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Dvar Torah Chukas: Battling Concealment

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With all the back and forth between Jack Black’s Ignacio and Steven the tortilla chip thief about God vs. science, one is easily led to believe that the two are mutually exclusive — but that is not the case.

For His reasons, God has devised a world in which it appears as though he is absent.  The kiruv rabbis will rail against the notion that God is only a boreh (creator) and not a manhig (supervisor) — one will often hear them proclaim that “God did not create the world and then put it on a spring and let it run,” but it certainly appears that way — it’s called nature.  God devised a beautifully intricate system in which literally every single miniscule segment has the overwhelming possibility of affecting nearly any other segment in some way or another, and, of course, I exaggerate a bit, because I don’t really see how the blesbok population can affect VY Canis Majoris or vice versa…but I digress.

This week’s parsha sees Israel complain about the manna and God strikes them with nechashim hasrafim — “venomous snakes.”  The people offer their apologies, and God instructs Moses to make an image of a snake and put it on a pole and when the people look at it, they will be healed.  What’s up with that?

The Talmud (Bavli Rosh Hashana 29a) asks the same question, comparing this scene to the one in Beshalach when Moses raises his hands during the battle with Amalek — “Do the hands of Moses make or break the war? Does the copper snake provide for life or death?”  Certainly, it appears, these two scenarios are too irrational for the Talmud, for it complains that these solutions don’t make any sense.  How can some metal on a pole take the place of antivenin?  Sounds pretty ridiculous, and the Talmud agrees.

Enter God.  The Talmud responds by saying that it’s not the hands of Moses or the copper snake that made any real difference — no, these were just mnemonic devices to remind Israel of what is above.  When the nation turned to once again appreciate their Father in Heaven, the people were helped miraculously.

But how can we relate to this?  It’s very often difficult for us, in 2011, to see how messages from a 1312 BCE text can make a difference in our lives.

Judaism teaches that God is indeed a supervisor — but the level of supervision can take many different forms.  Sometimes things appear to occur as though they should not happen, and it appears miraculous, while other times, things appear to follow the established reality.  We may take NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, to counter pain and inflammation, and we might lose sight of the Godliness in the fact that the cyclooxygenase enzyme responsible for eliciting the physiologic phenomena of pain and inflammation can be inhibited in the first place.  When medication works for the millionth time, we tend to forget about God and focus on the medicine — that’s a concealment of God in nature.  That’s us forgetting that nature is a supervised reality that is just so amazingly perfect that it appears Godless.  But when it worked for the first time in a Petri dish, it was amazing!

The Talmud (Bavli Brachos 43a) discusses how one should refrain from pisiya gasa (taking large steps while walking) and describes a sort of visual impairment that can result if one does not heed this warning.  Moreover, it is suggested that peering at the kiddush cup will help restore the eyes, and the Shulchan Aruch somehow concludes that this applies to looking at the Shabbos candles.  What does all this mean, because it’s certainly no less ridiculous than suggesting that looking at a snake on a pole will cure a snakebite, and the Talmud didn’t like that, either.

So perhaps we can explain it in this way: we spend the week running.  We run here to strike a deal, we run there to coddle a client and we run back again for a sale.  The message we oft hear is that none of this really matters — it’s all really from God.  Really, that’s only sort of true.

We live in a world that appears to run by itself, and if we don’t play the game — if we don’t coddle the client — we may not seal the deal.  But God is there behind the system, even if He makes every attempt to have the system proceed without deviation from what appear to be random chance events and known parameters of probability.  We mustn’t turn our backs on nature, or the unwritten rules of economics, epidemiology or meteorology; rather, we should embrace these constructs…we just ought to realize that they are merely constructs and recognize that there is a Constructor, even if He prefers to hide.

When we look at the cup of grape juice or the Shabbos candles on Friday night during kiddush, it is like looking at the copper snake — we are to see that the running of the whole week is not really, in it and of itself, a productive thing — it’s just playing along with how God wants us to operate.  The visual impairment sustained by taking large steps is not a physical reality but a spiritual reality — we can easily lose sight of our priorities, and turn to theft and other questionable business practices, as well as forget that God exists.

If it really was just a rat race, how would that be consistent with us (very meticulously, no less) taking every 7th day off?  A client is a client and a deal is a deal and sometimes they can’t wait for the weekend to be over…but we desist from our material struggle and peer at the candles, emphasizing to ourselves that God was not only a boreh but is also a manhig.

  • A. Nuran

    Prayers are always answered. Sometimes the answer is “No.”

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

      I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not.

      • A. Nuran

        At the moment I’m being perfectly serious.

        • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

          In that case…

          …it’s unfortunate that not everyone is able to see with such clarity.

    • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

      > Prayers are always answered. Sometimes the answer is “No.”

      That’s surprising, coming from you. You must know that the same line of reasoning can be used for any object or being you would care to pray to.

      • A. Nuran

        It’s a reminder to myself that one cannot coerce the Divine. The Universe does not exist for my benefit.

        • Seriously?

          One should live one’s life with the belief that the world was created for the sole purpose of the very next decision you make. If not for me, then who?

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

            Should‘ is a vague term; it’s sometimes used as a softer ‘must‘ and sometimes as ‘ought,’ and your statement suffers because of it.

            As with most concepts, there are multiple layers here. On the most superficial layer, there’s no reason to assume what you say, much like there’s no reason to assume that everyone is teetering on the perfect balance of transgression and virtue with the next action defining one’s entire future. But we say that one ought to have this in mind — it’s merely a construct to promote good behavior, and so too with your suggestion.

            But that’s on a more profound level, one that is to be perceived as metaphorical and meaningful and lesson-rich. Too often, these idealistic approaches are tossed around and doled out as though they reflect Judaism’s core stance, and when people reject these ideas as overwhelming, they might tend to translate that into a rejection of Judaism, and that’s quite unfortunate.

            So I agree with you — on the more profound level. We can be idealistic, but let’s not pretend that it’s not an idealistic approach. It’s when we get carried away that some people, well, get carried away.

            • Seriously?

              OK, I think I need to explain myself in a little more detail:

              When summarizing the Gemara’s understanding of the natural world, modern questioners often get hung up on how “unscientific” our sages were – after all, any quick perusal of the Gemara shows us that our medieval ancestors often regarded the sun as orbiting around the earth!

              The common reply to this is that it is equally arbitrary to declare that the sun is at the center, when any astronomer will tell you that the solar system is itself wheeling away from a notional center of the known universe. In a world where there are no fixed points, there is no obvious “wrong” place to put a pin, and call it the center. So far so good – but we don’t actually learn anything from this answer, except perhaps a better appreciation for relative space.

              A far more interesting answer can be seen by reading the Gemara more carefully, and setting aside our modern conceits. Everyone knows about Galileo and Copernicus and Kepler – we expect to see the medieval debate as between those who see the earth as the center of the world, and those who are aware that there is a larger solar system.

              But this is NOT the perspective of the Gemara at all! On the contrary. Our sages (in stark contrast to the Greeks and Babylonians, to take two examples) were not fanatical trackers of stars and planets, and they were also not particularly interested in identifying the center of the world as the sun or the earth. By jumping to conclusions and not reading carefully, we fail to realize that the perspective of the Gemara is not earth-centric at all: it is invariably centered on the individual observer. Knowing full well that the horizon is entirely relative to the person looking for it, the halacha nonetheless does not aim for an absolute measure of time or space. Shabbos begins when the individual perceives sundown, and it ends when the individual sees three stars. The sun does not orbit around the earth – it orbits around each and every one of us.

              Seen from this perspective, a lot of things become more clear. We already know from the Torah that the earth was created for the purpose of mankind. But we also learn through this insight how extremely egalitarian Judaism really is – each and every person is understood to legally have their own reality. And it is entirely legitimate for everyone to see that the world really was created for the sole purpose of their own existence.

              In other words, when we say that someone who saves a life is as if he saved the whole world, we are supporting the core notion that every life has incalculable value, that G-d made the entire universe so that a single person could draw breath and choose whether or not to follow in Hashem’s path.

              Both the sun and the earth are important, but they are not the reason Hashem made the world. We are not pagans; we do not consider either the sun or the moon to be divine, or important in themselves. Whether the sun orbits around the earth or vice-versa, the universe exists for, and orbits around, every living human being.

              • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

                Alright. :)

        • Ken

          I’m forgetting the source but there is a classic Jewish teaching that one should keep two written statements in one’s pockets. In one pocket, “for me the world was created.” In the other, “I am but dust and ashes.” Both contradictory attitudes are traditional but only both. Either one by itself is an error.

          Aviva Zornberg teaches the Kafka described the human being as standing upright because s/he is chained. His/her feet are chained to the earth holding him down in the dirt and his/her head is chained to heaven pulling him upward with the angels.

          • Seriously?

            Both statements are true. When we make the right choices, we are worthy of the creation of the world. When we make the wrong ones, we are no better than an animal.

            • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

              It’s the classic difference between Slabodka and Nodvorna.

  • http://www.midrashicmusings.blogspot.com Seriously?

    I quite like this. The only thing I might add is that, IMO, G-d is not normally in nature. He gets involved in our lives to the extent that we welcome it (though, as Nuran points out, the involvement is often not as we would wish it).

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

      I would contest that — God is nature. There is no spring, in that God has not gone on vacation and but there’s certainly a sense we all get that the world is on autopilot.

      NAD+ will always reduce to NADH, as it does in the citric acid cycle, and never to NADH2. How can the world not work in this fashion? God constructed the fabric of the universe as it is, and “so it shall be written, so it shall be done.”

      Sure, there are miracles, but more often than not, something we would call a modern day miracle is really an alternate form of normal. Because nearly everything in the universe can be reduced to diffusion or something very paradoxically similar in simplicity yet complexity, there are lots of opportunities for God to alter the course of events and still appear to not appear. When a couple has a 1/4 chance of producing a child with a recessive genetic disorder, what’s driving the actual incidence of the birth of affected offspring? Some would assert that God is involved in such things, while others would deny it or claim ignorance on the matter.

      So the question really shifts onto the topic of hashgocha pratis — and the many views expressed by many great people are largely mutually exclusive, much like the tales of midrashic literature.

      • Seriously?

        OK, I admit this is a bit of a diversion to aruge this point. But I like it anyway. :-)

        The notion of tzimtzum, divine withdrawal from the physical world, suggests that while G-d made the natural world, he is not to be found within it.

        The logical consequences of this idea are rather startling.

        Take for example, science. Modern society considers “pure” physicists or biologists or chemists to be at a higher level than a mere engineer – so the “intellectual” fashion is to think that scientists are learning about nature, while the latter merely manipulate it for man’s selfish desires.

        But if G-d is not actually in the natural world, then this understanding is turned on its head. Those who study the natural world are not studying Hashem himself, but only his revealed works. And these works, finite as they are, cannot give us a glimpse of G-d Himself. In other words, studying the natural world does not really give us da’as Hashem, but only an appreciation for the incredible beauty and elegance of the physical world.

        But engineers and technologists are not focused on learning what G-d made. Instead, using knowledge gained from the natural world, they emulate G-d by inventing and creating entirely new things. They may not be scholars of Hashem’s creation, but their work is an elevation of mankind itself, raising humanity through imitatio dei. Just as G-d created the world, we are meant to imitate Him and complete His creation.

        And who thinks that pure scientists are superior? Anyone who worships the earth itself, thinking of Mother Earth as some kind of deity. Those who feel the “pure” sciences are at a higher level betray their allegiances – they believe that earth and nature are not just created by G-d, but are G-d Herself. That form of avodah zorah leads us to the situation in which we find ourselves today: pure scientists are considered the de facto high priests of the Earth-Worshipping religions, while those who have learned to improve the natural world are ridiculed and excoriated for destroying The Environment.

        • Ken

          “The notion of tzimtzum, divine withdrawal from the physical world, suggests that while G-d made the natural world, he is not to be found within it.” Yes, but the subsequent notion of “emanations” which follows tzimtzum in the kabbalistic take on creation suggests the opposite. One of the inherent doctrinal “dangers” of kabbalah that lead to the traditional restriction of its study to those with adequate maturity and learning already under their belt is precisely this–the hint of pantheism which is a classical heresy.

      • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

        > I would contest that — God is nature.

        That’s dangerously close to pantheism. The more hashkafikly acceptable formulation would be that God created and operates nature.

        • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

          I didn’t mean it literally — rather, nature is a direct consequence of God. For a moment, I forgot that I am around such astute people and I was speaking rather colloquially.

  • http://www.midrashicmusings.blogspot.com Seriously?

    You don’t answer the question. Why a snake on a pole?

    Disease is, of course, natural – as natural as the earth itself.

    Snakes are the creature least able to elevate. Unlike grasshoppers or kosher animals, their contact with the earth is complete.

    But we, as people, are meant to elevate ourselves, ascending toward heaven.

    If we see a snake elevating on a pole, it is a “kol v’chomer” argument. If a snake can ascend, surely we can as well! We realize that if we all try to aspire to greater heights, then G-d will be willing to play an active role in our lives, and change the natural progression of things.

    • A. Nuran

      True only in a metaphorical sense at most.

      • danielGA

        torah is full of metaphors. they’re all important.

        • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

          The snake on a pole was likely a response to the venomous snakes that bit the people — so you’re suggesting that God sent snakes in the first place in order to later apply a snake-on-a-pole metaphor.

          Metaphors are quite amazing — one can see almost anything one wishes, as long as one looks hard enough and long enough. Snakes get a really bad rap for no good reason, and sometimes that’s taken advantage of by Chazal. I used to have a pet snake and a neighbor found out and was wondering how I could have such an evil creature as a pet — I had to laugh, of course.

          So that’s fine — snakes are lowly and have the largest potential for elevation. I don’t find that very justifiable, but that doesn’t remove from its potential message for those who do find it justifiable, for whatever reason.

          • Ken

            In response to the “why snakes?” question, I reproduced some commentary below. I particularly like the B’midbar Rabbah idea that the snake caused Adam and Eve’s error through clever words and here come to punish the Israelites for sinning through the spoken word. Recall the English language idiom “to speak with a forked tongue,” meaning spoken deceit or deception.

            • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

              Speaking with a forked tongue — I always thought that had no reference to anything but the physical reality that we speak with our tongue, and if one has a forked tongue, they can, so to speak, say opposite things while rationalizing that each tongue tip spoke consistently. Wikipedia seems to support this idea, suggesting that it originated from Native Americans.

              • Ken

                Interesting but hard to believe there is no association with the snake. After all, another idiom refers to a lying scoundrel as a “snake in the grass.”

                • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

                  I think because snakes are in the grass; the snake itself is seen as a sneaky entity, likely because of the bible story, but no more really than a fox is a cunning entity — but is that really true? We’re just trying to look for human traits in animals, and a fox, although not any more cunning than a whole bunch of other animals, is way more cunning than a snake is actually deceptive. It’s only because of the bible story that the snake has any association with the notion of trickery or lying. Sure, the hog-nosed snake plays dead, but so does the opossum and many other organisms that enter a state of tonic immobility.

                  • Seriously?

                    We should never anthropomorphize animals. They hate it when we do that.

                    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

                      That was funny!

                    • Ken

                      Yeah–hysterical.

              • A. Nuran

                Yes, it does. In Indian Sign Language, which was pretty universal in North America, forked tongue was the sign for “lie”.

          • A. Nuran

            The bad rap snakes get is really sad. It’s true that some are venomous, but for the most part even those are much more interested in eating mice than having anything to do with people.

            They aren’t evil. They’re straightforward dumber-than-box-of-dirt predators.

            As for lowliest creatures that honor would probably have to go to the earthworms.

  • http://www.midrashicmusings.blogspot.com Seriously?

    But you have not answered the question! Why a snake on a pole?

    To start with, the Manna was not perfect food. It met our needs, but it did not meet the human desire for variety. One might suppose that purely spiritual food may have lacked a certain earthiness – and this may well have been at the core of the complaint.

    So when we as a people complained about manna, food descending from heaven, G-d reminded us that the things that are purely from the earth – like snakes – are not good in themselves, either.

    Snakes are the creature least able to elevate indeed, as a result of Eden, the snake is the animal that was brought low. Unlike kosher animals, snakes make full contact with the earth. And venomous snakes, of course, remind us that lots of “natural” things are in fact very bad for our health.

    But we, as people, are not mere earth-dwellers. We are meant to elevate ourselves, ascending toward heaven.

    If we see a snake elevating on a pole, we perceive a “kol v’chomer” argument. If a snake can ascend, then surely we can as well! We realize that if we try to aspire to greater heights, then G-d will be willing to play an active role in our lives, and change the natural progression of things. G-d is willing to meddle with nature – but we must first understand that our relationship with G-d does not come about because we are in harmony with the earth, but because we reach for the sky.

  • Ken

    It’s worth remembering in the context of the theological exploration of this drash that the first b’racha before the sh’ma is framed by the concept that God is “m’chadesh b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh b’reishit.” Though the theology of God the Setter in Motion and Stepper Back is tempting, the view of the siddur is of a God who remains involved in the maintenance of creation “b’chol yom tamid– all the time.”

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

      That can be taken as completely metaphorical, as well, though.

      • Ken

        Of course. Anything we say about God is metaphorical. We cannot know, or express, with certainty anything about God. Metaphor is the best we can do.

        • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

          Saying that God exists is not meant to be taken metaphorically. Saying almost anything else, though, is a matter of tremendous dispute between the schools of R’ Akiva and R’ Ishmael. The latter maintains a transcendentalist perspective of God himself — He is alone and detached and does not need us. The former maintains a very immanentist perspective of God — he is among us, and needs us as much as we need him. R’ Ishmael would decry such an assertion, claiming that it defames the godly stature of God.

          Although R’ Akiva’s views were initially shunned by his colleages, through the ages his views have gained a significant advantage over those of R’ Ishmael.

  • Ken

    So I found myself thinking of this site and this d’var torah this morning as I sat in shul reading my heretic commentary about the “documentary hypothesis” and written by a “science fiction writer.” Thought I’d share the non-Torah I found there.

    First, the p’shat section (focused on specific meaning of language and in context meaning):
    “6. seraph [i.e. ‘hanechasim haseraphim’]: The verb ‘saruf’ means ‘burn.’ Here it refers to the serpent’s poisonous bite.

    8. seraph figure [i.e. ‘saraf’]: A winged snake similar to the Egyptian winged cobra. Its image, engraved on a bronze bowl inscribed with a Hebrew name, was found in the excavation of the royal palace of Nineveh, dating to the end of the 8th century BCE. It was believed that looking at it would generate healing. Note, too, that winged snakes are found on many Judahite seals of the pre-exilic period. Contrast this with the winged angelic beings in Isa. 6.

    9. copper: Hebrew ‘n’hoshet;’ better ([i.e. better translation]–‘bronze’ (see Comment to Exod 25:3). Note the wordplay between it and ‘nahash’ (serpent). Abravanel explains that the color of the poisonous snakes could be imitated only by nehoshet.”

    And then the midrashically focused section (the one “written by a science fiction writer”):

    “6. Why are the Israelites punished with serpents for the sin of complaining? Tradition has it that because the serpent caused Adam and Eve to transgress by means of clever words, the serpent would always be the instrument of punishing people who sin with words (Num. R. 19:22 [i.e. b’midbar rabba]). Why did Moses’ bronze serpent heal them? According to the Mishna, it directed people’s thoughts heavenward as the looked up at it (RH 3:8 [i.e. Mishna Rosh Hashana])., just as Moses’ raised arms directed people’s attention heavenword in their battle with Amalek (Exod. 17:11). The Zohar explains that looking at the bronze serpent reminded people of why they deserved to be punished, and that is the first step toward repentence and forgiveness. (Sh’lach 175). Finally, Hirsch suggests that the image of the serpent reminded people of how dangerous the journey through the wilderness was, and how much they depended on God to guide them through it.
    In anti-idolatry reforms, King Hezekiah destroyed Moses’ bronze serpent, because it had become on object of veneration (2 Kings 18:4). Religion often runs the risk of having people ascribe excessive holiness to one of God’s instruments, losing sight of God to whom it points.”

    So those who in other threads had things to say about the Etz Hayim commentary–anyone surprised to see the kinds of comments one really finds reproduced there rather than what was described by so many who had clearly never so much as been in the same room with one? Abravanel, Hirsch, B’midbar Rabba, Zohar, Mishna. Whatever.

  • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

    > The people offer their apologies, and God instructs Moses to make an image of a snake and put it on a pole and when the people look at it, they will be healed. What’s up with that?

    The snake-on-a-staff symbol was associated with the Egyptian goddess Isis and with a number of snake-god cults in Mesopotamia and Canaan. It’s odd that God commanded Moshe to erect an idol, but it makes perfect sense that the religious iconography of a snake cult would be used to cure snake bites.

    > We may take NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, to counter pain and inflammation, and we might lose sight of the Godliness in the fact that the cyclooxygenase enzyme responsible for eliciting the physiologic phenomena of pain and inflammation can be inhibited in the first place.

    So, the cure is Godliness? What about the pain?

    Suppose I deliberately burn your house down, and then offer you a place to live. Am I a hero or a villain?

    > That’s us forgetting that nature is a supervised reality that is just so amazingly perfect that it appears Godless.

    If it appears to be amazingly perfect without invoking God, why add God?

    > But when it worked for the first time in a Petri dish, it was amazing!

    Amazing /= supernatural or miraculous

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

      The ridiculously complex manner in which the world works is nature, and nature is the process and system created by God.

      When a tooth exhibits decay, that’s decalcification due to low pH, and when the tooth is able to remineralize with low pH-resistant fluoride ions, and when the dentist removes tooth structure and places a restoration — all of that is within the confines of nature.

      Because God prefers to remain hidden, he allows the rules of nature to proceed generally unhindered. So if I cut my arm off, I might bleed to death, even though God didn’t necessarily demand that I die today. If I jump into the Grand Canyon or off the observatory deck of the Empire State Building, I’ll most likely die, even though that’s necessarily what God had in mind for me today — but our decisions have natural consequences and nature is allowed to proceed in almost all situations. So if I kiss my daughter and she’s sick, I might very well get sick — and that’s because of my actions and not necessarily because God planned for this to happen to me today. Nature is allowed to proceed, even though we might be sorry, even though we cry foul. If I don’t know that jumping off the BQE leads to death, it still leads to death, because that’s the way the world works. And pain, inflammation, infection and all the other less desirable things in this world exist because that’s the system. God is many times not even related to the bad that happens, because it’s a direct result of stupidity, ignorance or carelessness.

      I invoke God not because the world needs him — that would be Intelligent Design, something exceedingly foreign to Judaism. Such a “god-of-the-gaps,” who is necessary because certain things are unexplainable, is a very weak god indeed, because when our technology improves and our instruments become more delicate, we will obviate the need for this god. I invoke God because Judaism maintains that he exists, and we are discussing Judaism here at the dvar Torah section of FrumSatire.

      That’s why I said amazing — because it is an amazing discovery that a separate and distinct plant, fungal or other material can have any such intricately specific function in the human body. That we are able to anesthetize our bodies because we found an extraneous substance that reversibly blocks neural sodium channels and can thus halt nerve transmission, that’s absolutely amazing, and so is anything and everything else. I’m not saying this is proof to anything — granted, I’m promoting such introspection not as an argument from design, which I reject wholeheartedly, but from a position of, “Assuming there is a God, let’s just take a moment to see what a wonderful world he really did create!”

      • Ken

        Sounds a bit like the radical amazement Heschel talked about.

        • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

          I base this portion of my philosophy on a presentation by R’ Becher in which he describes Maimonides approach to evil in this world — the latter claims that lots of perceived “bad things” that happen actually happen because people make bad decisions, and are left to deal with the consequences.

          But maybe I’ll get to that one day.

          • Ken

            Heschel’s radical amazement idea is more related to your final paragraph than the natural consequences one. There I think you and I are actually close theologically, though you probably favor a formulation of God *doesn’t* intervene in our choices and their consequences and I favor more *can’t* intervene. I view it as something similar to an adult relationship with his/her parents. My parents care–they care more deeply and sincerely than perhaps I can even express and appreciate, but for all that caring and support and love they really cannot intervene. They cannot make sure my path through life is smooth. They cannot shield me from random happensance and they cannot protect me from the consequences of mistakes and bad choices I may make. Their love and support are unconditional (though they may criticize and even rebuke). It is only when we are little children that we have the perception that our parents can and will intervene to fix things and make everything all right. For me our relationship with God is like that. As children theologically we have the idea that God can, should, and even will fix stuff for us. “Answer” our prayers so to speak. In my opinion, though, as we grow up theologically that evolves (or at least it should). We see this in Torah at parashat B’shallach when Moshe goes to God at the Sea and seeks God’s solution to the crisis and God, even at this early stage in Moshe’s and the people’s theological evolution, responds, “Mah titzak eli?” Why are you crying to me? You hold the staff in your hand. You have the solution here. Use it. Use the staff and go forward. Sure, God solves the problem but not directly. God solves the problem by demanding Moshe solve the problem. I see this as God training, educating, Moshe and the rest of us. Educating us towards a more mature theology. One in which God’s love and caring and support are unconditional but God’s ability (I suspect you would prefer willingness) to directly intervene on our behalf is limited. I’m often criticized for believing in an “impotent” God but that’s not how I see it. God is no more “impotent” than my parents. That unconditional love, caring and support is not impotent at all. It only seems impotent to the (I’m tempted to say petulant) child who craves a parent/God to literally fix life’s problems.

            • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

              But that’s suggesting that God does not partake in this world, contrary to the position maintained by Judaism. The role we assign to him — supervisor — is not merely a term meant to denote passive surveillance, but also the active participation following said observation.

              If you contest this, you either deny the existence of the concept of reward and punishment, or assert that it is entirely fulfilled in another dimension, making this world merely a playing field for development devoid of penalties or spiritual consequences. That is, unless there is also a spiritual sort of nature that you also recognize, necessarily designed to effect a system of spiritual cause and effect, much like our physical world in that regard.

              • Ken

                I have little patience for or interest in conversations with people who insist that their own theological views are “right” and those of others are “contrary to Judaism.” The notion that reward and punishment is for olam haba (not, by the way something I asserted) is not “contrary to Judaism.” On the contrary. It is quite normative rabbinic theodicy.

                If you think the loving, caring, supportive, engaged God I’ve described is “passive survaillance” and “contrary to Judaism,” you are entitled to your self righteous and transparently incorrect opinion. I must admit I’m disappointed by the fundamentalist certainty of your comment. Especially because you yourself just said, “he [sic] allows the rules of nature to proceed generally unhindered.” Yet you “accuse” me of suggesting God “does not partake in this world, contrary to the position maintained by Judaism?” {Sigh}

                • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

                  You said God can’t work here — it is off limits to his interference:

                  “…though you probably favor a formulation of God *doesn’t* intervene in our choices and their consequences and I favor more *can’t* intervene.”

                  I asserted merely that God allows nature to run, and within nature, there are lots of seemingly hidden opportunities for God to work — chance, probability, odds and the like. There is something called a variation of normal, and when and how it occurs can be by design even though it appears to us as random. That’s the message I’m bringing here.

                  You, on the other hand, have denied that God is a living God, a dynamic God, one who is with us not only in spirit but in action as well. He is the parent who cannot intervene — those were your words.

                  I accused you only of what you have admitted to:

                  “[He] cannot make sure my path through life is smooth.”

                  That’s an exceedingly unequivocal statement from someone commenting on my fundamentalist certainty.

                  And you quote a story from Moses to generalize that God always solves problems by instructing the individual to solve it themselves. That doesn’t seem too engaged after all.

                  And I wasn’t accusing you of anything other than exactly what I did — perhaps you do look at this world as providing no consequence of our religious duties, and I made no derisive comment on that position; I was merely pointing out the options for someone who maintains such a belief.

                  But to suggest that God is completely disconnected and cannot intervene, I don’t see how you can suggest such a thing.

                  • Ken

                    “That’s an exceedingly unequivocal statement from someone commenting on my fundamentalist certainty.” I did not insist that my view of God is The Correct View of God and others are “contrary to Judaism.” That is what I dismiss as silly fundamentalism.

                    I wish you well in your quest to prove to all that your views are “Right” as you seek to disprove those of others.

                    As to the theology I’ve presented, I categorically reject your insistance that it is “contrary to Judaism.” It is contrary only to your narrow literalist reading of Judaism.

                    It occurs to me as I look at how you’ve quoted me that I was perhaps myself excessively literalist in my own comments. “God cannot make sure my path through life is smooth.” As I look at how you’ve presented and understood that statement I see it needs clarification. What I mean is that God is not in the business of making sure I pass my exams and avoid traffic accidents and illness and unemployment and general disappointments in life. But God does indeed “smooth my life path.” With God (and the other ingredients of the Jewish equation–Torah and Israel) I am not travelling my life path alone and that fact does indeed help to smooth it. Not by taking the rocks out of the way, but by ensuring I do not have to stumble through life absurdly alone (“. . .Ma’avirin et roa hagezeirah”–“averts the severity of the decree.” The “decree,” i.e. the human condition, is what it is. Engagement with God (and Torah and Israel), however, mitigates its “severity,” softens the painful harshness that life without God would be.) So I suppose I may have overstated things–the issue is that I understand what it means to “smooth” differently than you claim “Judaism” does. I think you are reading Judaism, and me, excessively literally in reaching that conclusion.

                    • Seriously?

                      I think it is all much more simple than this. G-d allows the world to run statistically. Only as and when we seek to involve him in our lives does he play a role. And the size of that role is directly proportional to the extent that we welcome him in.

                      I can tell you that in my life, the hashgacha pratis is *enormous*. I feel G-d’s involvement every single day.

                  • Ken

                    “And you quote a story from Moses. . .” Yes, I do look to Torah as a guide and yes, I do learn lessons from its “stories.” Is that “contrary to Judaism,” too? BTW, I see the same lesson in Shmot 17:6: “hineni omed l’fanecha sham al hatzur b’horev v’hikita batzur v’yatz’u memenu mayim.” I, God, will be standing on the rock, but You, Moshe, will solve this problem. That is very much how I see God’s role in our lives today. Engaged, caring, concerned, there on the rock, there with us. But here in olam hazeh it is we who must act. God tries to intervene in Tanur Shel Achnai and we remind God in no uncertain terms, “Lo Bashamayim Hee,” olam hazeh is given to us. But there I go quoting Torah again.

                    • Seriously?

                      Ken, no need to be defensive. I think the issue boils down to a simple question:

                      Does G-d act in this world, through nature, on our behalf?

                      Would you agree that as long as *we* are being active and doing our best, then G-d *can* arrange for things to fall into place?

                    • Ken

                      No need to be defensive while you provide me with a simple little litmus test to see whether I pass or not? The Inquisition is not a Jewish way to engage learning.

                      “Does G-d act in this world, through nature, on our behalf?” Yes, by being there. OTOH, yes, I do feel strongly that the classic ways we encounter God are through nature and history. I don’t claim to be 100% consistent theologically.

                      “then G-d *can* arrange for things to fall into place?” No, I don’t think I would agree with that formulation. I wonder, though, since you do, how do you deal with a conception of God that *could* have averted the Holocaust but chose not to? Punishment for sin? Just a “mystery?”

                      BTW, my conceptualization of God as similar in many ways to our own experience as parents to our children (a classic traditional metaphor I might point out) is informed by the tzelem Elokim concept. If we are created b’tzelem Elokim, then our nature and experience is by definition a hint of God’s–we resemble each other by definition.

                    • Seriously?

                      Ken – I am confused. You write:

                      “No need to be defensive while you provide me with a simple little litmus test to see whether I pass or not? The Inquisition is not a Jewish way to engage learning.”

                      Who said I was asking whether you passed or not? I was looking for a Nafgah Minah, and think I found it. This is the question on which the opinions split.

                    • Seriously?

                      Ken wrote
                      “I wonder, though, since you do, how do you deal with a conception of God that *could* have averted the Holocaust but chose not to? Punishment for sin? Just a “mystery?”

                      By answering it.
                      http://midrashicmusings.blogspot.com/2009/09/how-can-g-d-allow-evil-to-triumph.html

                    • Seriously?

                      Ken wrote:

                      “If we are created b’tzelem Elokim, then our nature and experience is by definition a hint of God’s–we resemble each other by definition.”

                      We have a divine spark. But to suggest common experience, IMO, is not right. Children do not inherit, with their parents’ DNA, their experiences.

                    • Ken

                      Ok. Now the question–given a divergence of opinion, does it “matter?” Is it a quest to engage another and gain mutual understanding and learning? Or is it a quest to determine that the view of the other is somehow “treif?” My sense is that you and DRosenbach may approach that question differently so the challenging tone of my response to him may not be the same tone I might adopt in a discussion with you. In describing your probing questions as an Inquisition I was probably melding you with him. Seeking to understand someone’s views is not the same as seeking to demonstrate their treifness (i.e. “incompatibility with Judaism”).

                    • Ken

                      “We have a divine spark. But to suggest common experience. . .” I’m not suggesting common experience as much as common characteristics, common nature. Not in all ways, of course, but in some, in many. That said, I do think, though, that there are some common experiences as well. Torah is frequently (metaphorically of course) describing God’s experiences in ways to which we can relate. So God, for example, feels jealous rage when we stray. This is absolutely a common experience. When God reacts to the egel hazahav with a murderous rage–“I will destroy them in an instant!”–from which Moshe talks God down I absolutely see a common experience. In our experience, when we catch our lover in flagrante delicto we may also experience a temporary insanity, a murderous rage. God’s exprerience is indeed similar to our own. This should be no surprise, as we understands ourselves as being created b’tzelem Elokim.

                      My question, by the way, about the divergence point in the views we’ve been exploring, is “does it matter.” We have different understandings of the doctrine of God’s omnipotence. It has been suggested that my view is “incompatible with Judaism,” apparently because it limits God’s absolute omnipotence. I put it to you both, though, that a doctrine of absolute omnipotence is itself “incompatible with Judaism.” Classic Jewish texts explore, and assert, limits to God’s omnipotence. Hakol biday shamayim chutz miyirat shamayim. Chutz. “Chutz” is a limit to God’s omnipotence. It is an “except.” If there is an “except,” then there is a limit. It is either absolute or it is not. Traditionally, it is not. Also, hakol rauy v’reshut n’tunah. The suggestion that God’s omnipotence is not perfectly absolute is not “incompatible with Judaism.” Actually, it is quite traditional. Absolute perfect omnipotence is a more simplistic theological supposition than that of classical rabbinic Judaism. It’s more complex than that.

                    • Seriously?

                      Of course our divergence of opinion matters! Whether or not G-d is involved in our lives is a fundamental question.

                      I am interested in truth. I think I understand your position. Whether or not it is normative is irrelevant; I care about whether or not it is *right*. Not for the sake of mutual respect or understanding, but because I think asking and answering these questions is an essential mitzvah.

                      As it happens, I believe, deeply, that you are incorrect. I know this from a lifetime personal experience, but I recognize that if G-d’s existence could be logically proven, we would not have free choice.

                      So: You believe that G-d cannot meddle with nature to change our lives, even when we are doing our best. And I believe that he can and does.

                      I think good people would take this opportunity to pause, agree to disagree, and move right along!

                    • Ken

                      Oops. Lost my point in that last paragraph. So we have different conceptions of the nature of divine omnipotence. Does that “matter?” Does it mean one of us must be “wrong?” In my view, it does not. It is an opportunity on both sides to learn from each other. Discussing all the things we agree about is easy and probably only interesting for a few minutes. Discovering the points of departure, otoh, is the entry point for learning things about ourselves and each other. If Yisrael means “wrestling with God and with other people” then this is in a fundamental way what we’re about.

                    • Ken

                      Yes, it matters in this way–just not in the sense that because of the difference we have to “reject” each other. Obviously the whole matter of hashgacha pratit is not a new controversy we are inventing and we need not rehash its history. :) But what do you do personally with questions of tragedy–Holocausts, tsunamis? My theology allows for me to see them as making God sad but they are not God’s “fault.” In much of traditional Jewish thinking, we would need to try to understand them as punishment for sin but I find this difficult. Job seems to reject that theological supposition, exploring instead the not so comforting non-explanation that we just can’t understand.

                    • Seriously?

                      [this had been waiting for moderation]

                      Ken wrote
                      “I wonder, though, since you do, how do you deal with a conception of God that *could* have averted the Holocaust but chose not to? Punishment for sin? Just a “mystery?”

                      By answering it.
                      midrashicmusings.blogspot.com/2009/09/how-can-g-d-allow-evil-to-triumph.html

                    • Seriously?

                      Ken wrote:
                      “not so comforting non-explanation that we just can’t understand.”

                      I reject this utterly. I think absolutely everything can be explained, and the explanations tend to be straightforward.

                    • Ken

                      So the Holocaust is not God’s fault it’s the fault of human beings. That is pretty close to my own understanding of things. But what of the tsunami that washes away literally hundreds of thousands. The article you sight explains the Holocaust as the prioritization of free will over intervention because ultimately free will is a higher order need even than millions of human lives. (I actually don’t find it a satisfying theodicy in the face of over 10 million victims of evil that God could have prevented, but that’s the nafka mina again.) But the need to protect freedom of will does not play a role in natural disasters so why allow those?

                    • Ken

                      ““. . .not so comforting non-explanation that we just can’t understand.”
                      I reject this utterly.”

                      Ok, but in a way we have to deal with it because it does have a voice in our tradition in the form of the Book of Job. It is true that the sweep of Jewish tradition aggressively de-emphasizes Job’s theology as evidenced by the fact that we use it liturgically almost (but not quite) never at all.

                    • Ken

                      Another thing occurs to me–you’ve suggested there are answers and they are straightforward. Have you read/studied t’hillim 44? For t’hillim 44 there are questions but there are not answers, straightforward or otherwise. This is not a view that says, “all can be explained, God’s definition of ‘good’ is different from ours. . .” This is a t’hilah that gives voice to real pain and anger in the face of God’s failure to intervene. Even more than failure to intervene, says pasuk 23: “Ki alecha horagnu kol hayom–” Essentially, “it is *your fault* we are killed.”

  • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

    > The people offer their apologies, and God instructs Moses to make an image of a snake and put it on a pole and when the people look at it, they will be healed. What’s up with that?

    The snake-on-a-staff symbol was associated with the Egyptian goddess Isis and with a number of snake-god cults in Mesopotamia and Canaan. It’s odd that God commanded Moshe to erect an idol, but it makes perfect sense that the religious iconography of a snake cult would be used to cure snake bites.

    • A. Nuran

      The snake was also associated with Apollo, patron of physicians and with Aesculapius the physician in Greek mythology and Cretan cults.

      • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

        > The snake was also associated with Apollo, patron of physicians and with Aesculapius the physician in Greek mythology and Cretan cults.

        I didn’t mention Roman and Greek associations because they postdate Moshe’s snake, and would be subject to the common claim that, “the goyim copied us.”

        • Ken

          Ultimately, the one found at Timna is probably the most relevant. As Milgrom puts it, “In other words, we have a copper snake that is similar to the one fashioned by Moses and that originated in the same locale at approximately the same time.”

        • A. Nuran

          The Cretan and Minoan ones may well pre-date the myth of the Exodus.

    • Ken

      Along with the archaeological finds I mentioned in the comments I cited above, Jacob Milgrom in his commentary (JPS Torah commentary) reports: a ” copper snake, five inches long, found at Timna, the copper mining and smelting region in the Arabah near the Red Sea, which dates from between 1200 and 900 BCE–approximately the same time and place that Moses fashioned a similar snake.” There is also an extended description of the snake iconography around the ancient Near East in Excursus 52, “The Copper Snake” on page 459.

  • Seriously?

    I am starting afresh, because reading on the margin is annoying.

    Ken wrote:
    “I put it to you both, though, that a doctrine of absolute omnipotence is itself “incompatible with Judaism.” Classic Jewish texts explore, and assert, limits to God’s omnipotence. ”

    I think DR and myself would agree that if there are limits to G-d’s omnipotence, they are only there because G-d chooses it. He *is* absolutely omnipotent (otherwise He would not be G-d!). He just chooses to limit himself, in order to allow the finite world (ours) to exist.

    • Ken

      “He *is* absolutely omnipotent (otherwise He would not be G-d!). He just chooses to limit himself. . .” I have to poke at this. Whatever the source of the limitation, whether self imposed or not, if there is a limitation there cannot also be absolute omnipotence. Absolute omnipotence and limitation cannot both be correct. They are mutually exclusive and incompatible.

      • Seriously?

        That is what tzimtzum means to me.

        The Beis Hamikdash is where it is writ small.

        G-d “inhabits” the kodesh hakedoshim. He restricts himself to make that possible.

        At the same time, Cohanim also have to restrict themselves (eliminate any individuality and flair) in serving in the BH.

        Both sides have to give something up to allow this one place, where G-d and man inhabit the same physical space.

        • Ken

          Ok, but tzimtzum is not compatible with absolute omnipotence. I am not troubled by this–I don’t share the view that God “must be” absolutely omnipotent and I don’t believe Jewish tradition does either. In fact, tzimtzum fundamentally means that an obsolutely omnipotent God cannot coexist with the universe. That absolute omnipotence must be reduced–it must become limited–to “make room” for the universe.

          • Seriously?

            I think you do not understand what “omnipotent” means. The key relevant shoresh is “potential”.

            Tzimtzum means that an omnipotent G-d *who chooses to exercise his power* cannot coexist with the physical world. I think that is a pretty normal understanding, FWIW.

            • Ken

              I think the distinction between a God whose omnipotence is limited inherently and a God whose omnipotence is limited because God dare not act for fear of destroying the world is a distinction without a difference. Either way you’re left with limited omnipotence. I find it fascinating how you’ll advance and hold to any argument–whatever it takes–to avoid coming to terms with a God with limited omnipotence. You’re right–it’s a pretty “normal” theological issue *in modern times.* The rabbis who said “chutz,” however, were prepared to understand that there are indeed things that are fundamentally beyond God’s power to control. Hakol biday shamayim *chutz mi*yirat shamayim. Where there exists a “chutz mi. . .” there exists a limit to God’s omnipotence. If that idea wasn’t unacceptably threatening to Chazal then it needn’t be unacceptably threatening to us.

              • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

                Yiras shamayim, like appreciation, is a fundamentally undemandable thing — by its very nature, a coerced form of yiras shamayim is completely out of line with the essence of what yiras shamayim truly means, and God’s lack of ability to enforce compliance with such a sentiment says nothing about His potency. This is very much in line with the fallacy of suggesting He could not create a rock that He could not lift — it’s just a less complex way of claiming that God is not all-powerful and bringing as a proof that He can’t make himself not all-powerful, and inanely suggesting that such a caveat is a weakness.

                • A. Nuran

                  Or to quote from Phil Foglio’s XXXenophile

                  Girl: “How about making a rock so heavy you can’t lift it?”

                  Djinn: “I have no desire to give myself a hernia, O Light on my dashboard.”

                • Ken

                  Are you incapable of speaking to someone without including insults like “inanely?” I’ve been talking to Seriously? all day without once being called “inane” even when he disagrees with me most strenuously. I wonder if you might someday learn that skill.

                  I did not suggest anything is a “weakness.” I don’t see a lack of perfect absolute omnipotence as weakness, nor do I share the view that God must be absolutely omnipotent or “God is not God.” That’s your view, not mine. It probably enters Jewish philosophical tradition as an Ancient Greek influence. It’s not a hang-up I share.

                  I concede the chutz mi-yirat shamayim statement arguably says more about the nature of yirat shamayim than it does about the nature of God. That is a fair comment.

                  That said, I responded in your and my ealier conversation in my 8:23AM post in which I clarified something I’d said in response to your comments.

                • Ken

                  On reflection I would also seek to clarify my overstatements a tad. Most of normative Jewish tradition does indeed assume God’s true omnipotence. I cannot portray it as a foreign influence or as a misinterpretation of classical Jewish tradition. It is not. I do believe, however, that we have come over time to overemphasize that issue as a sine qua non of God as God–a thing without which God ceases to be God. As a result of elevating the principle to such a thoroughly indispensable tenet of belief we force ourselves into corners trying to answer unanswerable questions. If God can act, why does God not act? We see the answers arrayed in this thread. Well, God is not in nature. Well, we don’t really know what “good” is. Well, free will is more important than anything so God chooses not to intervene. Well, God has indeed limited God’s self but since those limits are self imposed ones they don’t really count as limits and we can have our limited God and our omnipotent one, too.

                  In the end, I pray to God and I believe God hears our prayers. I believe God responds, though not necessarily as Divine Solver of Problems. I believe we and God desire to be close to each other. I do not expect God to break the rules of the universe in my favor. Whether or not God even “can” do so is the subject of our debate here but the reality is no one can win this debate.

                  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

                    As a Wikipedia editor, I’ve had many opportunities to develop my debating skills, and one big rule there is “No Personal Attacks.” I will therefor refrain from calling people “idiots” or the like, even when they are an idiot (or the like). I take my argument ground rules from the civility guidelines of Wikipedia, which I hold in high regard.

                    So I’m surprised that you find my form of arguing to be uncivil. Inane is a synonym for silly, and I see the aforementioned “rock He can’t lift” argument to be silly, and so I called it silly. I was attacking your position, not you, but perhaps you’re unfamiliar with this style of debate or the Wikipedia guidelines are too liberal for your taste or I’m too sharp, despite being within the letter of the guideline — sort of a naval bereshus haWikipedia — or, perhaps, you might even feel that I’m in contempt of these guidelines.

                    And no one here has claimed that you took partial omnipotence as a weakness — what you did claim was that God possesses a weakness that leaves him with only partial omnipotence, and to that claim I called foul. And what was the weakness you pointed to? That he cannot interfere, that he cannot tamper; these, I put forth, are not weaknesses, but merely analogs to a great rock that He cannot lift — the latter which I see as a silly argument, a non-argument, and so I stated so.

              • Seriously?

                It is not that the idea is threatening. It is that it is, in fact, illogical. If G-d can make the world, He can destroy it. That makes him omnipotent, even if he chooses to limit himself.

      • Seriously?

        There is a clear difference between having an ability, and deciding whether or not to use it.

        I am capable of murdering someone with an axe. I have that power. But I choose to restrain myself.

  • Seriously?

    Ken wrote:
    “But the need to protect freedom of will does not play a role in natural disasters so why allow those?”

    Because we need to understand that G-d is NOT in nature! Nature is our tool; our job is to elevate it and complete it, in all of its dangerous and passive and chaotic and beautiful forms.

    We have to respect the fact that G-d created a natural world, and He does not interfere with open miracles any more with the “laws” of nature.

    • Ken

      So you posit a conception of God that does not and should not be expected to interfere in either the natural world or the choices of human beings. At the end of the day that sounds remarkably close to the theology I’ve described of a God who does not intervene.

      • Seriously?

        I wrote exactly what I meant.

        G-d does not do open miracles any more. If we are dumb enough to jump off a cliff, it is extremely unlikely that G-d will save us.

        BUT: as long as *we* are being active and doing our best, then G-d *can* arrange for things to fall into place. He will nudge and mess with nature if we work at the relationship from our end.

        I absolutely expect that G-d interferes with my life. In fact, I see it – and am unbelievably grateful for it – every day.

  • Seriously?

    As for those who cling to “we cannot know” kinds of answers.

    IMO, this is nothing more than a defense mechanism, fostered especially by dimwitted school teachers afraid of tough questions.

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

      “We cannot know” answers abound because, well, there are many things we cannot know. We cannot know why God found it necessary to allow for both tree sparrows and house sparrows to exist — they are largely similar in size, appearance and disposition and their diets and territories are all but identical. So why have a world with both tree sparrows and house sparrows. R’ Mordechai Yosef Leiner, often referred to as the Ishbitzer, speculated that hashgacha pratis knows nearly no bounds, and that God is even dictating something as seemingly inconsequential as which leaf falls from which twig first.

      Perhaps that’s too micromanagerial for some, but asking “why” is very easy, and I won’t attempt to suggest other instances of its use — suffice it to say that there are certainly larger and more relevant questions that will remain unanswered forever and to assert that a claim that we cannot know something reveals an underlying hole in the philosophy of Judaism doesn’t seem to be a very well thought out position.

  • Seriously?

    Lastly, Ken wrote:

    “Does it mean one of us must be “wrong?” In my view, it does not.”

    I think it does mean this. Just because we may never get there, we are aiming to discover Truth. And Truth is ultimately not relative.

    But Judaism has always been about using argument and disagreement as a way of getting closer to Truth. So wrestling is *exactly* what we are meant to do!

    • Ken

      “I think it does mean this. Just because we may never get there, we are aiming to discover Truth. And Truth is ultimately not relative.” The Ran wrote (I can dig up the reference later if you want it) that in every generation God actually modifies God’s own opinion (i.e. The Actual Truth) to ensure it coincides with the majority view of the Sages. In that view, Truth actually *is* ultimately relative.

      • Seriously?

        In that view. Not mine.

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

        If God does that, it is merely in respect to halachic reality, which is not really a reality at all outside the bounds of halacha — it is cyclical, and such an idea, put forth by the likes of the Rema MiPano, speaks nothing of non-halacha. When the majority opinion of Talmudical scholars was that breast milk derived directly from uterine blood, God did not re-align nature to conform to erroneous views of early thinkers, and there’s no evidence that such has ever occurred.

        I believe what I believe and I think the way I think because I sense that it’s the most correct way to do so — do you not do the same thing? So when you profess your theological beliefs or affirmations and I counter them, it’s not as though you ought to be able to claim, “well, that’s true for you but this is true for me.” Pluralism when it comes to anything but the very most superficial tufts of philosophical topping is a farce.

        We claim that the universe was made for us and at the same time that we are inconsequential puffs of nothingness within the vast cosmos because these are two messages that are to be applied together, in perfect balance with each other. The midrashic tale of the Torah not being given on the highest of the mountains, yet not in a valley, promotes the same balance. Physically, we are actually nearly nothingness, but our religious outlook must be that we matter and what we do matters — or else there is no purpose to adherence and fulfillment, because we are but a speck of matter. I opened above with a comment about VY Canis Majoris, the largest star we’ve detected to date in the universe. If the distance from our planet to the sun is deemed 1 astronomical unit (AU), the diameter of this very large star is about 18 AU! (not factorial) That’s insanely large, and reading about it on Wikipedia made me feel that much smaller. But Judaism still demands that I make kiddush this Friday night, even though I’m but one of a few million others who will be doing it, and all of us put together are so small next to this large star, let alone God — but my actions will be measured and counted.

        But there is no balance in saying that the natural world is devoid of God, and you took it back — but you took issue, it appears, not so much with my challenge but the fact that I would counter your claims by labeling them as contrary to Judaism. God recognizes no labels, but the fact that I attended YU and you JTS likely speak something about the way in which we each perceive reality. And it’s not like medical school vs. dental school, or the Yankees vs. the Mets or mint chocolate chip vs. strawberry — these are all viable options because, as they say, different strokes for different folks, even though I can’t understand how anyone can choose strawberry over mint. But you must admit that whatever differences there are between us, and between either of us and anyone else in this world, are sometimes going to be lines drawn in the sand, and anyone across some of these lines is going to be labeled as operating outside the parameters of permissibility…how could it not?

        So I bemoan any incivility that you may have sensed, but tolerance is also a farce. I’m not going to ambush you on your way to the bus, and I expect you will not do such a thing to me, but tolerance for strawberry lovers is very different than so-called tolerance for wayward thinkers. Going back to before you stepped back from the statements you made because, after all, we are typing here and perhaps you never meant these things in exactly the way I took you to mean them — I though of you as out-of-bounds and you thought of me as the same. How can I tolerate you making such a statement? We’re here discussing proposed truths and if you state what appears to be an untruth, is that alright because “permission has been granted” (hareshus nesuneh, Avos 3:19)? This phrase is not meant to condone deviance and delinquency, but to let it be known that God does not necessarily act with ardent responsiveness to those who spit in His face.

        So I apologize for any perceived insult, but I can’t apologize for holding my position, and if that position were to be contrary to your position, there will be friction when either of us maintain our respective positions in contrast to and defiance of the others’ philosophy.

        • Ken

          No worries, but FWIW pointing to our respective yeshivot of choice only gets you so far. I suspect there are those who went to YU who would find the theology I’ve outlined compelling and there are undoubtedly many who attended a JTS program who would not. Furthermore, I also spent formative high school years learning in a Long Island Yeshiva.

          As regards “wayward thinking” and “How can I tolerate you making such a statement?,” Judaism does not have a history of hauling people before the altar of right theological doctrine. The Christians do that. In mishna R. Hashana we see R. Yehoshua hauled before Rabban Gamliel not for believing the wrong thing but for allegedly doing the wrong thing. Really we can “tolerate” quite a wide (though admittedly not unlimited) range of theological ideas with a “That’s nice, I don’t see it that way at all and I think that’s just not right, now let’s go daven Mincha.” “V’heim m’kablim reshut ze mize v’notnim reshut ze lazeh l’hakdish l’yotzram b’nachat ruach. . .” The angels turn one to the other to receive and to give leave to each other. Only then do they sing God’s praise. A friend of mine taught about this many years ago–what is this giving and receiving of “permission,” of “reshut?” It is a model of singing God’s praise together. Together means a bunch of individuals are joining together. The reality is in any such group–in any minyan–there are inevitably multiple approaches, beliefs, theological premises represented. The model is to be able to say, “yes, ok, I will daven with you and you and you and will you daven with me? Great, good, ok. Now let’s begin. “

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

            That’s because the origins of Jewish dogma is somewhat understated and largely under-emphasized — but now that Maimonides has encapsulated his views and they have been accepted as normative Orthodox Judaism, anything outside those bounds is necessarily heretical, despite the fact that someone holding the same “heretical” views prior to Maimonides would not have been a heretic. Such is the way of philosophical ossification — the osteocyte used to be an osteoblast but that doesn’t really matter anymore.

            But even with the advent of Maimonidean ossification of thought, we had already lost the centralized power of the court — so finger pointing does nothing but divide. There is no objectively recognized authority, for enough finger-pointees grouped together make a new group of finger-pointers, and as long as communities live far enough apart physically, socially and economically, they can get along, so to speak, by not getting along.

            So we tend to accept anyone into a minyan as long as they have a yarmulka — and maybe even if they don’t — but I wouldn’t accept a female to be counted. Perhaps you don’t either, but some do, and some promote homosexual relationships, and others driving on Shabbos, and still others talking during the repetition of the shmoneh esrei — and they have permission to do so, in that their souls are not immediately sucked from their subsequently limp body.

            These things are tolerated insofar as they are maintained privately, wouldn’t you agree? And perhaps they don’t even disqualify one for inclusion in a minyan, but I sense that the minyan was merely an example.

            (And I knew that from your Facebook page but felt that I’d only publicize what you have already publicized yourself via the snippet at the end of your MyJewishLearning.com posts)

            • Ken

              “Such is the way of philosophical ossification. . .” No, thanks. Ossification is not a normative rabbinic value.

              You’re right, of course, that a group of people with diverse views trying to daven together is more likely to stumble over what they *do* than what they *believe about God* which I think is consistent with my point.

              As to the suggestion that it might even be a consideration to insist on “right theological doctrine” for inclusion in a minyan, before you start quizzing everyone on whether they *really* believe all 13 of Rambam’s statements before agreeing to do barchu, recall that on Yom Kippur itself we begin the proceedings by declaring it muttar l’hitpallel im ha-avaryanim. I suppose you might say that is a unique mattir for Yom Kippur only but I see it more as a kal vahomer. If we can daven im ha’avaryanim on Yom Kippur, kal vahomer on all other days.

              BTW, did you find the MYJewishLearning piece objectionable?

              • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

                Not only didn’t I find it objectionable, I found it quite in line with everything I’ve ever heard from my rebbeim, or at least the elite group of which I’ve come to associate myself with in the last 5 years or so.

                In the end, we are all responsible only for ourselves. We might be obliged to embrace, welcome, pity, empathize with and gather around others — but we will be judged for our own deeds, that for which we were wholly responsible. So we welcome the sinners because YK is supposed to be about renewal — much in the same way that all are often counted for a minyan at a gravesite, because it’s a time for deep reflection, of great potential for renewal.

                Of course ossification is a normative rabbinic value — multiple opinions are fed into the entry port and a p’sak exits. It may not appear this way looking at the last hundred years, or even the last 300 years, but the publication of the Mishna (and later the Gemarah) ossified the rules, making distinctions between those opinions that will be accepted and those that will not.

                • Ken

                  Look at the published page of g’mara. It’s a cacophony of multigenerational give and take, discussion, argument, around the margins and then when space is exhausted in the back of the book and then in separate books, papers, pamphlets, sheilot u’tshuvot. . . Every attempt to distill a concise law code generates further multilayered commentary. The conversation continues to the present day. Ossification? I don’t see it. Gutenberg’s little invention creates an appearance of ossification and slows things down as anything with a cover gains a veneer of “authenticity” (especially if the cover says Artscroll) but that’s a different matter.

                  • Seriously?

                    I am enjoying just watching this discussion. But I wanted to jump in just a little: IMMHO, the classic Jewish tool of argumentation is indeed what we, as a people should best use as a way of finding Emes.

                    The process of determining what is the “right” thing has indeed been running counter to this – all the shulchan oruchs and mishna berurahs etc. These define what is accepted and normative Jewish practise. This is so evolved that it can be quite difficult to trace a modern teshuvah back to cleary d’oraisa or even d’rabbanan halacha.

                    But my sense is that the kinds of questions being asked here are not halachic at all, and may have little or no halachic ramifications. So while halachic ossification has been occurring (and certainly radically so in many cases), I think that midrashic attempts to understand “big picture” issues are very much NOT ossified, especially because so very few people will even ask the questions, let alone try to answer them!

                    Rules are ossified, yes.

                    Understanding the philosophical underpinnings for those rules are NOT ossified at all. On the contrary, it is almost wide open.

                    • Ken

                      Seriously–That’s well said. I think that’s what I meant when I asked, “does it matter?” Codifications of halakha? Yes, of course. A Codification of aggadah, of theological belief? A Catechism like the Catholics have? DRosenbach may indeed be correct in his portrayal of today’s Orthodoxy as a place in which that has become accepted, but that does not in and of itself make it “normative.” It is a deviation from rabbinic tradition, Rambam’s singular exception not withstanding.

                      **Responded to in new thread at bottom**

                    • Seriously?

                      Complete agreement. I talk to a lot of very “normal” talmidei Chachamim – good, very learned folks. Occasionally they call me an apikorus, but most of the time they really like the different insights. Midrash is infinitely variable and rich. I do not get a sense from them that they consider a new (IMO much better) explanation of something in the Torah as threatening. If I was doing the same thing in Halacha, I’d be toast.

                      **Responded to in new thread at bottom**

  • Seriously?

    Ken wrote:
    “When God reacts to the egel hazahav with a murderous rage–”I will destroy them in an instant!”–from which Moshe talks God down I absolutely see a common experience. In our experience, when we catch our lover in flagrante delicto we may also experience a temporary insanity, a murderous rage. God’s exprerience is indeed similar to our own. This should be no surprise, as we understands ourselves as being created b’tzelem Elokim.”

    I think you are right. I have a hard time with people who refuse to read the Torah and actually believe its words. And I think you are right: G-d has jealousy and anger because the Torah says so. And maybe we have jealousy and anger because we are made in G-d’s image.

    You certainly won me over on this point. Well crystallized.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

    **In response to Ken 4:58 and Seriously 5:08 (just above)**

    In your comments, it’s somewhat evident that you consider proposals of truths about God to be aggadic in nature — that may have been so prior to the Maimonidean intellectual revolution, but since then, many of these claims have been codified and their acceptance by the masses has established them as necessary beliefs.

    Menachem Kellner‘s Must a Jew Believe Anything? was not an enjoyable read because the sentences are so complex that there were more instances of paragraph re-reads than I would have cared for, but his point is as follows: Judaism never had any dogma, but Maimonides came along and all of sudden there’s this overwhelmingly accepted Maimonidean approach of the existence of obligatorily maintained truths, that this is really foreign to Judaism and that all those who promote and demand compliance with, let’s say, the 13 principle of faith are intellectually dishonest because they don’t carry through to promote the largely rejected yet consistently Maimonidean approach towards things like the nature of life after death, potential for the concept of tinok shenishba and the labeling of heretics.

    His point is well taken, though — but is it valid? I suppose he was not writing this work to merely inform readers of the historical background of the Maimonidean approach — rather, it seems that he is inclined to cast off what he finds a novelty inappropriately applied.

    I rejected this unstated premise of Kellner, and don’t really have whom to speak with about it in great depth because his work doesn’t enjoy wide readership among my mentors, but after they have completely their current reading assignments, I might put this next on the list. :)

    My point in all of this is that, despite our best intentions to uncover the origin of the Maimonidean approach, it is here to stay, ossified as normative halacha — one can no longer claim to be an observant Jew while denying the existence of God or maintaining that there is a population of greater than one within the category known as the divine. One who challenges the incorporeality of God is also a heretic, as one who denies that the Torah is from God or who posits that, for instance, the New Testament has come to succeed the Old Testament.

    So while beliefs about the origin of the universe and the healing powers of the Shabbos candles remain within the realm of aggadah, bits of what used to be aggadah have been shifted into the realm of halacha, and have become ossified.

  • Ken

    “So while beliefs about the origin of the universe and the healing powers of the Shabbos candles remain within the realm of aggadah, bits of what used to be aggadah have been shifted into the realm of halacha, and have become ossified.” That is a profound error and your essay, to the degree it is an accurate portrayal of Orthodoxy, is a crystal clear articulation of one of the key areas in which Orthodoxy today is itself fundamentally “off the derech.”

    • Seriously?

      Maybe it is because of the Baltimore air, but the number of people who actually spend effort on the kinds of questions I am interested in (like explaining the parah adumah, or explaining the correspondence between the 7 buried at Machpelah and the 7 levels of heaven) is VERY small. I only know one other besides myself.

      If there is a “standard” midrashic approach, nobody knows it. Which means there is none. The Rambam notwithstanding, the water is warm – jump right in!

  • Ken

    BTW, y’all might want to join me in reading a book currently still in the Amazon box in my bedroom but high on my soon to read list: The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition by R. David Hartman.

    • Seriously?

      Sorry. I saw this on Amazon: “an encounter in one man’s soul between traditional Judaism and his deepest moral sensibilities.”

      I do not believe that there is such a thing as a moral sensibility outside of religion. And while that may not be “traditional Judaism” as Hartman sees it, I know that this book would just make me angry.

      I have no patience for those who rely on Torah like a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support and not illumination.

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

        (you used that one already)

  • Ken

    That makes sense. Orthodoxies always have to guard themselves against exposure to anything that has even a chance of questioning them. Hartman is one of the major Orthodox theologians and Rabbis of our generation. You should definitely avoid anything he says. I respect that.

    As to the absence of any inner “moral sensibility,” you have said you have to courage to read Torah and believe what it says. Avraham challenges God: “Hashofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat?!” How does he know? How does he know what is or is not “mishpat” if it is not “whatever God does?” From where comes his inner certainty that what God is proposing to do to S’dom is “not mishpat?”

    • Seriously?

      Ken, you have a habit of overstating the other guy’s case. It would be great if you could stop doing that!

      1: I don’t work on Torah just to think less of others. So I avoid situations where I get annoyed. Take Gelernter’s absolutely brilliantly-written book. I loved it (and especially his unbelievably awesome writing), but he is wrong on some very basic levels – and so I could not read it happily. If I could engage him in conversation, it would be much better.

      There is a Gemara in Menachos that one should avoid a shiur where the listener might end up correcting or embarassing the speaker. I avoid a lot of shiurim.

      2: I do NOT say that man does not have an inner moral sensibility. I say that there no such thing as a moral sensibility outside of religion. When I am properly connected to Hashem, the moral sensibility may well be an inner “still, small voice”. But I know that this voice is divine in origin, not human. That knowledge changes how I listen to myself.

      As for Avraham: we are the only religion I know of where people talk *back* to G-d. We argue with G-d, because that argument, like this one, is how we arrive at understanding and truth. But that is an argument for the sake of heaven, not one for the sake of ourselves.

    • Seriously?

      “Hartman is one of the major Orthodox theologians ” is an appeal to authority, a logical fallacy. I don’t measure the merits of an argument by who says it. I measure it by the quality of the argument.

      The Appeal to Authority fallacy is the reason why so many Jews end up being idiots, especially in Charedi circles. When I ask a shaylah, I don’t follow the psak unless I am satisfied that it is correct. Any Rabbi who will not or cannot explain it to me is not my Rabbi. To me, a Jew must question just as Avraham did.

  • Ken

    ” I say that there no such thing as a moral sensibility outside of religion.” Then I fail to see why you would so summarily reject Hartman. He is writing about moral sensibility *inside* religion.

    • Seriously?

      Could be. Admittedly, I based my post on just an Amazon blurb.

      Alas, I wish I had the time to read. If I knew I would enjoy it (instead of just getting angry), I would be more likely to make the time.

  • Ken

    “Hartman is one of the major Orthodox theologians ” is an appeal to authority, a logical fallacy.” Not how I meant it. I hate appeals to authority. His “status” does not support any argument he might make. It does, however, make it worth reading to see what he has to say. It was also a response to your characterization of him, based on nothing, as a “drunkard uses a lamppost: for support and not illumination.”

    Re: Avraham, I did not cite him to establish whether or ours is “better” than other religious traditions. I believe it is. I cited him as an example of someone acting on his own inner moral compass and even using that inner compass to reach the remarkable conclusion that God Godself, in comparison to that inner certainty, is “unjust(!).”

    • Seriously?

      And yet in the end Avraham accepted the death of the city. After all, Avraham concurred with G-d that the important measure was not that there was life in the city – but whether it contained good life. The question was how many good people it took to reach a critical mass.

      Avraham, after all, was trying to change the world by himself. His conceit had to be that, if lived in a place, it was capable of becoming better. So why would numbers matter?

    • Seriously?

      BTW, I think everyone fails on the lamppost test, at least at some point. It is very difficult to try to use the Torah for new inspiration, and not merely validation.

  • Collin

    I agree with the basic theme of the article, but it seems to go out of its way to rationalize frumkeit. G-d gave people intelligence, a sense of ethics, and the choice of what to do with it. People invented the concept of language, and then we invented Hebrew. People invented the concept of books, and then we wrote the Torah. G-d chose us to remain a living community while other cultures came and went.

    But one of the attributes of G-d’s work is evolution. Judaism came from the same murky sources as all other religions, but it evolved into a supporter of critical thinking while other religions just enhanced the support of their myths.

    So what can we know about G-d from the Torah, which was written in an earlier stage of human intelligence and remains constant? Only how G-d’s wordless wisdom has lifted us above the presumptions of the Torah’s authors. We know that many of the stories in the Torah are terribly wrong. We know that many mitzvot don’t make sense. And we know this in response to studying the Torah. So isn’t it reasonable to assume that such knowledge comes from G-d?

    Our gift is not the Torah itself, but our ability to rationally criticize the Torah. The Torah is made of words, a human invention, and cannot be held as a definition of G-d. To attempt to do so is idolatry.

    Leining about the weekly parsha should be an opportunity to evaluate it logically with an open mind. But I’ve never seen anyone do this. I’ve only seen us using it as a supposed obligation to stretch our minds in support of the parsha, which is not what G-d intended. If we give up our will to criticize, to wrestle with our metaphorical angels, then we give up what makes us unique.