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.”

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Shavuot 5774 – Reason and Revelation: Why does it matter that the Torah is Divine?

Why Does it Matter That the Torah is Divine?

“The streams of reason and revelation either run parallel or in different directions. If they run in different directions, then only one of them leads toward truth, while the other one leads toward error. If they run parallel, why do they need river and sea at the same moment.”[1]

This dilemma, known as the problem of Reason and Revelation, is something that goes all the way back to the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato suggested that if Revelation is reasonable, as it generally seems to be, then it would contain nothing Reason could not produce on its own. Revelation would therefore serve no real purpose, being simply a repetition of Reason. Religious scholars since then have proposed multiple solutions to explain what purpose Revelation would have, what advantage it would possess over Reason. Some of the proposed motives were quantitative, stating that there was no essential difference between Reason and Revelation, but that functionally Revelation added something. Others made qualitative differentiations, stating that Reason and Revelation actually lead to the different conclusions and produce different content. However, all were trying to answer the same basic question: Why is it important that ‘א wrote the Torah?

Eliezer Berkovits book, “God, Man and History”, was devoted to founding a whole theology on his resolution to the Reason/Revelation problem. He resolved it by saying that  while Reason and Revelation do lead to the same content, only Revelation creates Obligation. In order for there to be Law, there must also be a Law-Giver, one who enforces the law. Therefore Revelation, which involves the relationship between the Law-Giver and those who must keep the law, also gives the law binding force. If someone thinks up the law on their own, there’s really no motivation for them to necessarily follow it, as opposed to when you have an external force, in this case ‘א, to enforce the Law, in this case the law of the Torah. Reason can generate laws, but only Revelation can obligate you to keep them.

Rav Saadia Gaon, leader of the Babylonian academies in the 9th-10th centuries, took a slightly different approach. He said that the idea that Reason and Revelation could generate the same information was only mostly true. For the most part Reason can keep up with Revelation, but not quite. For Rav Saadia Gaon, Reason falls short on two levels. Firstly, it doesn’t always get the details. Reason can tell you that stealing is wrong, but it won’t necessarily tell you that borrowing something without asking is tantamount to stealing (for example). More importantly, Reason as an abstract concept is one thing, but on a practical level Reason is something that varies from person to person, and not every person will reason out the same laws. You can’t make a law system in which each person is required to obey different laws. This problem is avoided by having one law-giver who reveals the laws to the society.

Of all the Kabbalists, Ramban is perhaps the most well known and certainly the most well read. This is due to the popularity of his commentary on the Torah. In addition to its sharp, text-oriented comments, Ramban’s commentary also features very mystically oriented comments. Some of these are famously clipped and cryptic,[2] but many go on to explain at length the mystical secrets hidden behind the surface layer of the text. These mystical understandings of the text could never be derived by Reason. As divine secrets, they have to be revealed by the Divine. Thus a revealed law is only partially reasonable; it’s also a godly mystery.

Heschel took a fairly unique approach to this issue. Taking the principle of Divine Authorship very seriously, he proposed a model of the Torah that could not possibly be written by man.

The Bible is primarily not man’s vision of God but God’s vision of man. The Bible is not man’s theology but God’s anthropology, dealing with man and what He asks of him rather than with the nature of God.[3]

Heschel suggested that the Torah contains information that Reason could not possibly conceive, because it requires the Divine perspective. This mean that even if all the information in the Torah were completely reasonable, Reason and Revelation would still not be comparable. The divine perspective means that everything in the Torah is considered to be important by ‘א. While Reason is powerful, perhaps even theoretically unlimited,[4] ‘א’s perspective is something it could never compete with.

These are just a few many resolutions that have been suggested to this problem throughout history, from within the Jewish Tradition and from without. However, the most important part of the discussion is something seen most obviously in the arguments of Heschel and Berkovits. Berkovits emphasizes the part of the “revealer” in Revelation. Heschel focuses on ‘א and His Perspective as the basis of the Torah. The basic idea behind both of these ideas is that what makes Revelation important is that it is the Revelation of ‘א. The Torah is not just a book of laws created by a divine being. It is a book created by the Creator of the World. In the Torah, the Redeemer of Israel reveals His Will. Our God, and the God of our Fathers, placed His Wisdom in a text for us to study, to immerse ourselves in, not just because of the Torah itself, but because it is a way to connect to Him. It matters that the Torah is divine because learning a Divine Torah puts us in relation to the God of Israel. We used to hear His word from the mouth of his prophets; now we hear it from the text of His Torah.

[1] A.J. Heschel, The Quest For Certainty in Saadia’s Philosophy, “Reason and Revelation”, Pg. 50

[2] Ramban’s student, Rabbeinu Bachye, also wrote a commentary on the Torah, and many of his comments explicate the secretive statements of his teacher.

[3] A.J. Heschel, Man is not Alone, 129

[4] Rav Re’em HaKohen, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Otniel, in a shiur given at Yeshivat Har Etzion.