Tuesday, 25 May 2010

On Revelation, Polemics and Reality


These are the sources from my Tikkun Leyl Shavuot shiur.
The idea was to look at the relationship between what the Mesorah says about Judaism and the kinds of langauge that polemically engaged Rabbis use to describe Judaism. You'll miss the white fire between the black fire, but I hope the sources will be of interest.

The first part of the shiur addresses revelation. I suggest the kinds of statements we recognise from contemporary orthdoxy do not reflect the full range of the Masorah, but rather can be seen as polemical responses. They do, of course, reflect the Rambam's teachings, but I aruge that these teachings should also be seen as polemical - engaging, as they do, with a critque from Islam directed at the Rabbis for 'changing' the Torah.

The second part of the shiur looks at a broader polemic engagement of ultra-orthdoxy, claiming that the Mesorah is opposed to all change, noting that some of the key battleground issues of the mid 1800s were indeed permitted by authorities such as Josef Karo and Moshe Isserlis.

Revelation and the Origins of Jewish Fundamentalism


Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1

All of Israel have a portion in the world to come, apart from these … the one who says the Law is not from Heaven and heretic. Rabbi Akiva says, also one who reads the external books. [sefarim hahitzonim]


Rambam, Commentary on Mishnah

The Eighth principle of faith.
That is that the Torah has been revealed from heaven, this implies our belief that the whole of this Torah, found in our hands today is the Torah which was handed down by Moses and that it is all of divine origin. By this I mean that the whole of the Torah  came unto him from before God in a manner which is metaphorically called 'speaking' but the real nature of the communication is unknown to everybody except Moses (peace to him) to whom it came…

And there is no difference between verses like And the sons of Ham were Cush and Mizraim, Phut and Canan (Gen 10:6) or And Timnah was concumbine (Gen 26:12) and verses like I am the Lord your God and Hear O Israel.


Newman, Faith & Knowledge of God

The entire text, in every detail, now in our possession is the one given to Moses at Sinai .


Lamm, The Condition of Jewish Belief

I accept unapologetically the idea of the verbal revelation of Torah… [God] willed that man abide by His commandments and that that will was communicated in discrete words and letters. The Divine will, if it is to be made known, is sufficiently important for it to be revealed in as direct, unequivocal and unambiguous a manner as possible…Language, though so faulty an instrument is still the best means of communication to most human beings.


Drosnin, Bible Codes 



Exodus 19/20 

God said to Moses, 'Go down, warn the people…' … And Moses when down to the people and spoke to them. [parshat stumah]

God spoke all these words saying …

Exodus 34

And the Lord said to Moses, Cut two tablets of stone like the first; and I will write upon these tablets the words that were in the first tablets, which you broke.


Exodus 17:13-14 

And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. And the Lord said to Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and recite it in the ears of Joshua; for I will completely put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.

Deuteronomy 17

And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah in a book from that which is before the priests the Levites;


Devarim  Rabba 3:12, Ekev 12

Reish Lakish said that at the time Moses wrote the Torah he received a facial radiance [lit. ziv hapanim, see Exodus 34:29]. How did this happen? Reish Lakish said that Torah was given to Moses on a scroll of white fire and was carved with black fire, and the Torah was fire enwrapped with fire. While writing [Moses, at a certain point,] dried the reed on his hair, and from this he received a radiance.


Tanuhuma , Bereishit 1

It is taught about the verse

ולא תחללו את שם קדשי

'And they shall not profane my holy name' that if you make the letter heit into a hey you destroy the world.

It is taught about the verse

כל  הנשמה תהלל יה 

All that breathes should praise God, that if you make the letter hey into heit you destroy the world .


Talmud  Yerushalmi Taanit 4:2

Three books were found in the Temple court: Meoni, Zatuti and Hi. In one they found meon and in two they found meonah (Deut 33:27). They upheld the two and set aside the one. In one they found zatuti and in on two they found naari (Ex 24:5). They upheld the two and set aside the one. In one they found nine times Hi and in two they found eleven times Hi. They upheld the two and set aside the one .

Kimhi, Introduction to Commentary on Prophets

These variant words apparently developed because during the First Exile, the texts were lost, the scholars dispersed and the Torah Scholars died. The Men of the Great Assembly who restored the Torah to its former state found differences in the texts and followed the reading of those they believed to be in the majority. When they were not clear about this, they wrote one version without pointing it, or they wrote it in the margin and not in the text, or they …


Jeffrey Tigay

All forms of the Tanakh used today are forms of what is known as the Masoretic Text, abbreviated "MT," named after the medieval scholars (the Masoretes) who labored for several centuries to produce the most accurate text they could. The MT in use today is based on Masoretic manuscripts of the ninth and tenth centuries C.E., themselves based on older manuscripts. It has been largely unchanged since late Second Temple times (ca. the third century B.C.E., as reflected in the earliest of the Dead Sea scrolls from Qumran). But although the text has been largely unchanged, there is a large number of variant readings, most of which do not materially change the meaning of the text, but drastically affect the number of letters it contains. In fact, in the oldest complete manuscript of the entire Bible, Leningrad Codex B19A which was finished in 1009 C.E., the Torah has some 45 letters more than the 304,805 of the Koren edition .


Exodus 19 

God said to Moses go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready for the third day…

And Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure and they washed their clothes and he said to the people, 'be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.'


Ex 11:4-5

Moses said to Pharaoh, 'Thus said the Lord, "Towards midnight (c'hatzot) I will go forth among the Egyptians and every firstborn … shall die."

Ex 12:29 

In the middle of the night (b'hatzot) God struck all the firstborns.

Talmud  Berakhot 3b

Towards midnight? Can we say that the Holy Blessed One said to Moses 'toward midnight' Can there be any uncertainty in heaven? We have to say that God said 'at midnight' and then Moses said 'toward midnight.'


Genesis Rabba 

And they went towards Sodom but Abraham still stood before the Lord  R. Simon said: This is an emendation of the Soferim – tikkun sofrim, for the Shechinah was waiting for Abraham.

Albo Sefer Ikkarim

The meaning is not that any person changed anything in the Torah, G-d forbid, because no one would forge a book and then say "forged this" or "I changed this." How could they say that the Scribes changed it? Rather, the meaning is that... [the Torah spoke] like a scribe who changes his words out of respect for God."


Baba Batra 14b 

Moses wrote his books, the portion of Bilaam and Job. Joshua wrote his book and the last eight verses of the Torah.


Deuteronomy 1:2

These are the words which Moses spoke to all the people beyond the Jordan .

Ibn Ezra, Deut 1:2

If you know the secret of the twelve  and And Moses wrote (Ex 24:4, Num 33:2, Deut 31:9 ), and the Cananite was then in the land (Gen 12:6) and … you will discover the truth.


Rav Yehiel Yaacov Weinberg 

Rambam knew very well that these [texts] existed when he defined his principles. The words of Rambam must not be taken literally, implying that all the letters of the present Torah are the exact letter given to Moshe Rebbeinu. Rather is should be understood in a general sense that the Torah we learn and live by is for all intents and purposes the same Torah that was given to Moshe Rabbeinu.


Koran II 75,79

Do you then hope that they would believe you, some of you did indeed hear the word of God, then altered it after they had understood it, and they know [this] … Woe then to those who write the Book with their hands and then say this is from God .




Devarim Rabbah 8:6

What is the meaning of [Torah] is not in Heaven (Deut 30:11)?

Shmuel said: The Torah is not to be found amongst astrologers who gaze at the heavens. People said to Samuel, 'But you are an astrologer!' He replied: 'I only learn astrology when I am free from studying Torah.' They said to him 'When is that?' He said 'When I am in the bath .'


Hatam Sofer Shutim HM 197 (1835)

[The community should elect a proper Rabbi] not, God forbid, one of those fraudlent pamphleteers who read external books and emply the vernacular [lozim belaz']. It is forbidden to receive Torah from his lips, it is likened to planting a grove dedicated to Asherah in the Temple.


Akiva Yosef Scheisinger Naar HaIvri

The halachah is clear, whoever negates in the study of external books is a sinner and an apostate because who is there in our time who has mastered the Talmud and the poskim (and even he would be permitted only to study natural science)? Those who read books of passion [novels], and almost all German books are such, not to mention philosophy and the books of heresy, their fate is clear. Rabbi Akiva states they have no share in the world to come.


Jewish Encyclopaedia, Breslau Seminary, Judisch-Theologisches Seminar, 1854

The institution had at the beginning three divisions, namely: the regular rabbinical department, which admitted only such students as were entitled to enter the university; the preparatory department, receiving students who possessed the knowledge required for entrance to the "Secunda" of a Prussian gymnasium; and a training-school for religious teachers.


Samson Raphael Hirsch, Religion Allied with Progress

The more the Jew is a Jew, the more universalist will be his views and aspirations, the less alien will he be to anything that is noble and good, true and upright in the arts and sciences, in civilization and culture… The more the Jew is a Jew, the more gladly will he give himself to all that is true progress in civilization and culture – provided that in this new circumstance he will not only maintain his Judaism, but will be able to bring it to ever more glorious



Pesak of Michalowce, 1865

Bimah at front of Synagogue



Preaching in German (rather than Yiddish)

Wedding in the Shul

Deemed 'houses of heresy', banned from attending .


Rema, SA, EH 61

Some say the Huppah should be held under the open heaven.


Karo, Kesef Mishnah, MT Tefillah 11:3

Placement [of the bimah] in the centre is not mandatory, everything depends on the time and place. In times when Synagogues were very large the bimah had to be placed in the center so that all the people would hear. But in our time, when unfortunately our Synagogues are small and everyone can hear well, it is more pleasing that is be to one side, rather than in the middle.


Schelsinger, Lev HaIvri 39b

These are the things which out saintly forefathers transmitted to us as the very root of Jewishness [shorshei ha-yahadut]; name, language, dress [shem, lashon, malvush – And Jacob arrived 'shalem' in the City of Shechem Gen 33:18] … These three things were instituted by our ancestors in Egypt and because of their merit the Jewish were worthy of being redeemed. On balance they outweigh all the commandments of the Torah, as stated in Tanna deBei Eliyahu.


Tana deBei Eliyahu 1 23:4

King David used to praise those who went out of Egypt. Even the one commandment they possessed brought much more pleasure to God than several of our commandments … They drew up a covenant that they will do acts of lovingkindness, that they will preserve circumcision,  that they will not abandon the language of Jacob and that they will not learn the language of Egypt because of the ways of idol worshippers .


Mishnah, Orlah 3:9 - Teshuvot Hatam Sofer OH 28 

Hadash Asur MiDeoraita bchol makom

  • New is forbidden as a Torah mandate everywhere.
  • New[ly grown wheat product from plants that took root after Pesach of the first year] is forbidden as a Torah mandate [from the time they are harvested until the bringing of the omer offering on Pesach of the following year, whether the wheat grew in the Land of Israel or beyond.]


Hatam Sofer Responsa OH 28

Any change in the custom of our ancestors, even if it is not intended in imitation of the gentiles, or even if it is not halachically interdicted, is nonetheless forbidden because it deviates from the tradition of our forefathers. … Someone once asked, why, if we need to be cautious concerning the customs of our forefathers, should we utilize new useful things which gentile scientists have invented in our times? They answered him. In matters of human affairs, certainly the new is preferred over the old, for all that is new adds benefit; a rule which does not apply in the conduct of religion, whose source is God.


Hillel Lichtenstein

Take care my children. It is a difficult skill to know the four parts of the Shulchan Arukh, but it can be mastered. But in order to know the fifth Shulhan Arukh – to rule and teach in accordance with the state of the generation and the demands of the time and place, to gather and disperse, to rule leniently or stringently – that requires great assistance from heave.


Hatam Sofer, Kan Sofer letter 61

It is not that we do not know how to rule leniently, on the contrary. But we do know very clearly that in the present state of decline of our poor generation, faith is endangered on all sides. And everyone should admit that a weak sick body needs more care and protection than a healthy body.


Lev HaIvri, end Vol 2.

Every rule in the Shulchan Arukh is equal to the Ten Commandments and every Jewish custom is equal to the Ten Commandments.

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