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April 21, 2014 / 21 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘fundamental’

The Almighty’s Supreme Call to Man

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

It is the most famous, majestic and influential opening of any book in literature: “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth.” What is surpassingly strange is the way Rashi – most beloved of all Jewish commentators – begins his commentary:

Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah should have begun with the verse (Exodus 12:1), “This month shall be to you the first of the months,” which was the first commandment given to Israel.

Can we really take this at face value? Did Rabbi Isaac, or for that matter Rashi, seriously suggest that the Book of books might have begun in the middle – a third of the way into Exodus? That it might have passed by in silence the creation of the universe – which is, after all, one of the fundamentals of Jewish faith?

Could we understand the history of Israel without its prehistory, the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their children? Could we have understood those narratives without knowing what preceded them: G-d’s repeated disappointment with Adam and Eve, Cain, the generation of the Flood, and the builders of the Tower of Babel?

The 50 chapters of Genesis, together with the opening of Exodus, are the source book of biblical faith. They are as near as we get to an exposition of the philosophy of Judaism. What then did Rabbi Isaac mean?

He meant something profound, which we often forget. To understand a book, we need to know to what genre it belongs. Is it history or legend, chronicle or myth? To what question is it an answer? A history book answers the question: what happened? A book of cosmology – be it science or myth – answers the question: how did it happen?

What Rabbi Isaac is telling us is that if we seek to understand the Torah, we must read it as Torah, which is to say: law, instruction, teaching, and guidance. Torah is an answer to the question: how shall we live? That is why he raises the question as to why it does not begin with the first command given to Israel.

Torah is not a book of history, even though it includes history. It is not a book of science, even though the first chapter of Genesis – as the 19th-century sociologist Max Weber pointed out – is the necessary prelude to science, because it represents the first time people saw the universe as the product of a single creative will – and therefore as intelligible rather than capricious and mysterious. It is, first and last, a book about how to live. Everything it contains – not only commandments but also narratives, including the narrative of creation itself – is there solely for the sake of ethical and spiritual instruction.

Jewish ethics is not confined to law. It includes virtues of character, general principles and role models. It is conveyed not only by commandments but also by narratives, telling us how particular individuals responded to specific situations.

It moves from the minutest details to the most majestic visions of the universe and our place within it. But it never deviates from its intense focus on these questions: What shall I do? How shall I live? What kind of person should I strive to become? It begins, in Genesis 1, with the most fundamental question of all. As the Psalm (8:4) puts it: “What is man that You are mindful of him?”

Pico della Mirandola’s 15th century Oration on the Dignity of Man was one of the turning points of Western civilization, the “manifesto” of the Italian Renaissance. In it he attributed the following declaration to G-d, addressing the first man:

 

We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgement and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.

 

Homo sapiens, that unique synthesis of “dust of the earth” and breath of G-d, is unique among created beings in having no fixed essence – in being free to be what he or she chooses. Mirandola’s Oration was a break with the two dominant traditions of the Middle Ages: the Christian doctrine that human beings are irretrievably corrupt, tainted by original sin, and the Platonic idea that humanity is bounded by fixed forms.

It is also a strikingly Jewish account – almost identical with the one given by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in Halakhic Man: “The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself. It is this idea that Judaism introduced into the world.” It is therefore with a frisson of recognition that we discover that Mirandola had a Jewish teacher, Rabbi Elijah ben Moses Delmedigo (1460-1497).

Born in Crete, Delmedigo was a Talmudic prodigy, appointed at a young age to be head of the yeshiva in Padua. At the same time he studied philosophy, in particular the work of Aristotle, Maimonides and Averroes. At 23, he was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Padua. It was through this that he came to know Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who became both his student and his patron. Eventually, however, Delmedigo’s philosophical writings – especially his work Bechinat ha-Dat – became controversial. Other rabbis accused him of heresy. He had to leave Italy and return to Crete. He was much admired by Jews and Christians alike and, when he died young, many Christians as well as Jews attended his funeral.

This emphasis on choice, freedom and responsibility is one of the most distinctive features of Jewish thought. It is proclaimed in the first chapter of Genesis in the most subtle way. We are all familiar with its statement that G-d created man “in His image, after His likeness.” Seldom do we pause to reflect on the paradox. If there is one thing emphasized time and again in the Torah, it is that G-d has no image. “I will be what I will be,” He says to Moses when he asks Him His name.

Since G-d transcends nature – the fundamental point of Genesis 1 – then He is free, unbounded by nature’s laws. By creating human beings in His image, He gave us a similar freedom, thus creating the one being capable itself of being creative. The unprecedented account of G-d in the Torah’s opening chapter leads to an equally unprecedented view of the human person and our capacity for self-transformation.

The Renaissance, one of the high points of European civilization, eventually collapsed. A series of corrupt rulers and popes led to the Reformation, and to the quite different views of Luther and Calvin. It is fascinating to speculate what might have happened had it continued along the lines signalled by Mirandola. His late 15th century humanism was not secular but deeply religious.

As it is, the great truth of Genesis 1 remains. As the rabbis put it (Bereishit Rabbah 8:1; Sanhedrin 38a): “Why was man created last? In order to say, if he is worthy, all creation was made for you; but if he is unworthy, he is told, even a gnat preceded you.” The Torah remains G-d’s supreme call to humankind to freedom and creativity on the one hand and, on the other, to responsibility and restraint – becoming G-d’s partner in the work of creation.

Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.

Yesh Atid, Revise Your Platform

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

In a recent account of his first Knesset term, Dov Lipman writes that “Yesh Atid Education Minister Rabbi Shai Piron is hard at work making major changes to improve the education system.” I wonder what values he brings to that project since Piron and other Yesh Atid cabinet members gave key votes to free 104 terrorists .

Looking at Yesh Atid’s statement of beliefs , one finds several sections that need to be revised and clarified given its role as a liberator of murderous Jew haters. Below are some examples with proposed revisions in italics:

“We believe that every person in Israel must have their fundamental rights met…”

Not applicable to terror victims and their families’ fundamental right to justice.

“We believe it is the duty of the state to care for the health of its citizens.”

Not applicable to health damage inflicted upon bereaved families by freeing their relatives’ murderers—depression, loss of sleep , etc.

“We believe in a unified society and the principle which says ‘all Jews are responsible for one another.’ ”

Not applicable to terror victims and their families.

“We believe that it is the state’s responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens.”

Not applicable to incentivizing terrorism by freeing murderers.

“We believe that it is the duty of the state to care for all its seniors to enable them to live with dignity and enjoy their retirement years without worry or distress. These words are particularly focused on Holocaust survivors who live among us.”

Not applicable to the dignity of murdered Holocaust survivors and their families.

 

Nadler: Stop and Frisk Rightly Ruled Unconstitutional

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Congressman Jerrold Nadler (NY-10), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, released the following statement:

Today’s ruling by a federal judge that the New York Police Department’s stop and frisk policy violated the constitutional rights of New Yorkers is a step in the right direction. It’s unfortunate that it took a lawsuit and a federal court order to safeguard the fundamental, and constitutionally protected, right to be free from unwarranted police harassment. Racial profiling and other discriminatory policies have no place in our great city or our great country.

Rationality, Not Rational

Friday, August 9th, 2013

“V’zeh yihiye mishpat haKohanim me’et ham me’et zivchei hazevach im shor im seh vnatan l’Kohen hazroah zerah v’halechaim v’hakevah.

The most frustrating conversations are with those with whom we have deep fundamental disagreements. If conducted in the right spirit, without personal animus and with sincere dedication to the pursuit of truth, they can be very rewarding. When we surround ourselves only with those who see things exactly as we do, we limit our growth. When we surround ourselves only with those with whom we have fundamental disagreements, we never get past the same discussions. We need a balance between the two.

I have a dear friend, a moral philosopher who is a Torah observant Jew. Our fundamental disagreement, one which we can never get past, concerns the relationship between God’s Law and God’s morality. Because the answers to such momentous questions lie at the heart of one’s hashkafa, we need to explore them periodically, testing the current state of our thinking for validity and coherence.  Parshat Shoftim gives us such an opportunity.

After stipulating that the Kohanim receive Divine gifts in place of a tribal portion of the land, the Torah enumerates the Matnat Kehuna. When the meat is slaughtered for consumption, they receive the right shoulder, the two bones of the lower cheek, and the stomach or gullet. The Ramban contrasts the midrashic reading on the significance of these body parts to that of the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim. The former identifies each of the body parts with a feature of the zealous act of Pinchas. The right shoulder representing the shoulder with which Pinchas took the spear in his hand, the cheek bones representing the prayers he verbalized, and the stomach representing the organs of his victims, penetrated by his spear. In other words, the Matnat Kehuna are not a sinecure for the Kohanim but a reward for the acts of their ancestor. In Moreh Nevuchuim, however, the Rambam offers a more direct explanation: each of these organs is the most select of the animal’s body parts, the shoulder being the most select of the extremities, the stomach of its innards, etc. The Matnat Kehuna represent then the recognition that the best goes to God, in this case through the Kohanim who have been designated to serve Him.

This is not the only such explanation that the Rambam proposes. In Chelek Gimmel we find a broad selection of other mitzvot for which he offers rational bases. There is no question that the Rambam maintained that the mitzvot each convey a benefit upon Am Yisrael. At the same time, Jewish law retains its positivist basis for observance since these benefits are not the rationale for observance. The Rambam makes an important move that allows him to accommodate within his approach both the inherent rationality of the Law with its positivist basis for observance: the general outline of a particular precept is rational while its details need not be. In Chapter 26 (Pines translation):

“The generalities of the commandments necessarily have a cause and have been given because of a certain utility; their details are that in regard to which it was said of the commandments that they were given merely for the sake of commanding something.”

The Rambam cites shechitah as his prime example. As he elaborates in Chapter 48, the general mitzvah of shechitah is intended to allow the people to have the good food they require while protecting the animals they slaughter from a painful death. The general mitzvah then exhibits a rational purpose intended to benefit the people. The details, however, e.g., the particular simanim which must be cut, are “imposed with a view to purifying the people.” The Rambam is referring to a passage in Berashis Rabbah cited earlier that asks what difference should it make to Hakadosh Baruch Hu if animals are slaughtered by cutting their neck in front or in back? The Midrash answers: Say therefore that the commandments were only given in order to purify the people.”

The diyuk in the Midrash is clear: “What difference do the details make to Hakadosh Baruch Hu? Say therefore that the [details of the] commandments were only given in order to purify the people.” The Rambam can therefore conceive of a functionalist law with a positivist rationale for observance. The generalities of the Law are rational; the details of the Law are positivist in nature. The fact that the Torah exhibits an interior rationality does not preclude an absolute mandate for observance. By asserting that the details serve the purpose of requiring commitment to law independent of rational understanding, the Rambam puts the halachic system firmly on a positivist footing.

When the Rambam declares the Torah a reflection of the rational Mind of God, he does not mean to assert that it has lost its essential character as commandment. Those who interpret Jewish law as a set of social policy prescriptions miss the distinction between rationality and rationale. This confusion plagued the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, leading those who saw Jewish legal sources as rational responses within a historical context to deny their binding nature. Similarly, those who cast Torah entirely as positivist decree may be victims of the same delusion, denying rationality in order to preserve rationale.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/torah/rationality-not-rational/2013/08/09/

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