God's Words vs. Man's Notions

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Many attempt to teach Torah ideals. And although backed by good intent, many notions taught throughout time are false. Human intention must not obscure or replace what God in fact truly means.

The most fundamental of fundamentals in Torah study is to separate human notion from what is undeniably God's Torah. Machlokess – dispute – between Rabbis or Jews, is the result of ignorance. At one point in time, there was no machlokess. God's words were not subject to debate, as Jews received accurate transmission of God's Written and Oral Laws. And even today, facts and theories of an obvious character have never been disputed, such as the identity of our leaders Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon. Included in this category of obvious content, are the Torah's words. It is therefore vital that when we study Torah, we accept only those explanations that perfectly fit the verses.

It was disappointing to have recently heard a learned individual attribute feelings, specifically "fear" to God. He read the verse in Genesis "lest man reach out his hand and eat of the tree of life and live forever" (Gen. 3:22). He interpreted the word "lest" as God possessing fear, of man. He also said God "feared" man building the tower in Babel, and that when the Torah says "God was grieved in His heart" (Gen. 6:6) it referred to a real vexation on God's part. The individual did not realize his own projections. Based on his personal and subjective outlook, he attributed human characteristics to God, an act of heresy. I explained that God created man and all his faculties including fear, therefore God is not subject to His very creations: God possesses no fear or vexation. 

But people continue to assume their understandings are representative of reality. However, if one truly studied reality and employed reason, he or she would arrive at the realization that God cannot possess anything that He created. Certainly, it is wrong to attribute to God characteristics never mentioned in Torah. But he then asked, "Doesn't Torah cite God 'smelling a sweet savour' when describing Noah's sacrifices?" (Gen. 8:21) I responded that although his quote was correct, it must nonetheless be a metaphor, since God has no sense perception and therefore cannot "smell". This simply means that man's act of sacrifice "conforms to God's will"...as is a "pleasant aroma" to man. The Rabbis teach that the Torah speaks in the language of man. God wishes the Torah to offer meaning to all levels of humanity. But God also wishes man to excel past infantile stages, and understand truths. Nonetheless, he is inexcusable for attributing fear to God – never attributed by the Torah's words.

I mention all this since it is crucial to our learning that we insist on strict adherence to the words of Torah. Only in this manner can we ensure that we receive the truth, and not error. And since Torah is written in a cryptic fashion, the task is all that more difficult. Only one trained in the methods of the Torah can act as a reliable Torah educator. We must not resort to those lacking the necessary decades of intense Torah training, literary experts, historians, or similar secular approaches when studying God's words. We resort to the Torah authorities. We must then follow only those opinions that perfectly fit the Torah's words.

This is the primary lesson: accurate Torah explanations are not "possibilities", but are ideas demanded by the text. 

When about to answer a question in his lectures, one wise Rabbi always asks his students the following: "What MUST you say?" His lesson is this: never suggest explanations that are unwarranted. To be true to God's words, we must only say "what must be said", i.e., what is demanded by the verses. In this manner, we ensure that we are comprehending ideas God intends us to, and not merely offering possibilities, which can be wrong.

Therefore, use this principle when you learn anything, from a teacher, Rabbi, book, sefer, lecture, anything at all. Understand this clearly: man errs, so authoritative positions, large followings, encyclopedic minds, and reputations are of no avail when determining truth. Rather, ask yourself if what you hear or read is "demanded" by the verse, or if it's simply a possibility. Certainly, if an idea doesn't fit the words or opposes them, disregard it immediately. Do not allow any emotional appeal to take root. Following is an example of of what we "must" say. 

The same learned individual cited above said that the Jewish nation that exited Egypt was not obligated in Torah "study", but they were simply obligated to follow the mitzvahs in action. I do not know what compelled him to accept this view. Perhaps he erred as do others, that those former slaves were not mentally equipped to delve into abstract knowledge. However, he ignored the facts, for God instructed Moses to deliver His name to the Jews, "I am, that I am". (Exod. 3:14) This is no simple statement, but requires the audience possess insight. This name serves to prove that God in fact spoke with Moses. As a wise Rabbi taught, God was informing Moses of a highly simplified phrase that carried the idea of God's "independent existence". "I am that I am" means "I am the existence that always existed", or "Whose existence is essential" and not an accidental property, like everything in the universe, which God granted existence from absolute nothingness.

God is the only existence that exists by His very nature, and not due to an added property, like all else. This is equally difficult for people today to grasp. The proof that God spoke to Moses is in the fact that man does not derive such a notion from the created world. The knowledge of something whose existence is part of its nature is derived through prophecy. This would validate Moses' claim that God spoke with him. This also rejects the view that the Jews were incapable of deep thought. 

Secondly, God said in the Shima "and you shall teach them to your sons, and you shall speak of them..." This proves that Torah discussion is required, aside from fulfilling the commands. It also teaches that even the sons – not wise elders – were expected to grasp their fathers' teachings. 

Finally, this deep Torah system was not given to our generation alone, but to those former slaves. Thus, God expected that first generation to benefit from the Torah, in all its cryptic lessons.

This individual I quote was at fault in a most severe manner. He attributed human qualities to God. He also suggested that the Torah's greatest mitzvah – Torah study – was not expected of that early generation. This is akin to suggesting a circle can be drawn without curved lines. Similarly, he feels Torah can exist among men through mitzvah alone, without men studying Torah as its own purpose. Additionally, he did not base himself on a source. Had he been true to the verses, he would not suggest that Torah study was inapplicable to the first generation of Jews during Moses' time. 

This person, I fear, is just one of many regarding whom Jewish education has evaded. If our current Yeshiva system does not commence the teaching of fundamentals, more and more Jews will make these grave errors. And this will make Jewish education worse than obsolete, as it allows Jews to become heretics. 

Be very jealous about your Torah. Do not sacrifice the truth due to any fear of personalities. Demand all that you are taught fits God's words perfectly. God created the faculty if vigilance: it is to be used most in our pursuit of truth.

If you are in Jewish education or a concerned parent, kindly contact me for a new outline which I am preparing for both teachers and students. My goal is to ensure that the Torah's vital lessons from Moses through Maimonides are made available. This outline entitled "Judaism's Fundamentals" will not only include fundamental mitzvahs and principles concerning our understanding of God, but also, a set of rules of thought and rejections of false notions.

Please write to rabbi@mesora.org with the email subject "Judaism's Fundamentals" and include your name, position, city, school, with the grades you teach.