Letters July, 2012

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Can God do Anything

Rabbi:  God cannot make a square, that is also a circle at the same moment in time.

Friend: Maybe He can…maybe our minds are limited based on our views? Maybe we're biased due to the natural laws we witness on Earth? Perhaps in another universe God can make a square, that is also a circle?

Rabbi:  Can God make your day of birth tomorrow, although you already exist? No he cannot. "Impossibilities" refer to imagined phenomena that cannot exist. Similarly, God cannot make another God. By the fact that God caused everything, and this is what makes him "God," His creation of another superpower means that this 2nd being was 'created', and not all-powerful! So, God cannot do anything.

I would add this comment to your first suggestion. You said "in another universe God can make a square that is also a circle."  As you referred to another "universe", your statement is predicated on the acceptance that whatever God makes, must exist. Meaning, He cannot make something exist, that simultaneously does NOT exist. Yet, if God can in fact do anything, He should be able to make something exist which does not exist.  I think we now see clearly that God cannot do anything. Meaning, that which is impossible, is not subject to existence, and therefore cannot be created.

OK to Sing Torah Verses?

Friend: Do the many religious Jews who sing Torah verses indicate it is a permissible act? 

Rabbi:  Talmud Sanhedrin 101a:

"One who reads a verse of "Song of Songs" and makes it into a (personal) melody, or one who reads (without singing) a Torah verse at a party not in its time, he brings evil to the world. Because the Torah garbed itself in sackcloth and stood before God and said, 'Your children have made me like a harp that is sung to by scorners.' God responded, 'My daughter (the Torah) what should the Jews involve themselves in when they eat and drink?' The Torah responded, 'If they are masters of written texts, let them engage in the Five Books, the Prophets and the Writings…If they are masters of Oral law, let them engage in Oral Law, edicts and stories…if they are masters of Talmud, let them engage in the laws of Passover at its time, Shavuos at its time and Succos at its time.' Rabbi Shimon son of Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Shimon son of Chananya, 'One who reads a verse in its proper time brings good to the world, as (King Solomon) said, 'A word (davar) in its time, how good (it is)."

The Talmud teaches two violations: 

1) Singing a verse is prohibited, even a verse that is part of a Shira (song); 

2) Reading a verse not as a song, and doing so for a reason other than studying it's teachings.  

We are thereby taught that a Scriptural verse has one purpose: to educate us about God. It must not be abused as done today, where Jews sing a verse, thereby rendering the verse a tool for emotional pleasure, and not for study. This is why the Torah is "garbed in sackcloth;" it is mourning due to the Jews' abuse. But abuse can be in another manner too. Even if a verse is not sung, but if it is cited merely to make another person get a laugh, again it is not being used to learn about God.

Torah verses have a single designation, and when not qouted for this purpose of studying God, it is clearly prohibited to verbalize the verse; whether in song or not. It truly matters nothing at all that the religious world at large violates this . It is unfortunate, but most people look at the masses and say, "How can X be prohibited, everyone does it!" This shows us how far from intelligence the Jewish people have strayed. For an intelligent person will read the Talmud, and accept the prohibition. Those who are more impressed by their peers than by the Talmudic Rabbis, will say "Everyone does it!" to justify their error. 

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt"l prohibited the singing of verses." (Yoreh Daya 2:142)  This great mind understood this Talmudic portion clearly. It is prohibited to sing a verse. Rav Moshe expressed that although the practice of singing scriptural verses is widespread, and even respected men engage in this practice, he states that it is certainly prohibited and he does not see a just reason for those who violate. Rav Moshe added that some might read Rashi as singling out Shir HaShirim alone as the only prohibited text. But Rav Moshe makes it clear that Rashi means to say that if Shir HaShirim is prohibited, a song…certainly all other scriptural passages are prohibited.

Was Torah Ever Lost?

Reader:  Two question please: 

1) The Ramban, Kuzari and many Talmudic sources indicate the Jews lost the Torah. Yet, God promised it would never be lost! How can we explain this?

2) The next question requires Talmudic context:

"If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!' Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: 'Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!' But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: 'It is not in heaven.' What did he mean by this? Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline. R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour?  He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, 'My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.' It was said: On that day all objects which R. Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burnt in fire. Then they took a vote and excommunicated him."

Question: "My sons have defeated me" is a phrase which really bothers me because how can God be lesser than his creations? This phrase seems so heretical.

Rabbi: "Torah will never leave your mouths, your children's mouths or the mouths of your grandchildren (Isaiah 59:21)." God doesn't break His promises.  Your words above show that there were leaders who finally arose, who possessed the Torah, so as to restore it! So, while many may become ignorant, the Torah is never completely lost. Maimonides too validates this, as he lists the unbroken chain of Torah transmission in the beginning of his Mishneh Torah. 

Regarding your second question, "Torah not being in heaven", means it is something attainable. It also means that rulings were given to man. God desires that man use his mind to arrive at what "he" sees is Torah law. In Torah law, God does not want man simply seeking God's absolute knowledge, as this makes man absent-minded, a mindless robot. This is not God's plan in the realm of Jewish law. God created a system of Torah verses together with the Oral Law, so man might analyze, deduce, induce and apply his thinking. It is this act of analytic thought that enables man to then grow in his wisdom and reasoning skills. He is then enabled to grow his knowledge past the written words in Torah, as God desired. This is the very process of Talmudic thought. This is in contrast to an operational handbook where we follow steps to repair a appliance, without knowing the inner workings and relationships between all the parts, and merely treating the symptoms. Halacha is the opposite: we are to engage analysis and creativity to decipher and apply amazing principles. God wants us to experience the enjoyment of realizing new ideas, for this fills a person's soul with the greatest joy, to witness a system of wisdom that reflects the great Creator. But to simply go through the motions, even if they match God's ultimate knowledge, fails in the purpose of the human mind.   

The Talmud you cite where Rabbi Eliezer is declared right by a heavenly voice, means he knew the law perfectly in this area. Yet, "R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: It is not in heaven" meaning that Torah law was given to man's jurisdiction. This is God's will. God does not desire that man attain His level, where man is flawless and his thoughts agree with God's 100% of the time. No. God desires more than correct conclusions, that man uses a process of intelligence, following Halachik principles, regardless of the outcome. This is the meaning of "it is not in heaven." Meaning, God desires that rulings are developed by human intelligence and creativity, not a rote, blind mimicking of what God is thinking. 

The Rabbi's statement "My sons have defeated me" euphemistically attributed to God, means that the Rabbis successfully adhered to Halacha – using the Torah's laws – to arrive at truth and ignored the Heavenly Voice. The Rabbis "succeeded" by following the principle "It is not in heaven". They remained firm to the Torah's principles, and did not cave in to the attraction of Divine phenomenon, which would be against God's principles for determining law. 

The Rabbi's statement "My sons have defeated me" is just one of thousands of Rabbinic saying purposefully crafted  to catch our ears. Intuitively,we are alarmed at such a statement, that Rabbis could "beat" God. This phrase is intended to draw us in and analyze it. So you are properly perplexed by it, as the Rabbis intended! But you must go past the surface meaning, for this is not the lesson. 

Business Ethics

Reader: When negotiating in business, is it permissible to make a low offer for something that you know is of high value, taking advantage of the other guy's ignorance or desperation? 

Rabbi:  Maimonides teaches that the correct ethic is to seek equal gain for you and your business partners. Do not look to get the better deal. This is sensible, for what makes you more important than your fellow man, that should entitle you to a more profitable deal than him? This also fulfills the obligatory morals of kindness and generosity. Additionally, if you know your business partner is ignorant of certain values, and you allow him to remain that way by concealing that knowledge, you effectively sustain his current ignorance, allowing others too to take advantage of him. I would certainly seek to help this person, educate him about his ignorance, teach him the true value of his property or service, assisting him to achieve greater success in life. 

The Torah speaks of this ethic regarding the Jubilee (50th) year where all fields return to the original owners (Lev. 25:15). We are taught to sell fields for progressively less as each year draws closer to the return date. Fields purchased year 1 after the Jubilee are possessed for 49 years; thereby having higher worth than a field bought 25 years after the Jubilee which is retained only 24 years. The latter must be sold at a lower price. 

Praise of God

Reader: Is the Hebrew word Hallelujah the highest praise we can give God? If so, why? If not, what is the highest praise we can give God? Thank you for your assistance.

Rabbi:  Man cannot praise God, since praise refers to one party benefiting the other with words. Man cannot benefit God, who is already most perfect.

Torah's "praises" of God are the words of the most perfected prophets, like those of Moses and King David. Since their words were Divinely inspired, or most perfect, they were included in our prayers to remind us of these perfected ideas. We cannot alter these words in any way, since these great minds knew the proper expressions that best humanly describe God's honor. These great individuals had no intent to "benefit" God through their praises. Rather, their intent was to express their joy in knowing what they could of God, or to thank Him and to act naturally using verbal expression in their love of the Creator and His uncountable acts of kindness for man. Their praises of God were for themselves; a natural outpouring, and for others as instruction on what we can and cannot say in connection with God. Their great insight isolated proper formulations that recount accurate notions about God. By studying the depth of their praises, we are enabled to gain their insight. 

The highest praise to God is commensurate with our highest understanding of God. Only then can we truly agree with the content of our praises, and mean what we say. But in no way do we actually benefit God in any way. Praising God is solely for our benefit.

The word Hallelujah means "praise God". It actually does not contain a reference to anything God did. That is why it is always followed by an elaboration of God's acts.  

If we say God created the universe, that is a greater statement of truth than saying Hallelujah. As we continue to grow in our knowledge of God, we are further enabled to recite more praises. But we must, as the Talmud states, cite only the praises our great Sages formulated in our daily prayers — nothing more or less. 

Lashon Hara, or Not?

Reader: If John comes to you and bad-mouths Bob, and you realize that Bob is not aware of John, is it permitted for you to warn Bob to be careful of the John, the "gossiper"?

Rabbi:  It is certainly proper that you warn Bob about John, as you are not denigrating John with your warning but seeking to protect Bob. This would not constitute Lashon Hara. Using your first question above, the Torah mandates not to sell fields for more than their worth. Applied to this case, if I know John intends on selling his field to you for more than market value based on the upcoming Jubilee, I am supporting the Torah's mandate to ensure buyers are protected, by informing you of John's cheating tactics.