Thursday, April 05, 2012

Pesach 2012: Ideas for Seder

Over the last couple of weeks, I have given two classes in Tel Aviv on Preparing for Pesach: Thoughts and Ideas for the Seder. Below are short descriptions and links to the source sheets. I hope people find them useful.

Chag Sameach


Readings on freedom - four readings on different aspects of liberty - one from Tommy Lapid (in the words of his son Yair), two from Amos Oz, and one from Barack Obama. What different (or similar) aspects of freedom do they emphasize?
Click here for the source sheet.

Dayenu. Would it really have been 'enough'? Would it really have been enough for us if some parts of the liberation experience would have happenned but others would not have (the song Dayenu)? Sources from the Talmud, Jonathan Sacks, Amos Oz and others look at the issue of showing gratitude over partial redemption.

In addition, a New York Times piece touches on the challenges of freedom in the form of a North Korean who escaped a concentration camp to flee to the South who sometimes wishes he was back in the camp.

If each of us needs to see ourselves as leaving Egypt, then each of us also need to deal with the challenges that being free poses. How should we do this? I think it begins with eating Matza - that food which is 'on its way' to becoming bread but isnt yet. We deal with the challenges of freedom by celebrating the current partialness of redemption and showing gratitude for it (while still remembering what the end of the story - full redemption - should look like)
Click here for the source sheet.

Does our 'victimhood complex' stop us from being free? One idea of full liberating ourselves from slavery is letting go of hate (if we hate our enemies for what they did to us, we cant be fully free). But might the fact that our tradition often reminds us of the past (in every generation they rise up to destroy u) make it harder for us to fully liberate ourselves? Do we focus too much on the negative parts of our history? Do we facilitate a victim complex? (Etgar Keret once said that he left high school knowing all the places in Europe where pogroms happened but without realizing that Kafka was Jewish). And to what extent, might this prevent us from fully being free? Click here for the source sheet.

Rejoicing in our enemies' downfall (The Plagues and the Price of Freedom) - To what extent can we / should we rejoice in the downfall of our enemies? 3 different stories from the Midrash / Talmud which emphasise different viewpoints.

Writing in the new American Hagaddah, Jeffrey Goldberg has an interesting reading on the plagues. "There is no such thing as an immaculate liberation. From time to time, in the Velvet revolution of the former Czechoslovakia for example – the liberation has been achieved without the shedding of blood. But it is naïve to think that the defeat of evil comes without cost. The Exodus story ends in freedom for Jews; the Civil War ended with freedom for African Americans; World War 2 ended with fascism utterly vanquished; and the death camps liberated. Can we say that the ends don’t justify the means?" Click here for the source sheet.

Pour out your wrath? How can we understand the 'pour out your wrath on the nations' part of the hagaddah. And how should we relate to the 'other' in general? Sources from Deborah Lipstadt (who says its his favourite part of the Hagaddah) and from Jonathan Sacks on the 'transference' of violence from humans onto God.

Perhaps we're left with the question of how to best channel our (often justified anger). Goldberg argues that "Anger channelled destructively, can lead to vindictiveness, to a kind of constricting tribalism that sees everyone on the other side of our circles wagons as an enemy. Destructive anger is one of the great dangers of our age…

But isn’t anger also a useful motivator? Isn’t there such a thing as righteous anger? The abolitionists were angry; the suffragists were angry; Herzl was angry; Gandhi was angry. But they poured their wrath not into vengeful violence but into new foundations of justice...

how do we know when our constructive anger becomes dangerous?"
Click here for the source sheet

Friday, April 29, 2011

Yom Hashoah: Some Ideas and Thoughts

The Shoah and our Psychological Legacy (2010)

The best article I read relating to Yom Hashoah came from Yair Lapid who argued that "The Holocaust dismantled everything human beings knew about themselves, and then taught us two unforgettable lessons"

"The first one is that we must survive at any price, that we can't rely on the world to protect us…that we must always prepare for the worst case scenario, because otherwise it will materialize."

The second one is that we must be moral.

What none of our leaders seem able to discuss is the question Lapid termed the biggest challenge of all - what to do when these two lessons contradict each other, when ensuring our existence at all costs means carrying out morally questionable acts

Yom Hashoah raises more questions than answers.

Is the archetypal 'goy' he who stood by as we were slaughtered, or he who put his family's life on the line to save us? Should we enhance our strength, or curb it? Emphasize security or empathy? Become particularists or universalists? Distrust the world, or open our hearts (and doors) to the stranger? And how can we – with our questionable psychological legacy – authentically and honestly engage with these questions and work out the correct balance between them?

Shiur: Theological Significance of the Shoah 2010

In the Shiur, we looked at traditional and modern sources in order to better understand the theological significance of the Holocaust. Covering Fackenheim, Berkovits, Arthur Cohen, Primo Levi, Kalnymous Kalman Shapira and others, we touched on whether the Shoah can be viewed within the classic framework of why bad things happen to good people, whether each generation has its own 'Auschwitz problem', and to what extent the idea of rejecting God is within the Jewish tradition.

We also began to investigate how post Holocaust theologians attempt to recreate new language (Fackenheim's '614th Commandment', Levi's 'Shema', Wiesel's 'new Bereshit' and Cohen's 'Red Sea of evil parting time and space') in order to try and come to terms with an event they see as unique in Jewish history.

In the Presence of Burning Children (2009)

Part of me feels that in the face of unfathomable evil, the only appropriate response is silence; that written words are unable to capture the enormity of what happened…that as Irving Greenberg says, “no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that is not credible in the presence of burning children."

Yet despite this, I wanted to share an article I wrote in the spring of 2002 regarding different theological responses to the Shoah. It is based on the format of a book called Yosl Rakover Talks to God in which author Zvi Kolitz imagines a moving letter written by Yosl Rakover hours before the Warsaw Ghetto is liquidated by the Nazis. Yet rather than ultimately affirming his faith in his Creator as Yosl does, the article suggests that our understanding of God can not remain the same after such an event.

The article can be accessed here

Remembering Death, Celebrating Life (2008)

The first time I watched 'The Pianist' was in a cinema in Warsaw during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2002. The second time I watched the film was last Wednesday night, in my Tel Aviv flat, as the first Hebrew city in nearly two thousand years marked Holocaust Memorial Day.

There’s a lot that needs fixing in this country. The political culture, the education system, the fact that many find it difficult to articulate a vision of what sort of state we want to build here.

Yet every once in a while, as the siren we hear indicates the past rather than a sometimes frightening present, its worthwhile using the silence to remember a time when we didn’t have the strongest army in the region, or a first world economy, or a place to call our own. And be appreciative and proud of a place those 6 million could only dream of.

Holocaust Memorial: Of Trauma and Trust (2008)

Last Saturday night I saw a documentary called Hiding and Seeking which describes the attempt by Menachem Daum to leave his children an ethical legacy in a Shlomo Carlebach ‘love every human because they were all created in God's image' type of style. Overshadowing everyone's relationship in the film is the spectre of the Shoah, which destroyed much of the Menachem and his wife Rivka's parents' families (although Rivka's father spent 28 months hidden in a pit under a haystack in the farmyard of a non-Jewish Polish family, the Muchas). And while the past (unsurprisingly) causes their parents to be suspicious of 'the goyim', what worries Menachem is how the Holocaust has also reinforced his children's' ambivalence towards the secular non-Jewish world and anything outside the four cubits of Jewish law.

In a moving journey to discover more about their past, Menachem takes his sons on a pilgrimage to Poland, ultimately finding the family who hid their ancestors and discovering that wars not only bring out the worst in people but also the best.

We mark the unimaginable evils of the Holocaust on the 27th January, 10 days after the anniversary of the disappearance of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Jews during the war.

Both days reflect the potential of the humanity. Yet we seem to concentrate more on one than the other.

It’s inevitable that the wounds of the past scar us, and the existential fear of many Israelis (including mine) over our future here is legitimate. But 60 years on, maybe we should harness the memory of Wallenberg and the countless other righteous gentiles like the Muchas to inspire us to become open and confident enough to begin the process of learning to trust again, of believing we can take risks.

Because ultimately, perhaps its this that marks the completion of our ongoing Zionist journey from an exilic past into a genuine independent free and sovereign future

Yom Hashoah (2007)

One abiding memory I have of Yom Hashoah is that of walking to the coastal road between Netanya and Tel Aviv and watching the scenes as dozens of cars stopped for the siren.

The day is always sandwiched between two festivals – Pesach, the time of our Freedom from Slavery and Yom Ha’atzmaut, the time of our Freedom from Exile. On Pesach we celebrate what Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin termed negative liberty - the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. Yom Ha’atzmaut meanwhile reflects our capacity for positive liberty – a platform that gives us the ability to take control of our lives, the idea that after two millennia Jews finally re-entered history to take responsibility for their future

So as Israeli motorists temporarily leave behind their desire to break the ‘how many cars can I overtake in a minute’ record, let’s hope that we can utilize both the negative and positive freedoms that history has presented us with, so that the phrase ‘never again’ will no longer ring hollow in the ears of so many people who deserve better.

Yom Hashoah (2006)

There's so much to say about the Shoah and none of it is really enough... but I’m kind of glad that all visiting foreign dignitaries get taken there.

Because beyond the legitimate questions of whether we are too taken up by our past, and whether by harking on about the Shoah all we do is create negative Jewish identities in our children, the truth is that one can't really understand the way Israel acts without understanding that we lost 6 million of our people so recently - cant appreciate the subconscious fears of Jews that complete genocide by our neighbours is a possibility without visiting a place documenting one of the greatest crimes against humanity carried out by a people that was considered to be one of
the most cultured.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pesach: Ideas and Questions for the Seder

I wanted to share some ideas, discussion points and questions that people may find useful during Pesach. Each idea includes a short summary in the text.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg explains that "The key to Jewish exegesis is to assume that nothing is obvious...We train children at the Passover Seder to ask why, because tyrants are undone and liberty won with a good question…when we ask good questions, the Torah is given anew on Sinai at that very moment."

In this context, I hope everyone has a Chag Sameach full of much joy and many questions. An extended discussion on each topic can be found by clicking on the relevant links.

The 10 Plagues (Our Liberation, An-Other's Pain)

The Midrash explains that as the Egyptians are drowning in the sea, the angels want to sing praises to God. The Almighty's response – "the works of My hands are drowning, and you seek to sing praises!?" – suggests an aspect of universality (or that we don’t rejoice in our enemy's downfall) which is interesting to explore.

What makes it even more interesting is another similar but different Midrash which uses a similar phrase ("My children are in danger and you seek to sing praises!?") to describe the Israelites, rather than the Egyptians. It touches on the tension between God as universalist and God as particularist.

And it raises the question as to the balance be between our freedom and an-other's suffering

The Shiur (summary, audio and source sheet) on this is here. A blog post on the topic is here.

Bechol Dor VaDor (Liberating Ourselves from Slavery)

The British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that in order for an individual to truly liberate him or herself from slavery, they must let go of hate (which explains why the Israelites ask their Egyptian neighbors for gold and silver – it was an act that would make it harder to hate the Egyptians).

Yet even though we are physically free, to what extent are we still emotionally traumatized (or enslaved) by the past? In what ways have we succeeded in ridding ourselves of hate and in what ways have we not?

Furthermore, might one Bechol Dor VaDor (seeing ourselves in every generation as leaving Egypt i.e. becoming liberated) be undermined by another Bechol Dor VaDor (remembering that in each generation our enemies rise up against us)?

The Shiur (summary, audio and source sheet) on this is here. A blog post on the topic is here .

The Four Sons and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Hagaddah speaks of four sons - wise, wicked, simple and one unable to ask. Over the generations, this theme was expanded - four different Jews, four generations, four characteristics present in each one of us. In this context, here is a reading based on different Zionist approaches to the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.

The Redemptionist child, who says that talk about ‘peace’ with the Arabs is dangerous utopianism; The Realist child who believes that peace with the Palestinians may be possible, but not in this generation; The Pragmatist child who argues that unless we achieve a two state solution soon, the window of opportunity for a secure Jewish and democratic state may close; and the Justice child who contends that the Israeli – Palestinian conflict is a tragic struggle of right against right and that Zionism loses its moral legitimacy when it denies national liberation to another people.

The only question remaining is which child is wise and which is simple (naïve)? And which is so blinded by their opinions that they are not even able to question them?

A blog post on the topic is here.

Dayenu (Maintaining Meaning in an Imperfect World)

If the ultimate aim of Shemot is leaving Egypt in order to receive the Torah and enter Israel, how can we genuinely say Dayenu, that 'it would have been enough for us' if only some of these steps would have happened?

While entering Israel may have been part of our people's meta-narrative, there is still importance in understanding and appreciating steps along the long walk to freedom. In fact, as Jonathan Sacks explains, failure to understand historical processes (as reflected in the French and Russian revolutions), or forcing perfection and redemption before its allotted time (what Amos Oz calls 'now-ism') can lead to disaster.

Dayenu thus challenges us to see value in interim steps even if we haven’t achieved full redemption.

The Shiur (summary, audio and source sheet) on this is here.

Chofesh and Cherut (Freedom in a Jewish State)

In A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz describes two accounts – one by his father and one by his aunt – of their childhoods in pre-war Europe.

"Then he [my father] told me in a whisper… what some hooligans did to him and his brother David in Odessa and what some gentile boys did to him at his Polish school in Vilna, and the girls joined in too, and the next day, when his father, Grandpa Alexander, came to the school to register a complaint, the bullies refused to return the torn trousers but attacked his father, Grandpa, in front of his eyes, forced him down on the paving stones and removed his trousers too in the middle of the playground… "

"A thousand times it was hammered in to the head of every Jewish child that we must not irritate them, or hold our heads up, and we must only speak to them quietly, with a smile, so they shouldn’t say we were noisy, and we must always speak to them in good correct Polish, so they couldn’t say we were defiling the language, but we must speak in Polish that was too high, so they couldn’t say we had ambitions above our station…You who were born here in Israel can never understand how this constant drip drip distorts all your feelings, how it corrodes your human dignity like rust"

These accounts touch on the differences between Herzl's Political Zionism and Ahad Haam's Cultural Zionism; between Isaiah Berlin's 'negative and 'positive liberty' (freedom from and freedom to), and between the ideas of Chofesh and Cherut.

A blog post on this topic, which also touches on African refugees, is here.

The Price of Liberation (Moshe and the Tragedy of Leadership)

Although Moshe does not appear in the Hagaddah, he plays a major role in the Jewish people's exodus from slavery. Yet despite showing great leadership and thirst for justice, Moshe is barred from entering the Land of Israel. In fact, it may be those very actions that are considered praiseworthy in one context that lead to his failure to enter the land in another.

One Midrash describes an argument between God and Moshe where the latter's killing of the Egyptian taskmaster counts against him in his request to live forever and enter the Promised Land.

Can any liberation moment succeed without bloodshed? And what sort of price might this take from its leaders?

The Shiur (summary, audio and source sheet) on this is here. A blog on this idea, which also relates to the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, is here

Escape from Freedom

One small idea to end with… Although I haven’t read Eric Fromm's Escape to Freedom, I sometimes find it difficult to understand why freedom might be something people would prefer not to experience. In this context, I found this article in the New York Times "Born and raised in a North Korean gulag" fascinating.

The story touches on Shin, a North Korean who escaped from one of his country's concentration camps. 'Now in Seoul, [Shin] said he sometimes finds life "more burdensome than the hardest labor in the prison camp, where I only had to do what I was told"…Shin said he sometimes wished he could return to the time before he learned about the greater world, "without knowing that we were in a prison camp, without knowing that there was a place called South Korea."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Conversations on Pesach: Dayenu: Maintaining Meaning in an Imperfect World

There is a dissonance between the Exodus story in the Hagaddah, which primarily focuses on the Jews leaving Egypt, and the Exodus story in the Torah, which emphasizes the importance of leaving Egypt in order to enter the Promised Land.

The Haggadah's change in tone and downplaying of Israel is most likely in order to maintain the meaning of Pesach as a 'time of our freedom.' After all, if Pesach is about coming to Israel, then how can a 16th Century Polish Jew reading the story in the shadow of a potential pogrom truly celebrate our journey from slavery to liberation without being miserable?

Marking the victory of slaves against totalitarianism meanwhile is inspiring regardless of which generation one finds themselves in.

However, if the ultimate aim of the Exodus was coming to Israel, then how can we say Dayenu, it would have been enough if only we would have left Egypt without getting the Torah or entering the land?

In the Shiur, we discussed how while entering Israel may have been part of our people's meta-narrative, there is still value in understanding and appreciating steps along the long walk to freedom. In fact, as Jonathan Sacks explains, failure to understand historical processes (as reflected in the French and Russian revolutions), or to force perfection and redemption before its allotted time (what Amos Oz calls 'now-ism') can lead to disaster.

Ultimately, the lesson of being satisfied with less than we may believe we deserve, as reflected in the Talmudic Rabbis' command to say grace (bensch) after eating an olive, (and potentially with the Yishuv's acceptance of the Partition Plan in 1947) allows us to find meaning even without all our aspirations being fulfilled.

Click here for the source sheet and for the audio recording.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Conversations on Shemot: Purim and Religious Coercion

In contrast to those stories that emphasize the romanticism surrounding the Israelites acceptance of the Torah, the Talmud in Shabbat 88a relates that God lifted Mount Sinai above the people and threatened to kill them unless they accepted it (like a shot gun wedding or as the Maharal claims, 'Divine rape').

In this case, questions Rav Acha Bar Yaacov, how can the Law obligate us, seeing as we only accepted it under duress?

The response provided by Rava – that the Jewish people accept the Torah and renew the covenant in the days of Purim (kiymu vekiblu) – is intriguing and raises as many questions as it provides answers. What does this mountain metaphor signify? What is unique about Megillat Esther that it's specifically chosen as a prooftext for why we voluntarily (re)accept the Torah? And what makes an individual today obligated to fulfill Mitzvot?

French philosopher Emannuel Levinas brings a beautiful idea regarding the mountain metaphor, explaining that certain things in life – such as the moral imperative towards the other – are imposed on us, whether we like it or not. According to Levinas, the idea of ‘Torah or death’ means the only alternative to accepting the Torah, to accepting the claim the Other makes on me, is ultimately violence.

Several commentators discuss the uniqueness of Purim.

David Hartman compares the Exodus / Sinai model (first part of the sugya) with the Purim model (second part), explaining that while the former encapsulates the manner in which history impressed itself upon the Israelite community in the past, the latter accords better with the Jewish historical experience in the Talmudic period and into the present. This is why it is chosen as an example of reaccepting the covenant – it reflects real life.

Norman Lamm argues that Purim is mentioned as it reflects a situation that facilitates authentic moral choice of whether to accept the covenant, as such choice only arises when its unclear as to whether God is present or not (for example, when God is so clearly present at Sinai, there isn’t really a choice).

Yitz Greenberg takes this one step further, writing that the Jews' reacceptance at Purim is done with greater knowledge and thus greater maturity than at Sinai, seeing as they (we) now accept the Torah "knowing that destruction can take place, that the sea will not be split for them, that the Divine has self-limited and they have additional responsibilities."

Finally, we discussed Esther Chapter 9 (the source text for kiymu vekiblu, the Jew's renewal of the covenant) and the question of what obligates us to continue to keep Torah. Rather than a top down argument of 'because God said so' (as represented by the mountain metaphor), I wonder whether the Gemara is subtly suggesting that there is another model for obligation – that of a grassroots bottom up process originating not with God or elected leaders, but with the people, who – even before Mordechai commands them how to celebrate the festival – have already begun to create customs themselves.

Click here for the source sheet and audio recording.

Chag Sameach

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Discussing Israel in San Francisco: Staying on a very narrow bridge

San Francisco…The inspiration for Arik Einstein and Scott McKenzie; an unplugged laid-back city of rolling hills, calm water and fantastic wine; where environmental awareness and recycling is all the rage, yet car-pools are defined as only two people, (and even then the lane is mostly empty).

For the past nine days, Eran and I have engaged with dozens of people across the political spectrum within the Jewish community here, in order to better understand the dynamics of the debate surrounding Israel.

Some of our meetings haven’t been easy. Many we spoke to rejected our suggestion that Israel’s legitimacy would be strengthened by ‘widening the pro-Israel tent’ to include any individual willing to take a strong stand against delegitimization of Israel (denying the Jewish people’s right to self determination), even if that person has strong criticism of specific government policies.

Between meetings, I popped into one of the many San Francisco bookstores, treating myself (if that’s the right word in this context) to Avrum Burg’s controversial book – The Holocaust is Over – We must Rise from its Ashes.

Burg’s book isn’t an easy read, brimming as it is with criticism of the Israeli / Zionist establishment – of how nationalism hasn’t been good for the Jews, and how Zionism wrongly replaced the exilic spiritual Jew but with the militaristic Sabra.

Yet despite deep disagreements which much of his thesis, I did identify with some aspects of Burg’s analysis, notably the idea that we remain traumatised by the shadow of the Holocaust, and that this trauma not only negatively affects our ability to trust the international community (we feel that ‘the whole world is against us’), but also creates a paradoxical situation in which citizens of the region’s only superpower continue to feel an existential angst about their future.

In fact, I think the easiest way to understand the opposition towards ‘widening the tent’ on behalf of both the Israeli Government and some within the San Franciscan Jewish community is through Burg's analysis of our fear of Israel's potential destruction.

My most interesting meeting came with Director of Berkeley Hillel, Adam Naftalin Kellman. Berkeley is renowned as a historic center of anti-establishment radicalism, and last year experienced an attempt by the Student Council to pass a motion divesting from Israel. In this context, Adam finds himself between proverbial rocks and hard places – between radical students pushing the narrative of Israel as an apartheid state, self defined progressive Jewish students highly critical of Israeli policies, and ‘whole-hearted Zionists’ promoting the line of ‘support Israel warts and all’.

Amongst this sea, Adam discussed his wish for the students to create a deep, meaningful, significant and mature relationship with Israel, even if that includes criticism of its policies.

However the question he couldn’t answer was how to facilitate such a process without simultaneously strengthening those voices undermining the country’s existence.

I also can’t answer this question, but I believe the issue doesn’t just apply to discussing Israel at Berkeley, but is pertinent to all sensitive, thoughtful, Israel supporters today.

How can we maintain context when engaging with the complexity that is modern day Israel?

How can we encourage nuance on an issue known for facilitating radicalism, or discuss intricacies when others deal in slogans?

How can we criticize without worrying that we are betraying our people, or that our criticism will strengthen the current Tsunami that sometimes undermines the country’s existence?

And how can unease regarding specific Government policies be harnessed towards constructive, rather than destructive ends?

While I'm still struggling with this, the challenge reminded me of part of Obama’s book - ‘Dreams of my Father’ - in which he describes his first trip to Kenya, his father’s birthplace.

“For a span of weeks or months, you could experience the freedom that comes from not feeling watched…

You could read about the criminal on the front page of the daily paper and ponder the corruption of the human heart, without having to think about whether the criminal or lunatic said something about your own fate….

Here the world was black, and so you were just you; you could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or committing betrayal.”

Reading Obama’s description of his feelings, thoughts and fears, I can’t help wondering what our ‘freedom from being watched’ might look like, where our ‘Kenya’ might be…

Is there a place where we can be liberated from past historical trauma to 'ponder the corruption' of some aspects of the Israeli heart, where we can discover our own feeling towards our homeland...where we can just ‘be ourselves’?

There isn't a clear answer, but this is clear:

That if we fail in this challenge, we won’t just be pushing too many committed yet critical Jews away from Israel all together.

We will also be doing a disservice to our own tradition that values discussion, debate and disagreement.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Conversations on Shemot: What happened at Sinai? (The meaning of Torah Min Hashamayim)

According to the Biblical text, at Mount Sinai the Jewish people 'encounter' God and receive the Torah, which is considered to be divine, or 'Min Hashamayim,' (from heaven). In fact, the belief of Torah Min Hashamayim is a key doctrine of Judaism, one which often distinguishes traditional theological thought from heresy.

But what does it actually mean?

This week we looked at the debate surrounding what was received at Sinai, a debate which also touches on something much wider – what the margins of legitimate, traditional thought within Judaism are.

Contrary to what is generally taught (atleast when I was growing up in the UK), there is a wide spectrum as to what Torah Min Hashamayim could mean. On the one hand, it could mean anything from 'instruction' (Torah) whose origins are 'divine' (from heaven). On the other, it could include the written and oral law (Torah) that were literally received from heaven. In fact, one Rabbi Isaac even suggests that what a learned student will one day teach before their Rebbe was already given to Moshe on Sinai.

Ultimately the Rabbis disagree as to the meaning of Torah Min Hashamayim (or where the lines of heresy are drawn). The maximalist position demands belief that God gave Moshe the entire Torah, without Moshe adding anything of his own accord. The minimalist position meanwhile 'merely' demands belief in the concept of revelation (or not worshipping idols).

Sometime over the last few hundred years, the Maximalist position (Torah Min Hashamayim as meaning the whole Chumash given by God to Moshe) won out. In fact, it won to such an extent that this position is often mistakenly considered to be the only legitimate traditional opinion on the origins of the Torah, with any other position being classified as heretical.

However, (and dont tell Artscroll) there are several problems with the Maximalist view. In fact, it seems that even many traditional commentators (such as Abbaye or Ibn Ezra) didnt even believe that the entire Torah (Chumash) was given by God to Moshe.

Yet if Torah Min Hashamayim doesn't mean what the Maximalists claim, what could it mean?

Ibn Ezra suggests that the divine aspect of the Torah is reflected in its commandments, rather than its narrative.

Others argue that the meaning of Torah Min Hashamayim should be seen as similar to the blessing Hamotzai Lechem Min Haaretz (who brings out bread from the ground). In other words, even though humans turn wheat into bread, we still consider bread to have come from the ground, similarly, the origins of the Torah are divine, yet humans have an integral part in turning it into something 'edible'.

We ended with one of my favourite ideas, from Abraham Joshua Heschel who reinterprets Rabbi Isaac's comment suggesting that what a learned student will teach in front of their Rebbe was already given at Sinai (above) to mean that revelation at Sinai plants within each of us our ability to cognitively develop and innovate, to come up with new ideas.

Click here for the source sheet and audio recording.