Monday, February 15, 2010

Kesav Tamim

Ksav Tamim is a fascinating work by the thirteenth century Tosafist R. Moshe ben Chisdai Taku (alt.: Tachau). It is a lengthy polemic against the anti-anthropomorphic position taken by figures such as R. Saadiah Gaon. R. Moshe Taku insists that God can and does take on physical form, and considers those who believe otherwise to be denying the truths of Tenach and Chazal. I was recently hired by ArtScroll to produce an annotated translation of Kesav Tamim.

Just joking! It wasn't ArtScroll that hired me, it's someone else. No, I can't say who. Anyway, because of this project, even though I had previously looked through virtually all of Ksav Tamim, I am now going through it much more carefully. It is absolutely fascinating. Some people may wonder what the value of this work is today. One answer is that, if we are to understand all the diverse Torah scholars of the past, it is invaluable to gain an appreciation of just how different some of them were from our own worldview; this helps overcome the natural tendency to read our own outlook into others. In addition, when you have one of the Baalei Tosafos, praised by Ramban as a great Torah scholar, staunchly advocating an approach that many would rate as heresy, this forces us to re-assess how we define heresy and heretics. This is something that I address at length in the latest issue of Hakirah, in my article, "They Could Say It, We Cannot: Defining the Charge of Heresy."

My translation will not be published for a long time yet, but in the meanwhile, the Hebrew edition of Ksav Tamim can be downloaded here. This is the version from SeforimOnline, which includes some of the text appended from Arguat HaBosem and ends with a page from Ramban which includes praise of R. Moshe Taku. There is also an interesting article by Rabbi David Sedley about R. Moshe Taku, corporealism and rationalism, which you can download here.

P.S. Please remember the new "I need to spend less time on this blog" comments policy. If your comment requires a response from me, it's less likely to be posted. If you have a question, your best bet is to email me.


  1. I have a very serious question to ask, and I apologize if it comes across as impertinent in any way. What good is there in publishing this work? I know you said that it will help us to define what heresy is, etc., but let's look at another aspect of this issue. Quite a few rishonim have proven logically that corporealism cannot possibly be true. Even the corporealists themselves do not claim that corporealism can be true logically; they simply rely on a (literal) reading of psukim and midrashim. Even the defenders of the corporealists (Raavad, etc.) say that the corporealists are wrong because they followed their incorrect understanding of the psukim - and for that they are not heretics, they're just wrong.

    Having said all of that, I see two possible results of your publishing this text. One - people will think that if a Tosafist can think this way, then perhaps we can too. This is dangerous, because we know corporealism to be wrong, even according to the defenders of the corporealists. So if this first result ensues, you may cause people to have the wrong idea about Hashem, a serious problem, even if it isn't heresy. However, the more likely result is - Two - people will think that R. Moshe Taku, a tosafist was, pardon my language here, a fool for believing something so nonsensical. I (strongly) do not believe that most people who read the work will walk away not believing either of these two possibilities, and instead will see what the boundaries of heresy were and how we shouldn't read one shitah into another, etc.

    If I am correct, your publishing of the work will not add to klal yisrael's worship of Hashem, and may do damage to it. I therefore beg of you to reconsider your project in light of the above.

  2. Worried - I should clarify that it is going to be buried in an academic work that the average frum Jew will never even hear about, let alone read. Even if they are to read it, I don't think for a moment that it will lead to people becoming corporealists. Likewise (and this goes for any article or book that mentions R. Taku's view) I hope it will not lead them to think that he was a fool - he certainly wasn't! - but they will hopefully get a more realistic picture of the Rishonim than they have now. And I feel strongly that the resultant reconsideration of the definition of kefirah is of great importance and benefit to Klal Yisroel.

  3. My main comment is to you, Rabbi Slifkin: Chazak ve'ematz.

    My tangential comment is to Worried: How do we "know corporealism to be wrong"? I'm not a corporealist, but I question whether any of the rishonim's proofs against it would satisfy a rigorous logician.

    You'd be surprised how few things can actually be proven definitively.

  4. Worried,
    Please don’t take this as a personal attack, but your comment reflects an attitude unfortunately held by many and is mired in a time and place that is centuries gone when these attitudes might have made sense. I’m referring to the whole approach of don’t say or write things because it may mislead the “hamoin am”. Maybe, when people were less literate and superstitious and easily influenced by anybody seen as a scholar, this approach had some validity, but today the Jewish world is incredibly educated and informed and any talk of banning books or any subject matter simply falls under the rubric that “the truth cannot be banned”. It is high time that this be acknowledged.

    Here is a fact. As time progresses we will realize more and more that our sages, as great yirei shomeim and Torah scholars they may been, were simply human and quite fallible.

    Thus, IMHO any scholarship or activity that moves in this direction should be commended and encouraged and certainly not criticized. And even it you say that this particular project is simply a waste of time and money, its not your time nor your money.

  5. i was actually tempted to do my own (serial) translation, because i thought it would be a worthwhile project. i think it will be a useful contribution to the discussion.

    not that i think that it will persuade anyone of corporealism. but the hamon am can't seem to grasp and appreciate that Rishonim might maintain positions that we firmly disagree with. the end result is reinterpretation of any such rishon, or denial that they ever said it.

    beside giving insight into the corporealist discussion, perhaps this might help people grasp the above, when it comes to other things maintained by rishonim we disagree with. and hopefully, they will not think them a fool, as Worried worries, but will realize that very intelligent and sane people can come to incorrect conclusions based on their intellectual environs.

    "Quite a few rishonim have proven logically that corporealism cannot possibly be true."
    people have argued this here in the past, and i don't buy it. i'm sure they tried to prove it logically, but i don't find this at all convincing. medieval philosophers proved a number of things logically. for an example, read this post on Hirhurim.

    An excerpt:
    "The celestial sphere itself has a cause, and that is the First Mover. Here is the proof:

    1) Everything that is moving must have a mover.
    2) An infinite regress is impossible.
    3) There must be a First Mover who starts the chain of movement.

    Modern science teaches us the concept of inertia, which means that something in motion need not be constantly moved..."

    If there is a flaw with the particular logical argument, or a flaw in the system logic itself, then logical proof is not great proof. and who says God needs to be submissive to logic? just because everything in our own severely limited experience obeys the rules of logic, perhaps these are limitations of our own perceptions. (Also, differing notions of infinity, time, etc., which they did not understand back then, may undermine such logical proofs.) I don't even care to consider the body of the proofs themselves, nor would I seek to disprove them. The possibility of that is enough. And if the Torah, and Nach, really does attest to a corporeal God (assuming I could prove this), and it comes to falsifying the Torah or rejecting the logic, would you falsify the Torah? You wound sooner reject the logic. (Though much sooner would come reinterpretation as Rambam does.)


  6. The fact that people can think that we should censor writings of the great rishonim due to the fact that "people" will think them fools probably says a lot about the state of our religion today.

  7. "I should clarify that it is going to be buried in an academic work that the average frum Jew will never even hear about, let alone read. "

    Personally, I was actually more concerned about the non-frum Jew who will likely find your essay on a Christian-friendly blog. (Like Klinghoffer's, for instance.)

  8. Thank you for the link. I'm sure you know, but I will state it for the comments, that there is a lot of opposition to this opinion being written about. Many people (including Roshei Yeshiva) have been disturbed by my article, and have accused me of making people 'go off the derech'. I have also had one Rosh Kollel tell me that it must be a forgery, and also that I must have an agenda in writing about it, and that it is not what Jews today think.
    As you have already dealt with all those claims and issues, I just want to write for the comments here, that this work truly blew my mind. Rav Moshe Taku is not a fool, and presents a very serious and cogent attack on Rav Saadiah and Rambam. And even though most Jews today would disagree with him about corporealism, I suspect that most Chareidim (and others) would agree with almost everything else he writes.
    The path of Rav Saadiah, Rambam and others can be a dangerous one, and Rav Moshe Taku felt it had to be stamped out. He held that we must only believe in Chazal, and Tanach, and not allow ourselves to be influenced by Greek philosophy.

    1. I pray that you receive this request Rav Sedley. Is the Eng. translation of Kesav Tamim now available and how can I obtain a copy, if so?

  9. I just wanted to say that I found Rabbi Sedley's article to be fascinating, and that most readers of this blog should take time to read it. As Rabbi Sedley touched on in his comment, the controversy about the (non)corporeality of G-d is a part of a bigger controversy, and Rav Moshe Taku's positions are a lot less marginal than one might initially suppose. Rabbi Sedley says it best in the last time of his article:

    "Rav Moshe Taku espouses the mainstream Ashkenazi view, held by the majority of his contemporaries, that the Torah is the only source of truth, and to make it subservient to logic is to undermine the entire basis of the religion and religious ‘truths’. Contemporary Rabbinic leadership [i.e., contemporary to us, in the year 2010] has, for the most part, accepted this latter view, and rejects any attempts to bring Torah into line with science, or other forms of ‘external’ knowledge."

  10. By the way, although I don't think G-d has a body, I do belive it is very possible -- and I doubt that I'm alone in this -- that G-d can actually get angry for example.

    If this is corporealism (I don't know if it is), then perhaps corporealism is not as dead as some people think.

  11. Does anyone know if the Ramban ever saw R. Moshe Taku's Kesav Tamim? From what I can tell, the Ramban quoted R. Moshe Taku's halachic works only. If the Ramban never saw Kesav Tamim, and never knew R. Moshe Taku's hashkafa positions, then his praise for R. Moshe Taku would not really have any implication for anything having to do with the issue of corporealism.

  12. I think it would do well for anyone discussing this topic to read Joseph Dan's article "Ashkenazi Hasidim and the Maimonidean Controversy," available at
    Dan presents a more nuanced view of Taku than the usual stick figure version.

  13. Here is the takeaway paragraph from Dan's article:
    "He [Taku] insists on the literal acceptance of the prophets' descriptions of their visions as well as the anthropomorphic references to God in talmudic-midrashic literature. He does not do so because of his belief in the literal veracity of these descriptions; he only insists that they represent the maximum that can be conveyed concerning God's essence and appearance, and that any further inquirty cannot lead to valid conclusions. God chose to reveal to us in the scriptures whatever is found in them: man should be satisfied with that, and ask no more questions. It is not that Rabbi Moses Taku believed in an anthropomorphic God; most probably he did not. It is a fact that Taku is the only Ashkenazi writer in this period to deny completely the authenticity of the Shi'ur Qomah, even though this anthropomorphic treatise is traditionally attributed to the great sages of the Mishnah, Rabbi Akibah and Rabbi Ishmael...
    Tradition should not be required to present answers to every question raised by curious minds, and it has no obligation to present a sustained, coherent, and unambiguous system of thought. We should be thankful for the little that is revealed to us, and ask for nothing more.

  14. I don't know what this sentence means: "He does not do so because of his belief in the literal veracity of these descriptions; he only insists that they represent the maximum that can be conveyed concerning God's essence and appearance." And R. Taku certainly does hold that Hashem is spatially located and has physical form at least sometimes.

    When Dan writes that R. Taku did not believe in an anthropomorphic God, I think he must mean that R. Taku did not believe that God is perpetually of human form, but rather that He takes on different forms as the occasion warrants. That's why he denies the authenticity of Shiur Komah - because it locks God in to a specific form.

  15. Ari - are you suggesting that Ramban did not see Ksav Tamim and that if he had, he would not have held R. Taku to be a great Torah scholar? This is not consistent with how he praises the rabbonim of France.

  16. I was just wondering whether the Ramban had seen the Kesav Tamim - I don't think there is any evidence that he did. As to what he would have thought about R. Moshe Taku if he had seen the book, you mentioned that the Ramban praised the scholars of France despite their apparent corporealist beliefs. Please allow me to point out that this issue is not so simple. In his letter to the scholars of France, the Ramban says (taken from the Chavel Hebrew edition):

    "(Anyone who believes in corporealism) is like someone chasing after vanity." (page 345)

    "(Anyone who believes in corporealism) is a complainer who estranges the ruler." (page 346)

    "(Incorporealism) is the belief upon which our nation is founded." (ibid)

    "The Torah has already warned us not to think that God has an image or form." (ibid)

    "(quoting R. Sa'adya Gaon:) Anyone who thinks that the Creator, Maker of everything, that he has a form, image, and limbs, he has no God whatsoever." (ibid)

    "(Incorporealism) is what our holy fathers believed." (page 347)

    "(All the rabbis) cursed anyone (who believed in corporealism)." (ibid)

    "Any one who does not believe in this (incorporealism), will be judged in an unfanned fire (the fire of hell)." (ibid)

    It is clear that the Ramban was very cordial to his addressees, but at the same time, his description of corporealists as chasing after vanity, estranging the ruler, going against the belief upon which our nation was founded, having no God whatsoever, accursed, and deserving of burning in hell, are pretty strong words.

    Perhaps we can understand his cordiality toward these people with the following: the entire tone of the letter is one exhorting them to consider carefully their position and announce to everyone that incorporealism is correct. The Ramban thought that they were "teachable." Furthermore, he himself said:

    "The congregations will not follow a cheirem and a curse..." (page 348)

    "It is fitting to warn people with a pleasant tone." (page 349)

    I think that in his cordial tone, the Ramban was following his own advice to the French rabbis.

  17. Raavad also thought that corporealism was wrong, very wrong, but that did not stop him from describing the corporealists as being greater and better people than Rambam. Ramban rated R. Moshe Taku as a great Torah scholar. If you want to claim that were he to have known about R. Taku's corporealist beliefs, then this would have negated his Torah scholarship in Ramban's eyes, the onus of proof is on you.

  18. I think you may have misunderstood me. I am not trying to prove anything. I am merely suggesting that to say that as a matter of rule, the Ramban viewed corporealists with great respect is subject to question and doubt. To have great respect for someone who, you openly state, is accursed and is going to burn in the fires of hell is - at least - a question to be contemplated. As far as the Ravad is concerned, I think it's important to remember that he said numerous times about the Rambam that his words were "worthless" "should be thrown out" etc. etc. - all throughout his hasagos is the Mishneh Torah. Therefore, for him to say that there were men greater than the Rambam who were corporealists, should be viewed in that context. Let's not forget that the Ravad explicitly calls corporealism a confused/convoluted opinion, and that the Sefer Ikarim (1:2) quotes the Ravad as saying that "the essential principle of Torah belief is incorporeality." I am merely saying that to call the statements of the Ramban and Ravad accolades or highly respectful of the corporealists is something that is subject to question and analysis.

  19. OK, accepted. But we can certainly rely on Ramban for his opinion that, theology aside, R. Moshe Taku was considered a great Torah scholar among the Rishonim, not merely an average person.

  20. There's no doubt about it. I merely pointed out that with regard to the issue of how to view heresy/heretics, it makes a big difference as to whether the Ramban knew that R. Moshe Taku was an incorporealist or not, (that is, whether his views were what the Ramban himself would consider to be outside the bounds of Torah) and there seems to be no evidence that the Ramban did know it. That's all I was trying to say.

  21. "Many people (including Roshei Yeshiva) have been disturbed by my article, and have accused me of making people 'go off the derech'..."

    I understand their feelings but I would say the following:

    1) I doubt anyone goes off the derech from such an article. In fact, some are inspired by seeing that issues are not simplified. I, for one, get chizuk from intellectual honesty.

    2) The Yeshivah World fired the first salvo by banning R. Slifkin's book, which one can say represents extreme confidence in specific shittos to the point that one can ban a book. Similarly, Kiruv arguments are sometimes presented with a high degree of certainty. Now it needs to "run with the ball", so to speak, and deal with other hashkafic issues with confidence as well. Educate the community why we don't follow these type of shittos, instead of being overly concerned with the least-intellectual parts of the community who can not handle rigorous intellectual discussion.

  22. R. Sedley writes regarding Sefer HaYashar:

    "Rabbeinu Tam, the founder and leader of the school of Tosafot,
    decries knowledge of philosophy because of the potential dangers..."

    FWIW, there is a dispute who the author of Sefer Hayashar is; see the Tradition Article linked below:

    "... the mussar work with the same title which is incorrectly attributed to the Rabbeinu Tam – there is some debate exactly who the author is, with some claiming it is R. Zerachia HaLevi, author of the Ba’al HaMe’or, others attribute it to R. Zerachiah HaYevani, and finally others claim the author is Rabbeinu Yonah)"

  23. Shadesof - Fair point about Sefer HaYashar. I decided to put the quote in, because it was the clearest expression I could find of the view being not only Rashi's, but much wider. The article you link to gives no source for their claim of authorship. According to wikipedia it was definitely not Baal HaMaor (which makes sense - in Provence they believed in philosophy, for the most part).
    There are many other statements of Tosefot that imply they don't agree with philosophy. On the other hand, I just found Tosefot on Kiddushin 49b (kol hametargem) which quotes Rabbeinu Chananel as expressly forbidding interpretations of anthropomorphism. It is not a chidush that the Gaonim held like that, but I was surprised that Tosefot quotes him. So perhaps the view of the Tosefists was not uniform on this issue.

  24. Lawrence Kaplan

    Rabbi Sedly concludes his very interestng article by saying that "contemporary rabbinic leadership" accepts the approach of Rabbi Moshe Taku re Torah and science. He should have qualified this and spoken of "contemporary rabbinic leadership in the Haredi world."

  25. Rabbi Slifkin, did you ever release the final version of your translation?

    1. I see its now 5 yrs later to your request, Chaim, and I have the same request. Hoping to receive a response this time.


Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.

Blog Migration!

Birds migrate, butterflies migrate, whales migrate, and this blog is migrating! It's being moved over from Blogger to Substack. The URL ...