Monday, August 3, 2009

Corporealism Redux, part II

A continuation of my response to Levi Notik's letter.

So all we have is the remark of a couple of Rishonim that people (no one knows who exactly they are) in northern France believed in the corporeality of God.

So because it's a "couple of Rishonim" therefore their testimony is insignificant?!
And it's not a testimony about "people" - it's a testimony about Torah scholars. Raavad says that there were GREATER AND BETTER people than Rambam who were corporealists. And according to R. Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles (I am returning to this claim), it was the majority.

Would it be justifiable for people in the future, say one thousand years from
now, to conclude that some Gadol in Brooklyn probably believed in a dead messiah since we have reports that many people in Brooklyn believed this at the time?

Bad moshol. There are tens if not hundreds of thousands of Jews in Brooklyn. There were not that many Torah scholars in France!

I also feel that, in his attempt to discern Rashi’s hidden view, R. Slifkin really neglects to analyze Rashi in the manner that a Rishon (and especially Rashi) deserves. For instance, when he cites the cases in which Rashi does go to great lengths to explain anthropomorphic expression in relation to God as metaphorical, he doesn’t bother to analyze Rashi’s language. It is a mistake to assume that the Rishonim, who wrote in such a precise manner, can be understood simply by skimming through their words.

I analyzed in what I considered the best way, and I certainly did not skim through his words. If you have an alternative analysis to offer, go ahead! Incidentally, I should mention that while I love R' Chaim Brisker al HaRambam, I consider his analyses to be non-historical.

In fact, I believe R. Slifkin makes an inexcusable mistake in his reading of a particular Rashi and completely distort Rashi’s meaning. He mentions the Onkelos’s
translation of Shemot 10:4 where he renders “And I carried you on the wings of vultures ..” as “And I caused you to travel (or transported) …” R. Slifkin is right that Onkelos, as he always does, is translating the verse in a way that negates any physical concept of God. The mistake, however, is in the way he portrays Rashi. He said that “But Rashi has a different reason for the alteration: Because it is disrespectful. He does not explain that Scripture altered matters to
“direct the ear,” but rather that Onkelos altered matters out of respect.” R. Slifkin explains Rashi as if he is disagreeing with Onkelos, but a plain reading of Rashi makes it clear that he absolutely endorsing Onkelo’s rendering of the verse. Perhaps R. Slifkin doesn’t understand what Rashi means when he says that “he fixed the statement as a way of honor (respect) for the Exalted One”, which is perfectly understandable (nothing wrong with not understanding Rashi), but it’s just wrong to represent Rashi as if he disagrees with Onkelos when he clearly endorses his

It's incredible that after talking about how I should study Rashi properly rather than skimming through it, you proceed to criticize one of my analyses based on completely misreading it! I was not saying that Rashi was consciously disagreeing with Onkelos - of course he was endorsing his translation! My point was that Onkelos himself considered that it was the Torah giving the kinnuy, whereas Rashi believed that Onkelos considered himself to be giving the kinnuy. Compare this Rashi with other Rashis where he believes that the Torah is not being literal.

As a matter of fact, the Ramban, on this very verse, quotes Onkelos and says exactly the same thing as Rashi, that Onkelos rendered the verse as “And I caused you to travel” as a “derech kavod shel maaleh”!

Talk about skimming and not reading carefully! Ramban is commenting on a DIFFERENT PHRASE of Onkelos than that which Rashi is commenting on!

Also, if Rashi’s comment is to be understood as a fundamental disagreement with Onkelos, it’s certainly peculiar that the Ramban, who knew Rashi’s comments
very well, does not pick up on this.

First of all, Rashi himself did not see himself as disputing Onkelos. And somebody who isn't focused on this issue right here would not notice what is going on. Everyone assumes that Rashi here is following his usual style of dibra Torah, even though he says something very different.

Another example of R. Slifkin’s reckless reading of Rashi occurs when he cites the Rashi on Shemot 33:22. Onkelos renders “I shall cover you with My hand” as “And I shall shield you with My word.” Rashi explains that Onkelos renders the verse in this manner because it is not respectful to imply that God needs to use an actual hand to perform this. The plain understanding of this, though R. Slifkin quickly dismiss this interpretation, is that Rashi is explaining that it is inappropriate to believe that God requires the use of a hand since God is not physical.

Again you have not carefully read what I wrote. The reason why the plain understanding does not work is that Rashi does not follow his pattern of saying that dibra Torah lesabber es ha'ozen; instead he follows a different model, of saying that Onkelos uses a kinnuy.

In fact, there are instances where it is clear that Rashi interprets verses metaphorically so as to avoid any implication of God possessing physical attributes. For example, in Leviticus 1:9 the verse states that “It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, a pleasant aroma to the Lord.” Onkelos renders it as “to be accepted willfully before God.” Onkelos is obviously negating the idea that God had a physical enjoyment of the smell. Rashi’s explanation is virtually a paraphrasing of Onkelos – Rashi says the verse means “a spirit of contentment before me.”

This is avoiding a certain class of anthroporphisms. Rashi did not believe that God is flesh-and-blood. Presumably a corollary is that He does not enjoy smells.

I want to reiterate that my fundamental point is that it is a methodological error to “deduce” anything from what someone didn’t say. We cannot know anything based on lack of commentary. There are a million reasons why someone didn’t say something.

As I pointed out in the first part of my response, you yourself employ this methodology. It is a perfectly legitimate methodology. Yes, there could be a million reasons why someone didn’t say something, but we can perform an evaluation as to which reasons are more reasonable and which are less reasonable.

Rashi wrote in such a precise manner and presented us with a wealth of
commentary. Trying to analyze what Rashi didn’t say is a very arrogant approach.

It is exactly because he wrote in a precise manner and presented us with a wealth of
commentary that we can perform such an analysis! He was not haphazard.

Insisting on analyzing Rashi’s “non-comments” is much like trying to “get the better of” Rashi... In essence you are saying that you are greater than Rashi because even though Rashi declined to make a particular comment, you are going to insist on finding out what is behind this lack of commentary by conducting an investigation that, logically, can only be external to our outside of Rashi.

I am sorry but that is simply a silly thing to say. I am trying to understand Rashi, based on his own values as expressed in his choice of comments, not "get the better of him"! This methodology is employed in yeshivos all the time, and you used it yourself in this letter.

Again, having read and enjoyed R. Slifkin’s book “The Challenge of Creation” twice, I am shocked that a scientist could advance such specious arguments.

This is very much part of the scientific method, and it is not at all specious. If, for example, we fail to find dinosaur fossils in a certain type of rock in a certain region, then it is possible that (A) there were no dinosaurs at that time, (B) there were dinosaurs at that time but not in that place, or (C) there were dinosaurs in that time and in that place but there simply weren't appropriate conditions for fossilization. If we find other dinosaurs from that time period in other countries, then (A) is ruled out. If we find that other creatures from the same time did fossilize in that place, then (C) becomes less likely. So we would conclude that B is most likely. Science often works by drawing likely conclusions from absences of evidence. Absences of evidence are, in some cases, evidence of absence. It depends on whether one has a large enough base to be able to conclude that the absence of evidence is conspicuous. And it also has to be put together with all the other types of evidence. I plan to write a post on the topic of convergence of evidence.


  1. By the way, here is an interesting link:

    long version:

  2. Rabbi Slifkin -- With regard to your last point -- PLEASE tell me that the scientific evidence that you use in your books is ALOT stronger than the type of argument here.

    Otherwise we have just conceded (sadly) that your (more mild)opponents were correct to object to your methods.

    Looking forward to your post on convergence of evidence -- but I certainly hope that it is stronger than what we have so far.

    Convergence of evidence -- can & should be used -- but by its very nature it is lacking -- compared to more mathematical proofs. And with convergence of evidence the quality can very much vary. An abundance of average evidence is weaker than fewer pieces of strong evidence along with a few weak points. And so on -- many different levels.

    Talmud study is based on convergence of evidence -- but it is that reason that we frequently cannot say that a certain opinion is "wrong." It is (partially) what allows for "Eilu Ve"eilu."

    To come up with new or radical positions you have to have more than convergence of evidence -- unless at least some of the points are very strong.

  3. I fully agree that extreme claims need extreme proofs. However saying that Rashi is a corporealist is definitely not an extreme claim. Also, I do not claim to have proved that Rashi is a corporealist, merely to have amassed a lot of evidence in that direction. There are arguments in the other direction too, but I think they are substantially less.

  4. And, yes, the evidence for an ancient universe and evolution is much greater than the evidence that Rashi was a corporealist!

  5. From your link above:
    "... Rabbi Akiva describes the divine image as revealed to him in his descent to the chariot"
    I think this question is important: do we know whether God must HAVE an image for Him to REVEAL an image to man?
    As an analogy, as a math teacher, I would show my pupil what a line looks like, when in reality a line has no dimensions whatsoever.

  6. As I mentioned in my article, there are an abundance of different views e.g. R. Moshe Taku's view was that God SOMETIMES takes on the form of a person but not always.

  7. I wish I knew what R' Taku said in the original. You use the expression "take on." I mean, maybe he writes that God /shows/ this image at times, not that He "takes it on."
    More of a question than a challenge.

  8. As far as I recall, he says "takes on." His point is that God can do anything, and that we do not have license to interpret the Torah non-literally merely due to philosophical considerations.

  9. In your previous post you claim that academicians have greater prowess in ascertaining historical truth that traditional rabbis. This can be argued for quite easily because the tools for historical research are basically secular in nature.

    But what about works of Torah scholarship? Who has more prowess in this area? You linked to a collection of articles from Judaic studies scholars regarding "hekhalot literature". Are they to be relied upon in their analysis of rabbinic opinions more than traditional rabbis?

    Not attacking, just asking.

  10. " I plan to write a post on the topic of convergence of evidence. "

    Unless I missed it, can this post serve as a reminder?


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