Letters May IV




A Word on Words


Dear Rabbi Ben-Chaim, 

I read with interest your reader’s (David and Fred) letters and your response to the question of the line in the Unesana Tokkef, which states “U’Teshuva, U’Tefillah, U’Tzedakah Maavirin Et Roah Hagezeira”. Based on the translation of: repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil decree, your readers wonder how a mitzvah can cancel an evil decree. I believe the answer you give is excellent but I think some points need to be emphasized more.

When looking at this line from the prayer service, we must make sure we have the correct translation of the line and the proper definitions of the words. Most of us are comfortable with the translation given in the Artscroll siddur, and we neglect to ask ourselves if this is indeed the correct meaning of the Hebrew words. Your article makes reference that Tefillah means to “Judge oneself” and that Tzedakah means Justice. We must drive home the fact that Tefillah does not mean prayer. Prayer means “to ask” as in the old English “I pray thee?” Prayer is just a small portion of our Tefillah; it is only the middle 13 blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei. Tzedakah does not mean charity. As the posuk says “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof.  Justice, Justice shall you pursue”.  Maavirin comes from the shoresh av”r which means to pass over. Lastly Roah Hegezeira means the evil portion of the decree. We now have a totally different sentence, it reads like this “Repentance, introspection and justice passes over (or lessens) the evilness of the decree”. The decree still stands, we are not removed from the corrective action that is necessary, but the harshness of it is lessened. In addition, there are no mitzvoth mentioned in this sentence; just three key ideas that keep man on the correct path. When we do wrong, corrective action must be taken. The change we make in ourselves through introspection, repentance and following a Just path, will decrease the harshness of the decree.


Thank you, Mark Roth


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Mark, you are suggesting the punitive decree remains, but the degree of evil is passed over. Practically, and metaphysically, what does that mean? Thank you.




Quite Quiet


Reader: It seems to me that in Rav Chait’s essay “Torah from Sinai” there is a jump from the logic of conspiracy, which applies it outside of its purview. It is reasonable that generation A would not conspire to fabricate or keep something quiet from generation B because that would require sharing the same motivation to deceive, but that is not the same thing as saying that generation B can’t be convinced of accepting that generation A witnessed something they in fact did not. The logic of conspiracy isn’t a factor, as no masses are conspiring – Generation A isn’t lying, hiding or fabricating anything as a group. Instead some third party is convincing generation B to accept something false, and a generation of people accepting something false is not too hard to believe (for arguments sake, let’s say Jesus rising from the dead). What is different in this case?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: We do not deny that masses can “believe” an event. But it is impossible that people will collectively proliferate a lie. Therefore, no event will ever arise as you suggest, that there will be any transmission in which listeners will blindly accept the transmission. The transmission will never take place due to the lack of a common motive to fabricate.

Reader: I am not saying there isn’t an answer, but I am not satisfied as of now with saying that it implies a mass silence took place, at most it would imply that people can be convinced of a mass silence and that requires a whole different explanation from the improbability of a shared motivation to deceive. Rav Chait wrote “If someone were to tell us that an atomic bomb was detonated over New York City fifty years ago, we would not accept it as true because we would assume that we would have certainly heard about it, had it actually occurred.” This is reasonable – but why? There has to be a more thorough explanation to accept that people can’t be convinced despite not having heard of it before from their parents. What is that explanation?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: “Mass silence is impossible” is based on two human emotions: 

1) Social: Man’s design includes powerful emotions, and one of our strongest emotions is our social need; expressed primarily through discussion.  

2) Immortality: Our emotions are greatly effected concerning death, since we fear that unknown, because we view lifeless bodies with morbidity, and because we know only this life.  

Put these two together, and we find a volatile mixture, impossible to extinguish: emotionally impacting events like bombings are irresistible topics of discussions since our social needs demand we talk with others. This explains all other events that impact our emotions...including Sinai. There too we read the Jews feared for their lives upon hearing God’s created voice. Had Sinai not taken place, the Jews would be in possession of their “true” history of that era. But the evident silence regarding any other Jewish history proves Sinai is incontrovertible truth. 

This principle also refutes the claims of other religions of miracles or divine events: had those purported events transpired as they claim, mass silence would not be an option...yet, mass silence exists concerning masses of eye witnesses in connection with Jesus’ miracles, Mohammed’s, and all others. The religions are quite quiet.

Reader: Does the source of the fabrication have to be a mass of people? I think everyone is in agreement that such mass fabrications are impossible, and it is only possible for a small group or individual to be the source of the fabrication. It was individual charismatic figures like Paul that convinced many people about Jesus’ resurrection. I accept that Generation A could not have fabricated a lie about what they witnessed. I am unclear as to why a fabrication could not have been made ABOUT Generation A by a third party, Paul-like figure, and have been “sold” to Generation B? Is there some psychological/sociological factor at play that makes this impossible?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Neither Paul or any other person ever convinced people that masses attended any event. Paul convinced others to “believe” in the event, not that there were masses, or that their ancestors or parents had a history different than what they knew. He did not fabricate stories that precluded accepted history. Rather, he described events that could be accepted by those seeking miraculous meaning in life embodied in heroic figures, while not fabricating histories that were easily refuted.  

Belief can be sold...but not events contradicting known history. No revisionist is that foolish.

Reader: A very interesting answer!

In truth, this just awakens even more new questions about this method of approaching history. Nevertheless, I still must reassert my earlier line of questioning. You have partially answered my question by giving me the principle you see at work in historical methodology – just as we have principle 1) that “a mass conspiracy is impossible”, so too we have the historical method principle 2) that “new histories that conflict with acquired histories will not be accepted by a society” But with principle 1 – the mass conspiracy – I can accept it because I have been provided with a strong basis to do so, namely the fact that a mass of people cannot share the same motivation. What grounds do I have to accept principle 2 – that societies will not accept the validity of events that conflict with their accepted histories? One answer you have already given is the reality on the ground that apparently no revisionist is foolish enough to have tried it. Assuming, for now, that your information on the habits of revisionists is correct, there is the “statistical” weight of your argument - we never see people accepting “new conflicting histories”. Nevertheless, it doesn’t explain how or why this historical rule works. What is the basis of this “loyalty” that makes it so strong as to be impenetrable by a charismatic revisionist? “Mass Conspiracy” has the motivation factor. What basis does this “loyalty to history” have, and why is it so strong?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: You misunderstand me. When I say  “No revisionist ever succeeded” it is not a statistical argument, leaving room for a future success. The argument is that he cannot possibly be accepted, since people will not abandon what their minds know occurred. For example, no American will ever deny 9/11, regardless of the charisma of any revisionist. The principle that governs this as an eternal truth is the unchanging human nature that masses will not lie: not to others, or to themselves.




…Versus the Verses


Aaron: I have been enjoying the evolution of this discussion on God’s oneness and thought I’d make a comment.

I noticed that only once was the verse “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One” mentioned, and it was very summarily disregarded as lacking deep insight into the topic.

On the contrary, this verse is the Scriptural statement of God’s Oneness, in all its unfathomable dimensions, including indivisibility. As Maimonides states many times, the Torah in its perfection and the Sages in their wisdom are capable of expressing the greatest depths of an area of knowledge in the most incredibly succinct and precise phraseology.

The search for detailed philosophical proofs in Scripture of each element of an idea, such as “divisibility” in the realm of God’s Oneness, is in error. This is the reason that Maimonides so many times (in the Guide, in the introduction to Avos [Shemoneh Perakim] and elsewhere) directs the reader to Aristotle’s Metaphysics for the lengthy details of the proof or provides his own proofs. The Torah simply states the truth that God has revealed to mankind. If a person studies and acquires knowledge, he will then see that every facet of the truth is contained in the Torah’s and the Sages’ briefest words.

Indivisibility is a natural truth that will result from any wise person’s study into the idea of true Oneness, the positive nature of which we are of course unable to comprehend. When the verse states “...the Lord is One,” it is making the only statement that can be made about God’s Oneness in the human framework, namely that as hard as we try, all we will ultimately be able to say is that God is unlike any other “existence” and that all we can use are the most imprecise terms. When this idea is real to a person, he or she will no longer look to the verses for philosophical proofs. (As an aside: this also addresses the question that someone raised of Maimonides seeming to have taken his own track in presenting proofs that are not “verified” by Scripture.)




“In” Possibilities? Impossibilities.


Aaron: If we are part infinite, then ‘that part of us takes up no physical space’. It is not corporeal. HaShem is not finite and also takes up no physical space. Thus we can see that HaShem logically could be really “inside” of us insofar as we are infinite beings. 

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: You cannot use the term “inside” to describe a non-physical existence like God. Your assumption that He is inside man is impossible. 

Aaron: The essential question to ask is why would the Torah want us to think that human beings are ethereal, and thus really have HaShem, “inside” us? 

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: The Torah does nothing of the sort, and in fact, numerous verses attempt to move man away from any physical idea of God. This was Maimonides’ praise of Unkelos, that he translated all possible instances of God’s anthropomorphisms metaphorically.

Aaron: I completely agree with you. And because of the lack of terms I am forced to use the term “inside.” There is no spatiality, and insofar as there is no spatiality, of course HaShem cannot be “inside” of a human being. For a lack of better words I used the term “inside.” If you can think of something better please tell me. The Torah uses the anthropomorphisms for a reason. Sometimes they are the best way to describe certain ideas. 

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Aaron, the Rabbis coined a phrase, “Had the Torah not said it, it would be impossible to state”. This means we are licensed to discuss only those matters, which Torah discusses. For example, since the Torah said, “God was angered”, we can discuss what this truth is of this “emotional description”, although God is devoid of his own creations, i.e., emotions. How then, do we understand this? It means that God disapproves; just as man’s anger displays ‘his’ disapproval. “God smelled the pleasant fragrance” (of sacrifice) means God approved of man’s act of sacrificing a beast in his own stead, to show remorse, or thanks. However, God never said in His Torah, “I am hungry”. This is because hunger has no other understanding outside the biological meaning. Therefore, it would be heretic to state, “God is hungry”.  

Similarly, God never licensed a prophet to write of Himself, “I am inside man”, for this too carries a heretic meaning. So you too Aaron must mature your thinking to a true understanding that “inside” cannot apply to God. What you are doing currently, is forcing your faulty thinking. Instead, do not create statements that the Torah never licensed, rather, claim ignorance, if you cannot understand this idea at present. In fact, the Torah says, “God is the place (makome) of the universe, and the universe is not God’s place”. This statement corrects this very false notion that God exists geographically: in fact, He is the “place” (the enabler) of the universe. Meaning, without God, the universe could not exist.

The closest the Torah comes is “And build for Me a temple, and I will dwell amongst you.”  Not “inside you” but “amongst” you…meaning, He offers His providence, and not that He occupies space.

“Had the Torah not said it, it would be impossible to state”. The Torah never said God is “inside”. Therefore, we cannot use that term.