An Agnostic Rabbi?

agnosticismThis post will focus on the difference between what we mean when we say “God” and what we mean when we say “Hashem”. I will explain why when it comes to ‘God’, as refereed to in popular culture, literature and conversation – I am an agnostic, which is less a dramatic statement than it may seem. In the middle, I will touch upon Passover’s evil son as well as ‘the most important idea in the Torah’.

‘What we mean when we say God’
If you were to ask most people, including most Jews what they mean when they say “God”, they would most probably answer – “a higher power”, “the creator”, “supreme being” or even “original cause”. It is this God that most proofs for God’s existence discuss and it is this God that I am, personally, unsure about. Over the years I’ve read hundreds, possibly thousands, of pages on proofs and counter proofs for the existence of God and can summarize them by saying this – it was a very interesting read. An enjoyable intellectual endeavour. No less but also no more. A day I was intellectually stimulated by a strong “pro God” argument was no different than the day I understood how Imanuel Kant pulled the rug from beneath all metaphysics, including the possibility of proofs for God’s existence. With regard to this God, I could quite possibly define myself as an agnostic (“a person who does not have a definite belief about whether God exists or not”). This is because there really do seem to be excellent arguments to both sides. Besides, even if I were to say that I do believe in this “prime changer/designer/causer/intelligence/ truth/concept of perfection/omnipotent being, I’m really not sure what it would mean, other than an intellectual leaning towards the arguments supporting that phrasing. This is a God whom people have to search for, speculate and make deductions about and will therefore be no more than an accidental possibility. It is not what Jews (should) mean when they say ‘God’.

What we mean when we say ‘Hashem’
Consider this: Never does Hashem introduce himself as The Creator, rather, as the God of our fathers or the one who took us out of Egypt. This is true when he introduces himself to Yitzchak (Bereshit 26:24), to Yakov (Bereshit 28:13) to Moshe (Shmot 3:6), to Am Yisrael in Har Sinai (Shmot 20:2), to the generation entering Israel (Shoftim 2:1) and to Gideon (Shoftim 6:13). Similarly, that is how he is described to others: by Moshe to Pharaoh (Shmot 5:3), by Shmuel to Am Yisrael (Shmuel 1, 12:6), Natan the prophet to David (Shmuel 2, 7:6), David to Hashem (Shmuel 2, 7:23) and Shlomo Hamelech (Melachim 1, 8:16 and 8:53).
Yehudah HaleviBased on this and more in depth analysis, Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, in his famous book The Kuzari, makes a distinction between “The God of Abraham” and what he calls “The God of Aristotle”. The God of Aristotle is the Creator, the God of nature, the ’cause of causes’. A.K.A – Elohim/אלוהים – plural, the master of all forces. It is more a concept than anything else. And a philosophical concept – as interesting as it may be to those who can grasp it – holds minimal real meaning and cannot truly motivate, inspire or transform. As put so well by Albert Camus: “‘I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument.Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured it with the greatest ease as soon as it endangered his life”. The God of Abraham’ – Hashem – on the other hand, is described by the rabbi of the Kuzari in the following way: “I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles; who fed them in the desert and gave them the land, etc…”. ‘Hashem’ is not a concept, rather, that which we identify as the foundational element of our national (and therefore also individual) existence. That which we recognize from our historical experiences; from The Exodus and the events of Tanach all the way through the monumental events of the past century. This is not a God to speculate about, rather always present as part of our self awareness and conversation about ourselves, our destiny, our communal and private lives.

The most important idea in the Torah
Another way to present this is as follows: The most central idea in the Torah is not that God exists, that he created the world or that he controls nature. These ideas appear on almost an occasional basis, if at all. The most central concept in Tanach is the most common verse in Tanach – “Hashem spoke to… saying”. The fact that Hashem communicates directly with us, the Jewish People, that he has a unique relationship with us as revealed through his communication with us through prophecy and our historical happenings. These are not proofs of His existence, rather, this is what we mean when we say Hashem; “He who has been at the center of our historical existence and events since our national inception”. “The ‘object’ around which Jewish Existence defines itself”. “The identity in relation to which The Jewish People define their collective existence and occurrences”.

This also explains the strange attitude towards the evil son in the Passover Hagaddah: “because he removed himself from the collective – he denied the fundamental truth (of God)”. Why is the disassociation from the Jewish Collective mean he is a heretic? This is because, as Rambam states in one of his central chapters in The Guide to The Perplexed: “Emunah is not that which is uttered by the lips, rather that which is pictured in the Nefesh”. Meaning, forget about what people say they do and don’t believe. People have all kinds of silly notions of what they think they understand and believe. Don’t look at what his mouth is saying, look at what his life is saying; what kind of life is he leading? one which is consistent with the ideals, truths and behaviours of the divine, or not? and being part of the Jewish collective is just that – a life centered around the eternal relationship between Hashem and Am Yisrael.

To summarize: “Does God exist?”, is not a Jewish questions and is asking a question which, even if answered, has very little real significance. “What do we mean when we say the word Hashem”, on the other hand, is a very Jewish question and its answer makes all the difference in the world as it changes how you understand who you are – as an individual and as a member of a larger entity called The Jewish People.
And what of my agnosticism and doubt regarding The Creator? well, turns out Hashem has solved this issue for me; after presenting himself to us at Har Sinai, identifying himself as the one took us out of Egypt, etc… he mentions, almost incidentally (in the context of Shabbat) that he created the Heavens and the Earth. Nu, good to know.

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Jews as slave owners(?)

Jacob_Levin_slave_auction_ad

The title of this post makes me cringe as I’m assuming it does any decent person reading it.
How can we reconcile the existence of slavery in the Torah and its normative regulation in Halacha with what is in our days a fundamental universal truth – the abhorrence of slavery in any form?
In addition, how can we as Orthodox Jews understand slavery as part of the eternal Torah which we believe is relevant to our lives in every generation? are we to sympathize with slave ownership?
Two classic approaches to this challenge are:

1. Slavery in the Torah has nothing to do with slavery as we know it from history. This approach emphasizes those Halachot that set Torah’s slavery as fundamentally different. One of the more famous of these is pointing out that one only becomes a slave by either selling themselves or by being sold by the court after stealing and not being able to pay back. Other examples are that one is forbidden to task their slave with denigrating work, that a slave has the right to sue his master if physically harmed, that – at most – a person could be a slave for 6 years and of course – even slaves have 1 day off a week and other such examples. It is more of a semantic confusion than a moral contradiction: what the Torah calls ‘slave’, we today call ’employee’, ‘maid’ or ‘cleaning lady’ or ‘nanny’.
Though this definitely depicts a significantly milder form of slavery than that we are familiar with from history, it tends to leave out the less “PC” aspects of slavery in Halacha; that one may forcibly sell his – Jewish – daughter as a slave if she is of a certain age, that a non Jew can be taken as a slave by force without stealing or selling themselves, that he can be forced to mate and then have his children taken from him and sold, that it is forbidden to release him from slavery, that one is allowed to assign him fruitless and humiliating work, that it is permissible to beat ones slave as long as no irreversible damage is done, etc…
To call this approach an attempt at apologetics would be an understatement.

2. Slavery exists even if we make believe it doesn’t. Not necessarily the same crude physical ownership of one man over another, but just as real an exploitation of the poor by the wealthy; the CEO who exploits the manpower wabolish slavery MEDorker who cannot make ends meet, has no health insurance or benefits of any kind, who can be fired at a moments notice with no supports or assistance once his exploitation is complete. Better to regulate such non ideal societal dynamics, thus minimizing the exploitation, than ignoring them and telling ourselves that “slavery is a thing of the past and of no concern to us as modern people”. Having slavery as a fixed element in Torah  and Halacha reminds us that severe exploitation will always be among us and we must recognize it and try to regulate and minimize it. This approach emphasizes the degree to which following the Halachot of slavery would have contained the more crude and cruel elements of slavery and even progress certain barbaric tendencies among individuals or groups who are more prone to being exploited to such degrees. (i.e. a Jewish slave who sells himself can support his family without resorting to crime, one sold by the court for theft can undergo rehabilitation – leading a productive and disciplined lifestyle, the non Jewish slave can become refined through the example of Jewish morality and Jewish observance, which he becomes obligated by, etc…)
This approach is a penetrating and complex one which carries a strong moral call to every generation but also includes a disturbing patronizing attitude as well (to put it mildly…).

A third approach to the question, which I would like to suggest is based on Rav Kook’s discussion of the obligation to annihilate Amalek and the moral dilemma this Mitzvah poses. He writes the following:

“The prevention of possibility is to us a testimony of Hashem’s will and prevention of will has many forms, sometimes a practical prevention like the fear of the ruling nations and sometimes a spiritual prevention. We are pleased when such preventions exist, as we recognize that such is the will of the divine providence in such times”.
Rav Kook says something tremendously daring – it is not a coincidence that in a generation when the idea of genocide is deplorable we happen to not know who Amalek is, thus preventing us from fulfilling the Mitzvah, even if we wanted to. Through the moral development of human kind and the ‘mixing of the nations’ which has erased the existence of an identifiable Amalekite nation, the application of this Mitzvah and all the Halachot that go with it is no longer an active part of our observance, nor do we yearn for their renewal.
We accept the impossibility of this Mitzvah’s observance as a positive expression of a more developed state of humankind and The Jewish People. Through history and circumstance, Hashem has turned the Mitzvah of annihilating Amalek from a practical, physical, one to a spiritual and symbolic one.
This idea has far reaching implications with the obvious questions being – how and who can decide that the physical and/or spiritual inability to observe something translates into testimony that it is no longer divinely desired and that we should be happy about it? what other Mitzvot could you apply this idea to (Animal sacrifices? Mamzerim? not saving a non Jew on Shabbat? women’s role in Jewish society?)
These are excellent questions for a different time but I would suggest applying it, in the meantime, to slavery in the Torah:
Yes, the laws of slavery were tremendously advanced in comparison to slavery in the ancient – and even modern – world and yes, exploitation still exists (though to far, far lesser degrees) and yes, the regulation of slavery with normative guidelines and restrictions served as a refining element to both master and even slave, considering the alternatives.
But even so, we believe that the abolishment of slavery in humankind, especially in Western society, is divinely inspired, divinely directed and part of the moral progression of the world towards a more moral, more ideal, more holly world. The – divinely directed – impracticality of these Mitzvot is cause for tremendous optimism.

So, what are we to do with all of the Psukim, Midrashei Halacha and Halchot about slavery? am I saying – Heaven forbid – that ‘they aren’t relevant any more’***? to that I would say:
1. Talmud Torah is always relevant
2. No guarantees exist that humankind will not morally regress again (70 years ago slavery of the Jewish People would have been a blessing…)
3. Traces of slavery still exist in the world as well as shadows of it in our own society
4. There is an entire world of Chassidish and Kabalistic literature that learn from these Psukim and Halachot guidelines and directives for the inner ‘slave’ and ‘master’

I believe this third approach holds within it tremendous power, combining a traditional approach to Torah and Mitzvot with the most refined moral sensitivities and search for relevance. It is definitely the one I will be thinking about this coming Shabbat when reading the laws of slaves and slavery.

(*** What this third approach may actually mean is this: due to a variety of changes and developments, Mitzvot can become, categorically, no longer relevant as normative behaviors. But – and this is crucial – it is not us, humans, who make it no longer relevant, rather, Hashem makes them no longer relevant. This idea can be part of a larger explanation of מצוות בטלות לעתיד לבוא “In the time to come – Mitzvot will be nullified”, again – not by us, rather, by HIM through changes in humanity, be they ethnic, national, societal, psychological or moral. Deserves its own post but couldn’t help myself…)

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Yitro vs. John Kerry, Advice vs. "Advice"

Another Parsha guest post on ajewishisrael.com 

Be advised that my guest posts on this website are more politically explicit than my usual writing as that is the aim of the site.

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Remembering Ariel Sharon

Ever since I heard about Ariel Sharon’s worsening condition last week, I’ve been contemplating what to think and feel.
On the one hand – all of the military victories he lead and orchestrated, the terrorists he killed, attacks he prevented, the dozens of Jewish settlements he was instrumental in establishing and growing, the agricultural development he oversaw and much, much more.
On the other hand – the deception of his voters and his party members, the destruction of Jewish towns, homes and families and the “hit” to Israeli deterrence.
That have been said, the moment I heard the news of his death, my dilemma was immediately resolved because I realized the following:
Which of Ariel Sharon’s actions over his lifetime of public service will last and resonate stronger, have a bigger impact on the future of the Jewish State and the Jewish people? the brilliant victories he led and orchestrated which were instrumental in securing a State of Israel to begin with, the establishment of dozens of settlements that created a new reality in Judeah and Samariah and a new relationship between The State and The Land of Israel, or the outcomes of the “disengagement” – whatever they may be? (Would the “Palestinians” hate us less, try to kill us less? not try to fire as many rockets as possible? would the Hamas and other Islamists not push their way to power?)
Sharon will be remembered as what he was – a person whose entire life was devoted to the service of Am Yisrael, to safeguarding Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael; how many of us can say the same? His contributions to the establishment and success of The State of Israel are already woven into the fabric of its existence; how many people have such merit?  What he has built – cannot and will not be destroyed, what he destroyed – can and will, at one point or another, be rebuilt (see *** below).
May his memory be blessed among the many גיבורים (heroes) of Am Yisrael. Specifically Yoav Ben Tzruya and Bar Kochva come to mind, for some reason…

Wearing Tfilin during 6 day war
Laying the corner stone for Elon Moreh
With flag and Sefarim
At The Kotel

(***To be clear – I was opposed to the disengagement for many reasons and think that even if I was for it, the cruel way in which it was decided and carried out would have delegitimized it anyway, but once it has already happened I am humble enough to say that such an event – after happening – is of historical proportions and significance and, as such, will need dozens of years to truly be understood with all of its ramifications- for good or bad).

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High Fashion, Auto Anti-Zionism and The Plague of Darkness

My second guest blog on AJewishIsrael.com can be seen here.
My guest blogs will have a more overt political message to them as the site is of a political nature.

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