Last Thursday I received an e-mail asking me to please reply to a question on Judaism. On the same day I was asked by Rav Ari Shames if I would write the e-mail shiur for this week’s parsha.
After receiving permission to publicize the question, and Rav Shames’s permission to answer it here in the framework of the e-mail shiur, I would like to ask your permission (the receivers of this weekly e-mail) to deviate from the regular format of the Dvar Torah on the parsha and share with you the above mentioned question and some thoughts in response. As we will see the subject is strongly connected to this week’s parsha, especially Matan Torah.
This is the question:
“Hi Rav Avigdor,
…. Now on to the crux of the email (the query from the weary part).
Basically, I feel like my conception of G-d and my Judaism are mutually exclusive, or rather that one cannot be true if the other is. Pretty much it seems that my G-d is a combination of Rambam and Plotinus. In any case, my understanding of G-d is that, despite the fact that He is the ultimate truth and the absolute good, and various other quasi-definitions and negations used to describe Him, He nevertheless isn’t really active in the world. He is entirely independent of humanity and hence cannot respond to our actions. Fine then. The issue is raised when it comes to Har Sinai. Honestly, Rambam’s assertion that Moshe really was that exceptional, that he could know G-d or hear from G-d (whatever that means), I feel are just apologetics. Additionally, I just cannot fathom a reason for this G-d to construct a religion, let alone such a particularistic religion instead of a universalistic movement. Now, thus far in my life I’ve managed these issues with some good old modern orthodox cognitive dissidence and dialectics – “living in the tension.” But how much longer can I maintain two opposing thoughts as my personal ideology? Surely at some point there’s going to be a reconciliation of my G-d and my Judaism. Hence this email. Please explain to me how you manage to deal with G-d and organized religion, in particular, orthodox Judaism.
Thank-you very much…”
This question raises a number of issues.
The essence and nature of Hashem
Hashem’s involvement, activity in the world
The ability of man (Am Yisrael, Moshe Rabbeinu) to have Nevuah
The purpose of a “Religion”
Particularistic versus Universalistic
Each one of these issues requires a thorough response; however I would like to concentrate mainly on the last two issues as I think those are the ones that seem most urgent in the question.
In brief though, regarding the first three, I would like to say the following.
Possibly the most famous Tefilah known by almost all Jews is that short poem we were all taught in nursery school: “Adon Olam”. “Adon Olam” has ten lines. The first six describe Hashem in all those lofty, transcendental and “quasi-definitions and negations used to describe him” descriptions:
“Asher malakh be’terem kol… who reigned supreme before all of creation was drawn”
“Levado yimloch… In His majesty, He still shall reign”
“Ve’hu ha’ya…hove…yi’yiheye… And He was, and He is, And He will be”
“Hu echad ve’ein sheni… Alone is He, beyond compare”
“B’li reishit b’li tachlit…. Without beginning, without end”
However from line seven we say that that same transcendental G-d is my G-d, my Redeemer, my Refuge, my banner etc.
That short poem I think best summarizes the conception of G-d for us. Though by definition: transcendental, by His own “actions and choice” man can stand in His presence and strive to “know” Hashem. This week’s Parsha being the ultimate event of that possibility, where a whole nation experienced it firsthand.
The Torah itself in Chapter 19, verse 9 states that the purpose of Ma’amad Har Sinai was for the people to witness the Ne’vuah of Moshe Rabeinu and to give him credibility in their eyes for the rest of time, “le’olam”, forever.
The Sefer Hakuzari explains at length how Ma’amad Har Sinai is indeed the cornerstone of our belief. It goes beyond the sometimes over simplified idea of Masoret from one generation to the next. Yetziat Mitzrayim and Ma’amad Har Sinai are the two founding events in the history of the Jews, two events that are evident and blatant in the Jewish people all through history, and that in itself is evidence of their authenticity.
Now to the last two points – and I would like to begin with the last point and work backwards.
Particularistic versus Universalistic?
It might come as a shock to some, but the truth is that Judaism stems completely from a Universalistic idea. Rav Kook, in his seminal work “Orot” (Orot, Mossad Harav Kook Publication Pg. 104), says:
“Since the beginning of the inception of this Am (nation), that knew to call in the name of the clear, pure Godly idea when idol-worship in it’s wild impurity reigned supreme, was revealed the aspiration to erect a great community of people that would ‘guard the way of Hashem to do righteousness and justice’ (Breishit 18;19). This is the aspiration that stems from the clear strong recognition and the lofty all inclusive demand, to redeem humanity from beneath the terrible physical and spiritual suffering, and to bring it to full freedom, full of glory and refinement, in the light of the G-dly Ideal (Ideo), and to through this bring about the complete “success” of mankind! ”
To put it simply, Rav Kook states that the whole inception of the idea of Am Yisrael, Am Segulah, a chosen nation, is for the very sake of the whole universe.
When Moshe Rabeinu first goes to Paro to ask for the release of Am Yisrael, his request starts with “Bni Bechori Yisrael”. Yisrael is not his only son, Yisrael is his firstborn, the one who carries the responsibility for all the other siblings.
This fundamental idea, so simple and yet so profound, is not emphasized enough when discussing Judaism.
Rav Kook continues there:
“In order to fulfill this aspiration, it is particularly necessary, that this Tzibur will have a political, social, and national governing country/state (the Hebrew word used is Medina), that exists at the highest level of human culture, ‘Am chacham ve’navon’ ve’goy gadol’, ‘a wise and intelligent nation, and a grand people’, and the G-dly Idea (Ideo) rules there and gives life to the people and the land with light of it’s life.
In order to make known, that not only wise exceptional individuals, pious and holy Nezirim, can live in the light of the G-dly Idea, rather that whole nations (the rest of humanity), can as well with all the elements of existence etc.” (The Rav includes there, as elements, intelligence, art, political realms, social concerns, economy and others.)
(I strongly recommend, to anyone who can, that you read for yourself the words of Rav Kook there as I have done him a disservice by trying to translate his lofty words and thoughts as I have here. Unfortunately I am not aware of on English translation of this part of Orot).
In other words, this is really what Judaism is out to accomplish, the establishment of a nation living by the word of G-d (Torah and Mitzvot) and becoming, through this (davka this way!), a light and redeemer for the entire universe.
The problem however is, that Judaism is not taught and seen in this light nowadays. To be more precise, it hasn’t been taught like this for over two thousand years. This phenomenon has been dealt with by Rav Kook extensively in his writings and again I would like to quote from that same book Orot, this time directly from the beautiful translation of the text by Rabbi Bezalel Naor:
“The higher spiritual resurgence strengthens the practical deeds and reinforces interest in the world, life, and all contained therein. Only at and around the time of the destruction of the Temple, when the Israelite mass was uprooted from it’s land and forced to recognize it’s destiny only in it’s abstract spirituality, was there implanted in a few the direction of seceding from temporal life for eternal life, and even then there issued a heavenly protest. But with the arrival of the era of building the nation in its land (today!) the practical requirement of political and social organization has become part of the agenda of the collective. These become “Principles of Torah”, and the more the practical factors expand and solidify, the more the spirit of sanctity and true life will influence the world and life, and the light of Israel will illuminate the face of the earth.”
Again, to simplify, Rav Kook maintains that there is a distinct difference between the Torah that we teach and the spirit of the practice of Torah in the times of Galut, to that in the times of returning to our ideal state of Nationhood in our land. The nature of Torah practice in the Galut is by definition not a “normal” state.
If, like we said before, the purpose of Am Yisrael is to lead the life of Goy Kadosh, a holy Nation, living by the Holy constitution of the Torah in its sovereign land, the question of the meaning of Torah and Mitzvot outside that reality becomes perplexing. So much so that in the times of the destruction of the first Temple the people going into the exile posed that question to Yirmiyahu Hanavi. His response was that, even in the exile, we continue to keep the Mitzvot so that they will not be forgotten until we return (see Rashi Devarim 11;18).
The “norm” for Am Yisrael in the Galut is therefore essentially to keep the light burning, to strengthen the spiritual elements of our existence, and to maintain a necessary physical reality until we can return to our destiny. (See Chatam Sofer Chidushim to Masechet Succa 34 b “Etrog Hakushi”.)
The result of all this has been that for the duration of the Galut our approach to Torah has been that it is all a matter of spirituality. The more religious one is, the more one is estranged from the mundane elements of life. There is the physical, mundane life, and then there is the spiritual existence. In this reality, spirituality does not encompass all the elements of one’s existence.
Just as a side point, this is how Rav Kook explains the emergence of the centrality of Olam Haba in Jewish thought at the time of the Churban in contrast to it being almost completely hidden in the Chumash. (See Orot, Mossad Harav Kook Publication Pgs 108-110)
Just to paraphrase and emphasize the point:
When Moshe Rabeinu asks Paro to release the Jewish people he asks to “go and worship our G-d for three days.” However this was never mentioned to Bnei Yisrael themselves. For them the redemption meant one thing: going to Ertez Yisrael to realize the Brit of Avraham. The Brit of Avraham was a Brit of Jewish Nationhood.
This was not possible for Moshe to tell Paro, as it would have been dismissed immediately; however Moshe could negotiate with Paro on “religious” issues.
The misfortune is that we have not only managed to convince the non-Jews that Judaism is just another “Religion” albeit the noblest and most moral of all etc. but that we have managed to convince ourselves as well!
Judaism is not another religion. Judaism is not a spiritual pastime or merely a guarantee for an afterlife of spiritual bliss. It is a calling and a destiny for us as Jews here and now, for us and for the whole of humanity.
Rav Kook writes in his famous groundbreaking essay “Hador” that the future of the Jewish people, spiritually, and ultimately physically, depends on the adjustment that the teachers of our generation can make in interpreting the changes of our time and how they necessarily have to affect our Derech of teaching Torah. This obviously has nothing to do with changing or reforming the Torah, chas veshalom, but it has everything to do with explaining and bringing to the fore those elements in Judaism which shine and embrace all the elements of our lives as Jews, and ultimately the lives of all of mankind.
Rav Kook wrote those words in 1902, when still the vast majority of the Jewish people were faithful to Torah and Mitzvot. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we have succeeded.
Questions and comments welcome: email@example.com