Tag Archives: Torah

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under God

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…)

2 Comments

Filed under Halacha, Morality

None of You Actually Celebrated Shavu’ot!

Ten years ago, a reform rabbi friend of mine, bemoaned to me that “Shavu’ot is the forgotten holiday of the Reform Movement”. He explained that: 1. It was only one day.  2. Usually came out in the middle of the week.  3. Had nothing tangible to “capture” people with as other holidays.

I remember thinking how symbolic that the holiday celebrating Torah is missing from a movement that does not believe in its divinity. I’ve felt quite smug about this anecdote over the years and shared it in many settings.
But, since then, I’ve come to realize that Orthodox Judaism is no better when it comes to Shavu’ot.
The Orthodox movement doesn’t celebrate Shvu’ot. We celebrate a fake holiday called Chag Matan Torah:
1. The two are not even the same day. Torah was given on the 7th of Sivan. Shavu’ot takes place on the 6th. (In ancient times it sometimes even occurred on the 5th!).
2. We do not count 50 days from The Exodus to Matan Torah. This is a misnomer. Nowhere in the Torah are these two events connected by 50 days. (And in truth, we didn’t even get Torah on the 50th day, rather, on the 51st!) 
We count from the first harvest of grain (קציר העומר) seven weeks and then celebrate The Holiday of Harvest. 
3. In the 5(!) different places the Torah discusses Shvu’ot we find an exclusively agricultural-religious holiday. It marks the new season of harvest when we: 
– Give thanks for the new harvest and new fruits
– Recognize that Divine Providence throughout Jewish History are the reason we are able to live and work The Land of Israel and enjoy its fruits 
– Share our plenty with the less fortunate
So how was The Holiday of Harvest “hijacked” and turned into The Holiday of The giving Torah?
1. Once The Temple was destroyed and we – cast into exile, what would a Torah based Shavu’ot look like? it has no observances that are not dependent on living an agricultural life in Israel. The holiday would become irrelevant, possibly even forgotten. It had to be given a new meaning. Considering its proximity to the date of Matan Torah and the exilic emphasis on detached, “spiritual” Torah – the original holiday was replaced with new meaning.  
2. But, there is possibly a deeper connection as well. The beauty of Shavu’ot (and Megilat Rut; the reading of the day) is that it represents – more than any other holiday – what a full Torah life looks like. Megilat Rut is what Hashem had in mind when he gave Torah in the first place: The Jewish People living in The Land of Israel, keeping the Mitzvot of the land while also taking care of the less fortunate. All this while remembering where we came from and where we’re heading. In my humble opinion, it is both the most mundane and beautiful story in all of Tanach.   
So why the connection?
The Torah does not require we celebrate the day the Torah was given. Remember what our mother’s told us about why we don’t celebrate Mother’s Day? “every day is mother’s day…”. The giving of Torah isn’t a singular event, rather, a continuous, never-ending one. But when the day Torah life is supposed to appear in its entirety is in danger of being erased from Jewish observance, then BECAUSE it was no longer relevant it became the most important day to remember – Hashem gave us Torah. 
If we’re not able to “live the life”, let’s at least remember to look at the manual to remember what missing.
May we merit to observe Shavu’ot according to it’s original, full meaning!  

Leave a comment

Filed under Chagim/Holidays, Israel and Galut

The Powers That Be

Although Aristotle is thought of as the first to speak of it, and John Locke and Montesquieu perfected it, the real original source of “separation of powers” appears in this weeks’ Parsha: the priesthood (judicial), the king (executive) and the prophet (divine compass and conscience).
Though they aren’t identical to the modern executive, judicial, and legislative, they do appear as 3 separate authorities and Halacha goes on to establish clear checks and balances between the three. 3 things I find very interesting are:
1. Once prophesy ended (second temple period), we still find 3 branches- priesthood (religious), the king (executive) and Sanhedrin (legislative and judicial).
2. In the Parsha there is no definition of the role of the king. All there is, is a list of prohibitions: not to have too much money, wives and horses, not to return to Egypt and not to forget the Torah. This is because the institution of the king is a secular institution in the sense that it deals with the mundane and secular parts of life – statehood, international relations, economy, etc… and therefore holds a higher potential of drifting from Torah.
3. Moshe Rabbeinu held all three branches but anyone else in Jewish history who tried to do so – failed (e.g. Uziya king of Judea, the Hasmonians, Aharon Barak…). (218)

 

2 Comments

Filed under Politics