Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Corporealism Redux, part I

I would like to respond to Levi Notik's well-written response to my article.

I believe the entire approach underlying this proof suffers from a gross methodological error. The mistake is to assume that we can prove anything from what Rashi didn’t say. There are, theoretically, an infinite number of possibilities as to why Rashi declined to make a particular comment. I will admit that it is interesting to try to understand why Rashi went to lengths to negate anthropomorphic expressions employed in reference to God in certain cases, while he neglected to do so in other cases. But this question, as fascinating as it is, cannot properly serve as a proof for what Rashi held in any positive sense.

We cannot conclusively prove something from what Rashi didn't say. But, amongst the infinite number of possibilities as to why he didn't say something, there are possibilities that are more reasonable and possibilities that are less reasonable. And those explanations that are more straightforward and less complex are more likely to be correct.
I would like to give a mashal (it can be nitpicked, but please take the point!) Suppose one were to pick up a new book about rabbis, and one were to find that all the rabbis who are deceased have ztz"l written after their names, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe does not have that written after his name. There are an infinite number of possibilities as to why. It is possible, but extremely unlikely, that the author wrote zatzal and that when he wasn't watching, someone came to his computer and erased it. It is possible that he was never told that the Rebbe died. It is more likely, however, that he is meshichist Chabad. If we see that the book is introduced with a quote from Tanya, this makes it even more likely.
Thus, I must firmly disagree with Levi's assessment, but simultaneously to stress that what I am talking about is not "proof" in the absolute sense but rather arguments. And from the fact that Rashi takes pains to stress non-literalness in certain instances, the glaring omission in other types of cases makes it likely that he interpreted them literally.

R. Slifkin made the point in the beginning of his article that the onus is actually on those who claim that Rashi was a “non-corporealist” given, as the Ramban points out, the widespread belief in France in the corporeality of God.

That is not what I said. What I said was that ACCORDING to the testimony of Ramban AND R. Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles regarding the prevalence of this view in France, the onus of proof would PERHAPS be upon one claiming that Rashi was not a corporealist. I really dislike it when people quote me inaccurately!
Given Rabbi Kanarfogel's clarification of R. Shmuel ben Mordechai's statement, I don't think that it's possible to conclude either way regarding whether corporealism was prevalent or not. Given this, I don't think that one can have a starting assumption that Rashi was either corporealist nor non-corporealist. Before bringing any arguments, one must simply say that we don't know.

Firstly, it is a tremendous mistake to simply take a historical figure, perform a cursory review of the generally accepted beliefs during his time, and apply that popular outlook to the individual in question.

Actually I would say that it is perfectly valid to say that a person is likely to share the beliefs of his intellectual community. It is perfectly valid to say that a person in Kiryat Sefer is likely to be charedi and that a person in 12th century Spain is likely to value philosophy.

This is even truer for Rashi who was a giant among the Rishonim. The Rishonim are famous for obstinately refusing to follow the prevailing winds. This is in fact the hallmark of the great Rishonim, who guarded the true mesorah without regard for popular opinion.

This forum is not the Yated. What do you mean that Rashi was a "giant"? You can't make such a broad statement without qualifying it. In his breadth of knowledge? Grammatical skills? Philosophical sophistication?

And what do you mean about the Rishonim being famous for refusing to follow popular opinion? Why do you think that most of the early Sephardic Rishonim greatly valued philosophy, poetry, and literature? Do you think that it is mere coincidence that these were the values of Greco-Muslim culture? Besides, we are talking about "popular opinion" amongst Torah scholars, not the illiterate masses.

Secondly, even it were true that Rashi believed God is corporeal, it would still be a preposterous exaggeration/misnomer to, therefore, refer to Rashi as a “corporealist.” The term implies an “ism,” e.g. Rashi subscribed to corporealism. Can anyone seriously believe that, though in all of his comments throughout the Torah, the Neviim, the Kesuvim, or the Talmud Rashi never openly tells that he believes that God is physical, that, nonetheless Rashi is a corporealist? Clearly, even if Rashi did have some sort of physical conception of God, it must not have formed any essential part of his philosophical system such that we could refer to him as a “corporealist.”

Rashi does not teach any sort of philosophical system! The Sefardic Rishonim presented philosophical systems. Rashi did not. He was a French commentator. I brought dozens of his comments from across his commentary which fit well with the notion that he had a corporeal view of God. One would not expect him to write an essay on it; it's just not his style.

If Rashi were a corporealist, which would mean he subscribed to corporealism, then we would expect Rashi to battle the non-believers head on.

That's very strange. Above you were insisting that we can't prove anything from what Rashi DOESN'T say. Now you are doing exactly that!

In any case, the opposite is true. Given that many verses in the Torah give the impression of corporealism, and many people at the time believed as such, then if Rashi were opposed to this view, we would expect him to explain that these verses should not be understood that way, especially since he does so with many other verses that he feels are being grievously misunderstood if interpreted according to their plain meaning.

Throughout the wealth of Rishonic works that make up the core of our Torah
She’beal Peh, we see unanimity regarding the belief in God’s absolute incorporeality.

Absolutely wrong. Have you read all the sources in Shapiro's book? Have you forgotten about Raavad's statement that “greater and better people than Rambam” were corporealists? The reason why we have far more WRITINGS against corporealism than in favor of it is that the anti-corporealists were from Sepharadic lands where there was an emphasis on studying and writing philosophy. To speak about "unanimity" regarding incorporealism means that you are simply avoiding the facts.

Do you really think that R. Avraham ben HaRambam would laud Rashi’s fundamental philosophy was that God is physical? ...And, on the contrary, it is near impossible to imagine that someone who R. Avraham ben HaRambam spoke highly of was a “corporealist.”

Where does he laud his "fundamental philosophy"? Besides, he never met him! I already explained why Rashi's position on this is not something that would emerge unless one were actively studying all of his comments in light of this question.

I will continue my response in another post. Meanwhile, I will make the observation that you appear to be very strongly ideologically biased against the idea that Rashi was a corporealist, as well as ignoring much of the evidence regarding theological attitudes of the Rishonim. The idea that Rishonim were all intellectual giants in every domain, that they were unanimous in their agreement with Rambam's principles, that they were a basically homogenous group, that they were not at all affected by the surrounding culture, is a viewpoint that is prevalent in the Orthodox world, but it is not supported by historical evidence!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Seeing No Image

This is a continuation of my response to the excellent points raised by Rabbi Zukcer. Let me begin with the passuk from this week’s parasha:
“Be extremely cautious for your lives, for you did not see any image on the day that God spoke to you at Chorev from the fire” (Deut. 4:15)

I suggested that a corporealist might read this verse as saying that, for some reason, man did not SEE any image of God, but not that no such image exists. Rabbi Zucker said that he rejects this possibility, without going into details. But there is a very important point to be made here. Whether or not Rashi was a corporealist, we have clear testimony from numerous Rishonim that there were Torah scholars in northern France who were corporealists. I believe that their testimony should be taken seriously. And these Torah scholars surely also had a way of understanding Deut. 4:15. So as long as somebody rejects the possibility of any corporealist reading of this verse, he cannot be fully accepting the reality of the testimony of these Rishonim. Obviously I am not saying that the verse actually has a corporealist meaning; rather, I am saying that it must be possible to read it that way. As long as someone does not accept that, they are not dealing with the topic properly.

Now let me address the verse from Yeshayah 43:12. Rabbi Zucker raised an excellent point about Rashi’s commentary on this verse:
…On the phrase "attem eidai" "you are My witnesses..." Rashi explains that HaShem said to Bnei Yisrael, "I opened up for you the seven heavens, and you saw no image (temunah) whatsoever." ….the passuk, according to Rashi, is "you are my witnesses in that I opened up the heavens for you and you saw no image whatsoever." Now, if there was in fact an image, but we didn't see it, then what kind of witnesses are we? That would be akin to a murderer bringing a group of blind people before a judge and saying, "these are my witnesses; they were present at the time of the alleged murder, and they saw nothing!" …Rashi said explicitly that the fact that Bnei Yisrael saw no image is a testimony about HaShem…

This seems like an excellent point. But if we examine the full context of the verse in Yeshayah, Rabbi Zucker’s interpretation is problematic:

ספר ישעיה פרק מג
(י) אַתֶּם עֵדַי נְאֻם יְדֹוָד וְעַבְדִּי אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרְתִּי לְמַעַן תֵּדְעוּ וְתַאֲמִינוּ לִי וְתָבִינוּ כִּי אֲנִי הוּא לְפָנַי לֹא נוֹצַר אֵל וְאַחֲרַי לֹא יִהְיֶה:
(יא) אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי יְדֹוָד וְאֵין מִבַּלְעָדַי מוֹשִׁיעַ:
(יב) אָנֹכִי הִגַּדְתִּי וְהוֹשַׁעְתִּי וְהִשְׁמַעְתִּי וְאֵין בָּכֶם זָר וְאַתֶּם עֵדַי נְאֻם יְדֹוָד וַאֲנִי אֵל:
(יג) גַּם מִיּוֹם אֲנִי הוּא וְאֵין מִיָּדִי מַצִּיל אֶפְעַל וּמִי יְשִׁיבֶנָּה:

What is the point that all these verses are trying to make? They are clearly trying to make a single point: That there is only One God, there are no other deities. There is no point being made here about God’s incorporeality. The point being made is about His exclusivity. It simply does not fit the context to explain Rashi as meaning that we are being called on as witnesses to God’s incorporeality. Instead, the context dictates that it means that we are being called on as witnesses to God’s exclusivity.
Given that necessary meaning, the statement that we “saw no image” is not a reference to God having no form, and in fact is not a reference to God at all. It is a reference to the non-existence of other deities.
This in turn sheds light on Deut. 4:15. The reference there too is not to God’s incorporeality, but rather to His exclusivity. And there, too, it fits with the context:

ספר דברים פרק ד
(טו) וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּם מְאֹד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם כִּי לֹא רְאִיתֶם כָּל תְּמוּנָה בְּיוֹם דִּבֶּר יְדֹוָד אֲלֵיכֶם בְּחֹרֵב מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ:
(טז) פֶּן תַּשְׁחִתוּן וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לָכֶם פֶּסֶל תְּמוּנַת כָּל סָמֶל תַּבְנִית זָכָר אוֹ נְקֵבָה:
(יז) תַּבְנִית כָּל בְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ תַּבְנִית כָּל צִפּוֹר כָּנָף אֲשֶׁר תָּעוּף בַּשָּׁמָיִם:
(יח) תַּבְנִית כָּל רֹמֵשׂ בָּאֲדָמָה תַּבְנִית כָּל דָּגָה אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ:
(יט) וּפֶן תִּשָּׂא עֵינֶיךָ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְרָאִיתָ אֶת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְאֶת הַיָּרֵחַ וְאֶת הַכּוֹכָבִים כֹּל צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם וְנִדַּחְתָּ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לָהֶם וַעֲבַדְתָּם אֲשֶׁר חָלַק יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֹתָם לְכֹל הָעַמִּים תַּחַת כָּל הַשָּׁמָיִם:

If anyone has a better suggestion of how the corporealists read these verses, I would be glad to hear it. But they certainly had a way of reading them.

Hanging Corpses and Decomposing Faces

Rabbi Zucker's comments deserve a separate post, firstly because they are substantive, and secondly because he signed his name to them! Here is the first part.

Rabbi Zucker wrote:
I certainly agree that ALL the evidence needs to be weighed. Let us examine the "image of God" issue as Rashi presents it regarding a decomposing body. In order to do so, let us turn to the famous "killelas HaShem taluiy" prohibition against leaving the hanging corpse overnight. The Tosefta in Sanhedrin (9:7) explains that this is because people seeing the body hanging for a prolonged period will associate it with "God's image" and that is a degradation to HaShem. Now, the Rambam, the Ramban, and all the other staunch incorporealists learned that Tosefta as well. Clearly, they understood the Tosefta as teaching that the body is a reflection of the idea of tzellem Elokim, not that it is literally the image of God. Further, please see the gemara in Mo'ed Kattan 15b, which states that an aveil must turn over his bed, because HaShem gave us His image, and we overturned it with our sins. Again, the body is represented as the image of God, and the Rambam learned this gemara as well, as did the Ramban (who quotes it verbatim in his Toras HaAdam). Clearly, these incorporealists learned the gemara as stating that the body of man reflects the idea of tzellem Elokim, not that the body itself is the image of God literally. That being the case, could it not very well be the case -- is it not entirely possible -- that Rashi learned the same way? When he speaks about the decomposing body as losing its characteristic of tzellem Elokim, can it not mean that once the body is unrecognizable as such, it no longer reflects the idea of tzellem Elokim?

I do not agree that Rambam, Ramban etc. understood the Tosefta being based on the idea that the body is a (physical) reflection of the idea of tzellem Elokim. Where do we see any such idea in their writings? That’s the kind of idea that you see in later mekuballim, not in Ramban and certainly not Rambam. There is a much simpler explanation of their understanding. The body HOUSES man’s intellect. That is why it is degrading to see it hanging. Or see the explanation of Rabbi Meir Abulafia that I quoted in the essay. He explains that the reference is to “the form of man’s intellect,” which is modeled after that of God. But Rashi, in that case, simply states that man is “likewise made in the form (dyukno) of his Creator.” Yes, you can fit in one of the above explanations, but you would be fitting it in, not drawing it out.
But in the case of the mourner overturning his bed, we have a much more powerful case. You say that “Clearly, these incorporealists learned the gemara as stating that the body of man reflects the idea of tzellem Elokim.” That is not true at all. They presumably simply explained it to mean that man overturned i.e. corrupted his (non-corporeal) image of God, i.e. his bechirah (or however you want to explain tzelem Elokim), thereby bringing mortality upon himself, and the mourner commemorates that by overturning his bed. But Rashi specifically states that the mourner, by overturning the bed, is commemorating the facial decomposition of the dead, not commemorating man’s corruption of his bechirah. Now, you can insert an extra stage and say that the facial decomposition itself simply reflects the corruption of the bechirah, but that would not only be a classic case of ikkar chassar min hasefer, it would also make Rashi’s statement entirely pointless. It would not be necessary at all to mention the physical decomposition, one can simply say that a dead person has lost his bechirah! So this Rashi does indeed provide a strong argument that Rashi believed in a corporeal God. One can "wriggle out of it," but that is certainly the implication.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Was Rashi A Corporealist?

Here is my article from Hakirah vol. 7, with a letter about the article and my response appended to it. I've had a few people tell me that they can't agree with the article, but none of them were able to actually articulate responses to the arguments in it. But to people unaware of medieval Jewish intellectual history, it does come as a great shock.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rav Aviner on Dinosaurs

I don't agree with everything he says, but the basic approach, which is Rav Kook's, is very valuable.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Los Angeles Lecture

If you have friends in LA, please pass this on to them:

Rabbi Natan Slifkin will speak on the topic of "One Judaism, Two Religions: Rationalism vs. Mysticism" at Young Israel of Century City, Wednesday July 15th, at 8.15 pm. Entrance donation is $10. Rabbi Slifkin will also be selling autographed copies of his books, The Challenge of Creation, Sacred Monsters, Man & Beast, and Perek Shirah: Nature's Song.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Kanno'im at Wikipedia

I noticed that my Wikipedia entry has been changed. Here is the first paragraph, with the latest addition in bold:

Natan Slifkin (sometimes Nosson Slifkin or simply HaMumar Slifkin) (born 1975), also popularly known as the "Zoo Rabbi", is an ordained but non-pulpit serving Orthodox rabbi best known for his interest in biology, zoology and natural history and for his books on these topics, which have become a focus of controversy within the Haredi world.

I like it when my opponents are funny!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Tylenol and Timtum

Here is a letter from the Yated Ne'eman addressing the cause of kids going off the derech. It highlights the non-rationalist approach taken to an extreme:

Our Chachonim discussed these topics. They said that boys can lose their yiras Shomayim by not wearing yarmulkas. They spoke about timtum halev, which comes from the wrong things going into one's mouth.

When a boy is small as his yarmulka falls off, how quickly do we run to put it back? Do we realize that this can spell difference between whether he will still be in yeshiva at age 17? When we allow our daughters to eat cholov stam chocolate bar, do we realize the ramifications down the line and where this can lead? When our toddlers have fever and we give them Tylenol gelcaps with treif in it, why do we wonder that so many of our youth are falling by wayside?

These things are not opinions or thoughts. These are facts, built into Creation since the first six days.

Menachem Kellner, in Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism, describes how according to Rambam, timtum halev does not refer to metaphysical spiritual harm but rather to a deficiency in one's attitude. As such, it would not affect toddlers. (This is, of course, quite aside from the issue that there are more obvious and direct causes of kids going off the derech!)

(Hat tip: One Frum Skeptic)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Rambam on Reasons for Mitzvos

In a previous post, I highlighted the radical divergence between Rambam and Netziv on the reasons for mitzvos. Someone raised a quote from the Mishneh Torah which seemed to conflict with the citation from the Guide Of The Perplexed with regard to Chukkim. Here is another citation from the Guide which shed further light on the topic.


As Theologians are divided on the question whether the actions of God are the result of His wisdom, or only of His will without being intended for any purpose whatever, so they are also divided as regards the object of the commandments which God gave us. Some of them hold that the commandments have no object at all; and are only dictated by the win of God. Others are of opinion that all commandments and prohibitions are dictated by His wisdom and serve a certain aim; consequently there is a reason for each one of the precepts: they are enjoined because they are useful. All of us, the common people as well as the scholars, believe that there is a reason for every precept, although there are commandments the reason of which is unknown to us, and in which the ways of God's wisdom are incomprehensible. This view is distinctly expressed in Scripture; comp. "righteous statutes and judgments" (Deut. iv. 8); "the judgments of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether" (Ps. xix. 10). There are commandments which are called ḥuḳḳim, "ordinances," like the prohibition of wearing garments of wool and linen (sha‘atnez), boiling meat and milk together, and the sending of the goat [into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement]. Our Sages use in reference to them phrases like the following: "These are things which I have fully ordained for thee: and you dare not criticize them"; "Your evil inclination is turned against them"; and "non-Jews find them strange." But our Sages generally do not think that such precepts have no cause whatever, and serve no purpose; for this would lead us to assume that God's actions are purposeless. On the contrary, they hold that even these ordinances have a cause, and are certainly intended for some use, although it is not known to us; owing either to the deficiency of our knowledge or the weakness of our intellect. Consequently there is a cause for every commandment: every positive or negative precept serves a useful object; in some cases the usefulness is evident, e.g., the prohibition of murder and theft; in others the usefulness is not so evident, e.g., the prohibition of enjoying the fruit of a tree in the first three years (Lev. xix. 73), or of a vineyard in which other seeds have been growing (Deut. xxii. 9). Those commandments, whose object is generally evident, are called "judgments" (mishpatim); those whose object is not generally clear are called "ordinances" (ḥuḳḳim). Thus they say [in reference to the words of Moses]: Ki lo dabar rek hu mi-kem (lit." for it is not a vain thing for you, "Deut. xxxii. 74); "It is not in vain, and if it is in vain, it is only so through you." That is to say, the giving of these commandments is not a vain thing and without any useful object; and if it appears so to you in any commandment, it is owing to the deficiency in your comprehension. You certainly know the famous saying that Solomon knew the reason for all commandments except that of the "red heifer." Our Sages also said that God concealed the causes of commandments, lest people should despise them, as Solomon did in respect to three commandments, the reason for which is clearly stated. In this sense they always speak; and Scriptural texts support the idea.

...The repeated assertion of our Sages that there are reasons for all commandments, and the tradition that Solomon knew them, refer to the general purpose of the commandments, and not to the object of every detail. This being the case, I find it convenient to divide the six hundred and thirteen precepts into classes: each class will include many precepts of the same kind, or related to each other by their character. I will [first] explain the reason of each class, and show its undoubted and undisputed object, and then I shall discuss each commandment in the class, and expound its reason. Only very few will be left unexplained, the reason for which I have been unable to trace unto this day. I have also been able to comprehend in some cases even the object of many of the conditions and details as far as these can be discovered. You will hear all this later on...

Now let us look at the later chapter that we quoted a few days ago:


THERE are persons who find it difficult to give a reason for any of the commandments, and consider it right to assume that the commandments and prohibitions have no rational basis whatever. They are led to adopt this theory by a certain disease in their soul, the existence of which they perceive, but which they are unable to discuss or to describe. For they imagine that these precepts, if they were useful in any respect, and were commanded because of their usefulness, would seem to originate in the thought and reason of some intelligent being. But as things which are not objects of reason and serve no purpose, they would undoubtedly be attributed to God, because no thought of man could have produced them. According to the theory of those weak-minded persons, man is more perfect than his Creator. For what man says or does has a certain object, whilst the actions of God are different; He commands us to do what is of no use to us, and forbids us to do what is harmless. Far be this! On the contrary, the sole object of the Law is to benefit us. Thus we explained the Scriptural passage, "for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day" (Deut. vi. 24). Again, "which shall hear all those statutes (ḥuḳḳim), and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (ibid. iv. 6). He thus says that even every one of these "statutes" convinces all nations of the wisdom and understanding it includes. But if no reason could be found for these statutes, if they produced no advantage and removed no evil, why then should he who believes in them and follows them be wise, reasonable, and so excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations? But the truth is undoubtedly as we have said, that every one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits. All this depends on three things: opinions, morals, and social conduct. We do not count words, because precepts, whether positive or negative, if they relate to speech, belong to those precepts which regulate our social conduct, or to those which spread truth, or to those which teach morals. Thus these three principles suffice for assigning a reason for every one of the Divine commandments.

Rambam's view is that chukkim, like mishpatim, serve to "inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits." The only difference between chukkim and mishpatim is that it is often more difficult to figure out how chukkim do this.