Letters July 2012: 2

Words are Not Powerful

Words do not have any "supernatural" power, but they do express intention. It is forbidden to use the Name of God in vain, because by doing so you empty it of meaning - in other words, you empty yourself of the fear you should have of God. To say that words can kill is a metaphor for the pain some words can cause. But "summoning supernatural beings" is an Abracadabra that has no meaning and therefore no effect, except in the imagination of those who believe in spells. 

Some words do have power and influence, as King Shlomo says דבר דבור על אופניו for the meaning they convey and the realm of notions they disclose. A good thought and a kind word can certainly change reality, and what really "angers" God is the stupidity of a person who talks nonsense. 

Talking tongues is just a trick to make believe one is superior by pretending to have some secret knowledge, but if one speaks words of wisdom, his words are a balm to the soul.

Elisheva Barre 

Powerless Red Bendels

A Pasuk in Parshas Balak (Num. 23:8) is relevant to the idea of the Red Bendel and other superstitions: "How can I curse if God hasn't cursed; how can I anger, when God hasn't been angry?"

Meaning, there can be no punishment based on a Red Bendel or lack thereof, when it violates God's anger. Furthermore, God is righteous, as He bases His anger or favor on sin and mitzvah; NOT such things as Bendels or mezuzas.

—Jessie Fischbein

Distancing Idolatry from Us

Reader: I was told that Maimonides in his works on Avodah Zara lays out a negative commandment that it is prohibited to help or save any non-Jew in the land of Israel based on Deut.7. This seems very anti humanistic. What are the rules governing which kinds of non-Jews may live in Israel? Please cite sources.


Rabbi: My Mishneh Torah edition does not have a chapter 10:7...it ends at 10:6. 

There, Maimonides explains the reason for not allowing idolaters to dwell or even pass through Israel, based on Exod. 23:33, "Do not let them dwell in your land lest they cause you to err when they serve their gods, for they will become a stumbling block to you." 

Preventing idolaters from dwelling among us or in Israel completely removes any possibility of idolatrous influence affecting the Jewish nation, who are to be a light unto the world. God intends all men and women He created to follow truth, and not the worst sin of idolatry. This can only be achieved if the Jew is insulated from all idolatrous influence and are thereby raised purely in Torah so as to go out into the world and become this beacon. 

But all this is not applicable if a gentile follows the 7 Noahide laws. Then he is no longer an idolater, and we dwell together, both following one Torah. 

It is notable that in 10:5  Maimonides discusses the law to financially support the impoverished idol worshippers. This, we show kindness to all people, but we preserve our role as Torah teachers by overpowering the idolatrous influence from our cities. Ironically, this is done for the good of the world, and not for the Jew, as is God's will.

Loving the Unknowable God

Reader: I am still puzzled by your assertion that "knowledge is the sole catalyst for the love, which is expressed naturally as a result." While the proposition "knowledge is a sole catalyst for the love" is unproblematic, the further assertion that it is "the sole catalyst" strikes me as disputable. Even if one were willing to concede that knowledge is a necessary condition for love, this does not exclude the possibility that there can be other catalysts or factors that enhance, enrich or promote the loving-state.

For instance, I might love my son, and necessary for this love might be the knowledge that X is my son. But does this imply that the only thing that can promote or enhance this loving-state is more knowledge of my son? If my son does things for me and cares for me, this might enhance my love, but I would be hard-pressed to say that the cause of this love, is more knowledge alone, rather than the mere fact that he did things for me, simpliciter. (A further issue, though not one I will focus on here, is that it seems one can love another without having knowledge of him. For instance, I might think that this person is my son, and genuinely love this person, while it may be the case that my belief that this person is my son is mistaken. It thus seems possible to love sans knowledge.)

Another question I have on your knowledge-love doctrine is the following: We are commanded to love God. But we also know that God is beyond our comprehension; that we cannot have any positive knowledge of God. Yet, on your view, love of X can only come from knowledge of X. By modus tollens, does it not follow that we cannot love God, since we cannot have knowledge of God?

Rabbi: Even in your case, loving your son depends on knowledge of him, or knowledge of his acts. Without knowledge of him, you cannot love someone you don't know. And once you know him, without knowledge of his acts of kindness, you cannot increase your love. Loving someone you think is your son, who ends up not to be your son, still requires knowledge of that person, regardless of familial relationships. Erring in your knowledge of your true relationship does not remove the knowledge of that person, or his acts.

In terms of loving the unknowable God, what we love is not any positive idea of Him; that's impossible. But we love Him as the source of the universe and all the good He bestows, and primarily based on our increasing knowledge of His wisdom which we gain through study of nature and Torah.