Letters Aug. 2011

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Sabbath: So Severe?

Reader: In Numbers, a man was seen loading wood  on the Sabbath and Hashem ordered that the man be pelted to death by the community for his transgression. Secular people who attempt to familiarize themselves with the Torah find this hard to deal with in light of modern Western liberal values. How do I explain passages like these, and this one in particular, to completely secular Jews who raise this story in defense of their view that the Torah is only a book relevant to the period depicted in the narratives?

Rabbi: I would first inquire why those Jews agree with the death penalty for this man, back then? Their response will set parameters for the rest of the conversation. Many times, people shift their opinions to avoid being incorrect. But once a person commits to certain values, they can be shown where they agree and disagree with the Torah’s positions. And on areas where they disagree, they will realize they require study and correction. Their initial commitment to certain values helps the conversation’s goal of educating them on their errors.

Secondly, if those Jews agree that man in Numbers loading wood was at fault back then, we might ask them their reasoning for suggesting the punishment is no longer applicable. When it emerges from the conversation that humans have not changed and neither has God’s values, they will find the punishment equally applicable today. 

Finally we can explain the severity of such a simple act of collecting wood on Sabbath, that hurts no one, yet meets with death. We will explain that the purpose of man is recognizing God. A person who thwarts this obligation has no purpose in life. Now, when one violates the Sabbath, he has disregard for this principle: he does not care to mimic the Creator’s act of rest, that could be a public display for others, who in turn might inquire of our rest, an learn about the Creator. Maimonides teaches that our display of rest on Sabbath has this goal: to attract gentiles to cessation of work in order that they inquire into our cessation, and that we thereby educate them through our response. 

Therefore, this man who violated the Sabbath did not possess the concern for his fellow Jews and gentiles, that they too might come to learn their true reason for their creation. It might be a simple act, but the purpose of Sabbath observance is a fundamental.

Experience vs. Reason vs. Authority

Rambam’s Three Critera for Truth:

Know, my masters, that it is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things. The first is a thing for which there is a clear proof deriving from man’s reasoning—such as arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The second is a thing that a man perceives through one of the five senses—such as when he knows with certainty that this is red and this is black and the like through the sight of his eye; or as when he tastes that this is bitter and this is sweet; or as when he feels that this is hot and this is cold; or as when he hears that this sound is clear and this sound is indistinct; or as when he smells that this is a pleasing smell and this is a displeasing smell and the like. The third is a thing that a man receives from the Prophets or from the righteous. Every reasonable man ought to distinguish in his mind and thought all the things that he accepts as trustworthy, and say: “This I accept as trustworthy because of tradition, and this because of sense-perception, and this on grounds of reason.” Anyone who accepts as trustworthy anything that is not of these three species, of him it is said: “The simple believes everything (Prov. 14:15).”

Radak on Samuel I, 28:25 (towards the end):

“…although the implications of the words of the Rabbis - blessed their memory - indicate from the Talmud that the (idolatrous) woman resurrected Samuel, we do not accept these words when our intelligence tells us the opposite.”

Matthew: Doesn’t Radak’s statement trouble Rambam’s three conditions for truth (above), by pointing out a situation in which they appear to conflict? He sees the Rabbis (revelation/transmission) apparently making a statement about Samuel that conflicts with his intellect. So he chooses the interpretation by his intellect over the plain meaning of the Rabbinic interpretation.

Rabbi: Very good observation. So you must know the conclusion...

You must say that one trumps the other; reason trumps authority.] Meaning, any of Rambam’s 3 criteria are worthy of acceptance. However, a conflict can arise. Radak resolves it.

Matthew: That seems radical though, doesn’t it? I mean, Radak subverts the literal meaning of the Rabbinic interpretation in order to understand the passage according to the dictates of his own intellect. Isn’t that a bit arrogant (I am assuming that Radak, while a great Rabbi, cannot hold a candle to the Rabbis more closely linked to the oral tradition b/c they are generationally closer to Sinai and Talmud)?

Rabbi: Radak resolves it by choosing his intellect over revelation/transmission. In the search for truth, there are 3 levels, one is closer to the truth than the next

1) Experience

This is "reality" -- the very definition of "reality" is that which we experience: i.e., matter and events. There is nothing else. Thus, it is a "reality" that you are reading this email. 

2) Reason

This is not experiential, but what we reason based on sense perception; our experiences.

Thus, you reason that this email was written by a human.

This is close to experience, but not quite, and still open to rejection, unlike experience, since the human mind is not flawless. And primarily, since reason is dependent on the very perception of which we reason, reason thereby bows to perception is the most primary source of reality.

3) Communication from the Rabbis

Here, the reasoned transmissions are open to human error, and distortion over time. Yet, God ensures the transmission of the Torah, and the honesty of the Rabbis is apparent, so we deem this trustworthy, but in no way impregnable to error.

Thus, Radak says reason trumps authority, and experience trumps reason.

But there might be cases where one’s reason will reject reality, but in such a case, like a magic trick, we know we have not accurately perceived reality, but sleight-of-hand fooled our senses.

Authority vs. Truth

Simon: I would have hoped to see letters of Haskoma from Gedolim for your book, Religion of Reason. What happened?

Rabbi: I do not seek haskamot for the same reason Rambam did not seek them: Torah is determined by truth and not reputations. Additionally, what shall one do when reading that Ramban argued on Rambam?

Simon: Sir - you are no Rambam - and since most people do not know you - it is best to read your writings only if they are deemed appropriate by known and respected Gedolim - reputation means a lot - especially when you tread on turbulent waters. We have a mesora - and we have Gedolim to maintain it. Those who operate outside the norm - leave much to be desired.

Rabbi: Simon,

If you truly read my intro and first chapter, you could not write what you did, as you contradict yourself. For to follow the Rabbis - our Mesora - you must follow these Rabbis' quotes below. Thus, the Rabbis teach that we must not merely follow a reputation. We must use our minds. Yet, you do not follow these Rabbis. You abandon this Mesora. 

Duties of the Heart

Devarim 17:8-10 states: "If a case should prove too difficult for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, between (leprous) mark and mark, or other matters of dispute in your courts, you must act in accordance with what they tell you."

The verse does not say simply accept them on the authority of Torah sages and rely exclusively on their tradition." Rather, (Scripture) says that you should reflect on your own mind, and use your intellect in these matters. First learn them from tradition - which covers all the commandments in the Torah, their principles and details - and then examine them with your own mind, understanding, and judgment, until the truth becomes clear to you, and falsehood rejected, as it is written: "Understand today and reflect on it in your heart, Hashem is the God in the heavens above, and on the Earth below, there is no other (ibid, 4:39)."  

Radak (Samuel I, 28:25 towards the end):

"...although the implications of the words of the Rabbis - blessed their memory - indicate from the Talmud that the (idolatrous) woman resurrected Samuel, we do not accept these words when our intelligence tells us the opposite."

But this is all sidestepping the issue. Apparently you disagree with something I wrote. 

1) What exactly? 

2) And what is your reasoning?

Thank you,


Simon: I am afraid that your writing border on apikorsis- "Thus, the Rabbis teach that we must not merely follow a reputation. We must use our minds." This is a discussion I am not equipped to have - I am from the blind faithful - and not the intellectual individualists - I wish you well.