The rabbinical posture: God’s authority on earth?

Summary

The Torah (Oral and Written) has, say the sages, at least 70 faces. The rabbis impose their own discipline on the Torah and claim to have been given the divine authority to interpret the Torah. I argue that this rabbinical imposition is an importune posture.

Introduction

In Roman Catholicism, the Pope is God’s authority on earth. For the “Orthodox” Jew (Haredi, Chabad), the rabbi is God on earth. When the Jew cleaves to his rabbi, he cleaves to God. He cannot cleave directly to God because as Rashi says, quoting the scripture, God is a consuming fire (Deut 4:24). Anyone who doubts his rabbi, even when he makes shocking exceptions to the rabbinic rule, is one who doubts the divine presence. (See We hear through an iPhone darkly: rabbinical authority and the Aural Torah).

A course on rabbinical Judaism teaches that interpretation is ”bound to a text with wide room for interpreting its meaning?” In the room are seventy rabbis, each doing his own thing, or rather one rabbi with seventy faces. “There are seventy faces to the Torah: turn it around and around, for everything is in it” (Midrash Bamidbar [Numbers] Rabba 13:15); everything in the sense that it contains the building blocks of everything in and under heaven, which Jacob Neusner calls the “grammar” of rabbinical theology (See Jacob Neusner and Rabbinical Theology).

There is the “Written Torah” (scripture) and the “Oral Torah” (rabbinic writings such as the Mishnah, the Midrash and the Zohar). There are two views of the relationship between the Written and the Oral Torah.

1. The Oral Torah roots it legitimacy in the Written Torah and transforms the meaning of the Written Torah. The deeper levels of meaning are not found in the Written Torah, but in the Oral Torah, which for some Jewish movements is not found deep in the Written Torah but outside and beyond it. The “Oral Torah” was written down in its seminal form in the second century after the Christian era. “The Oral Torah, explanations of the Written Torah, was originally passed down verbally from generation to generation. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, it was decided the Oral Torah should be written down so it would not be forgotten. In the 2nd century C.E., Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and a group of Sages compiled the Mishnah. The Mishnah is a written outline of the Oral Torah. (What Is the Torah? by Ariela Pelaia).

Rabbinic Judaism, says Neusner, is the Judaic religious system of the social order set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures called ‘the Written Torah ,’ as mediated by the Mishnah, Talmuds , Midrash-compilations, and related compilations, called “the Oral Torah .” As to the historical and temporal setting, that one whole Torah, written and oral, took shape in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia in the first six centuries of the common Era; it is with that canon and formative period that we deal in this book” (“Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure,” p. 1).

2. The Written Torah is part of the original Oral Torah. All writing starts out as speaking. So, the Written Torah (the Scriptures) was once oral, and therefore forms only one part of the original revelation to Moses, which has been passed down, maintain the rabbis through tradition. In rabbinical theology, interpretation has authority over revelation, which diminishes the authority of the Written Torah, because, as the rabbis argue, without rabbinic tradition, the Wriiten Torah is a closed book.

Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal, in his Deuteronomy 33:4 – Oral Law , argues that the Written Law is a product of the Oral Law:

Those who dispute the validity of the Oral Law assume that the Five Books are the basis and the foundation for the Law. They understand that the written text comes first. When these critics approach Israel’s claim for an authoritative Oral Law, they see this as a claim for a supplementary code, one that is authorized to define and to interpret the written word. These critics contend that if there is a valid code of Law that supplements the text, we would expect that it should have been mentioned in the text.”

Rabbi Blumenthal then provides examples from the Written Torah to uncover its skeletal nature, and then does not only argue that it requires an authority outside the text, the Oral Torah, to pack flesh onto the dry bones, but that the Written Torah is merely one product, a central one, of the Oral Torah. Ibn Ezra, one of the most celebrated Jewish writers of the Middle Ages sums up Rabbi Blumenthals view (italics added): ...the Law of Moses is founded upon the Oral Law which is the joy of our heart. The implication is that there is no joy in the dry bones of the Written Torah. (See The Written and Oral Torah: Which is Primary? ). And Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 3): Torah, Philosophy and Theology).

 

History for the rabbi is his story

Jacob Neusner, a spokesman of rabbinical theology, speaks of “the documentary record” (the rabbinical canon) that points to “God’s presence in history.” In normal historiography, the “documentary record” aims to establish what really happened in history. In rabbinical Judaism, in contrast, “history” has little to with real events. For example, Rabbi Hillel‘s stories were “made up”; they are “documents of culture, glyphs of faith.” (Jacob Neusner, “A counterpart to the problem of the historical Jesus,” in “Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity, pp. 77-88).

l wonder, however, says Neusner, whether in the context of faith whether concerning Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad, such a thing as critical history in the nineteenth-century sense indeed can emerge. I ask myself whether, to begin with, the sources came into being with any such purpose in mind. And I question whether when we ask about history in the sense at hand, we address the right questions to sources of such a character. And, anyhow, what critical historical facts can ever testify to the truth or falsity of salvation, holiness, joy, and love? ((A counterpart to the problem of the historical Jesus,” p.88. (Jacob Neusner, Judaism in the beginning of Christianity. See Jewish scholars and the play dough of interpretation”).

And:

What counts is not what happened then – did Sodom really perish in fire and brimstone, or was it an earthquake? – but what scripture teachers us to make of what is happening now…what God wants of me. And to people who ask Scripture to explain what is happening now, to lessons and examples of the sages of Judaism have much to say.” (Jacob Neusner, “Christian faith and the Bible of Judaism: The Judaic encounter with scripture, William B. Eerdmans, Michigan,1987, p. xii)

Neusners rabbinical Judaism seems very similar to Reconstructionist Judaism, where the Torah is regarded as the folklore that binds the Jewish community together. Here is an excerpt from Rabbi Lester Bronstein’s “crash course” in Reconstructionist Judaism:

In this system, God does not choose the Jews to be performers of the commandments. Rather, the Jews choose to be called by God by means of a vast network of sacred acts (mitzvot) ranging from balancing work and rest (Shabbat), to establishing courts and laws, to sexual fidelity, filial respect, medical ethics and the rhythms of the seasons. (Hence, asher kervanu laavodato, who has called us to your service.) Paradoxically, it is the mitzvot that keep us Jewish, but which simultaneously attune us to the greater universe of which we are a tiny part. (See The Spirit of Reconstructionist Judaism and Jacob Neusner and the grammar of Rabbinical theology (4): God wants the Jew to create his own history and live in the now.

 

The medium or (what) message?

The rabbis don’t consider their scriptures (Tanach) as a living meaningful discourse, but merely as a deposit of potential meanings analogous to a dictionary and a grammar textbook; these only come alive when they are slotted into a (meaningful) message, and the rabbis are the ones who decide what is meaningful. Their meanings are contained in the Oral Torah (Talmuds, Mishnah, Zohar, etc).

In “Letters of Hebrew fire – the depth and death of meaning , I mentioned Rabbi Glazersons book Philistine and Palestinian (1995), in which he says:

The deeper significance of the (Hebrew) letters… is a subject as wide as all Creation. Every single letter points to a separate path by which the effluence of the divine creative force reaches the various sefirot (”spheres”) through which the Creator, Blessed be he, created His world.” In a word, we are talking about the Gematria, which is a system that assigns numerical value to a word or phrase, in the belief that words or phrases with identical numerical values are closely related to one another.

For the Jew, Hebrew didn’t start with Adam but in heaven; indeed, it didn’t start at all because if God always was, so was His language, which is equated with his creative power, namely his davar, his word. The Muslim says the same things about Arabic.

The Zohar

The Hebrew word zohar  means light, splendor, the Book of Splendor/Light. Together with the Book of Creation (Sepher Yetsirah), it forms the main canon of the Kabbalah.

Say a Jew wants to study the Zohar (the main textbook of Kabbalah). No problem; as someone said , The Jew is the only one who can understand these things because his soul is different to that of other humans.

The Chochomim (Jewish sages) say that a translation of the Zohar has no redeeming benefit. Now, the majority of Jews outside the state of Israel know little or no Hebrew, and, therefore, wouldnt be able to distinguish between the tiniest tot and jittle, or whatever, in the Zohar. So, thered be no point in trying to read the Zohar in the original language? Wrong, because “… our great Rabbis through all generations taught that the complete redemption depends precisely on the study of the Zohar HaKadosh (Holy Zohar). But it is here that the Yetzer HaRa (Evil Inclination) found a great help in confusing people by telling them: If you do not understand what you are reading in the Zohar HaKadosh, you have no right to occupy yourselves with it.’” (Zohar in English )

This is a great mistake, continues “Zohar in English,” that causes the redemption to be delayed, for all the Kabbalists have written that reading the Sefer HaZohar (The book of Zohar) and the Tikkunim with no understanding whatsoever, only saying it without knowing what one says, effects a great Tikkun in the higher worlds, purifies and illuminates the soul of man and brings the redemption closer” (Underlining added).

(“Tikkun is derived from the Hebrew verb “letaken” meaning to fix or repair. This verb is used all the time in everyday life and has no special meaning. The well-known spiritual meaning of this verb is inferred from two phrases: “Tikkun Olam ” literally meaning “repairing the world” and “Tikkun Midot” meaning “repairing the character”. Both phrases are many times shortened and only the word Tikkun is used, the spiritual meaning being understood from the context”).

Just because a Jew is Hebrew illiterate does not mean that he is unable to read the Zohar. So, reading the words without understanding, which is not difficult to do in a phonetic language like Hebrew, brings the day of redemption closer, if not as close as reading with understanding. Mouthing, therefore, is a valid and holy form of reading, if what is mouthed is Torah Hebrew.  Keep in mind. though, that the majority Jewish “Orthodox” view is that Zohar was originally written in Aramaic (a dialect of Chaldean) interspersed with Hebrew. The Aramaic of the Zohar is not the same dialect as that spoken by Jesus. (A minority “Orthodox” view is that the Zohar is a medieval compilation of Moses de Lion  but  based on ancient sources).

 

Examples of rabbinical interpretation

Example 1 – God made the mess; we are  to clean it up

Ask a Jew whether God is making a mess of the world, and he will answer – yes and no. He doesn’t make a mess because he is good, and he does make a mess after he finds out that the sages he cleaves does say that God makes a mess:

“Here, writes Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, is the “standard narrative” of Judaism up to advent of the Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria. Until the Ari, the standard narrative scripted the human being into a passive role in his own redemption: G d had made a magnificent world; human beings had messed it up. You now had a choice of doing mitzvahs, cleaving to G d and being good, or continuing to contribute to the mess. Better to be good, because the day will come that G d will take retribution from those who were bad and dispense reward to those who are good…The Ari stood all that on its head, providing humanity a proactive role: G d made the mess, he said; we are cleaning it up. (Italics added) (Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, “Eighteen Joyous Teachings of the Baal Shem Tov,” p. 18). (See When the Jew cleans up the Holy One of Israel’s Mess, Messiah will he come?).

Example 2 – When very good means good and evil

I believe the scriptures usually contain only one meaning, the surface meaning. “Surface” is not synonymous with superficial. If they were synonymous, then every time I were to read “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good (Genesis 1:31), I could justifiably exclaim, “how superficial! And ask, “surely there’s more to “very good” than “very good,” surely there’s something deeper than “very good” – “very very good,” for example.

If, though, one wished to penetrate the deepest secret of all, one would discover – according to the Midrash – something so deep that it would defy the laws of contradiction. I would find that when God says “very good,” he means “very good” only for the hoi poloi. But if you’re Jewish and have also devoted decades to Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah, then, and only then, will you understand that when God says “very good,” he really means “very bad”; indeed, worse than “very bad”; He means the evil inclination itself, the yetser hara. Let the Midrash speak for itself:

And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)―Midrash: Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel’s name: “Behold, it was good” refers to the Good Desire; “And behold, it was very good” refers to the Evil Desire. (It only says “very good” after man was created with both the good and bad inclinations, in all other cases it only says “and God saw that it was good”) Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: “Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.” (Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] IV, 4) (Genesis Rabbah 9:7, translation from Soncino Publications). 

Example 3 -The laughter and slaughter of Isaac

Laughter in the Bible appears for the first time in Genesis 17, and it was Abraham who had that first laugh:

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” 17 Abraham fell face down and laughed …”

Why was Abraham’s son, his “only son” yechidkha (that is, the son of the promise), called Isaac Yitzchak “he laughed.” Let’s read Glazerson’s explanation of (what he calls) the “real” (basic) meaning of Isaac’s name (laughter) and see what he does with this laughter.

We read in Genesis 17:17:

Abraham fell face down and laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”

In his chapter, “Isaac and the Philistines” (pp. 99-100), Glazerson contrasts what he calls Isaac’s pure holy Torah laughter with the Philistines’ mocking laughter at Torah:

We can, says Glazerson, see some of his titanic strength in his name יִצְחָק Isaac.” Coming from the root צחק to laugh,” this name signals his lofty perception of the physical world: this name signals his lofty perception of the physical world: a passing shadow only worth laughing at. Someone whose world-view was so very much the opposite of the Philistines’ had nothing to fear from them. This is why Isaac acquiesced so easily in the test of the Akeidah [binding of Isaac], his Binding as a sacrifice. For Abraham it was a severe trial to slay his son, but for Isaac it was not at all hard to give up a world that was worth nothing in his eyes.” Here is the relevant verse: Genesis 22:10 -Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter lishkhot his son – my square brackets. According to Glazerson, when Abraham was about to slaughter his son on the altar, Isaac burst forth into holy laughter, for his life (on earth), says Glazerson, was worth nothing in his eyes. Glazerson’s interpretation would be far more convincing if we could use the English translation of the Hebrew; for then “laughter” and “slaughter” would have everything in common except the sibilant.

Rashi also said that Abraham in his old age didn’t laugh at God’s promise that he would have a son (Isaac “he laughed”); instead, Rashi slaughters the p’shat (simple, linguistic meaning) of the text by saying that Abraham “rejoiced.”

 

Final comments

Orthodox Judaism views the surface text as superficial, as nothing but bed-time stories; as Rabbi Akiva Tatz said in one of his lectures, “any six-year-old can understand” the Written Torah. For the rabbis, one has to excavate below the surface to the pardes (the deeper levels) of Torah to find anything of lasting good. Scripture, for the rabbis, is like a walnut where the literal meaning is the shell that hides the secret truth deep within its flesh. Rabbinic interpretation may read with or against the plain meaning. Although, views differ on how bound one should be to the text, the consensus is that there is wide room for speculation on meaning. The deeper you go, though, the more – ironically – lost you become. The rabbis, of course, would say the opposite: the deeper you go, the less lost you become – because you find more of God above – of whom you are a piece. Very important for understanding Judaism is that the Jewish canon (Tanach and rabbinical literature) is only intelligible to the rabbis. What Jacob Neusner says about the Mishnah applies to the Hebrew scriptures (Tanach, Written Torah) as well:

“The extraordinary lack of a context of communication – specification of speaker, hearer — of our document [the Mishnah] furthermore suggests that for Mishnah, language is a self-contained formal system used more or less incidentally for communication. It is not essentially a system for communication, but for description of a reality, the reality of which is created and contained by, and exhausted within the act of description. (Italics added). The saying of the words, whether heard meaningfully by another or not, is the creation of the world. Speech is action. It is creation… And just as Chomsky says, “Grammar is autonomous and independent of meaning,” so in Mishnah. the formalization of thought into recurrent patterns is beneath the surface and independent of discrete meanings. Yet Mishnah imposes its own discipline, therefore its own deeper level of unitary meaning upon everything and anything which actually is said.” (Italics added).

No, Mishnah does not impose its own discipline; the rabbis impose it – upon anything and everything. They leave the Roman Catholic posture in the shade.

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One thought on “The rabbinical posture: God’s authority on earth?

  1. “The rabbis don’t consider their scriptures (Tanach) as a living meaningful discourse, but merely as a deposit of potential meanings analogous to a dictionary and a grammar textbook; these only come alive when they are slotted into a (meaningful) message, and the rabbis are the ones who decide what is meaningful. ”

    Wow. Also sounds a lot like Barthianism. The text becomes ‘meaningful’ and the Word of God only as it is interpreted and applied. (And sorry for the late comment, I just came across your site).

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