Shiur: Tammuz 2019 – Do You Lie About God? The Meaning of Faith and Torah in a Time of Destruction

 

Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 69b:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why are the Sages of those generations called the members of the Great Assembly? It is because they returned the crown of the Holy One, Blessed be He, to its former glory. How so? Moses came and said in his prayer: “The great, the mighty, and the awesome God” (Deuteronomy 10:17). Jeremiah the prophet came and said: Gentiles, i.e., the minions of Nebuchadnezzar, are carousing in His sanctuary; where is His awesomeness? Therefore, he did not say awesome in his prayer: “The great God, the mighty Lord of Hosts, is His name” (Jeremiah 32:18). Daniel came and said: Gentiles are enslaving His children; where is His might? Therefore he did not say mighty in his prayer: “The great and awesome God” (Daniel 9:4).

The members of the Great Assembly came and said: On the contrary, this is the might of His might, i.e., this is the fullest expression of it, that He conquers His inclination in that He exercises patience toward the wicked. And these acts also express His awesomeness: Were it not for the awesomeness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, how could one people, i.e., the Jewish people, who are alone and hated by the gentile nations, survive among the nations?

The Gemara asks: And the Rabbis, i.e., Jeremiah and Daniel, how could they do this and uproot an ordinance instituted by Moses, the greatest teacher, who instituted the mention of these attributes in prayer? Rabbi Elazar said: They did so because they knew of the Holy One Blessed be He, that He is truthful. Consequently, they did not speak falsely about Him.

 

Additional sources:

Devarim 8:7-10

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you.

 

Franz Rosenzweig, “The New Thinking,” 131 – What makes The Star Jewish?

I have received the new thinking in these old words so, in them, have I given it back and passed it on. For a Christian, as I know, words of the New Testament would have come to his lips in­stead of my words, [while] for a pagan, I think, not words from his sa­cred books [would have come to his lips]—for their ascent leads away from the original language of mankind, not to it, like the earthly path of revelation—but perhaps [words] wholly his own. But to me, these [came]. And yet this is, to be sure, a Jewish book: not one that deals with “Jewish things,” for then the books of the Protestant Old Testament scholar would be Jewish books; but rather one for which, to say what it has to say, especially the new thing it has to say, the old Jewish words come. Like things in general, Jewish things have always passed away; yet Jewish words, even when old, share the eternal youth of the word, and if the world is opened up to them, they will renew the world.

 

Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metsia 59b

And this is known as the oven of akhnai. The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of akhnai, a snake, in this context? Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: It is characterized in that manner due to the fact that the Rabbis surrounded it with their statements like this snake, which often forms a coil when at rest, and deemed it impure. The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him.

After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?

Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.

 

Exodus 23:2

You shall neither side with the majority to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the majority.

לֹֽא־תִהְיֶ֥ה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּ֖ים לְרָעֹ֑ת וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶ֣ה עַל־רִ֗ב לִנְטֹ֛ת אַחֲרֵ֥י רַבִּ֖ים לְהַטֹּֽת.

 

Avot 4:1

Who is mighty? He who subdues his [evil] inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city” (Proverbs 16:3).

 

 

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On Proving the Divinity of the Torah

On Proving the Divinity of the Torah

When it comes to the divinity of the Torah, the first question we must ask is not whether or not the Torah is divine, but how we could know that the Torah is divine. Assuming it is true, how would such information come to us. Ironically, the most direct source of this knowledge is seemingly indirect; the divinity of the Torah is due to the divinity of its author, and thus to prove that the Torah is divine what we really have to prove is that it was revealed by the divine. Once that were proven, we could know from there that the Torah is divine.

At this point, it’s necessary to talk about the different types of truths that exist, and how we can know them. There are three different types of truths, and each can be known in different ways. Rational truths, such as math and logic, are known through the intellect. Let a person sit and think in a vacuum and he will uncover these truths. Empirical truths, such as physics and astronomy, are known through examining the world around us. Let a person study the fields ands the forests and he will uncover these truths. Historical truths regard the occurrence and qualities of historical phenomena (ex: The torah was or was not given, and it’s giver was or was not divine, etc.). Historical truths must be known through witness, either by witnessing it first hand or by hearing it from those who did. Otherwise, you would have no way of knowing that it occurred. However, as you get farther away from the phenomenon, either spatially or temporally, you begin to need a chain of witnesses, meaning a tradition. Thus there are certain phenomena which certain people could only know through tradition.

The divine giving of the Torah is like that for people today. The only way we could know it is through tradition. Anyone who believes that the Torah is divine came to that knowledge through hearing of it from a trustworthy source, who themselves presumably heard it from a trustworthy source. This does not mean that we have a tradition through which we could know definitively that the Torah was divinely revealed, or that there could be such a tradition, but it does mean we shouldn’t expect to prove it some other way.

The above division of types of truths and the way they can be known, which we have made use of up to this point, is slightly misleading. While it is true in the strictest sense, it ignores the way we corroborate different pieces of information with information derived from other methods. The most common proofs for the divinity of the Torah all fall under this category. The proofs can’t directly arrive at the knowledge that the Torah is divine, but they can strengthen the tradition-based claim.

There is, however, a distinct problem with this type of proof in this case. Such a proof requires knowing the characteristics of a divine text, such that if a text possessed those characteristics it is divine, and if it did not possess those characteristics than it is not divine. You could thus examine any text to see whether or not it has those characteristics and thereby determine if it is divine. Seeing as we do not possess a text which is incontestably divine, we have no way of determining what those characteristics might be, and we therefore have no way of proving that the Torah is divine. However, the flipside is that there is no way to prove that the Torah is not divine.

To illustrate this, it’s worth looking at a few examples. First, the approaches from history. People have suggested that the Torah is divine because it (whether superficially or through “codes”) successfully predicts historical events. People have also suggested that the Torah is not divine because it inaccurately describes historical events. The first approach is based on the the assumption that a divine text ought to correctly predict future events. The second is based on the assumption that a divine text ought to accurately and scientifically describe historical events. Neither of these assumptions is really based on anything, however, and so whether or not the proofs function is dependent entirely upon a personal choice regarding those assumptions.

Similarly, the divinity of the Torah is often disproved by showing that the Torah resembles documents with human authors. However, this is based upon the assumption that a divine text will not resemble a human text. Not only is this a baseless assumption, it is rejected by the midrashic hermeneutic concept that “the Torah speaks in the human language.” As this statement is adapted and developed by Maimonides, it becomes clear that the above assumption is particularly problematic, as a text that in no way resembles its audience will be incomprehensible to them, and thus a divine text intended for a human audience will be a very human text indeed.

This approach can be extended to pretty much every assumption people make about the Torah. The unfortunate side effect is that it empties the phrase “divine text” of all content. It makes no prescriptive claims about what a divine text would look like. “Divine text” becomes a label we simply apply to certain texts. This often feels less inspiring, but I do think it is more correct.[1]

In summary, the idea that the Torah is divine is not something that could be learned from logic, or from examining the world, or from reading the text itself. That knowledge must come to us through tradition. We can then strengthen the certainty of that knowledge through other proofs, but those will all be based on our own rather baseless assumptions about what a divine text should look like. However, this becomes less helpful when we begin to doubt tradition. Whereas medieval Jewish thinkers, such as Saadiah Gaon and Rav Yehuda HaLevi, took it for granted that knowledge derived from a tradition is trustworthy, this assumption fails to be compelling in the modern world. We don’t assume that information derived from a tradition is automatically false, but we don’t assume that it is necessarily true either.

The flip-side of all of this, however, is that it is equally impossible to prove that the Torah is not divine. The divinity of the torah exists in conceptual space beyond the reach of proofs or disproofs. Belief in the divinity of the Torah is thus an act of assent that involves a variety of factors, such as personal experience, identity, existential commitment, and a person’s understanding of tradition. It is something we ought to struggle with not just once over the course of our lives, as it is not something that can be settled definitively. But it is something that should have a radical and formative impact on our lives.

[1] Some important caveats to the idea that there is no content to the term “divine text”:
An exception to this might be morality. Seeing as we generally define God as perfectly moral, we would expect anything that issued from God, such as a divine text, to be perfectly moral, or at the very least not to prescribe things we think of as immoral. As opposed to other similar possibilities, Morality tends to override any relativist position.
The answer given to this is generally that the Torah was written in a certain historical context, and that this imposed certain limitations on the text. The text couldn’t be perfectly moral because the people of the time could not have accepted it. Whether or not this answer is compelling is a different question, but it works from a logical standpoint.
This flows directly from the idea mentioned above that “the Torah speaks in human language.” The Torah is now being said to be a divine text with very human limitations. Thus any analysis of it that reveals human characteristics, including undeveloped morality, is to some degree unsurprising.

Another caveat is that traditionally we assume a divine text will have a single author though this isn’t technically necessary. Thus a text that could somehow be shown to be composed of multiple parts, that should clearly be attributed to disparate times and places, this would prove that there were multiple authors and that the traditional divine authorship is incorrect. I am not at all confident that such attribution could be proved, but if it could then it would successfully challenge divine authorship. However, it’s also possible to suggest, less traditionally, that a divine author would make use of previously existing texts, combining them and perhaps adding to them to create the text we call divine, and this would solve this challenge to divine authorship.

“Baruch Dayan HaEmet”

“Baruch Dayan HaEmet.”

 

“Blessed is the True Judge.” “Blessed is the Judge of Truth.” “Blessed is the Judge [whose judgements are] True.”

 

This is a phrase we use to express sorrow and compassion at the loss of a human being. It means that on some level, we know there is a judge, and all is not chaos and randomness, even while we mourn. However, that’s not all it means. “Emet” is not a simple idea.

 

“Rabbi Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create man, the ministering angels were divided into camps and factions. Some said, “Let Him create man;” others said, “Let Him not create man.” This corresponds to the verse: “Kindness and truth met; justice and peace came together” (Tehillim 85:11): Kindness said: “Let God create man, for he will perform acts of kindness.” Truth said, “Let Him not create man, for he will be full of deceit.” Justice said, “Let Him create man, for he will perform righteousness;” peace said, “Let Him not create him, for he will be full of divisiveness. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He took truth, and cast it to the ground, as it says, “Truth will sprout from the earth.” (Bereishit Rabbah 8:1)

 

Emet, with a capital “T”, transcends human existence, and the two are not compatible. When we say, “Baruch Dayan HaEmet,” we are stating that what has occurred is not something that makes sense according to the logic of our existence. Something has happened we feel is not explainable, justifiable. We are not saying that it is ok because there is a plan, even if it beyond us. We are saying that we rage and we cry because we do not understand, because something has happened that it would be immoral to simply comprehend.

 

And finally, we are saying that when we cry and rage, when we mourn and fall apart, our voices do not simply echo into the void. There is a Judge who listens.