things.

Meat/Milk is taken as an adaptation of a pagan rite in the MN.

Religious thought typically searches out the eternal, the absolute and inhuman.

Rav Shagar said that both the Rambam and the Kabbalists gave reasons to mitsvot, but the Kabbalists made ordinary things into manifestations or representations of the Divine.

Rav Shagar makes it so man always is on the outside, always beyond. There’s something you can’t understand, and therefore cannot identify with.

This unbreachable gap between man and God is also found in the Rambam.

“These law were made to fight avodah zarah.” – this has its own kind of powerfulness. It’s a very understandable idea.

Just like you have to accept the torah in its historical context, so too yourself.

 

Shagar: We can’t ignore the historical background behind halakhot. If we made the laws today, they wouldn’t be the same laws. The meaning of the laws is an immanent meaning. (שם)

Shagar and Rambam 4

Rav Shagar didn’t see Rambam as just a rationalist. In Rambam’s thought understanding things leads to identifying with them. Rav Shagar saw Rambam not as simply intellectual, but also as existential. He saw Rambam as seeking out unification, mystical eros through intimate knowledge.

 

Shagar: Rambam is from the intellectual age, when Freedom was grasped as an intellectual property, a conception and age we are now past. (לוש״ל, חופש וקודש)

Shagar and Rambam 5

Rav Shagar clearly differed from Rambam too, and was not afraid to say so.

 

Rav Elchanan Nir – Teachings of the East

(all quotations of Rav Shagar from לוש״ל pp.106-135)

“The east” is a really unclear phrase, because it includes all kinds of things. It’s not homogeneous.

Rav Shagar was really wary of dealing with this topic, because it requires serious consideration, and should be allowed to speak for itself. It shouldn’t just be used as something for rabbis to talk about when they want to make a point.

Shagar א:

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Eastern thought, “The East,” is very popular today. Rav Kook dealt with it by dividing between message and medium, something we don’t necessarily think you can do today. Not only does Postmodernism not divide between them, Eastern doesn’t do it, which means it’s a totally out of place dichotomy to attempt to force onto The East.

Shagar ב:

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Context affects ideas, so it’s impossible to really translate ideas from one context to another. In Western thought there is an emphasis on the difference between the subject and the objective world. Our whole world, even our political consciousness is built on this conception. Eastern ideas take on a new light in this context.

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Westerners rarely immerse themselves in and truly take up Eastern thought. More often any engagement is superficial and involves the Westerner taking the surface aspects of Eastern thought that appeal to them.

As opposed to the Western divide between Subject and Object, the East sees us as part of the world.

East is us before sin, West is us after. On a basic physical level we’ve gotten rid of the curses of Adam/Hava. But it hasn’t brought us to spiritual connection.

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The new age says there’s meaning in everything, as opposed to Postmodern Relativism which says there’s no meaning in anything.

The turn to the East is part of a messianic urge for Tikkun, a desire for utopia.

Shagar ג:

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Judaism is our home, so it’s ours, without having to be best.

This is the Berit, the covenant, which means we don’t have to prove anything about it.

Halakhah is not theology. Halakha creates our bayit, our home and identity (R’ Shagar on Likutei Moharan 8). You can find holiness in the East, but it’s not ours.

Judaism is material. It happens in the world, which means it isn’t always pretty. But it also means that Judaism is accessible to anyone, for anyone can live according to halakhah.

Judaism is the basis of our identity, and you can introduce the East into that, but it’s there as a guest. There’s a preexisting house that it is being welcomed into, and it can’t be permitted to change the nature of the house.

Shagar ד:

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Bringing the East in can be a phenomenal contribution to our religion. It’s just a question of how.

Rav shagar starts and finishes the essay from an educational perspective.

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First thing we have to do is educate our children from a Haredi perspective, initially. That’s how we create berit, identity, etc. Only later should we introduce critical thinking and foreign conceptions.

When Rav shagar was at ITRI and was thinking of moving to Merkaz HaRav, R. Shlomo Fischer, his teacher, told him not to because it’s a hassidic yeshiva. When R. Shagar protested the definition, R. Fischer said that any yeshiva with something besides gemara on the desks is a chassidishe yeshiva. So too, as soon as you add critical thinking, it’s not a haredi education.

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The ability to introduce into the Berit external ideas, without destroying the Berit, is the messianic Torah that R. Kook spoke of. Unfortunately, Rav Shagar didn’t clarify how to do this on a practical level.

 

Rav Uri Lipschitz  – The Sefat Emet

Rav Shagar had a lot of Hasidut in his thought, and in his teaching. It’s one of the things he contributed to the world writ large and the the RZ community in particular

Sefat Emet is not the normal kind of chasidut you find in Rav Shagar’s thought and teaching, however. Consequently, he didn’t write enough on the SE in order for a book to be put out on it, as opposed to Rebbe Nahman or Tanya/Habad.

 

Abbreviated Piece of SE from תרל״א:

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Yaakov lived in Egypt without really being present there.

The purpose of life in the world is to draw out the holy aspects, inner life, truth, etc.,  instead of clinging to worldliness.

This is what Rashi meant when he said Yaakov wanted to reveal the End, he wanted to reveal the the exile is just obscurity, if this was revealed it wouldn’t be an exile anymore.

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Zohar says Yaakov revealed in an obscure manner. He revealed that there is an end.

He died, and this revelation ended.

Without Emet, the midah of Yaakov, all we have is Emunah.

The SE is saying you can live in three different experiences: 1. Living thinking this world is the most important thing. This is to fail entirely 2. Shattering the Gap between God and man, subject/object, etc. by way of Emet. By Bittul. By being conscious of the Acosmic truth. This was Yaakov’s approach which ended and therefore failed. 3. Emunah, finding revelation from within obscurity.

 

Shagar, Existentialism and Hasidut:

Weiss: there is a mystical trend in Hasidut, that seeks out unio mystica. (Habad, and others) There is also a trend of Faith, which doesn’t try to overcome the gap between man/God, Subject/Object, etc. and simply accepts and believes that their is something beyond. The mystical approach is something basically only actionable for unique individuals. When teachings get directed to larger groups they fall, either intentionally or by default, into the second category.

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Sefat Emet is not mystical. He’s part of the ‘Faith’ trend.

Unclear if this has survived in Hasidut Ger today.

This approach undoubtedly has Kelipot, negative aspects.

Rav Shagar preferred to be alone in many ways. Felt his students bothered him, didn’t like davening with them because he felt they were staring at him, which they were.

 

 

Rav Noam Samet – Maharil Bloch

Not such a known figure in general. He was Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, and learned in Volozhin.

Rav Shagar strongly identified with him. Rosh yeshiva, lamdan, thinker, ethical figure, and mystic. Very methodologically aware and self-aware.

Maharil, quoted by his son:

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Everything in this world is from upper worlds.

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Therefore we can use this world, in all it’s materialistic manifestations, to understand the Torah.

Continuity of the worlds is a classic litvish approach, perhaps most clearly expressed in Nefesh HaHayyim.

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Therefore the understanding of the torah must fit to the nature of the world and the mind of man. It’s not even that you should force them, or that you should create a connection. The connection is logically unavoidable and therefore must be inherent.

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A person must find the understandings of Torah within himself.

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There’s no difference between Nigleh and Nistar, it’s all one. Therefore you can basically just learn Nigleh. This approach is clearly manifest in yeshivot today, where nistar is basically entirely neglected.

 

R. Shagar, BeTorato Yehegeh:

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Rav Shagar saw the telz method as more important for the RZ community than the Brisker one. The Brisker method is disconnected from the world, it’s mystical, etc. The RZ community is very disconnected from Mysticism, and attempts to be engaged in the world.

This is what makes the learning existential, applicable to reality. Rav Shagar took this from Maharil Bloch.

But Rav Shagar doesn’t use the same background for why you should study existentially. He doesn’t mention the mystical reasons. Rav Shagar himself was mystically oriented, but he didn’t speak that way.

Rav Shagar: “The realistic aspect of the Torah is found in its secularization, not in its mystification.”

Rav Shagar had a deep and intuitive identification with Maharil Bloch, but they spoke in very different languages.

The unification of Kodesh and Hol in the thought of Rav Kook moved Rav Shagar more than the mystical language of Maharil Bloch.

Rav Avishai Schreiber – Leah Goldberg

When learning Pesachim, Rav Shagar skipped right to sugyot about Leil HaSeder. Classes would have 5-6 pages of mekorot.

A person has to take charity, if they need it, to buy four cups of wine that are about freedom. We are forced to participate in a ritual commemorating liberty. When asked about this, Rav Shagar responded by quoting a song by Leah Goldberg about a kabtsan.

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The message he was trying to convey, you didn’t need to convey with a song by Leah Goldberg. There are mishnayot and gemarot that would have done just as well. He chose not to answer as a Lamdan and thus to break the lamdanic language of the shiur and introduce a different language and rhythm.

Rav Shagar was very central at Yeshivat Siach during the Yomim Noraim. He would give lots of speeches, including on the first night of selihot. In one such speech he quoted a song by Leah Goldberg, currently quoted and published in a derashah in Al Kapot HaManoul (Shuvi Nafshi?).

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Leah Goldberg and the piece of Rebbe Natan quoted both emphasize the parallel between the end of the year and the end of life. Quoting Leah Goldberg puts it in our language, making it much more powerful than when it’s said by a Baal Mussar, or a Hasid.

Rav Shagar quoted Goldberg, and plenty of other secular writers, to express התעוררות מלמטה, to speak in our language. Rav Shagar dealt in a lot of places with the issue of Mekor and Targum, Original and Translation.

Shagar On Likutei Moharan 18:

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Rav Shagar didn’t like using English idiom and the like, even when that was the original. He liked the hebrew versions (Example: he preferred קיומי to אקזיסטנציאליסטי). He never used external sources when he could find it in the Jewish source. It’s all about Translation.

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If we heard a hasid in Meah Shearim teaching Rebbe Nachman, it would have nothing to do with out lives. It might feel more authentic, but it would essentially be a tragedy and a failure.

Translation from one language to another, when done right, leaves you with something that transcends all language. The way Rambam switches between languages (historical, philosophical, talmudic, etc.) is more important than what he is saying. Rebbe Nahman spoke the language of Stories in order to convey ideas from his torah above the level of languages.

 

Rav David Bigman – Rav Shagar and the Empty Space

The point of this class is to look at how Rav Shagar presents Rebbe Nahman, see what is there, see what isn’t, etc.

LM I:64 is one of the strongest discussions of Kefira in Rebbe Nahman

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Where/when there’s letters there is Divinity.

The first type of Apikorsut is linguistic, intellectual.

The second type is questions that are beyond language, and seem compelling because there is no argument against them, but that’s really just because they’re beyond language. These are questions that invoke paradox and the like. They shatter binary thinking.

Rav Shagar focused on the binary of Subject/Object, but it’s not the only binary that Rebbe Nahman talks about. RN also talks about the binary of language that is broken by these questions.

Because Rebbe Nahman is speaking about religion and religious language, it’s unclear if he would also say this about other languages, but there are thinkers who would say it.

The normal understanding of the חלל הפנוי is “Empty Space: => No Divinity there => Religious Language does not apply.” Rebbe Nahman twists that; Language doesn’t apply at all.

Rebbe Nahman would often say to his hasidim, “Don’t ask that question, because only a tsadik could understand! And here’s what the tsadik would say…” This introduces a mindset of “we can’t think about this” while simultaneously thinking about it.

Rebbe Nahman goes from the problems of binary language to the leap of faith, and Rav Shagar discusses this extensively, bringing Existentialism into the discussion.

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The tsadik davka deals with these questions of the second type of heresy, approaching them from a place that’s neither Sekhel nor Otiot, neither thought nor language.

What does this mean? Multiple possibilities:

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  1. Making Peace with the Questions
    ‘Emunah Peshuta’ in Breslav is after you know about the ideas of Kefira, out of consciousness that you have chosen this path.
  2. Dealing with the edges of cognition from time to time brings a person to a sense of his limits and of religious humility, of a sense that their is something transcendent that you cannot grasp.
  3. The knowledge of our limitedness is something we share with God, and that knowledge is enough.
    Example: Dogs don’t understand language, but they do understand intonation. Therefore the dog does not really speak “human.” If a dog was aware of this, they would share with Humanity the knowledge and awareness that “dogs do not speak human.”
  4. Contemplation of the paradox leads to an experience of Unio Mystica.
    Trying to solve a non-binary problem via binary language cause the language to collapse on itself.
    The part of our brains responsible for binary thought are also responsible for spatial thought. This is Rav Shagar’s Subject/Object.

Rav Shagar does not really speak about Sod HaShetikah, primarily about the Leap, but he is mostly like #1, a little bit like #2. #3 & #4 don’t show up by Rav Shagar at all.

What Rebbe Nahman is really talking about is meditation that brings to this place, beyond the binary (#4). This is clear because he discusses how the tsadik can bring forth a song from here.

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Torah 52 is clearer about discussing mysticism, though it discusses a different type of mysticism.

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LM 52 is clearly talking about Unio Mystica, as opposed to LM 64 which is less clear, and Rav Shagar also ignores the unio mystica here too.

It’s possible that Rav Shagar was very bothered by the relationship between universal language and particularly Jewish language. In both torahs Rebbe Nahman emphasizes the mitsvot while also having some הסתייגות from them.

Abramovitch (first speaker): Rav Shagar once went to a seminar on the mind/body connection and didn’t like it, feeling that neuroscience requires reduces a person to an object and thus ignores the real person.

Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law

Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law

 

Revelation presents a problem, one that it has been acknowledged, discussed, and struggled over since Plato. In short, if revelation provides information that can be discovered via reason, then revelation is unnecessary. However, if it provides information that contradicts reason, then why should reasonable beings accept it. The two prongs of this discussion have brought forth many answers and responses from within the Jewish tradition.

While not dealing with this problem explicitly, Rambam lays out an approach to the tension between reason and revelation in the Moreh Nevukhim[1]. In discussing various approaches to the origin of the universe (MN 2:25), Rambam says, with some reservation, that the true opinion is the one that is most philosophically compelling, and that were it to contradict the plain sense of verses of the Torah, then those verses would have to be reinterpreted. This flows logically from his belief that the Torah was very limited in what it could discuss due to the primitive and pagan beliefs of the Israelites who left Egypt. Thus the plain sense of the Torah was designed to convey beliefs and truths that could be accepted by the masses, while the wise man (read: the philosopher) would be able to plumb its depths and discover the truth, with a capital “T”. The problem with this approach is that it seems to indicate that the Torah is primarily aimed at the more philosophically inclined, with everyone else being hopelessly doomed to misunderstand the Torah. Only the philosophical elite can truly understand the Torah.

In the third volume of Mikhtav Me’Eliyahu, Rav Eliyahu Dessler tackles a similar discussion. Rav Dessler says that, initially, the Torah was only accessible through the inner-life of man. It was through introspection and developing ethics and spirituality that a person connected to the Torah; this was the path of our forefathers. Then Moshe delivered the Torah from Heaven to Earth. Ever since Sinai, the Torah is accessible in our external, practical, lives. This is because the Torah is now manifest in mitsvot, in commandments that are fulfilled equally no matter who is performing them. While certain people have a natural inclination towards philosophy, spirituality, or introspection, all people are equal before the law.

Returning to the Moreh Nevukhim, it is actually easy to identify this ethos in one of the later chapters (MN 3:34). Discussing the way commandments were given to help with the self-perfection of Man, Rambam confronts the problem of individuality. Given the way people vary, it is inevitable that there will be a person for whom a certain law is not only not helpful, but it actually harmful in terms of their development. To put in terms of the text of the Torah, a person might be developed enough that they do not need the original plain sense of the text, but not so philosophical that they immediately grasp the divine Truth behind it. For this person, the text can only be confusing. So too in the case of the law; even to their detriment, the wise are equal to everyone else when it comes to following the commandments.

The Kuzari presents a similar idea as part of a polemic against the Karaites (3:39). In contrast to the Karaites, for whom each person must understand Torah according to their own intellect interpretive biases, Rabbinic Jews all follow the same tradition of interpretation. This not only serves to create unified practice throughout the entire nation, it also creates unity of practice throughout a person’s life, as they follow the tradition as opposed to their own ever-changing opinion. Not only are all Jews equal before the law, but all Jews share in the same law.

More than Matan Torah (a traditional term meaning the “the giving of the Torah”) was the giving of the law, it was the creation of a national identity through the law. While the nation shared a familial and cultural history, we were not truly united until they received the law at Har Sinai. From then on, we shared an identity based around our connection to the Torah, based on our connection to ‘א through His law. It is this identity that has been our guiding light throughout history[2], keeping us united in times of immense hardship. This Shavuot, let us reaffirm this identity, and let it keep guiding us in our future.

[1] For more on the ideas of this paragraph, see my discussion of the Torah speaking in the language of man here.

[2] This brings to mind Ehad HaAm’s famous statement, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

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.

Dedicating Our Sanctuaries

Dedicating Our Sanctuaries

There is a deep tension in the nature of Hanukah. The holiday is most commonly understood as a celebration of the miracle of the oil, as described in Masekhet Shabbat.

What is ‘Hanukah? The rabbis taught: “On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev ‘Hanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting (in commemoration of the dead) and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Hasmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God’s wonders) were to be recited. (Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Shabbat, 21b)

This gemara depicts the Maccabees entering the temple and, upon preparing to light the Menorah, finding only enough pure oil to light the Menorah for one day. When they lit the Menorah, however, it miraculously stayed lit for eight days, and thus the holiday of Hanukah was established to commemorate this. The liturgical passage of Al HaNisim, however, presents an entirely different picture of the nature of the holiday.

In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yohanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will. But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah. You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and effected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day. Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.

Al Hanisim doesn’t even mention the miracle of the oil. Instead, it focuses on the miraculous military campaign where ‘א helped the Hasmoneans, the Maccabees, fight against the Seleucids, delivering “the many into the hands of the few.” It makes a brief mention of the kindling of lights in the Beit HaMikdash, but that is a far cry from the miraculous lighting of the gemara. The key to resolving this tension lies far earlier than either of these texts, in the dedications of the Mishkan and the Bet HaMikdash that acted as precedents for the rededication in the time of the Maccabees.

The dedication of the Mishkan is described three separate times in the Torah, each with a different emphasis and context. The first time is at the very end of Sefer Shemot, when Moshe finishes putting up the Mishkan and the Cloud of ‘א descends upon it (Shemot 40:17-38). The second is in Sefer Vayikra, at the end of the long list of sacrificial laws that starts off the sefer (Vayikra 9). Finally, in Bamidbar 7, the dedication takes the form of the donations and sacrifices of the Nesi’im of Bnei Yisrael to the Miskhan. Each of these dedications express a different aspect of the Mishkan. That of Sefer Shemot, capping the whole construction of the Mishkan, focuses on the way the Mishkan serves as a mobile Mount Sinai, with an emphasis on Moshe and the way that ‘א would reveal himself above the Keruvim (Shemot 25:22). The dedication of Sefer Vayikra focuses on the Mishkan as the place Bnei Yisrael would come to bring sacrifices to ‘א, and where Aharon and the Kohanim would serve daily. Sefer Bamidbar focuses on the heads of the Tribes of Israel and the presence of ‘א amidst the developing Nation of Israel. Thus these three dedications together depict the Mishkan as the place where ‘א comes to Bnei Yisrael, the place where Bnei Yisrael come to ‘א, and the living presence of the two together.

After the fall of the Mishkan, there was no House of ‘א in Israel, until Shelomoh HaMelekh built the Bet HaMikdash in Sefer Melakhim I. The dedication of the Bet HaMikdash is described in Melakhim I:8. The majority of the chapter is taken up not by the celebrations or even by the dedication itself, but by a long exhortation of the people by Shelomoh (8:12-61). (This exhortation takes the form of blessings to the people and a prayer to ‘א but it seems clear that the people are meant to hear the prayer and learn from it.) The main emphasis in this passage is on the incredible nature of an infinite god dwelling in a man-made structure, or any structure for that matter, and the inherently conditional nature of ‘א’s presence amidst Israel. The passage emphasizes the way that misdeeds and evil are punished when ‘א dwells amongst the people, and the harsh requirements of the Presence of ‘א. The corresponding passage in Sefer Divrei HaYamim II:6 is roughly the same, with perhaps slightly more emphasis on the House of David (6:46).

Much like these earlier passages from Tanakh, the gemara in Masekhet Shabbat and the Al HaNisim prayer present the rededication of the second Bet HaMikdash in very different ways. Al HaNisim presents it in context of the military victory, the divine salvation of the Jews from the political and religious domination of the Seleucids, while Masekhet Shabbat presents the rededication of the Bet HaMikdash in context of the divine grace manifest in the miracle of the oil, of the flaring up of the supernatural in the midst of the natural. Perhaps, unsatisfied with a holiday celebrating the victory of the Jewish over the Greek, Hazal focused on the rededication as a victory of the Holy over the Mundane. Instead of focusing on the reclaiming of the Bet HaMikdash, Hazal chose to emphasize the miracle that would be more meaningful for a people in exile. The holiday didn’t gain and lose facets based on the historical situation of those celebrating it, but certain facets are emphasized, while others are overshadowed. Now that we have returned to the land of Israel, now that the Jews have a sovereign land again, Hanukah presents us with not just with a celebration but with a question. In what context do we view the rededication of the Bet HaMikdash? What aspects are we going to focus on? Are we going to follow Maimonides, and emphasize both the military victory and the miracle of the oil? Are we going to be reminded by Hanukah of our leadership in the land, and all the responsibility that entails? And can we do so without forgetting that which lies above our natural existence, that which exceed our greatest possible expectations? Our relationship with ‘א, concretized in the Mishkan and the Bet HaMikdash, is multifaceted, and can be seen in multiple lights. Which facets we emphasize, how we view the Hanukah lights, is up to us.

[1] Translation from chabad.org

[2] I have discussed this in greater detail here.

[3] This also explains the different explanations for the establishment of the holiday found in Maccabees I, Maccabees II, Megillat Taanit, and Josephus’ Antiquities.

[4] “In [the era of] the Second Temple, the Greek kingdom issued decrees against the Jewish people, [attempting to] nullify their faith and refusing to allow them to observe the Torah and its commandments. They extended their hands against their property and their daughters; they entered the Sanctuary, wrought havoc within, and made the sacraments impure. The Jews suffered great difficulties from them, for they oppressed them greatly until the God of our ancestors had mercy upon them, delivered them from their hand, and saved them. The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overcame [them], slew them, and saved the Jews from their hand. They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple.

When the Jews overcame their enemies and destroyed them, they entered the Sanctuary; this was on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. They could not find any pure oil in the Sanctuary, with the exception of a single cruse. It contained enough oil to burn for merely one day. They lit the arrangement of candles from it for eight days until they could crush olives and produce pure oil.Accordingly, the Sages of that generation ordained that these eight days, which begin from the twenty-fifth of Kislev, should be commemorated to be days of happiness and praise [of God]. Candles should be lit in the evening at the entrance to the houses on each and every one of these eight nights to publicize and reveal the miracle.These days are called Chanukah. It is forbidden to eulogize and fast on them, as on the days of Purim. Lighting the candles on these days is a Rabbinic mitzvah, like the reading of the Megillah.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah U’Hanukah, 3:1-3) (Translation from chabad.org)

Maimonide’s View on Divine Providence, Acc. to Moshe Halbertal

From Maimonides: Life and Thought by Moshe Halbertal (Princeton, 2014) pp. 338-341

 

“Maimonides’ position departs in no uncertain terms from the traditional view of providence, which believes that God punishes the wicked and rewards the ordinary (that is, those who are neither wicked nor virtuous). According to Maimonides, the wicked and the ordinary, constituting most of humanity, are relegated to happenstance. But despite this dramatic divide, the concept he presents has an internal religious logic: providence is not a basic given and does not apply to all people; it is, rather, something achieved only by a few. Throughout existence, God attends only to species as a whole, but perfected human beings merit individual providence. How that individual providence operates, however, is subject to widely differing interpretations.

 

The conservative reading of the Guide offers one such interpretation. The causal structure is what controls all existence and the fate of most men, but perfected men are subject to God’s special attention, and He exercises His will to protect them from the harms and misfortunes that befall other creatures. On this reading, nature and wisdom are maintained with respect to reality as a whole, but when necessary, divine will bursts through and acts within it. If that is so, Maimonides rejected the [Islamic] Ash’arite position, according to which God’s willful providence governs every individual and event to the point of negating the entire causal order. But he also rejects the Aristotelian position, which sees the causal order as the exclusive principle governing all existence, wicked and perfected alike. According to the conservative reading, Maimonides’ view of providence parallels his views of creation and prophecy. With respect to creation, he preserved a necessary, fundamental element of creation in time-the creation of existence ex nihilo – and allows for the action of divine will when necessary. With respect to prophecy, he interpreted the phenomenon as a natural one but left room for a supernatural exercise of will in the case of Moses’ prophecy. The same structure can be seen in connection with providence. The causal order applies everywhere except with regard to perfected people, who are protected by God’s will. Accordingly, the principle of causal wisdom is not the exclusive explanation for what happens in the universe, and it is limited in areas related to the principles of religion-creation, prophecy, and  providence.

 

The Guide’s philosophical readers, for their part – that is, those who understood it as affirming eternal preexistence-took a very different view of the idea that perfected people were subject to divine providence on an individual basis. On their reading, which seems to have better internal, textual logic, perfected individuals are not providentially overseen by means of divine intervention volitionally bestowed only on them. Providential oversight is afforded them, rather, by reason of causal reality itself, and it can be accounted for in terms of wisdom, not will. The perfection of the individuals who enjoy providence is commensurate with their apprehension of God and the world, as Maimonides emphasized, and that apprehension affords them two advantages that distinguish them from other men and beasts. Those advantages are theirs without any intervention of the divine will.

 

The first advantage is that of a place in the world to come; their souls do not perish and they are not eliminated from the world. Like Aristotle, Maimonides believed that providence implies the possibility of eternity and stability inherent in the causal order. That capacity for eternity is granted to those who attain knowledge and become bound to the active intellect; accordingly, providence – bestowed, in Aristotle’s view, only on sorts whose eternity is ensured – pertains to perfected individuals.

 

Samuel Ibn Tibbon read Maimonides this way, understanding him to hold the view that individual providence did not involve willful divine intervention in an individual’s life. In a letter on providence that he sent to Maimonides (and that Maimonides never answered), he afforded a philosophical interpretation to the concept of prophecy as it appeared in the Guide. In his view, misfortunes befell perfected people in the same way as others, and God did not intervene to free them from poverty, illness, or travail. But because they adhere to the proper goal of apprehending the intelligibles, which assures them eternal life, they do not regard these events as troubles. They do not consider such things as loss of wealth, illness, or handicap to be losses, for they are bound to what truly matters and what assures a person eternal life. Accordingly, in addition to the eternal life these individuals are assured of, they experience providence in their day-to-day lives, expressed not in the form of events that happen to them but as a profound change in consciousness.

 

The second advantage that apprehension affords to individuals overseen by providence was formulated by Moses Ibn Tibbon, Samuel’s son. Unlike his father, Moses held that those perfected in thought were protected from troubles in a practical way, but not because God willfully directed reality to their benefit, as the conservative reading would have it. Rather, the knowledge of the world that these people acquired allowed them to live better-protected lives, and that is their second natural advantage: they know how to foresee risks and properly assess situations. Moreover, their focus on the higher goal of knowing God frees them from the mental and physical woes that ensue when a person’s life is controlled by his desires. Perfected individuals are distinguished, then, by being providentially protected from the afflictions of the world to a greater extent than other people, bur in the understanding associated with a preexisting universe, that distinctiveness does not entail a miraculous departure from the causal order. The protection and endurance simply reflect the fact that the causal order itself does well for the good.

 

Conservative and philosophical readers agree that Maimonides’ great innovation here was the idea that providence was something afforded only to individuals and that other people were given over to chance. He thereby rejected the position of the [Islamic] Kalam, which saw divine intervention in every event that transpired in the world, and dissented from the traditional Jewish view that individual providence governed all people. According to Maimonides, God’s presence and providence, for most people, are mediated via the causal order that He created, an order to which people are subject. The dispute between the conservative and philosophical readings pertains to how the providence extended to perfected individuals should be understood: is it effected through willful divine intervention, as the [Islamic]  Kalam understood it to be, or is it built into the causal order itself, to be understood in terms of eternity and immortality, as Aristotle understood providence with respect to other species? The philosophical reading affords Maimonides’ acceptance of reality, emphatically declared in the discussion of theodicy, a more profound meaning. Existence itself, structured through divine wisdom, corresponds to the varying degrees of human virtue, responding to differences among people without any need for willful divine intervention.”