Letters II March 2007
Majority of One
Reader: In the first instance, as it relates the articles, I trust you are fully aware that when expressing the position that Jews are not innately superior and far more holy to Gentiles, you are espousing a minority opinion. However, that being said, “yeshlacha al mi lismoch”, “you have what to rely on”. Specifically, your position (our position) is wholly and completely consistent with the Great Eagle and ultimately I believe is the position of the Torah as given by Hashem Yistabach Shemo. Thus, in this respect, you (we) are with the majority of one.
Reader: Dear Rabbi: I have a question regarding our morning prayers in the section about Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. When we are praying, there are many different types of sacrifices: the daily Tamid offerings, the Chataas for sins, the bull and the he goat on Yom Kippur, the communal sin offerings of the community, the he-goats of Rosh Chodesh and festivals, communal peace offerings, the guilt offerings etc. My question is why wasn't Abraham’s offering delineated? What kind of offering do we call Isaac? Did G-d tell Abraham what kind of offering he was to accomplish? Wouldn't it have helped Abraham to accomplish this difficult act if he knew he was killing his son for a specific reason?
Mesora: The Temple did not yet exist, and as both history and the Talmud teach, no Torah system was yet given at this time. So Abraham was not bringing a Temple sacrifice. Perhaps the term Olah (fully burnt) is used in connection with Isaac to teach this was not a punishment for Abraham, and that Isaac was to be given “fully” by Abraham. The sacrifice of Isaac was – according to our Rabbis – to teach mankind how far one must go in his devotion to God. The Shema states that we are to love God with “all” our heart, soul and might. So Abraham had all that was necessary to act in line with God’s will. Typifying Isaac as a certain type of sacrifice was unnecessary, as the sole purpose for Abraham, was displaying his love for God over all human attachments…even to his long awaited, beloved, only son.
A Piece on “Piece”
Reader: Hello. I am not sure if you are aware of this source or if it adds anything more to the case of the “Piece of God crisis”, but I figured I’d let you know. In “The Laws Concerning The Morning Blessings and Other Blessings” (Hilchot Birkot Hashachar V’Shear Brachot) 1:1, in the Shulchan Aruch, The Bracha of Elokoay Neshama is mentioned. In regards to that blessing, the Mishna Brurah adds quite an interesting fact. It explains, “One must pause a little in-between the words Elokai (my God) and Neshama (my soul), so that it should not sound as if the soul is one’s God, God Forbid”. Apparently The Mishnah Brurah was quite aware of the danger that might arise if one had confused these two fundamental ideas (about the soul and God). Thanks for everything and Shabbat Shalom.
Death for Studying Life?
Reader: I am not comfortable about the death penalty for reading Torah. Christians read and study Torah, and some of my relatives read the Bible. You say that gentiles can study whatever appeals to their mind as a genuine interest (beside Shabbos, Holidays and Tefillin)
You gave me this rules: 1) you can learn whatever laws address perfection, such as charity, idolatry, prayer, kindness and so on. 2) Reading and study of Torah is the same thing. 3) You can study any law you wish to keep in addition to the 7 Noachide laws.
You wrote, “My understanding is that what is prohibited, is to study laws if you have no desire to observe that law. I also feel you may be able to study any law that appeals to your mind as an attempt to learn more about God. I cannot imagine that you would not be able to study what appeals to your mind as a genuine interest, but I will get back to you.”
How can it be proven that someone is not studying something that appeals to him/her? Who has this authority?
People will get scared if you talk to them about death penalty! In my case is different because I want to learn and I am sure I will understand and I can recognize Torah is God’s wisdom, I don’t trust human beings and I don’t understand; how, who and when, this severe law will be applied. I hope you understand my doubt. Please help me understand.
Thank you for your time,
Mesora: Yes, I wrote, “I cannot imagine that you would not be able to study what appeals to your mind as a genuine interest”. I believe this must be so, since God wants all mankind to know truths, and to continue growing in our knowledge. So if you wish to learn more about the world, which is a reflection of God, then you are permitted to do so. It is only Torah commands that carry a prohibition if you intend to study without practice. But to study about God, His attributes and philosophy, your are permitted to study.
Your other question regarding who can determine if you are genuinely interested, can only be determined by yourself. God knows our true intentions.
Regarding death, Jews are killed for writing two letters on Sabbath, whereas gentiles are not. We could lodge the same complaint, if we wish to view such “strict” measures purely in contrast to harmless actions, or good intentions in your case. “Why should I be killed simply for lifting a pen and writing on Sabbath, isn’t that extreme? I’m not hurting anyone!” a Jew might suggest. And as you said, “I wish to study about God, why should I be killed for that?” However, with understanding, we will justify the response of death for a Sabbath violator, and for a gentle Torah studier.
The reason for such strict measures is because the goal of Sabbath targets the primary objective for mankind. The Jew is to restrain his creative activities, so as to 1) embody the first moments of the universe…when God rested from His creative activities; and 2) to study Torah at least one day weekly, insuring the perpetuation of Torah, i.e., God’s will.
What is “death”? It is the removal of life. And when one’s life misses the central purpose intended by God, his life is no longer meaningful, and death must follow to teach this lesson. The Jew has the goal of educating the world about God – the Creator. So when we forfeit teaching this lesson to our fellow humans by breaking Sabbath, our lives are no longer meaningful. (Another proof of gentile/Jew equality, since we are killed for abandoning our role to teach gentiles.) If we behave on Sabbath as a gentile, we forfeit the opportunity we may offer the gentile to inquire, “Why are you not working like us?” Maimonides states this is what we wish to achieve, thereby offering the gentile an opportunity to learn from our reply: “We rest to mimic the Creator who rested on the seventh day.” And then we go on about God’s will for His creations, thereby imbuing the gentile with the essential knowledge to commence his path to follow God’s will for his entire life.
And a gentile is killed when he or she abandon’s his or her objective, which is to not obscure the Jew’s role as “Torah educator”. When the gentile studies Torah purely for theoretical purposes, he portrays the Jew. Doing so, he can mislead others that he is a Torah authority. They will then inquire of “him” in place of the Jew with their Torah questions. Of course, as he is not obligated to observe, his studies are not as ripe as the Jew, and he will destroy Torah. In both cases, the preservation of the Torah system sustains our right to life, and our abandonment invites our death. One goal – two different expressions.
Reader: Dear Rabbi, I greatly appreciated having an article, which addresses a real issue for me. This article was in the new March 9th JewishTimes: “Perfection: Human Accomplishment, Not a Jewish Birthright.” It is apparent you are attempting to expose the differences between the Jewish teachings and the Christian dogma. My eyes were opened to the extent of Jewish teaching, which I had not really understood.
However, I have more concerns now as a result, which apparently are inconsistent. The greatest of these is with the first two paragraphs, which to quote you, “But in no way can God have parts…” and, “He possesses no physical qualities…” Firstly, this gracious, all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipotent God didn’t create man and women in sin, in fact, He created them in perfection calling them good and then rested from his labors —[Genesis 1:26-31]. This is obvious for anyone who reads the passage, for God would not have considered it good, if it was not perfect, or holy or pure as He.
In Genesis 2:7, man is formed [yatsar], an act of a potter, which he is describe as being in the prophets. On-the-other-hand, God could have done this act without hands, but just speaking it, however, I am not lead to believe this was the case. In continuation, Genesis 2:21-22 speaks of God taking [laquck] one of Adam’s ribs in order to make [banah] the female for him. There is a great difference between the term “yastar” and the term “banah” and I don’t think this is metaphorical, although it does explain the nature of hierarchy within the family.
The point I am attempting to make is God is actively involved within the construction, as if He has a body to perform this work. However, let us not stop at this juncture, and move one into Genesis 3:8, which speaks of God walking [halak, akin to yalak] as if to not only suggest a physical form, but the act of walk in the midst of the garden, which was created perfect. However, I cannot just dismiss the validity of the concept God had form and we are created in his image, as a “tselem,” a resemblance or shade representing a figure. With what is here, I have to then attend to Abraham, Genesis 18, where “jehovah” appears to him, and he sees, speaks, and eats with the angels [malak-messengers] and someone he calls “adonay,” which would I assume is God in the flesh speaking, eating with Abraham. In addition, the writer calls this “adonay,” “jehovah” in Genesis 18:13, which is the one speaking, sitting, eating, and soon to be walking with Abraham. It appears to me, just in the reading of this portion of the Torah, God has density of body, and uses it for his purposes.
How do you rectify the flaw between the Torah’s presentation of action of God and the apparent inconsistencies toward his having a body? It would seem that the Latter Day Saints of Jesus—Mormons (a true cult), and the New Age movement would have more in common with the Jewish teachings, than Christianity ever thought of having. However, I don’t believe this to be the case at all, and suspect, there was a flaw in the teaching itself, which dispels God as being gracious, omnipotent, all-knowing, and capable of communicating with humanity in various times, and in various ways, including some form of physical form.
Furthermore, I would like to once again express my appreciation for your candor for exposing this issue in the last Mesora. I will be looking forward to your reply.
Mesora: First of all, my article was not addressing Christianity, although you might have taken it that way.
Second, God did not say man’s creation was “good” as He stated in connection with other individual creations. The summary statement “and it was very good” addresses “all” of creation, not man alone. So we understand this to mean that although man is not yet good – i.e. he must perfect himself – nonetheless, he is part of a total picture that is “very good”. Meaning, man’s imperfect start in life is God’s will, which must be good.
Now regarding Torah verses that imply God is somehow physical, as the greatest Torah minds teach, and as reason demands, the Creator of the physical world cannot be what He creates! Meaning, if God “created” the physical, then prior to its creation, there was no physical substance. Hence, God cannot be physical. The Torah “speaks in the language of man” as the Rabbis teach. God knows we are simple beings, and start life in complete ignorance. In order to arrive at truths, we must first read ideas that make sense to our limited vocabulary and understanding. So God says He is angry, yet when we mature, we learn that He cannot partake of human psychology. We read that He covered Moses with His “hand”…yet we finally learn as we progress, that again, a hand is a human quality, and not possessed by God. Therefore, God uses this terminology to teach ideas, but relating to our frame of reference and vocabulary. Regarding the angels who visited Abraham, Maimonides teaches this was all a vision in his mind. And the term “adonai” can also mean “My master”. So you need not assume this means God, and that God “ate” or was a humanoid form, far be it.
The danger you have encountered is studying Torah without referring to the Torah’s teachers…the Rabbis. The Torah was give in two parts: the Written Law (Bible) and the Oral Law which is the Mishne, Talmud and the wealth of transmitted sayings of the Rabbis. Without recourse to the latter, we cannot understand either. (See Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” Book 1)
The worst crime is in assuming God to be physical, or to partake of any idea we imagine. Truly, He is unknowable, and we must realize that our intellects are severely limited. We cannot know God, as God said to Moses. (Exod. 33:20)
Reader: From what I have read on your site you accept the Shulchan Aruch but not reincarnation. What then is your view of Rabbi Caro’s Maggid Meisharim where he discusses reincarnation and other mystical topics? This seems like a contradiction. If I may add - “Rabbi Yosef Karo author of Shulchan Aruch, was not only a learned scholar; he was also a pure and holy man to such a degree that when he studied Kabbalah he was taught by a special angel called a maggid who descended from heaven to reveal to him the innermost secrets of the Torah and to disclose the future to him. Rabbi Yosef Karo wrote down the revelations, which he heard from this angel in this book. This book contains not only Torah concepts but also exhortation, mussar.”
Mesora: I don’t agree that Rav Yosef Karo stated this concerning the angel…he knew prophecy had ended. It may simply be a publisher’s inclusion. Our cover article this week shows how a Rabbi made claims of Talmudic quotes, which simply do not exist. This may be the case here.
But I am not the only one who argues on reincarnation; Saadia Gaon does as well, and offers rationale for his rejection. (The Book Beliefs and Opinions, Yale Univ. pp 259-263) But I have yet to hear rationale pro-reincarnation. A Torah concept must be rooted in truth, and reason. Saadia Gaon offers a number of arguments that display reincarnation as violating true principles.
Furthermore, the Shulchan Aruch deals with “law”, and this is where the idea of a “ruling” or something mandatory is relevant. But as a wise Rabbi taught, Torah cannot demand “belief”. We can be told what to “do”, but there is no way that a rational system like Torah would suggest that we must believe something…if we don’t. It is akin to an obligation to “find beauty” in something disgusting. So there can be no obligation to follow a Rabbi in matters of belief, since Torah cannot legislate belief, only actions.
Reader: In your last JewishTimes you wrote: “Why did God erase Moses name from Parshas Tetzaveh, as opposed to any other Parsha? Write in with your suggestions.”
Perhaps Parshsa Tetzaveh and Moses name erasure deal with a similar issue: man’s tendency to identify with something physical. Moses name erasure may diminish the attachment to “the man” Moses as evidenced in the story of the Golden Calf. Parsha Tetzaveh ends with the incense altar, on which the incense would smoke. In Parsha Ki Tisa, Moses is absent (“delayed” on Sinai), and Aaron fashions a very visible calf. In Parsha Tetzaveh, Moses’ name is absent, and Aaron is to burn incense, demonstrating that man cannot see God.
What do you think?
Mesora: If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that just as the incense targets our recognition that God in unknowable (the smoke is a veil), so too, Moses’ name is also omitted for this reason: obscuring Moses is a step on the path to deny corporeality to God. Meaning, by detaching ourselves from the “man” Moses, we can more readily detach ourselves from attributing physicality to God.
Therefore, the incense that obscures our vision, and the obscuring of Moses’ name are both found in one Parsha, Tetzaveh. It is a sharp idea. Thank you.