Monday, February 25, 2008

Ki Tisa (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this portion, see the archives to this blog, below at March 2006.

Hand Washing

This week’s parasha is best known for the dramatic and richly meaningful story of the Golden Calf and the Divine anger, of Moses’ pleading on behalf of Israel, and the eventual reconciliation in the mysterious meeting of Moses with God in the Cleft of the Rock—subjects about which I’ve written at length, from various aspects, in previous years. Yet the first third of the reading (Exod 30:11-31:17) is concerned with various practical mitzvot, mostly focused on the ritual worship conducted in the Temple, which tend to be skimmed over in light of the intense interest of the Calf story. As this year we are concerned specifically with the mitzvot in each parasha, I shall focus on this section.

These include: the giving by each Israelite [male] of a half-shekel to the Temple; the making of the laver, from which the priests wash their hands and feet before engaging in Divine service; the compounding of the incense and of the anointing oil; and the Shabbat. I shall focus here upon the washing of the hands.

Hand-washing is a familiar Jewish ritual: it is, in fact, the first act performed by pious Jews upon awakening in the morning (some people even keep a cup of water next to their beds, so that they may wash their hands before taking even a single step); one performs a ritual washing of the hands before eating bread; before each of the daily prayers; etc. The section here dealing with the laver in the Temple (Exod 30:17-21) is also one of the four portions from the Torah recited by many each morning, as part of the section of the liturgy known as korbanot, chapters of Written and Oral Torah reminiscent of the ancient sacrificial system, that precede Pesukei de-Zimra.

Sefer ha-Hinukh, at §106, explains the washing of hands as an offshoot of the honor due to the Temple and its service—one of many laws intended to honor, magnify, and glorify the Temple. Even if the priest was pure and clean, he must wash (literally, “sanctify”) his hands before engaging in avodah. This simple gesture of purification served as a kind of separation between the Divine service and everyday life. It added a feeling of solemnity, of seriousness, a sense that one was engaged in something higher, in some way separate from the mundane activities of regular life. (One hand-washing by kohanim, in the morning, was sufficient, unless they left the Temple grounds or otherwise lost the continuity of their sacred activity.) Our own netilat yadaim, whether before prayer or breaking bread, may be seen as a kind of halakhic carryover from the Temple service, albeit on the level of Rabbinic injunction.

What is the symbolism of purifying one’s hands? Water, as a flowing element, as a solvent that washes away many of the things with which it comes in contact, is at once a natural symbol of both purity, and of the renewal of life. Mayim Hayyim—living waters—is an age old association. Torah is compared to water; water, constantly flowing, is constantly returning to its source. At the End of Days, “the land will be filled with knowledge of the Lord, like waters going down to the sea.” A small part of this is hinted in this simple, everyday gesture.

“See that this nation is Your people”

But I cannot pass over Ki Tisa without some comment on the incident of the Golden Calf and its ramifications. This week, reading through the words of the parasha in preparation for a shiur (what Ruth Calderon, founder of Alma, a secularist-oriented center for the study of Judaism in Tel Aviv, called “barefoot reading”—that is, naïve, without preconceptions), I discovered something utterly simple that I had never noticed before in quite the same way.

At the beginning of the Calf incident, God tells Moses, who has been up on the mountain with Him, “Go down, for your people have spoiled” (32:7). A few verses later, when God asks leave of Moses (!) to destroy them, Moses begs for mercy on behalf of the people with the words “Why should Your anger burn so fiercely against Your people…” (v. 11). That is, God calls them Moses’ people, while Moses refers to them as God’s people. Subsequent to this exchange, each of them refers to them repeatedly in the third person, as “the people” or “this people” (העם; העם הזה). Neither of them refers to them, as God did in the initial revelation to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:7 and passim) as “my people,” or with the dignified title, “the children of Israel”—as if both felt a certain alienation, of distance from this tumultuous, capricious bunch. Only towards the end, after God agrees not to destroy them, but still states “I will not go up with them,” but instead promises to send an angel, does Moses says “See, that this nation is Your people” (וראה כי עמך הגוי הזה; 33:13).

What does all this signify? Reading the peshat carefully, there is one inevitable conclusion: that God wished to nullify His covenant with the people Israel. It is in this that there lies the true gravity, and uniqueness, of the Golden Calf incident. We are not speaking here, as we read elsewhere in the Bible—for example, in the two great Imprecations (tokhahot) in Lev 26 and Deut 28, or in the words of the prophets during the First Temple—merely of threats of punishment, however harsh, such as drought, famine, pestilence, enemy attacks, or even exile and slavery. There, the implicit message is that, after a period of punishment, a kind of moral purgation through suffering, things will be restored as they were. Here, the very covenant itself, the very existence of an intimate connection with God, hangs in the balance. God tells Moses, “I shall make of you a people,” i.e., instead of them.

This, it seems to me, is the point of the second phase of this story. Moses breaks the tablets; he and his fellow Levites go through the camp killing all those most directly implicated in worshipping the Calf; God recants and agrees not to destroy the people. However, “My angel will go before them” but “I will not go up in your midst” (33:2, 3). This should have been of some comfort; yet this tiding is called “this bad thing,” the people mourn, and remove the ornaments they had been wearing until then. Evidently, they understood the absence of God’s presence or “face” as a grave step; His being with them was everything. That is the true importance of the Sanctuary in the desert and the Tent of Meeting, where Moses speaks with God in the pillar of cloud (33:10). God was present with them there in a tangible way, in a certain way continuing the epiphany at Sinai. All that was threatened by this new declaration.

Moses second round of appeals to God, in Exod 33:12-23, focuses on bringing God, as it were, to a full reconciliation with the people. This is the significance of the Thirteen Qualities of Mercy, of what I have called the Covenant in the Cleft of the Rock, the “faith of Yom Kippur” as opposed to that of Shavuot (see HY I: Ki Tisa; and note Prof. Jacob Milgrom’s observation that this chapter stands in the exact center, in a literary sense, of the unit known as the Hextateuch—Torah plus the Book of Joshua).

But I would add two important points. One, that this is the first place in the Torah where we read about sin followed by reconciliation. After Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Garden, they were punished without hope of reprieve; indeed, their “punishment “ reads very much like a description of some basic aspects of the human condition itself. Cain, after murdering Abel, was banished, made to wander the face of the earth. The sin of the brothers in selling Joseph, and their own sense of guilt, is a central factor in their family dynamic from then on, but there is nary a word of God’s response or intervention. It would appear that God’s initial expectation in the covenant at Sinai was one of total loyalty and fidelity. The act of idolatry was an unforgivable breach of the covenant—much as adultery is generally perceived as a fundamental violation of the marital bond.

Moses, in persuading God to recant of His jealousy and anger, to give the faithless people another chance, is thus introducing a new concept: of a covenant that includes the possibility of even the most serious transgressions being forgiven; of the knowledge that human beings are fallible, and that teshuvah and forgiveness are essential components of any economy of men living before a demanding God.

The second, truly astonishing point is the role played by Moses in all this. Moshe Rabbenu, “the man of God,” is not only the great teacher of Israel, the channel through which they learn the Divine Torah, but also, as it were, one who teaches God Himself. It is God who “reveals His Qualities of Mercy” at the Cleft of the Rock; but without Moses cajoling, arguing, persuading (and note the numerous midrashim around this theme), “were it not for my servant Moses who stood in the breach,” all this would not have happened. It was Moses who elicited this response and who, so to speak, pushed God Himself to this new stage in his relation with Israel—to give up His expectations of perfection from His covenanted people, and to understand that living within a covenant means, not rigid adherence to a set of laws, but a living relationship with real people, taking the bad with the good. (Again, the parallel to human relationships is obvious)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tetzaveh (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this portion, see the archives to this blog below, at March 2006.

“Holy Garments… for Glory and for Beauty”

The central theme of Parshat Tetzaveh, and the predominant mitzvah therein, concerns the making of the ceremonial garments worn by the kohanim during service in the Sanctuary/ Temple— the white linen garments (tunic, trousers, belt and hat) worn by the ordinary priest, and the elaborate set of eight “golden” garments worn by the high priest, with interwoven threads of gold, purple, scarlet, and azure, upon which there rested the breastplate with twelve precious stones bearing the names of the tribes of Israel.

We again ask the perennial question: what ideas or principles are inherent in these mitzvot that have bearing for ourselves—priests, Levites and Israelites, men and women alike, living in a world without a Temple? I find two central themes intertwined here.

The one is the idea of hiddur mitzvah. The priestly garments were made le-khavod ule-tifaret, for glory and for beauty (Exod 28:2), the idea being that, by glorifying the Divine service, we really glorify God. From this we may extrapolate the broader idea that mitzvot in general ought to be performed, not in a perfunctory or haphazard way, but in a manner that displays our deep reverence and love of God. This requires, perhaps first of all, heartfelt devotion, inner intention and feeling; but it also requires that their external performance be in a dignified and aesthetic manner, that honors the Divine worship.

The objects used in performing various mitzvot should be as beautiful as possible. This applies, not only to the actual mitzvah-objects themselves—i.e., the parchment used in the Torah scroll, tefillin and mezuzah; the quality of the writing thereon; the compartments and straps of the tefillin; the fringes of the tallit—but also of the objects surrounding them. Thus, on Shabbat one endeavors to make Kiddush in a special ornamental goblet, to cover the halot with a decorative cloth, to use a special spice box at Havdalah; the various artifacts in the synagogue—the ark and its curtain, the garments and “crown” of the Torah scrolls—are typically decorated; the Seder plate, Hanukkah menorah, books such as the Haggadah, and so on, are often objects of beauty. Indeed, throughout the centuries Jews have lavished attention and artistic devotion upon these objects—each period according to its own aesthetic and its own plastic culture. Interestingly, the one mitzvah-object of which beauty is an inherent component, some would even say part of its halakhic definition, is one which is a purely natural object—namely, the etrog, whose very name in the biblical verse, peri etz hadar, means “a beauteous fruit,” and the other branches used on Sukkot.

A second idea implicit in this parasha is the importance of clothing. Like the priests of old, we honor the act of Divine worship by dressing in a special way. There are, of course, the special mitzvah-garments of prayer: the tallit and tefillin. While there are a slew of specific rationales and associations associated with these mitzvot, the donning of these garments during prayer enhances the sense of awe and dignity attached to the hour of prayer. It is this aspect, so it seems to me, that has led so many religious feminists to find the wearing of a tallit by women to be so important.

Beyond that, we honor the Shabbat and festive days by wearing clean, attractive clothing—be it the shtreimel and brocade robe of the hasid, the suit and tie of the bourgeois American, the white shirt and dark trousers of a certain type of Israeli dati, or the multi-colored tunic of the hippie or New Ager. Even for ordinary, everyday prayer there is a certain minimum requirement that one be dressed decently, even when praying in the privacy of one’s own home.

But there is a bigger question: why wear clothes at all (a question best considered in summer, not while anticipating another wave of severe cold)? Why not be nudists? It is asserted that, in communities where everyone walks around naked, the uncovered human body ceases to be particularly erotic (like Adam and Eve in the Garden?)—and I’m inclined to concede the point. Indeed, one could argue that it is precisely the partial covering, the hide-and-seek of seeing and not seeing, that makes the body such an object of fascination. Though a small, some would say an almost cult-like group, the ideas of nudism are characteristic of certain trends in modernity (the movement as such seems to have originated sometime around the turn of the 20th century) carried to their logical conclusion. As such, they are at very least worthy of consideration and response.

Nudists—or “naturists,” as they prefer to be called—believe in living in a manner most in accordance with nature: just as animals wear no clothes, so oughtn’t man. For many, this is coupled with vegetarianism, with eschewing tobacco, alcohol, and with avoiding various other civilized vices. It is a kind of romantic return to an age of innocence, a kind of celebration of Rousseau’s “noble savage.” The answer to this claim is that, at least in the Judaic purview, man is not a merely natural creature, but transcends the state of nature. Call it intelligence, call it reason, call it culture or civilization, call it the Divine spark within or the soul: the human being is a hybrid, a mélange of natural-biological aspects and spiritual ones, that transcend them. He/She is from nature, but not of it. The use of clothing to cover the purely natural is a nearly universal sign of this insight; it is a symbol of human dignity, in everyday life as in solemn ceremony. (Jains and certain itinerant monastic groups in India walk around naked as the sign of a special religious calling. But this seems rooted in their despair of sanctifying human life as such, in a rejection of the world, an utter indifference to life itself as a sphere of meaning—almost as if they were already a kind of walking dead.)


VII. The Uniqueness of Moses. “None has risen up in Israel like Moses, a prophet, and one who saw His image”

Having just written (in HY IX: Terumah, Postscript to Mishpatim) about the complexity and multi-faceted nature of the Sinai revelation, as well as the central role played therein by Moshe Rabbenu (whose birthday and deathday, the 7th of Adar, fell this past week), not much remains to be said about this principle. It is nevertheless worth noting that Rambam saw this as a central linchpin in the whole system of the Principles: he devoted more space to it than to any of the other twelve in Perek Helek; it is positioned in the numerical center of the thirteen; and its number, seven, filled with mystical resonance, is surely not accidental.

To briefly restate his view: Rambam understood the actual revelation at Sinai as being extremely limited in contents. The 600,000 people comprehended the Divine appearance in only the most general way: they understood that God was real, and that He was their Ruler; the awesome nature of the epiphany also conveyed to them the dire consequences of being unfaithful to Him—i.e., the proscription against idolatry. But the main aim of Ma’amad Har Sinai was to establish Moses’ authority as teacher and prophet, and to make it clear to the people that all the mitzvot which they would subsequently be taught by him came were from the Almighty. (I wrote about this at length during the first year of Hitzei Yehonatan in HY I: Shavuot = blog: Shavuot: Essays).

But the predominant image in Rambam’s presentation (repeated with slight variation in three places: here; in Yesodei ha-Torah 7.12-13 and Ch. 8; and in Guide II.33) is that of Moses at the top of the mountain for forty days, detached from material needs, like a talmid sitting before his rebbe. A Beit Midrash of one, with the brightest possible student, who absorbed quickly, and received an accelerated course—the entire Torah in forty days. Maimonides also stresses the unique characteristics of Moses’ prophecy: that he received prophecy while awake, and not in a dream state; saw things clearly, and not through parables or symbols; that he did not tremble or faint when receiving the prophetic vision, but was calm and normal, like one conversing with a friend; and that he could approach God whenever he wished. One could say that Moses existed in almost a kind of limbo between the human and the Divine: he was a mortal human, to be sure, but no ordinary man; serving as intermediary between Man and God, when necessary he pled Israel’s cause before God, but he was also God’s partner, so to speak, in raising and educating this difficult, stiff-necked people, and seemed to share His complaints.

Why was this principle so important to the Rambam? In part, perhaps, because Rambam was an elitist: but also, because he understood that communication with the Divine is no simple matter, but requires tremendous preparation, cultivation of qualities that are far outside the ken of ordinary human life. Also, there are hint here and there that Rambam deeply identified with Moshe. Yisrael Yuval recently wrote a paper about Rambam’s close relation to Moses (“Moses Redivivus,” Zion 72 [2007], 161-188): how he saw himself in a Mosaic image, as a prophet or messianic precursor. Interestingly, even on the personal level there was an identification: until Maimonides’ day the name Moses was hardly ever used, but from then on, it became far more common.

VIII. Sinaitic Revelation. “God gave the True Torah to his people by the hand of his prophet, the faithful one in His house”

To reiterate what I said last time in my introduction to the four principles related to Revelation: here Rambam appears far more as a traditional Jewish teacher and far less the philosopher. The whole concept of revelation, of breaking through the barriers behind the Infinite and the Finite, between God and man, runs again the orderly, hierarchical world of Aristotelian philosophy—but for a Jew, Sinai and Matan Torah are indispensable fundaments.

Modernist theologians find this perhaps the hardest egg to crack. Many modern thinkers have been influenced by the historical approach, which sees the Torah as a composite document, evolving over time and not given all of a piece at one time, certainly not as early as ca. 1300 BCE. But beyond that lies another problem, one perhaps more serious because it is rooted in the very heart of the modern temperament—namely, the resistance to heteronomy. If Sinai is true, then there are stringent limits on human autonomy—and our feeling of moral autonomy is very important to us.

On the other hand, some basic framework of mitzvot and halakhah is an indispensable given of Jewish tradition, needed for any form of Judaism. Thus, modern Jewish thought is filled with a variety of rationales intended to justify the mitzvot in a new context—sociological, ethical, psychological, folkloristic, survivalist, eudemonic—yet one is left with the impression that much of it is post factum.

Another, far more serious, and to my mind far more valid problem concerns those mitzvot that are either morally problematic or else seemingly meaningless and irrelevant. There are two approaches, not necessarily mutually exclusive: one, apologetics, seeking deeper, hidden meaning in the mitzvah, thereby justifying them; second, reinterpretation or edicts of various sorts. Things that were really intolerable to Hazal were interpreted out of existence. Thus, regarding the putting to death of the rebellious son (ben sorer umoreh) or the destruction of the wayward city (‘ir hanidahat), they used midrashic analysis to infer so many barriers to its actual practice that they could say “Such a thing never exists; but one receives a reward in studying it for its own sake.” Similarly, Hillel introduced the prosbul when the Torah’s elevated idea of canceling debts on the seventh year ended up depriving the poor of any credit. In practice, the Torah functions as a kind of mélange of the written word and the Oral Law, which includes an active role for human interpretation.

The problem is that in the modern age, defenders of the Orthodox faith tend to be excessively rigid in their approach to halakhah, invoking the argument of the “slippery slope” (that any leniency will end up as “Reform”), and ostracizing any figures—even learned, pious, respected rabbis who can make a cogent case—who have the courage to buck the tide.

This is perhaps an appropriate place to mention a recent book by Marc Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised. In this book he notes that the Principles were far from being a universally accepted catechism of Judaism and that, throughout the history of Jewish thought, almost every point of the thirteen was contested from one quarter or another.

IX. The Unchanging Torah. “God shall not change, nor substitute another for His Torah, forever”

Why did Maimonides state this as a separate principle? It somehow seems less central than the idea of revelation or prophecy per se, or even that of Moses’ uniqueness. My sense is that he had a clear polemic purpose. In addition, he indirectly alludes here to the subject of Oral Torah, which he saw as an inseparable part of the Torah generally.

To my mind, there were three separate polemic targets to Rambam’s statement that the Torah will never be altered or replaced by another. The first was Christianity, who claimed that God had made a new covenant, superceding the old covenant with Israel, and nullifying the old Law—i.e., the Torah. Secondly, Islam. Maimonides had little reason to quarrel with Islam on theological grounds as such; like Judaism (and unlike Christianity), it believed in the strict unity and incorporeality of God. But Muhammed claimed to have received the Quran in a new revelation, as well as teaching new laws—and it was on that point that his split from Judaism was clear.

But I suspect that the real target here was Karaism. The Karaites saw themselves as loyal Jews, following the Torah of Moses, but they rejected the Oral Law as so much accretion upon the Written Law. Several of Rambam’s more outspoken halakhic broadsides in the Yad—for example, regarding the Shabbat laws or certain aspects of Niddah, the laws of menstruant women—were directed against the literalism and rejection of Rabbinic halakhah of the Karaites (see, e.g., Issurei Biah 11.15; but see also Mamrim 3.3, where he exonerates those raised in Karaism from direct culpability for their actions). Thus, in he full wording of this principle, in Perek Helek, he states that God “will not change the Torah or its interpretation (my emphasis)” and then adds that: ”I have already discussed this matter in the introduction to this work” (i.e, in Hakdamah le-Seder Zeraim), which is devoted almost entirely to the Oral Law.

Where does that leave the idea of ongoing revelation? Judaism clearly allows room for halakhic creativity, for the ongoing flow of religious insight, for commentary that serves as interpretatio (see my forthcoming essay on Rawidowicz for the dynamic interpretation of this concept)—but all is somehow rooted in the original Sinaitic revelation (Scholem talks in one place about the paradox of belief in Torah from Heaven actually allowing great freedom to say almost anything). But this is a vast subject, which we will treat on another occasion.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Mishpatim (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog below, at February 2006.

“These are the laws that you shall place before them…”

Many years ago, when I still lived in the United States, I would occasionally daven on Shabbat morning at the Havurat Shalom in Boston—the very first of the havurot, an informal community of religious seekers—where the custom was to have a “Quaker meeting style” Torah reading, in which the actual reading was followed with an open discussion on whatever people wanted to say on the parasha. On several such occasions on Shabbat Mishpatim, I remember members of the group saying something like: “What a disappointment, what a ‘downer’ that must have been! After the mystical ecstasy and vision of the ineffable at Sinai, they woke up the next morning to hear some dusty old man mumbling, ‘These are the laws you must do.’”

Leaving aside the 1960’s idiom, the question itself is a significant one: What is the role, in a religion of a transcendent, mysterious, unknowable deity, of civil law? And why does it have such a central place? For such is the subject matter of Mishpatim: the majority of the 53 mitzvot in this portion (second in number only to Ki Teitsei) deal with mundane, down-to-earth matters: property damage, responsibility of bailees (those charged with safeguarding another’s property), monetary fines for stealing livestock or for seducing a virgin, how to treat surety on loans, etc.

On a certain level, the issue raised here has to do with the tension—very much present today in the Jewish world—between “spirituality” and halakhah. We live in an age of intense interest among certain circles in Kabbalah, in meditative prayer, in Hasidism, in various kinds of esoteric teachings—at times to the exclusion of the more mundane, down-to-earth, “humdrum” aspects of Judaism.

An interesting passage in the Talmud (Sukkah 28a) celebrating the encyclopedic breadth of knowledge of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai concludes by stating that he had mastered “a great thing and a small thing. ‘A great thing’ refers to Ma’aseh Merkavah [teachings related to the Divine Chariot]. ‘A small thing’ refers to the premises of Abbaye and Ravvah.” Rambam, in discussing this passage (Hil. Yesodei ha-Torah 4.12), asks the obvious question: Why, if halakhah is so central to the Jewish religious enterprise, is it called “a small thing”? And if so, why does it nevertheless take precedence over learning the secrets of the universe, of metaphysics or Divine science?

He suggests three answers to this question. First, that they “settle” a person’s mind (i.e., their study sharpens and trains the intellect); second, that they contribute to the welfare of society (he calls it “the great good which the Holy One has infused down so as to settle the world); and third, that it is accessible to all, and not only to those of great intellectual capacity. He adds that, even though the various branches of esoteric wisdom are the deepest subjects a person can study, “a person should not engage in them until he has filled his belly with meat and bread—that is, to study what is permitted and forbidden” (or, in our idiom, Shas and poskim). This last sentence is one of the sources of the idea that one should not study Kabbalah until one has gained a certain maturity (some say, age 40).

To elaborate upon Rambam’s second point: the central goal of the entire Torah is the creation of a good, just society based upon principles of goodness, justice, and righteousness; the sanctification of human life, on both the individual and the collective level. Hence, the laws of Mishpatim, which teach how to do so (along with their enlargement and elaboration in the Oral Torah, in the three tractates beginning iwth the word “Bava” and elsewhere) are the logical sequel to the Sinai epiphany: they serve as a spelling out in detail of the great, overarching principles of the Ten Commandments, in terms of everyday human life. (This idea is also one of the central themes of Rav Soloveitchik’s masterful essay, Halakhic Man).

This idea was expressed in characteristically pungent fashion by the Rebbe of Kotzk in connection with a verse in this week’s parasha: “And you shall be holy people” ואנשי קדש תהיון לי (Exod 22:30)—the holiness for which one strives should be menshliche heiligkeit, “a human sort of holiness.” That is, one ought not to seek holiness that is an escape from the human condition, through fasting, celibacy, withdrawal from society, or various physical afflictions. Rather, holiness must be a natural part of the entire nexus of relationships and involvements with one’s fellow man that are part and parcel of being human.

The goal declared at the end of the Alenu prayer— לתקן עולם במלכות שדי, “to perfect the world under the kingship of the Almighty”—means just this; not some heavenly, other-worldly kingdom, not the return to some mythical golden age, but simply: the creation of a decent, orderly society, based upon a code of mutual responsibility, and balancing the conflicting needs and interests of different individuals and groups in a manner that embodies Tzedek, a God-motivated sense of fairness and justice.

Returning to the specifics of our parasha: as it is impossible to treat all 63 mitzvot in one or two pages, I will focus upon the opening verse, that is in some sense emblematic of them all: the creation of courts, of a system of judges and magistrates that provide a focus for the rule of law, of objective and just standards that govern society. Many of these laws deal specifically with private property, such as responsibility for damages and losses of various sorts as expressed in monetary terms.

As it is nearly Shabbat I cannot elaborate upon this point, but it seems clear that the concept of property, of theft (גזל, גזילה, חמס) as an almost archetypal form of crime (note the description of the sin of the generation of the Flood in Gen 6:11, 13), are basic concepts of the Torah. Attempts at creating utopian, property-less societies have by and large been less than successful, whether because of the tyranny necessary to sustain them on a large scale, as in the Soviet Union; through gradual privatization, as in Israel’s kibbutz movement; or through collapse from within, as in the short-lived hippie communes of the 1960’s. This does not mean that the Torah champions capitalism as we know it today as the ideal system: far from it! (See the laws in Leviticus 25, which we will discuss come Parshat Behar, which mitigate towards equal distribution of property.) However, it recognizes the need for an orderly and recognized respect for property as part of the proper governance of any society.


V. “Behold the Master of the World; every creature declares His greatness and His sovereignty”

The Fifth Principle states that one should worship God alone. At first blush, this seems a restatement of the prohibition of idolatry, which we have already discussed in the body of this week’s study. When I first started this project, I wondered why Rambam felt it necessary to state this as a separate principle. Is it not implied, on the hand, by the Second Principle, that of God’s unity, which implies the rejection of multiple divinities; and, on the other hand, by the Eighth Principle, the Divine nature of Torah, which ipso facto implies the obligation to fulfill all the mitzvot, including the prohibition of idolatry (which, not surprisingly, is regarded by Rambam as the very first of the negative commandments)?

But on further reflection, it would seem that Rambam’s main concern here is to exclude, not only the worship of “other” or “alien” gods, as in the basic formulation of idolatry, but also to preclude obeisance to intermediaries, of secondary divinities or demigods, or of beings or objects that one knows to be secondary to Him—the sun, moon, stars, constellations, or anything else honored as an indirect way of honoring God.

For example: Hinduism is known for having a veritable riot of gods in their pantheon, but more sophisticated believers, steeped in the more philosophical Upanishads, know that all these are ultimately manifestations of the one supreme god, Krishna. This, too, is prohibited by the Judaic conception. When my oldest daughter returned from her six-month journey to India, she told me of a conversation she had with a teacher in a village somewhere near the Punjab, who articulated the above idea, to which she retorted that, like all Jews, she was taught the basic concept of unity at an early age (and, in fact, she began reciting the Shema before she could even read).

This principle also carries a polemical thrust against other forms of shittuf, of worship of other entities together with the true god: for example, the trinitarian theology of Christianity, which holds that God is both three and one, and that how this is logically possible is somehow a mystery; or various forms of Gnosticism or Dualism, which see this world as the field for a battle between the competing forces of good and evil, of God and the Devil (a view implicit, interestingly, in many of the writings of the recently deceased American-Jewish writer Norman Mailer).

This principle also implies the positive idea that one should and indeed must serve God—that is, it is not enough to eschew idols and believe passively in the Creator, something like the “watchmaker” concept of God embraced by the Deists (first formulated by Descartes, and held inter alia by many key figures of the American Revolution, such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine), but that one must actively engage in His service. (I have discussed the importance of Divine service, avodah, in Rambam’s overall world-view in my essay on Sefer ha-Mitzvot [HY V: Behar-Behukotai (=Rambam)], in which I noted the centrality of Avodah as an organizing principle in his list of the 613 mitzvot, specifically in the positive mitzvot.)

VI. “The abundance of His prophecy, God gave to His chosen people, the people of His glory.”

At this point we turn to the second group of mitzvot, those related to prophecy and revelation—a group which, even if by now somewhat belatedly, I felt it appropriate to bring in tandem with the account of Ma’amad Har Sinai in Parshat Yitro. If, in the first five principles, relating to the nature of God, we see Maimonides the philosopher, and neo-Aristotelianism ideas and formulations are never too far away, here (and in the final group, dealing with God’s Providence and His involvement in human history) we encounter Rambam the Jew, the traditional teacher of Torah to his faith community.

The Sixth Principle, then, is the belief in prophecy. This is a necessary, logical predicate to the Revelation of the Torah. The giving of the Torah through Moses, though a unique and foundational event, is the supreme exemplification of the more general principle of prophecy. This is seen clearly in the order Rambam chooses: prophecy in general; belief in the prophecy of Moshe Rabbenu, who differed from all other prophets in major respects; belief in the Torah; and, finally, its unchangeable nature.

This group of principles raises far more problems for modernist thinkers than do those of the first group. While atheism and agnosticism are of course options in modern thought (in a way that Rambam, like other ancient and medieval thinkers, could not have imagined), once one accepts belief in God, His unity, incorporeality, and eternity are more-or-less self-evident. The first five principles allow room for a Deist, ”Watchmaker” conception of a God who created the world, but since then has been uninvolved in the world and in life as we know it. But revelation is a different matter.

Thus, Neil Gillman, leading theologian of the Conservative movement, in his Sacred Fragments, raises the problem that the ideas of prophecy and revelation are problematic if not scandalous to many modern people—not only because of biblical criticism, which raises questions about the integrity, Mosaic antiquity, and unity of the biblical text; but more importantly, because they violate our sense of the universe as being governed by iron-clad laws of nature. How can God, who must be incorporeal, Who transcends the physical universe, speak—meaning, cause he vibration of air waves at certain frequency—if He has no body and thus no mouth! (Thus goes the argument) And indeed, these four principles imply, indeed, presuppose that the partition separating the Divine realm from the human realm is permeable. (This is expressed poetically in Habad teachings on the Exodus and the Revelation: whereas the realms of the Divine and the human are usually connected through a long chain of cause and effect, here there is an immediate, direct breakthrough of the veil.)

It must be stressed again that there are also dogmatic elements in Rambam. Indeed, Rambam is filled with internal tensions: between his philosophy and his passionate feeling as a religious person. (see, e.g., Hilkhot Teshuvah 10. The problem of whom Rambam “really” was—philosopher or religious leader—is perhaps best discussed, and in a very readable way, in David Hartman’s Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest [JPS, 1976].) His belief in Sinai is perhaps the strongest dogmatic or “a-rational,” non-philosophical element in his system.

Rambam’s conception of prophecy involves a certain combination of the human or natural, and the super-natural: That is, the prophet is a person who has reached a high level through long, arduous work on his intellectual, ethical, and spiritual qualities, preparing his own intellect for contact with “the Active Intellect.” It is only following this natural process of preparation that prophecy rests upon him, as a kind of Divine gift—and mission (see the full presentation of the Principles in his Introduction to Perek Helek, and in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, Ch. 7).

As for Gillman’s objection that prophecy and/or revelation violate the order of nature, one can only respond through the language of faith. We do not understand these events, how they occurred and what happened. The Zohar and the midrashim try to capture it, but they can only do so through the use of images, suggestive of the ineffable nature of the Sinai event: “and all the people saw the voices…” The same holds true for Elisha seeing Elijah ascend heavenwards in a chariot of fire, or Manoah and his wife seeing the angel ascending in the fire of their own homely altar —and realizing that he was not an ordinary human being. But what it means, and what “really” happened, are beyond our comprehension.