Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shabbat Kallah - Shavuot (Special Essay)

For more teachings on Shavuot, see the archives to my blog, at May 2006.



The following, presented in honor of Shavuot, is the second half of my major essay about Torah mi-Sinai began last year. By this, I am continuing my resolve to bring to fruition the many nearly-completed essays that have been germinating on my hard disk for far too long.


Last year, (HY IX: Shavuot; or see my blog archives at June 2008), I began to discuss the problems posed to traditional Jewish faith by modern Bible criticism and its implications for the historicity of the Sinai Revelation, the founding event of Judaism, and my feeling that even the best efforts of the “defenders of the faith” were somehow seemed artificial and unconvincing. My central question was this: Is it possible to accept the Torah as Divine, and the halakhic structure as binding, in the broad sense, without the fundamentalism of a literal reading of Torah mi-Sinai? Can one accept the historical picture of the origins of our sacred texts as presented by modern scholarship, and remain an Orthodox Jew? (It should be emphasized here that the essential problem is not the truth of one or another historical conception of Torah—e.g., the Documentary Hypothesis—which can perhaps be refuted, and which has in fact undergone certain changes and revisions—the focus of much Orthodox polemics of a certain kind—but the historical sensibility per se.)

In the first part of this essay, we discussed various aspects of the problem: I quoted at length from Gershom Scholem, who explained the pivotal importance of belief in revealed Torah as davka allowing for the tremendous exegetical freedom of Midrash, medieval parshanut, Kabbalah ,etc.; and of David Weiss Halivni, who described his own struggles with this issue. I then went on to touch briefly upon the approaches of D. Z. Hoffman, U. Cassutto, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, z”l, and, may he have a long life, Prof. David Weiss Halivni.

But before turning to what I see as possible solutions (at least for me personally), I wish to round out my brief survey of approaches to this problem. The mainstream of Orthodox apologetics and polemics, from the Soncino Humash half-a-century ago down to Art-Scroll and Aysh Hatorah, have devoted much energy to proving the unity of the Torah and attempting to refute the claims of the Documentary Hypothesis. But two of the outstanding thinkers of the later twentieth century, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in America and Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz in Israel, were essentially not concerned with this problem, but found other avenues upon which to focus their faith commitments.

It is of particular significance to me that the Rav, to the best of my knowledge, never engages in debunking biblical criticism. Indeed, it would seem that he did not at all perceive it as a major issue. Thus, in the introductory section of Lonely Man of Faith, he writes:

I have not been perplexed by the impossibility of fitting the mystery of revelation into the framework of historical empiricism. Moreover, I have not even been troubled by the theories of Biblical criticism which contradict the very foundations upon which the sanctity and integrity of the Scriptures rest.

Basically, he sees the faith experience of “halakhic man” or the “man of faith” as in a certain sense self-justifying. To understand his view (his much-vaunted “existentialism,” if you will), it is illuminating to turn to the final page of his late-published typology of religious experience, Uvikashta misham. Rather strangely, he concludes this major theological treatise, in which he develops a phenomenology of two kinds of religious experience, the “natural” and the “revelational,” with a scene from his early childhood. In this passage, he describes memories of the sense of immanent holiness evoked by a homely scene of Torah study around his father’s table, in which he felt Rambam, Rabbenu Tam, Rashi and the other greats of the past participating in the act of study, alongside his father and grandfathers.

What is the point of his bringing this story at this point? In my opinion, the Rav is saying that the experiential root of his deep belief in Torah lies less in the theoretical doctrinal belief in the Sinai event, and more in the concrete experience of Masorah community, of having received this tradition from his father and grandfathers. Or, more precisely, the two somehow merge and become one in his eyes. Among the passages he was particularly fond of quoting from Hazal was the statement in Kiddushin 30a that a grandfather is obligated to teach his grandchildren Torah, because the child who receives it thus feels as if he received it from Sinai. (Of course, sceptics will argue that sooner or later the grandchildren will grow up and begin asking critical question; family tradition itself will be inadequate). This is not to say that Rav was not a revelationist, but that it was somehow not the central axis of his faith; in a way, history was irrelevant.

A second thinker who has left a profound mark upon the thought of what might be described as the non-dogmatic Orthodox world was Yeshayahu Leibowitz (see my discussion of his life and thought at HY IV: Yom ha-Atzmaut). Often considered a maverick, both for his outspoken demurral from the messianic and nationalist tone of the mainstream of religious Jewry in Israel after 1967, and for his passionate espousal of Maimonidean rationalism against popular superstition, Leibowitz’ position has been described as a “voluntarist” position. That is to say, his starting point is the individual’s decision to accept the yoke of halakhah, as the central act of “accepting the yoke of Heaven,” rather than polemics and proofs as to the existence of God, Torah from Sinai, and other doctrinal issues. He also stresses that, in any event, Judaism as we know it is essentially a creation of the Rabbis; even the Tanakh enjoys the canonical status it does because the Talmud says so. Was this position an elegant way, albeit never called such explicitly, of dealing with the problem of historicity of the truth claims of the Torah? Leibowitz was an extraordinarily brilliant and erudite person, both in Jewish thought and literature and in Western thought, science, philosophy, and what not—and surely this included the historical analytic reading of texts à la Wellhausen.

It is also worth mentioning here, in passing, a school that denies the validity of historical argumentation generally. In a recent book by David N. Myers, Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought (Princeton, 2003), this position is seen as exemplified by Hermann Cohen, Leo Strauss, Franz Rosenzweig and Isaac Breuer. While Soloveitchik lived in a different era and came from a profoundly different cultural milieu, being rooted first and foremost in traditional Torah study and only thereafter in Western philosophy, I believe that this description would fit him as well.

Before leaving this part of our essay, I wish to pose two important questions, which I would pose as research desiderata to whoever is willing and able to take up the challenge, related to the doctrine of Torah min ha-Shamayim in modern times. First, an interesting historical question: it is a commonplace today to say that the most fundamental, defining doctrine of Orthodox Judaism is the belief in Torah mi-Sinai. At what point did this become such a cardinal issue? And, is it in fact as central to Jewish thought as popularly claimed today? My intuitive feeling is that this claim, at least in this specific form, is relatively recent, having become the sine qua non distinguishing the faithful from the heterodox only over the past two hundred years or so: i.e., since the challenges of Enlightenment, modernity, 19th century biblical criticism, etc.; or, as a scholarly friend once suggested, it may first have been formulated in this manner in Italy, a place where traditional Jews and scholars were exposed to modern thought earlier and more intensely than their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe. This also relates to the issue of Orthodoxy conceived in terms of a doctrinal, rather than a strictly halakhic-behavioral yardstick, as its criterion—but that is a complex issue that goes far beyond the bounds of this essay.

A second issue relates to the halakhic use of this belief in a practical sense, as a litmus test for the kashrut of a given individual. The late Rav Moshe Feinstein, widely considered the leading posek of American Orthodoxy, wrote a number of teshuvot, published in his encyclopedic collection Iggerot Moshe, in which he invoked doctrinal criteria as a basis for reading Conservative rabbis, even pious and observant ones, out of the fold. In some of these responsa he not only disqualifies acts of personal status performed by such rabbis—marriage, divorce, conversions, etc.— but even rules that they are not to be counted in a minyan, or that one ought not to answer “Amen” to their blessing of Hamotzi at a communal brunch.

Finally, in a somewhat lighter vein, I wish to conclude this section with two anecdotes that illustrate the gap between official doctrine and the human reality of the Orthodox community.

When I was in my early 30s I read a book entitled Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, written by Moshe Weinfeld and published by JTS. As its name implies, this book is a discussion and explanation of what is known among Bible critics as the D document, dissecting the theology, practice, sociological and historical background, and unique lexicon and philological characteristics of Deuteronomy and related prophetic books, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel. I found this book quite troubling, for as a young yeshiva graduate I felt that its argument—which was convincingly presented and backed by seemingly overwhelming evidence—would, if correct, undermine the entire basis for my faith in Torah as the singular word of God and by extension the entire justification for my religious practice.

About the same time, which was during the early years of my first marriage, my wife and I and our young children used to visit her mother (z”l) for Shabbat every month or so. During those visits, I got into the habit on Shabbat morning of attending the Harel Synagogue on Rehov ha-Shayarot, where there was a very serious minyan that began at the early, “yeshivish” hour of 7:30 a.m. I usually sat at the table next to the bookshelves, at which there also sat a clean-shaven, neatly dressed middle-aged man with a rather grave, elongated face. I noticed that he always brought reading matter in his tallit bag which he looked at during various lulls in the service—academic reprints, Hebrew journals such as Tarbitz or Zion, etc. I thought to myself: “This man is a pious, serious Jew, obviously connected in some way with the scholarly, academic community. Surely he must have thought about the issues raised by that apikorus Weinfeld and no doubt found a satisfactory answer enabling him to maintain his Orthodox faith.” One Shabbat after the service I struck up a conversation with this man, and learned that he was indeed a professor at the Hebrew University. At the end of the conversation we exchanged our names, and he told me that his name was… Moshe Weinfeld!

Moshe Weinfeld passed away just over a month ago, aged 83. Needless to say, I tell this story, not to criticize him, but to illustrate that he somehow found it possible (I never discussed the matter with him) to belong to both worlds—and, over the years I became aware that there are more than a few critical Bible scholars who are practicing, observant Jews. Moshe Greenberg, Jacob Milgrom (who has been called “the dean of Leviticus scholars”) and, in my own age-group, Israel Knohl, are among those names that come readily to mind.

A second anecdote relates to a friend of mine of Hasidic background who was saying Kaddish for his father at the local shteibel. Once, during the course of a visit to my home, he told me, rather to my surprise, that he did not accept the literal belief in Torah min ha-Shamayim. I asked him whether it didn’t bother the people at the shteibel that their prayer leader held such beliefs. He answered: “No, but sometimes they’re bothered when I wear sandals without socks.”


More recently, I have begun to find the beginning of an answer in what might be called a “sideways move”—an approach in which the truth claims of the tradition and of its specific texts become secondary, and the issue is rather that of God’s presence experienced through Torah. To these solutions I devote the second half of this essay.

I have several answers: one, which might be called the midrashic answer (reinterpretation of nature of Torah); second, what I will the Hasidic answer – a shift from text-centered religion to a God-centered approach {from truth statements to religious statements; from halakhah to avodah); and a critique of modernity, of empiricism, of limits of reason. I will treat these one at a time.

1. The Midrashic Move: It Was All Revealed at Sinai

An interesting midrash interprets the word “all” in the introductory verse to Matan Torah as implying that the revelation at Sinai was all-inclusive, embracing not only the specific commandments revealed at that occasion, nor even the text of the Five Books alone, but everything that would come to be known under the broad rubric of “Torah,” including things that might not be specifically articulated until millennia later. In Exodus Rabbah 28.6 we read:

“And God spoke all these words, saying” [Exod 20:1]. R. Yitzhak said: That which the prophets shall prophesy in the future in each generation they already received at Mount Sinai, as Moses said to Israel: “For he who is standing with us here today before the Lord our God, and he who is not here with us today…” [Deut 29:14]. It is not written “standing with us today,” but “with us today”—this refers to the souls who are to be created, who have no concrete existence, of whom one cannot say “standing.” For even though they were not present at that hour, each one received that which would be his… [the midrash then proceeds to give examples from the prophets Malachi and Isaiah].

And not only did all the prophets receive their prophecy from Sinai, but even the Sages who appear in each generation, each one received his at Mount Sinai. For it also says: “these things the Lord spoke to your entire congregation… a great voice that did not cease” [Deut 8:19]. R. Yohanan said: One voice was divided into seven voices, and they were divided into seventy languages….

This midrash conveys the idea that the Torah entails far more than the Five Books of the Mosaic revelation per se, but has indefinitely expanding boundaries. This approach is widespread in Rabbinic thought, and lends itself to two diametrically opposed lines of interpretation. One, which might be called the “fundamentalist” reading, says that there is an expanded “canon,” which includes not only the Torah, but the other books of Scripture, the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Midrash, and even the “Hidden Torah”—i.e., Sefer ha-Zohar and other esoteric books that were conveyed by way of mouth among a select few over the millennia—and “whatever a venerable sage shall innovate in the future.” But, in the final analysis, it is a canon: once given, it is essentially immovable, unchangeable. There is just that much more material which we must treat with awe and reverence, and that many more things we are obligated to do, on the basis of one or another source.

But there is a second way of reading this idea: what might be called an open-ended, expansive reading of Torah. If what the prophets and the ancient Sages received was part of Torah, than so too are the hiddushim of later generations, down to our own day. In this purview, the Torah becomes a kind of joint creation of God and man. The broader and more inclusive the definition of Torah, as an almost cosmic entity, the more possible it becomes, to my mind, to accept an intermingling of the Human and the Divine. This view is found, not only in modernist reform movements, but also in much of Hasidic thought; I find it implied in many of the teachings of the Sefat Emet and his treatment of the relationship between Written and Oral Torah, and the crucial role played in this process by hiddushei Torah.

2. The Hasidic Move: “All is God”

We have become accustomed, after more than a century of Orthodox apologetics and polemics against the emergence of anti-halakhic, reformist movements in Judaism, to see halakhah as the crux of “authentic Judaism” and Sinai as the lynch-pin, the formative experience and, from the juridic viewpoint, the central axiomatic basis for the system of Torah and mitzvot.

But it is possible to start elsewhere—and I speak here, not of heterodox, modernist streams in Judaism, but of thoroughly committed, God fearing, “old-time” Jews. At a talk on the difference between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism, Arthur Green spoke of two different defining “mottos” of Hasidism. The one (cited from a letter between two Habad Hasidim), was “Alts ist Gott”—“Everything is God.” The second, found in the school of Kotzk: “m’darft arbeit far sicht”—“One must constantly work on one’s self.” That is: the central goal of Torah and of Jewish religion is, on the one hand, to develop God-consciousness, awareness of the all-penetrating, tangible Presence of the One. But, hand in hand with that, a person must work on him/herself, seeking to perfect his own personality, as a human being created in the image of God. This requires self-discipline, character work, the merciless quest for truth (as in Kotsk and Psyshyscha). Habad speaks of the commandments of ahavah and yirah, the love and fear of God, as necessarily requiring a certain awe, cognitive knowledge—which can only be attained, in turn, through study and intellectual activity and contemplation. The essential point in all this is a shift of emphasis, from a text-centered or Scripture-centered religion to one that is God-centered and rooted in God-consciousness—after which all else falls into place.

3. The Post-Modern Move: Preliminaries to Faith

The question then becomes: how does a person trained in rational, Western thought, and who is not prepared to make the sacrifice of critical thought which at times seems to be required by dogmatic and seemingly anti-historical acceptance of certain tenets of Jewish religion, find his or her way to a meaningful, coherent faith? In one sentence: the answer must lie in a critique of the limits of reason. Not an escape from reason, but a judicious, carefully crafted critique of Western rationalism and empiricism which takes one to that which is beyond: to that which, to use shorthand, is called faith.

This involves two basic steps: the first one involves transcending the empirical, rational consciousness. For some of us, this may begin with an emotional rejection of the religion of progress, of reason as capable of doing all. Many of us grew up in mid-twentieth-century Jewish families which literally worshiped the mind, the brain, as the highest faculty of man. To go beyond that, it is important to realize that the rational consciousness chooses the questions it considers relevant. The modern atheist cannot know God because he defines the universe, and the cognitive process, in such a way that God-talk is meaningless; an atheist relative of mine once said that he is only interested in those questions to which it is possible to find an empirical answer. With such an axiological framework, it is clear that one will never find God! But the fault is not with God or with the universe, but with his own cognitive structure. This point is sometimes very hard to see, because modernity has constructed such a sophisticated, all-encompassing structure. (I realized this point particularly clearly when reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion; the author is able to make short shrift of religion because he rejects certain obviously ludicrous or objectionable religious phenomenon, which he then identifies with religion as such; see my critique of his position in HY IX: Vaethanan: “The New Atheism” [August 2008])

Huston O. Smith, in a little-known but important book entitled The Forgotten Truth, develops this argument. The essential thesis of his book is that empiricism, the picture of the universe in which physical reality is seen as the only reality, is in fact limited. It is a kind of self-confirming way of looking at the world which seems highly convincing and cogent, because it only looks at certain kinds of data. And yet, he notes that virtually all human cultures, with the exception of European culture from about the 17th century, have had a very different world view. Behind the varied religious and esoteric traditions, each with their own language and imagery, he finds a strikingly similar world-view: of a four-tiered model of the universe, which he describes as consisting, respectively, of the physical, the mental/conscious, the spiritual, and the transcendent realms (whether these are expressed in images of a personal God or of a more amorphous, all-encompassing, non-personal Being).

The second major point is that all this requires a certain switch in consciousness—the “paradigm” or “archetype switch.” Once one transcends the limits of rationality and admits the possibility of something higher, one may begin the next step: that of cultivating religious consciousness. Beyond the emotional revulsion at the pretensions of the twentieth century, what is needed is an awareness of the existence of another dimension to the world, a new openness to the wisdom of the old traditions, what Foucault calls “second naivete.”

Some years ago, the editor of a somewhat quixotic local commercial paper sought “convincing reasons” for being a religious Jew. In the essay I wrote in response to his quest, I wrote, among other things:

The name of the game is not absolute certainty, because religious axioms by their very nature are ultimately not subject to rational, demonstrable proof. … [because] statements about Him refer to an order of reality that stands outside of the physical, material world, and hence outside the sphere of demonstrable reality with which the axioms and proofs of our world of thought are concerned.

… Within the context of Jewish tradition, even the arch-rationalist Maimonides did not in the final analysis see the existence of God as absolutely demonstrable. Thus, his famous statement at the very beginning of the Mishneh Torah, in which he asserts that the first commandment of the Torah is to “know that there is a First Cause,” in fact refers to a type of knowledge which is not demonstrable through iron-clad philosophical argumentation, but that is apprehended through a gradual process of perceiving God’s presence in the wonders of the Creation and contemplating the sciences of physics and metaphysics over a life-time (see the end of Ch. 4 there). Indeed, this knowledge is not really knowledge in the usual sense, but something closer to “belief” or “faith” -- i.e., the acceptance, as a willed cognitive act on the part of man, of the existence of God as a fundamental axiom…

R. Yehudah Halevi, in the Kuzari, speaks of a “religious faculty” (inyan eloki) present in the soul of Adam, passed down in one particular line to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and from there to the entire Jewish people. In other words, religious knowledge is ultimately a function of a particular faculty of the human personality other than the intellect. Again, iron-clad, rational proofs are rather besides the point, because religion speaks, not to the human mind, but to some other faculty -- if you like, to that which is conventionally called the soul. …

You are no doubt familiar with the common argument of Jewish religious “missionaries”—“do mitzvot first, and then ask questions,” the underlying premise being “doing is believing.” … The cynical, psychologically sophisticated modernist will dismiss this argument as an exercise in self-persuasion by behavior modification. However, the religious Jew will assert that, by performing mitzvot, an individual gradually enables the religious faculty within his personality or soul to grow and flourish; that, in fact, many of the difficulties which so many express are rooted in the fact that the anti-religious and anti-spiritual bias of contemporary culture lead to the atrophy of this faculty.

In brief: religious knowledge belongs to a different order, qualitatively speaking, than mundane, secular knowledge. It is impossible to move from a secular, materialistic set of axioms to a religious world-view, accepting the existence of some sort of spiritual dimension in life, without some kind of “leap of faith”—that is, a mental act of radically scrapping one’s existing mind-set and working axioms about the world, at least provisionally, and opening oneself to the possibility of an entirely different way of looking at the world and at one’s own self. …



But the above is only sufficient to bring one to a kind of general, universal religious God -consciousness. What about the specific truth claims of the Jewish tradition—the notions of Torah, of revelation, of halakhah, etc.? It is at this point that I part company with my dear friends and teachers in the various branches of the new Jewish spirituality, in Jewish renewal, in a Judaism which is ultimately not Shulhan Arukh Judaism, in a non-halakhic spirituality which ultimately celebrates human autonomy above the commanding voice of the tradition.

Here, I will touch upon two key concepts. First, a certain openness to the reality of Torah min-hashamayim is required, however broadly conceived. As I see it, the possibility of Revelation stems from God’s hesed, from His loving-kindness; He could not have left humans to meander and fumble around life without some kind of guidance as to how to live properly. The midrashim on Torah in turn expand this, making it so all-inclusive that the concrete historical event at Sinai retreats to the realm of symbol, of paradigm, of archetype. Torah is the map at which God looked, the blueprint with which He created the world; in Hasidut, it is itself the book in which everything that happens, everyone who lives, every event in the world, is written. One who knows how to read it properly “can see from one end of the world to the other”; it precedes creation and will continue forever; it contains all that any hakham will ever say.

Second, the concept of heteronomy is important. The need for heteronomy follows from our philosophical anthropology, from our conception of the nature of man which we have elaborated elsewhere. The central idea here is, quite simply, that the Torah is imposed upon man—and therein, precisely, lies its importance. Emmanuel Levinas, in an essay entitled “The Temptation of Temptation,” speaks of the need to experience everything, to maintain infinite possibilities, as the disease of modern man. The true “temptation” is not for any specific thing—be it sex, power, wealth, etc.—but the need to have them as a possibility, their availability as an option.

The temptation of temptation may well describe the condition of Western man. In the first place it describes his moral attitudes. He is for an open life, eager to try everything, to experience everything, “in a hurry to live, impatient to feel.” … He must be rich and a spendthrift and multiple before being essential and one.” Nine Talmudic Readings (p. 32)

It is precisely the heteronomous nature of the Torah that serves as the basis for its moral force. If one could freely, autonomously choose to do the mitzvot, it would merely be one more human choice. From this perspective, teshuvah, the great turning to Torah, is the path back to simple moral health. And this, more than anything else, is the essence of Shavuot and our celebration of this day.


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