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.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Conversations on Shemot: From God's Strength to God's Silence

As the Israelites cross the Red Sea and are saved from their enemies, they sing songs of praise to God, praising His might and strength. But what happens when one's subjective perspective of God isn’t that of strength but of silence? What should an individual do when the way in which our tradition describes God’s actions seemingly clashes with our own personal experience?

While many in today's Orthodox world would champion text and tradition over personal subjective feelings, a fascinating text from the Gemara in Yoma (69b) suggests two alternative models.

One approach, championed by the prophets, prioritises subjective feelings towards God over what the text / tradition says. For example, living as he did at the time the temple is destroyed, Jeremiah doesn't experience God's might, even though Moshe had previously described Him as mighty. He therefore refuses to lie to God and leaves out the word mighty when referring to Him. As Amos Oz writes, such a position of angrily engaging with God is an inherent part of the Jewish tradition, and is sometimes even more intimate than those who blindly accept tradition, those who Oz describes as like "museum curators who polish the glass of locked cases."

A second approach, championed by the Men of the Great Assembly (who merited returning from exile and re-establishing the temple), seeks to maintain traditional texts by reinterpreting them in a way that maintains their meaning in light of new circumstances. For example, they saw it as important to maintain those (traditional) words that Moshe used to describe God, such as 'mighty'. In order to maintain the word's relevance, they reinterpreted it from referring to God's strength to referring to His patient restraint.

Hopefully these models, as well as an additional one represented by Rabbi Yishmael, can provide ways for each of us to find our own authentic way to worship God.

Click here for the
source sheet and audio recording.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Conversations on Shemot: 'The Works of My Hands are Drowning' Is God Particularist or Universalist?

Similar to cases in our more recent history where Jewish children were turned into soap, several Midrashim describing slavery in Egypt refer to Israelite children being turned into bricks. Yet despite such terrible experiences, we are told not to rejoice in the downfall of our enemies. In fact, the commentators argue that we only say half Hallel on the last days of Pesach (rather than full like on other festivals) because the Egyptians drowned.

Having discussed these ideas, we focused on two 'same same, but different' Midrashim - one in which God expresses sadness for the death of the Egyptians in the sea ('the works of my hands are drowning and you [the angels] sing praises to Me?') and the other in which God cares little for the 'hated enemy' and instead focuses on the Israelites ('my children are in danger at the sea and you [the angels] sing praises to Me?') - questioning which version is a more authentic 'Jewish idea.'

We concluded with a third midrash from Sefer HaAggadah (Book of Legends) that brings a beautiful synthesis of the above points and negates two oft-heard political arguments making their way around the dinner tables of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and London.

The first position claims that because the Jewish people suffered greatly, we deserve freedom / independence, and don't need to be overly bothered by suffering on the other side.

The other position contends that if during a nation's search for freedom it inflicts pain or suffering on another, that nation's cause is inherently morally undermined.

I believe that the Midrash's conclusion - that the pain caused by our search for freedom may have been justified, but that doesn't take away from our need to sympathize with those who sufferred is a very powerful contemporary message.

Click here for
source sheet and audio recording.