The building blocks of Torah and creation: The power of the rabbinical mind – squared

The building blocks of Torah

The Christian generally regards the surface text of scripture, namely, its normal linguistic and communicative properties, to be the best guide to its meaning. There are, of course, parts of scripture where the surface text (p’shat) shuts up; for example, some of the visions of Ezekiel and parts of the book of Revelation. Christians who believe scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos – breathed out by God) also believe, as a corollary to its divine expiration (breathed out), that there are no deeper meanings lurking below the surface text of scripture. So, if Christians differ in their interpretation of a text, they lay the “blame” on the interpreter not on the text. In contrast, 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.

The Torah has 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). And it means everything in the sense that it contains the building blocks of everything in and under heaven. This principle is the basis of rabbinical theology, which Neusner compares with grammar. Language, like all structures consists of a hierarchy of parts consisting of progressively larger wholes.

1. Basic sounds (phonemes) or written symbols (letters) – meaningless in themselves (Hebrew letters for the “de facto” Jew do have meaning) are the building blocks of progressively larger meaningful units ranging from: 2. Structural elements such as number (singular – plural), gender (masculine – feminine -neuter), tense, and so forth, which are traditionally referred to”grammar” (the cement of language), to 3. Words, to 4. Sentences, to 5. Discourse (paragraphs, and larger chunks of language). (See Jacob Nuesner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 2): What is grammar?).

Here are two faces of (Oral) Torah:

“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?). It must be so gratifying to help God clean up his mess. Sometimes I clean up my mess, sometimes God cleans up my mess, sometimes I help God clean up His mess, and sometimes He helps me clean up my mess.

There are words and there are concepts/things that words are meant to represent. If you want to understand a bit about rabbinical Judaiam you need to understand that it does not distinguish between words and things. The Hebrew root davar (means “word/speak” as well as “thing.” A famous book in introductory linguistics is Roger Brown’s “Words and things.”  In Hebrew the plural of davar  is devarim. So, in Hebrew, “Words and things” is not merely “Devarim and devarim”; it has no divine power.  ”Devarim squared” is better where devarim is  raised to the second power – the first power is human;  the second, divine.

For the Kabbalist, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are the basic building blocks of the universe. So, Hebrew is not merely a natural language, but a supernatural language, the language of God. Also, it is not merely a language but the “table of elements” out of which all things in the earth and in the heavens were created. It is easy to see that in such a view, God’s speaking creation into being is given added poignancy – Poignancy to the Second power: Rabbi squared.

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When the Jew cleans up the Holy One of Israel’s Mess, Messiah will he come?

 

The Rebbe Schneerson (1902 – 1994)

Judaism teaches that man finds himself through loving God and the world. “What is the best way to love the world?” asks Chabad. Answer: repair it.   (Lubavitcher) Chabad is a branch of Chassidic (pious) Judaism. The core chassidic texts are the Talmud, the Zohar (the handbook of Kabbalah), and the Tanya, written by the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, also known as Baal Hatanya, “Master of the Tanya.”   The Chabad movement originated in the town of Lubavitch (hence Lubavitcher Chabad), a small town of Smolensk Oblast, Russia (Lubavitch arguably means “town of love” in Russian). “Chabad” is an acronym for Chochma, Binah and Da’at, which means wisdom, understanding and knowledge. In the last decade Chabad has not only become part of mainstream Orthodox Judaism but also the mainspring of Orthodox Judaism throughout the world.

There are over 2600 Chabad institutions worldwide.   “According to the Jerusalem Post of October 19, 2001, writes Carol A. Valentine, “Chabad is a potent force: 2,600 institutions around the world, large numbers of English-speaking rabbis, control of most of Judaism in Italy as well as the chief rabbinate of Russia (its Russia budget alone is $20 million a year). It is an organization with immense world-wide financial resources . . . In fact, Chabad is a movement of monumental importance. Observant Jews are profoundly dependent on its emissaries all over the world . . . its rabbis dominate or are poised to dominate Jewish communities in a startling number of countries.”

The two pillars of Judaism are: “When a Jew endeavors to take a step forward in the service of G-d and the love of his fellow man every day, I am happy to consider him my chassid.” (The Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson in Rabbi Tzvi Freedman’s “Eighteen Joyous Teachings of the Baal Shem Tov”).

The two pillars of Christianity are, of course, similar:

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,Master, which is the great commandment in the law?Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.This is the first and great commandment.And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:35-40).

I said the two pillars (love God and love your fellow man) of Christianity are similar to the two pillars of Judaism. There is also a radical difference between the two; it is this: By “fellow man,” (Chabad) Judaism means a fellow Jew, whereas in Christianity “here is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you (a follower of Jesus/Yeshua) are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians, 3:28). (See  Claim that Chabad and Christianity Nearly Identical).

Judaism (keep in mind, I mean Chabad, which is mainstream Judaism) claims that while a Jew is truly a “piece of God,” a non-Jew is truly not. In the second chapter of the Tanya, we read: “The uniquely Jewish, soul is truly “a part of G-d above.” (The Tanya also states – incorrectly, which I discuss elsewhere – that “A piece of G-d above is a quotation from Job 31:2“).

Judaism regards the Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Zalman) as one of the great sages of Judaism, and, therefore, the Tanya is regarded as revelation originating at Sinai. The guardians of this revelation are the successive Lubavitcher Rebbes, who took over the baton from Rabbi Zalman. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the last Lubavitcher Rebbe (called simply “The “Rebbe”), Menachem Mendel Schneerson, reiterates the Tanya: “A Jew is a Jew, period. A ‘piece’ of G-d, placed in a body and planted in this world” (See“The Rebbe, an appreciation”). I argued elsewhere that for the pious Jew (chassid) “Neighbour” for a Jew, excludes Gentiles, period

The Gentiles, however, like WASPs, just won’t go away. Here is Louie Giglio: When He put you in it (the world), He was thinking of His glory. How so, you may ask…Here’s how: He stamped into you, the Genesis account says, the very image of God. You were made in the likeness of God, in the image of God. God-stamped, God-breathed, God-pressed into the very DNA fabric of your being so that you and I could be the very best reflecting God’s glory in the world…[reflecting] the sum of God’s magnificent attributes and the eternal flame of His mysterious works” (See Man, the not-so-very DNA Image of God: A Critique of Louie Giglio’s “Great is our God).

The realisation that one of a Jew’s three souls is divine (the other two are the rational soul and the natural soul) found its apotheosis in the Kabbalism of Rabbi Isaac Luria (born in Egypt, 1534. Taught in Tzfat, Galilee, from about 1570 until his death in 1572. He is also referred to as the Arizal or simply Ari). Luria concluded that if the Jew is a piece of God above, there was no reason for him to continue to play a passive role in his redemption.

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.” ( Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, “Eighteen Joyous Teachings of the Baal Shem Tov,” p. 18; see also How the Baal Shem Tov changed the way we think about happiness).

In what sense, I wonder, was the Jew passive in redemption, for surely doing mitzvahs and good works for one’s community (which seems to be what it means to “cleave to God”1) implies taking an active role in redemption. For Arizal (Luria), however, doing mitzvahs and being good was a far cry from fulfilling a Jew’s potential. And so with Arizal,a new kind of Jewish soul comes down to earth from its secret base of operations, from its heavenly lair: the soul of repair (tikun). (The French translation of “lair” is repaire). And so, God began, the tradition says, from Arizal onwards to empower Jewish human beings to repair the world. Whether you regard redemption in mystical apocalyptic terms, or, as Maimonides did, as largely a natural event, in both scenarios, all that Judaism required was to remain doing good and being kind and obedient.

Now comes something that Arizal is purported to have said that I find truly bizarre, yet it is related by Chabad.org with apparent relish:

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.”

How does that differ from “Holy One of Israel, enough already; get out of my face; I, as part of eternal you above, am taking over.”

Chabad.org continues:

In the Ari’s narrative of tikun, G d first emanated a magnificent world—the world called Tohu. Yet this primordial world could not contain its own, unbounded light, resulting in its auto-annihilation. The fragments of that world fell to generate the artifacts of our own world, carrying with them a trace of that original intense energy. The human being (italics added) was then placed within this shattered world to put the pieces back together, harnessing the energy of those sparks of unbounded light, by carefully following the instructions of the Torah. Once that job is done, redemption arrives.”

Who is the ”human being [that] was then placed within this shattered world to put the pieces back together? It was the one who followed Torah, it was the divine Jewish neshamah (soul), and if divine, then existing from all eternity. And if the Jewish neshamah is eternal, so must – arguing from the lesser to the greater – the Messiah BE.

Here is how the Jew is to clean up the holy mess (created, says Arizal, by the Holy One of Israel):

In effect, the Ari presented an activist theology of mitzvahs: Every Torah act is a device for returning that which had been lost, reuniting that which been torn asunder, and tuning the world to the harmony originally intended. For the students of the Ari, tikun was an endeavor that lifted every word of prayer, pervaded every concept of Torah, and guided their mental focus in every mitzvah they performed.”

The chassid (pious Jew) finds himself through loving the world, this broken world, and, in his eyes, the best way to love the world is to repair it, to try and put Humpty Dumpty together again. `But, after cleaning up the divine mess, will Messiah indeed come? Not yet, there’s one thing, though, that will ensure his advent – even if Israel fails to clean up the Mess; it’s this: “If Israel will keep just one Shabbat properly, Mashiach will come immediately.

Though I have set a limit to ‘the end,’ that it will happen in its time regardless of whether they will do teshuvah or not… the scion of David (Mashiach) will come if they keep just one Shabbat, because the Shabbat is equivalent to all the mitzvot.” (Shemot Rabba 25:121; Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 1:10).

Who is Israel? Every Israelite (Jew), a majority of Israelites? Alas, the majority of Jews have never heard of the term “The Holy One of Israel;” while the majority of this majority are too busy

. So, the shabbat solution is not be. Meantime, do your best to repair the world. And the best way to do it, says the chassid, is through joy, in ecstatic anticipation of the time of messianic redemption.

Yet there is far more back of redemption than the daily service of joyfully repairing the world. But, that’s for another day.

1Is there a single religious Jew who believes that he or she can meet God One-on-one, because they believe that this is what God wants; a personal relationship with human beings? I suggest there are relatively few, because the majority of religious Jews follow the Oral Torah/tradition, which teaches that God only becomes fully present in community; the Jewish community.(See Can a Jew singly cleave to God? In Judaism, it seems not).

 

The Written and Oral Torah: Which is Primary?

English: The Title page of Mishnah Torah by Mo...

English: The Title page of Mishnah Torah by Moshe ben Maimon haRambam, published in Venice in 1575 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this piece, I examine the relationship between the Written and Oral Torah. I argue that the Written Torah has been given a raw deal.

The Christian generally regards the surface text of scripture, namely, its normal linguistic and communicative properties, to be the best guide to its meaning. There are, of course, parts of scripture where the surface text (p’shat) may refuse to give up much of its meaning; for example, some of the visions of Ezekiel and parts of the book of Revelation. Christians who believe scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos – breathed out by God) also believe, as a corollary to its divine expiration (breathed out), that there are no deeper meanings lurking below the surface text of scripture. So, if Christians differ in their interpretation of a text, they lay the “blame” on the interpreter not on the text. In contrast, Orthodox Judaism views the surface text as superficial, as nothing but bed-time stories. Rabbi AkivaTatz said in one of his lectures, “any six-year-old can understand” the Written Torah. One has to enter the pardes (the deeper levels) of Torah to derive any lasting good. These deeper levels 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 above and beyond it. So, it is not always, or perhaps even often, the case that the Oral Torah and the Written Torah complement each other. Often it is rather that the Written Torah implements what the Oral Torah dictates it to mean.

All writing starts out as speaking. So, the Written Torah was, of course, once oral. Indeed the oral Torah was also once oral and was only written down in its seminal form in the second century after the Christian era. This compendium is called the Mishna:

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.”

I shall examine the notion that the Oral Torah is a compedium of “explanations of the Written Torah” (above quotation).

Torah” is used in two ways: 1. the Pentateuch, and 2. the whole Hebrew Bible, the Tanach. For our purposes, the distinction is not important, because our focus is on principles of transmission, not on content. When I refer to content, it is to give an example of the discord between the Written and Oral means of communication.

Which of these two means of communication is primary? There are two senses of “primary”: 1. order of importance” and 2. chronological order. We examine these two meanings of “primary” in terms of Oral and Written Torah. There are two views:

  1. Oral Torah is primary in both senses of the word, that is, it is of first importance and it produces the Written Torah.
  2. Oral Torah is primary in one sense only, namely, it is of first importance; but it is the Written Torah that produces the Oral Torah.
PRIMARY Chronological Order Order of Importance
1. Oral Torah Produces Written Torah First
2. Written Torah Produces Oral Torah First

In both these views, the Oral Torah is of primary importance; the Written Torah without the Oral Torah is nothing more than a naked ghost in the linguistic machine.1

Here is the argument for the first view, namely, the Oral Torah produces the Written Torah.

In his “Deuteronomy 33:4 – Oral Law,” Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal maintains that the Written Law is a product of the Oral Law:

Some of Judaism’s detractors attempt to invalidate the second method of communication; the living transmission of parent to child. These critics of Judaism argue that the written text; i.e. the Bible, is God’s word, and as such is reliable and trustworthy, but the living transmission is only words of men. Why should we rely on the words of men? What indeed is the basis for the Oral Law?

Judaism affirms that God made use of two methods of communication in order to transmit the truths of Judaism from one generation to the next; the written text and the living communication of parent to child. These two methods of communication complement and support each other. It is only when we absorb the message through both of these mediums of communication that we can arrive at a proper understanding of God’s truth.

If we examine the Bible itself, we will see that this criticism [namely, that the Oral Torah is man made) of Judaism does not get off the ground.

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 argues that it requires an authority outside the text to pack flesh onto the dry bones. This external authority is the Oral Torah. Ibn Ezra, one of most celebrated Jewish writers of the Middle Ages sums up Rabbi Blumenthal’s view: “…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 and no heart (skeletons don’t have hearts) in the dry bones of the Written Torah, which is only to be expected if the Written Torah is seen as nothing more than a bone yard.

The problem is that this Oral authority is not uniform, and often contradictory. For example in the time of Jesus, the two main “houses” of Judaism were those of Hillel and Shammai, who often disagreed on the content of the Oral Law. A century later, Akiva ben Joseph, a proponent of the Hillel camp, won the day. Akiva developed the Mishnah. It is from Akiva that the chain of rabbinical authority, from the second century after the Christian era, was forged (as in “ironmongery;” and as in “contrive”?). It was also Akiva, though, who believed that Bar Kochba, the Jewish leader of the revolt against Roman rule, was the Messiah. It wasn’t a good beginning for such a highly regarded sage, on which so much of the clout of the Oral Torah was grounded, to have been bowled over by a false Messiah. But then, the rabbis could take a leaf out of the Catholic book by claiming that not even the gates of hell/sheol can overpower the Holy Spirit (Ruach Hakodesh), who has promised to guard his oral revelation/oral Torah against error.

So far, we have examined the Oral Torah as the creator of the Written Torah.

Another view is that the Written Torah is the “raw material of human creation.” Here is an excerpt from Rav Chaim Navon’s lecture on “Torah Study – Creation or Revelation,” which cites several sages that support this “raw” view of the Written Torah: (Judaism considers the sages chochomim to be the God-appointed human channels of the Oral Torah).

I maintain that, with respect to the Oral Law, the concept of “truth” is meaningless. The Torah student is not required to strive for the absolute “truth” that is concealed in God’s hidden places. The Torah serves as raw material for human creation, and man must develop the Torah in the direction that seems right to him.”

Rav Chaim Navon then quotes):

When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah to Israel, He gave it to them in the form of wheat to produce from it fine flour, and in the form of flax to produce from it a garment. (Tanna Debei Eliyahu Zuta, ed. Ish-Shalom, parasha 2).”

He continues:

This is a revolutionary and sensational formulation: The Torah was given like raw material, and man must utilize it in order to fashion the next layer of the Oral Law. Chazal spoke in a similar vein in other places as well (He quotes):

Had the Torah been given in the form of clear decisions, the world would have been unable to exist. What is the meaning of: “And the Lord said to Moshe”? [Moshe] said to Him: “Master of the universe, tell me the Halacha!” [God] said to him: “‘After the majority to incline’ – if there are more who favor acquittal, he is acquitted; if there are more who favor conviction, he is convicted. This is in order that the Torah be explained in forty-nine ways favoring ritual impurity and forty-nine ways favoring ritual purity.” (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 4:2).

He continues:

Some of the more recent authorities follow this position of Chazal. The formulation proposed by Rabbi Joseph Bloch, head of the Telz Yeshiva, comes closer to our view than do the words of the author of the Ketzot (he quotes):

“… When the Torah was given to Israel, its laws were given over to the Torah Sages, whose thinking, provided that it is aimed at the Torah’s reasons and secrets, establishes the reality of the Torah and the reality of the universe which is dependent upon it. Thus, it differs from the other branches of wisdom, for those who investigate them do not establish the reality of those branches of wisdom, but rather uncover it. For their thinking and decisions will never change reality. This is not the case regarding Torah, for the reality of ritual impurity and purity, forbidden and permitted things, obligation and exemption, are set in accordance with the decisions of the Torah Sages. (Rabbi Joseph Bloch, Shi’urei Da’at, I, p. 21)[1]

How can it be, asks Rav Chaim Navon, that the Torah is merely raw material? How can the Torah Sages give two different answers, both of which are equally valid? In the case of a mathematical problem, for example, 2 plus 2, the problem has only one correct answer. It would seem that halachic questions should also have only one correct answer! In order to resolve this difficulty, let us consider the words of Ramban” (Rav Chaim Navon quotes Ramban):

Anybody who studies our Talmud knows that regarding the disagreements among the commentators there are no absolute proofs, and generally there are no irrefutable objections. For this branch of wisdom does not allow for clear demonstrations as does mathematics. (Ramban, Introduction to his Milchamot Hashem).”

So, according to Rav Chaim Navon, we must learn from the sages of Israel, who are the inheritors of the Oral Torah revealed to Moses at Sinai. Here we see that although the Oral Torah feeds on the raw flesh of the Written Torah, it is the Oral Torah that reveals the inworkings and inwormings of the Written Torah.

The Oral law consists of several parts, two of which is the Midrash and the Zohar, where the latter is the handbook of Kabbalah (“received” [at Sinai]).

Here is Michael Laitman in his “Zohar for all.”

The more we try to live this inner picture through The Zohar and refrain from sinking into historic images of familiar Bible stories, the more The Zohar will promote us to the interior of the Torah, to the true Torah—the real perception of reality” (p. 129).

The upshot: we must go beyond the ”simple distillations” (Laitman) of “familiar Bible stories” that (Rabbi Akiva Tatz says) any six-year-old can understand.

I now introduce some content from the Written Torah to show how the Oral Torah worms its way into the Written Torah. En passant, we should not feel too squeamish or affronted by the phrase “worms its way in,” for the simple reason that it is the Zohar that says that if you were able to journey to the center of the Torah, you will uncover the secret In the serpent’s belly, the root of Moshe Rabbinu (Moses’) soul.

Here is an example from the Midrash Genesis (B’reshit) Rabbah, which is a collection of homiletical interpretations of Genesis. I examine how the Oral Torah works with ( would say, against) the raw data of Written Torah:

If you’re not a Midrash student, and can understand basic Hebrew, or English or whatever translation of Genesis you are able to read, you will probably assume when Genesis 1:31 says, God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good,” that “very good” means “very good;” in Hebrew טוֹב מְאֹד TOV M’OD. The Midrash, on the contrary, says that the surface text is merely deceptive packaging, and so, were you to dig deeper – which only the initiated can do – you’ll see that when God says “very good,” He really means “very bad”; indeed, worse than “very bad;” God means the evil inclination itself, the yetser harah, the fleshly desire. Here is the relevant Midrash:

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 Na(c)hman 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 [Eclesiastes] IV, 4) (Genesis Rabbah 9:7, translation from Soncino Publications).

(See “Digging below the surface of Torah, Midrash and Vulgate: When very good is evil).

“Very” is a very interesting word. It is usually used with an adjective as in “very good” (as in Genesis 1:31 above). “Very” sometimes acts like and adjective (describes a noun). Here is the Latin equivalent of “very” in the Latin version of the Nicene creed: “Deum verum de Deo vero”; in English “very God of very God.” (Any similarities between vero and vermis, Latin for “worm,” may or may not be accidental. Didn’t we just see that the serpent resides in the belly of Torah; so why not also the worm vermis?)

We read in Karl Barth’s Church dogmatics, “Jesus Christ lives, very God and very man.” The reason why the Latin verum/vero is similar to “very” is because “very” derives from the Latin term verum/vero, which means, of course “truly.” Man is truly (vero) a worm (vermis).

So, in Genesis, “very good” surely means “truly good” for the reason that it seems so right for the God of truth to call his creation “truly good.” But then the Midrash goes and spoils it all by saying the reason why the completed creation is called “very good” is because without the evil inclination (lust), creation is incomplete. Rabbi Nachman (the Midrash above) is regarded as a sage, that is, an illustrious authority on the Oral Torah, without which the Written Torah is nothing but Bible stories2 that any six-year-old can understand (Rabbi Akiva Tatz). For this reason, when the Rabbi says that “very good” means “evil,” a good Jew takes notice and tries to make sense of it. If, however, this midrash is wrong, it would mean that Moses did not pass it on to the sages, for the simple reason that God did not say, “write ‘very good,’ but – wink wink – mean “evil inclination.”

God is, of course, sovereign not only over good but also over evil; and if He is sovereign over evil, He also creates it; which the scripture states clearly: “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things” (Isaiah 45:7)

עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע Osê (I MAKE) shalom (PEACE) ooboray (AND CREATE) ra (EVIL)

And yet there is no evil in God. Is there a contradiction here? No, there’s only an apparent contradiction; a paradox. And as any Midrashic student will tell you,

Midrash is a way of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal or moral teachings. It fills in many gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at. Quite a few are creative – and even daring, innovative and fascinating – inasmuch as they retell the stories by filling in the many gaps left in the biblical narrative with respect to certain events and personalities that were only hinted at. (Living with contradiction in the Midrash).

Have I contradicted myself by agreeing with the Midrash that God creates the “evil inclination?” Not at all. The Written Torah (I refer to Isaiah here) does indeed say:

I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil (רָע RA); I am the LORD, that doeth all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7, Mechon Mamre, Jewish translation)

(The New International Version pussyfoots around by translating RA as “disaster.” Bad weather?).

If you’re a Written Torah “onlyist,” (Sola scriptura) you are compelled to come to grips with (morally) difficult texts such as “I create evil” (Isaiah 45:7) and “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19b). Yet most (Jewish and Christian “Sola scripturists”) try and wheedle their way out of these hard texts which seem to show God as immoral. If, however, you’re an Oral Torah “mostlyist,” you have a embarrassment of (revealed?) choices; indeed of contrary choices, which in Oral Torah are not considered contradictory choices; how so, I cannot fathom. To wit:

Rabbi Yannai (early third century CE) said: Words of Torah were not given as clear-cut decisions (hatikhin), but with every utterance (or, command) that the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke to Moses, he communicated forty-nine arguments (literally, faces) (by which a thing may be proved) pure, and forty-nine arguments (by which it may be proved) impure. He (Moses) said before Him: Master of the universe, how long until we shall know the clear sense of the rule (biruro shel davar)? He (God) said to him: “Follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2). When a majority declares it impure it is impure; when a majority declares it pure, it is pure” my emphasis).

When words have multiple/plural meanings they are called polysemic (Greek “many meanings). What does one call a multiple of multiple pure and impure meanings of one word/phrase? Multiple polysemichosis?

So there we have it from the Serpent’s mouth: God in the Oral Torah is not a theocracy but a democracy. In such as scheme, all covenants consist of mutual agreement between He who chooses – for the sole reason that “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy – and those whom he chooses.

The rabbis say that God chose the Jewish people because they, among all peoples, were created out of divine stuff, and so are a “piece of God above.” Indeed, the Lord of Lords may sometimes need to seek out Oral Torah (via the sages) for guidance, or, failing that, study the Oral Torah (His? mind) for Himself to try and discover the reason for all the disagreements over divine revelation among His messengers. The Sovereign Endless Lord, did not reckon with the Book of Zohar, which the sages say emanate from Heaven.

The Book of Zohar (part of the Oral Torah) has a different meaning every day. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, Degel Machaneh Ephraim [The Banner of the Camp of Ephraim], Portion: Bo [Come], p 84

The Written Torah has been truly cooked. Raw deal?

1Gilbert Ryle, in his “Concept of Mind.” calls the theory of the separability of mind and body, “the dogma of the ghost in the machine.”

2Michael Laitman in his “Zohar for all,” says:“The more we try to live this inner picture through The Zohar and refrain from sinking into historic images of familiar Bible stories, the more The Zohar will promote us to the interior of the Torah, to the true Torah—the real perception of reality.”

Letters of Hebrew fire – the depth and death of meaning

 

Torah
Torah (Photo credit: quinet)

During the three years I was at Wynberg school, I attended afternoon Kheder (Cheder/Cheider) “Hebrew School” (literally “room”) where we studied for our Bar Mitzvah. I remember the classes well. Reverend Gordon (in the 1950s a rabbi was called “Reverend”) of the Wynberg Synagogue was our teacher. He was a small man in his sixties with a husky voice, a wide-brimmed perennial black hat engulfing his pasty wrinkled face. We had to learn long bits of the Tanakh by heart. No one in the class understood what they were reading.This mindless recitation is common among non-Israeli Jews.

”When I was called to the bima, relates Avram Yehoshua, who hails from the US,  to read the haftara portion (the portion of Scripture from the Prophets that the bar Mitzva boy reads), I chanted it melodically and without mistake. The only problem was that I had no idea what the Hebrew words meant or what I was doing, except that today I would ‘become a man.’”
Back to Stuppel in Wynberg, South Africa. Stuppel was the star of the show in the chaider class: he vomitted large chunks of discourse at full speed, without dropping a single fiery letter. I was stuppelfired. His feat consigned the best fire-eaters to the flames.

Hebrew is a phonetic language with a very simple stress system like Italian and Afrikaans. It is possible, therefore, to read fluently but only understand effluently. There may indeed be an emotional bond with the letters filling the eyes and the sounds rattling off the tongue. How many Jews will tell you that they have this warm feeling when they look at or mouth Hebrew letters? But what about what it means? I do not mean that the structure of a language (the language code) has no value. What I mean is that the structure without the meaning is just an empty shell. If all you do is throw egg shells around, people might think you’re cracked. On the other hand, a Kabbalist will probably tell me that I’m a שמאָק (shmok) because I don’t understand that the ש and מ and אָ and ק each have meaning in themselves, and that the mindless(?) recitation of these letters influences the mind and heart in ways that the goyim and ignorant Jew fail to grasp. Islam says the same thing about Muslims who recite the Arabic Qur’an without understanding it, which comprises the majority of Muslims. The Arabic word qur`ān means “recitation”, which is related to the Hebrew kara “read, call, call out, name”.

The emotional bond with Hebrew (-looking-sounding words) is no different from the feelings that different sense impressions evoke – sights, smells, sounds, textures. Yesterday I bought a roll mop

(Philo "Judaeus") von Alexandreia/Ph...

(Philo “Judaeus”) von Alexandreia/Philo(n) of Alexandria (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(a strip of herring wrapped around pickle and onion rings impaled on a toothpick) because it reminded me of all the lovely pickled herring my mother used to make. It felt so heimish (like home).   [mop – German for “bulldog face”. Roll mop – slimy silvery skin of a bulldog’s mug].  I place the roll mop on a plate, go sit under the tree in the small lush garden, unwrap the slab of herring, peel the loathsome silvery grey skin off the back, tear off little slabs, which I deftly deposit  in my mouth. Lots of things can make an old Jew feel heimish: when it comes to food – chicken soup, chopped liver, kiegelech, teigelech; or when it comes to music – Sophie Tucker and Kol Nidre.

Barry Freundel, in his “Contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s response to modernity” (pp. 11-12) says:

“The revelatory character of the material in the Bible serves as a rationale and multiple[level analysis of these texts that one finds in the rabbinic literature called the oral law. The Bible represents miraculous information. As such, while it can and should be read on its most idiomatically understandable level (what we call peshat) other levels of interpretation are also available because of the very nature of the origin of the text. These other levels are called derash, or deeper analysis, remez, or hints, which includes such things as gematria (numerological parallels and notarikon (words whose deeper meaning is revealed by the abbreviations hidden behind the letters); and sod, or secret analysis, meaning esoteric or mystical interpretation. All of these, even at the most basic level of peshat, can and do involved a great deal of intellectual effort and debate before one arrives at a final conclusion.”

So, each occasion Moses imparted to the Hebrews what God revealed, they applied a great deal of intellectual effort and debate before they arrived at a final conclusion. Is that perhaps the reason why they spent 40 years in the desert walking round in circles? Take, for example, the many occurrences of “Thus says the LORD (YHWH)” כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, in Exodus 8:1: “And the LORD spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exodus 8:1).
How did Pharoah react? Did he enter into an intellectual and linguistic debate with Moses on the deeper levels of meaning in the sentence “Let my people go” and in the letters of L-E-T? But then Pharoah wasn’t Jewish. (See my “Thus says the Lord in the Torah. And in the Prophets?”

In his “Approbation” of “Philistine and Palestinian” (1995) by Matityahu Glazerson (originally published in Hebrew a year earlier), the Johannesburg Rabbi J. Zalzer states:
“Rabbi Glazerson disproves the tale that it makes no difference in which translation language you happen to read the “Bible” (Zalzer’s inverted commas). He demonstrates that the Hebrew language possesses certain values which you hardly find elsewhere: a simple word expresses, in fact, deep ideas which the real meaning of the word includes. The Torah is not reading material for leisure, but needs much effort in order to be able to penetrate its real meaning and discover its real beauty beneath the surface.”

These deep ideas are, according to the Kabbalah, in the letters themselves. In the Preface (which contains an excerpt from “Letters of Fire”), Glazerson says:

“The deeper significance of the letters and words is discussed extensively in the literature of Kabbalah. It is a subject as wide as all Creation. Every single letter points to a separate path by which the effluence (italics added) of the divine creative force reaches the various sefirot (”spheres”) through which the Creator, Blessed be he, created His world.” Glazerson draws from “this store of knowledge regarding the varied significance of the Hebrew letters and words.”

( “Effluence’ is not a felicitous translation of the original. The word has three meanings: sewer water, waste water, and outpouring. The author obviously meant the third meaning. Unhappily, “effluence” is never used – this is the first time I have seen it used in such a manner – to mean “outpouring.” When I used “effluently” earlier on, I would assume that readers would get the sewer pun).

Glazerson has a chapter “On the unique status of Hebrew, the Holy Tongue” (from Rabbi

Moshe Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim, Sha’ar Ha-Ottiot, Chapter 1).   (Pardes Rimonim  פרדס רימונים “Garden [of] Pomegranates” of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 16th century. Sha’ar Ha-Ottiot – “Gate of letters”). Here is an excerpt:

“Many have supposed that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are a matter of symbolic convention, that the Sages decided and agreed among themselves that certain signs would represent the sounds of speech….In the same way, other peoples also have symbolic representations for the sounds in other languages. According to this view, there is no difference between the Hebrew letters and the alphabets of other nations. The Hebrew letters are the conventional symbols used by the Israelite nation on the advice of Moshe through his prophetic inspiration, and the other alphabets are the conventional symbols of the other nations.”

Who but the ignorant would think that Hebrew is the product of Moses? Was there no Hebrew before Moses? But I don’t want to get my linguistic knickers caught up in that particular bramble of a ramble. So let’s move on to the nub of Rabbi Moshe’s argument, which I paraphrase:

There are words and there are meanings. For example, if you’ve got a headache and swallow the instructions in your painkiller box, you’ll end up with two aches, one in your head and one in your stomach. Moral of the story, don’t swallow instructions, especially written ones – even if you can stomach them; swallow only what you’re meant to swallow: the painkillers. Once you have understood the instructions on the pamphlet, you can throw it away. You can do that because it has no intrinsic importance in curing you of your headache. On the other hand, if you don’t ensure that you understand the instructions, you could do yourself untold harm.

According to those who hold this pragmatic view of language – I’m still paraphrasing Rabbi Moshe Cordovero – as a vehicle that conveys ideas (that is, a form that expresses content), the Torah is to them like that pamphlet in the painkiller box, or like any medical textbook: “its purpose is to reveal the inner meanings and processes necessary for the perfection of the soul and if one does not master the required knowledge, he gains no benefit from his studies.” But Rabbi Moshe says that this pragmatic theory cannot be true because the “Halachah obligates the reader to read the weekly portion, twice in the original Hebrew and once in the Aramaic translation, and this includes even seemingly meaningless place names (underlining added) such as Atarot and Divon (Bamidbar 32:3 “Numbers” 32:3)…The spiritual concept of each and every letter contains a glorious light, derived from the essence of the sefirot…each letter is like a splendid palace, containing and corresponding to its spiritual concept. When one of the letters is pronounced aloud, the corresponding spiritual force is necessarily evoked…these spiritual forces inhere not only in [the vocalized letters] but also in their written forms.”

So even when Glazerson says the words “seemingly meaningless”, the letters themselves (the phonemes and graphemes) in reality exude, Glazerson says, a “glorious light.” My view of the Bible (Tanakh and Newer Testament) is more prosaic and for all that more glorious, that is, it gives more glory to God. My view is that God reveals meanings through sounds (phonemes) and letters (graphemes), which are the building blocks of spoken and written words. The Bible is at bottom about repentance and how God reconciles the sinner to Himself. Simple but not simple-minded at all. The Jews of old looked for miraculous signs, the Greeks of old for wisdom. The Kabbalist looks for both: miraculous letters and the wisdom of the spheres. The grapheme by itself is no more meaningful than a rapheme is to Raphy (that’s me). Jews should not be ”spellbound” by names, nor by letters; many Jews, however, certainly are. Here is a useful summary of the issue:

“Interpreting Scripture from the method of PaRDeS often robs the Bible from its straightforward meaning, because the sod or hidden level is considered the ultimate as it is mystical and enables us to understand the so-called secrets of God. While so-called sod level interpretations have been able to tickle the ears of many in the Messianic movement, they often subtract the value of the Biblical text and its practical application for modern life. No longer do we have people examining the Tanach for what it is as narrative, history, prophecy, and wisdom literature, but people are searching it for hidden meanings. This means that when David struck down Goliath with a sling and five smooth stones, we cannot accept the text as meaning what it says, as there has to be a hidden, esoteric meaning behind it. Even worse, PaRDeS has been applied to parts of the Apostolic Scriptures by some Messianics, for which it has no remote context. Messianics who employ PaRDeS often fail to look at the New Testament for what it is as Gospels, history, and epistles. When Yeshua and His Disciples walk down a road together, it can no longer be treated as them walking down a road. What this does to us in the long run is reveal our inadequacy for using standardized hermenutics which examine literary structures in a Biblical text, taking into examination texts as a whole and its source language(s), in addition to required historical background information. Author Tim Hegg makes the following valid remarks in his workbook Interpreting the Bible: “It is therefore a mistake to think that such a hermeneutic was in place in the 1st Century, or somehow that Yeshua and His Apostles would have interpreted the Scriptures from this vantage point. To postulate such a scenario would be entirely anachronistic.”

Is it possible to be a Torah Jew without holding this “letters of fire” view of Hebrew? Very possible; indeed, you don’t have to know any Hebrew at all and still be a good Torah Jew. This applies not to the modern Jew but to Jews as early as the first century A.D. For example, while Josephus, who grew up in an Aramaic-Hebrew enviromment, was proficient in Hebrew, Philo, his predecessor, in contrast, probably knew, at best, a smidgen of pidgin.

“Philo’s writings imply several things about the kind of teaching he and other children had in the synagogues of Alexandria. The first is that the Alexandrian synagogues primarily, if not exclusively, used the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Tanakh) as the basis of instruction rather than the Hebrew Bible. While Philo knew some standardized meanings for Hebrew words, his interpretations reflect a significant ignorance of the Hebrew language. His citations always come from a Greek translation”  (“A brief guide to Philo” By Kenneth Schenck, 2005, p.11).

Having said that, the form of words (in the Septuagint) were very important to Philo; for example, peculiarities in the singular or the plural, the verb tense, noun gender,  the presence or omission of the article.

Hegel uses the term aufhebung (“sublation”) to describe the dual nature of language – structure and meaning. In order to grasp the meaning, you need to let go (in your mind) of the structure. The structure must “die” to your consciousness so that the meaning may live. Yet without the structure, there would be no meaning. Language is like music: you have to learn the notes, but iof you want to play well you have to forget the notes. The notes are still there lurking in the subconscious. if you want to play fluently, you have to leave the notes behind you. If they pop back into the forefround while you’re playing, you could fudge it. I believe that the truth lies in the music of the Cross, not in the music of the spheres (sephirot).

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians, 1:18-25).

is it possible to be a Torah Jew without holding this “letters of fire” view of Hebrew? I think it is very possible; indeed, you don’t have to know any Hebrew at all and still be a good Torah Jew. This applies not to the modern Jew but to Jews as early as the first century A.D. For example, while Josephus, who grew up in an Aramaic-Hebrew enviromment, Philo, his predecessor probably knew at best little Hebrew.”Philo’s writings imply several things about the kind of teaching he and other children had in the synagogues of Alexandria. The first is that the Alexandrian synagoues primarily, if not exclusively, used the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Tanakh) as the basis of instruction for instruction rather than the Hebrew Bible. While Philo knew some standardized meanings for Hebrew words, his interpretations reflect a signifcant ignorance of the Hebrew language. His citations alsways come from a Greek translation”  (“A brief guide to Philo” By Kenneth Schenck, 2005, p.11).