Tuesday, June 4, 2019

What is Torah?

What actually is Torah? Rationalist and mystics have fundamentally different views regarding this question.

Rationalists consider the Torah to be the divine instruction book for life—teaching us concepts that improve our minds, character and society.

Mystics, on the other hand, believe the Torah to be the genetic blueprint of creation, possessing all kinds of metaphysical qualities, which only on its most superficial level is an instructional text.

The concept that Torah is the “blueprint” of creation, found in a small number of passages in the Midrash, later became central to mystical thought.[1] It supports the notion that one can derive knowledge about the universe from the Torah, and it supports the notion that studying Torah provides energy to sustain the universe.

Today, the mystical view that Torah is the blueprint of creation is so thoroughly embedded in Judaism that most people consider it axiomatic to Jewish thought. Yet the fact is that some of the greatest Rabbinic scholars did not accept it. The concept that Torah is the blueprint of creation is open to multiple interpretations, and the sense in which it is taken today is certainly not what was understood by many early rabbinic authorities.

The notion that the Torah is the blueprint of the universe presupposes that Torah precedes the universe. Such a statement is found explicitly in some early texts. Midrash Bereishis Rabbah[2] speaks about Torah preceding creation by 2000 years. There is also a list of seven things that existed before the creation of the universe, including Torah:
There were seven things created before the universe: the Torah, Gehinnom, Gan Eden, the Throne of Glory, the Beit HaMikdash, repentance, and the name of the Messiah. (Midrash Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 3; Talmud, Pesachim 54a)
Yet many thinkers, including Rav Saadia Gaon[3] and even R. Yehudah HaLevi,[4] referenced this account but did not take it literally.[5] Some explained such statements to refer to the Ten Commandments preceding creation,[6] or to the Torah being the goal of creation.[7] Rambam consciously rejected the notion that Torah preceded the universe.[8]

Rambam’s rejection of this was due to two reasons. First, Rambam’s view of God’s uniqueness and unity leads him to states that the notion of anything existing before creation, alongside God, is heretical.[9] Second, it did not fit with his view that many of the commandments were issued as a response to historical circumstances, and thus could not have preceded these circumstances. Indeed, Judaism itself, in Rambam’s view, is a consequence of Avraham’s initiative in seeking out his Creator, and thus did not exist before Avraham.

(This is an extract from my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought, which is very nearly complete.)

NOTES
[1] A series of books that I wrote around two decades ago, “The Torah Universe,” was fundamentally based on the mystical understanding of this concept!
[2] Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 8:2.
[3] Rav Saadiah’s comments are cited by R. Yehudah Barzilay, Commentary to Sefer Yetzirah (Berlin 1885, Halberstam edition) p. 92.
[4] Kuzari 3:73.
[5] See Harry A. Wolfson, Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), pp. 85–113.
[6] Mabit, Beis Elokim.
[7] Ibn Ezra, introduction to his commentary to the Torah. See Abraham Joshua Heschel, Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations (New York: Continuum Books 2007), chapter 17, for a discussion of further sources that do not take this statement at face value.
[8] For extensive discussion, see Menachem Kellner, “Rashi and Maimonides on the Relationship Between Torah and the Cosmos,” in Between Rashi and Maimonides: Themes in Medieval Jewish Thought, Literature and Exegesis, ed. Ephraim Kanarfogel and Moshe Sokolow (Jersey City, NJ, 2010) pp. 23–58; idem, “Kadma Torah Le-Olam? – Iyun BeRambam,” Daat 61 (Summer 5767) pp. 83-96.
[9] See Guide for the Perplexed 1:9 and 2:26, and the extensive discussion in Kellner, ibid.


63 comments:

  1. I am really looking forward to the new book!

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  2. If you speak English and you want to understand the
    philosophical structure of Judaism, then I suggest:

    THE HANDBOOK OF JEWISH THOUGHT by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.

    If you cannot find that book, then I
    suggest ANY book by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.

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  3. Its unnecessary to explain why a rationalist would not accept the notion that the Torah - which describes creation - actually predated it. The notion - literally - makes no sense.

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    1. Except as a blueprint. That would be like saying that the blueprints to the Freedom Tower could not exist prior to the tower itself. The RAMBAM objection R. Slifkin above mentions makes more sense as an objection to me.

      Also this gets at the deeper issue of what the torah is. Is the statment meant to refer to the laws and not the stories and if so which?

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    2. On the contrary, the notion that the Torah precedes creation is quite strange. The Torah describes actions taken by people who have free will. So it makes sense that it was written after the events described took place.

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    3. Details please. Do you mean it makes no sense for it to be a blueprint?

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    4. In Halacha we have a concept called מסיח לפי תומו in which we ask an unbiased person his opinion about something. We have a similar concept in Kashrus regarding the taste of a (possibly) forbidden mixture, in which a gentile baker is asked his opinion (קפילא).

      So here's my rule to ascertain what is rational, and what is not. You can also use it to ascertain what is פשט and what is דרוש, because to us the difference is not always clear. You can call this DF's RULE: If a Jew raised in traditional schools with traditional instruction wants to know if something is rational or the simple explanation, let him ASK AN EDUCATED GENTILE. Not simply a goy in the street, who, nowadays, knows almost nothing about the Bible. And not a full time academic either. But a Gentile לא חכם ולא טיפש as though someone discovered a broken letter in the Klaf and wanted to know how it should be read. The way he reads his Bible is probably closest to the most rational, simplest, explanation.

      DF's Rule: Read it. Memorize it. Use it.

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    5. Who actually interprets the notion of a preexistent Torah as referring to the literal text of Chumash?

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    6. Most of these philosophical questions about a preexistent Torah are discussed here: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/7cf7e9_849de51a5d4948b1b8fe8da24a948b6d.pdf

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    7. Chaim, the Ramban seems to think that the preexistent Torah is lexically identical to the Chumash (but with no spaces between words). Most other adherents to the view don't think that way at all. The Kedushat Levi seems to think that the heavenly Torah transcends language altogether.

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  4. A relatively straightforward explanation could just be that the Torah represents God's Will, which is inseparable from Him, which preceded the creation of the world. This should satisfy philosophers and mystics alike.

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    1. Which runs into RAMBAM's problem of the idea of Hashem's will existing with Hashem rather then being a later creation of his. RAMBAM made a strong point that only negative descriptors apply to Hashem in part because of this problem.

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    2. I don't see why God and His will can't one and the same (although we are talking about things we really can't know).
      I'm not crazy about negative theology because it ultimately takes all meaning out of the human experience.

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  5. Rationalists consider the Torah to be t̶h̶e̶ ̶d̶i̶v̶i̶n̶e̶ ̶i̶n̶s̶t̶r̶u̶c̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ ̶b̶o̶o̶k̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶l̶i̶f̶e̶ a book written by numerous people a long time ago.

    FTFY.

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    1. This website is written from a religious Jewish perspective. I would have thought that was obvious.

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    2. SQ, be so kind not to put such disgusting words into other people's mouths.

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    3. Rabbi Slifkin, Sadly as of late it is becoming less and less obvious.
      I don't think I am mistaken in saying that some of your posts that you have written in the last few months, are thoughts and ideas that you would not have expressed in such a format even a few short years ago. You seem to have moved beyond criticizing modern Hareidi Daas Torah, to tackle accepted orthodox norms traditions and ideas. I for one am hesitant about this step.

      I also would like to say that while it is one thing to point out that there were many Rishonim that were rationalists, there were also many that were indisputably not. we seem to have reached the point that one would justifiably use your own argument against you on many issues which is "But how will you account for many of the Rishonim and Achronim who clearly would disagree?". Are we to pick and choose?

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    4. Anon: Many of the accepted norms were influenced by and a result of charedi and Hasidic practices and beliefs. If you look at how Judaism was practiced before the 1700s, and especially before the 1800s and 1900s, you'll find that it doesn't always match up with what we do today. RNS simply points out some of those discrepancies (although not always with as much accurate analysis and sourcing as I'd like). As to your question about picking and choosing, I'd have to say, yes, that is what we should do. That's what we've always done to some degree,so there's nothing inherently wrong with it. (That's also what the charedi world does, as much as they like to deny it.)

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    5. @anon,

      R.D. Slifkin has never made a secret of the fact that many Rishonim, et. al. were not rationalists. His advocacy in this regard is only to counter the idea (found mostly in the Charedi world) that the rationalists never existed.

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    6. SQ, how you conflated 19th century German conspiracy theorists with medieval rationalists, I will never know.

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  6. The RAN takes a mature approach and views the teaching about the "7 things made before creation" as allegorical [where it appears in Nedarim 39b] :

    כלומר שעלו במחשבה להבראות קודם שנברא העולם שא''א לעולם בלא הם

    The big question is what do these 7 things share in common? One way of seeing these 7 things is that they all represent things that, on the surface, only came into existence because mankind did not develop in the way that God had wanted them to. It's as if the gemara is making it a point to say that "you might of thought of these things as after-thoughts, but they were always part of the plan". A balanced way to see it all is that God had these things on His mind when He created the world, and was hoping mankind would not need them and that they wouldn't fall into corruption. Unfortunately, God had to later allow these factors to take a central role in the world

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    1. Hey, baruch shekivanti!

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    2. @Weaver

      I liked your approach. The reason is because "Torah" does not necessarily mean "the Torah", as in the Torah we are familiar with. Rather, "Torah" (without the "hei" beforehand, which is the way it comes up in the Midrash and Gemara) can easily be translated as "law" or "rules". And therefore your idea that the Torah represents "God's will" can be applied in an easier manner.

      My point, however, was different. My point was that the Torah as we know it wasn't always the inseparable will of God. It was something that God had in His mind when He made the world but was hoping mankind wouldn't need. After the corruption of the world (Adam and Chava, Kayin and Hevel, Flood, Tower of Bavel, etc.), God recognized that mankind was destined to sin, and He therefore instituted/activated reward and punishment (Gan Eden, Gehenom), forgiveness for sin (Teshuvah), and an instruction manual towards a moral way of life (Torah). Israel's early corruption led to the need for a Beit Hamikdash (according to the shita it was a rectification for the Golden Calf), and their later corruption pushed them into exile later on, thereby requiring an eventual redeemer ("the name of mashiach").
      The one item I haven't fully grasped yet is the "kisei ha'kavod" but I think it relates to the Beit Hamikdash.

      The next question one has to ask themselves is whether or not this gemara (even with the way the Ran or myself explains it) is meant to be taken literally, or if it's trying to convey a meaningful message through allegory. While I know where I stand, according to my principles I have to respect those who see it as literal.
      Rambam's introduction to perek chelek perhaps best expresses the notion that people who fail to understand chazal's words as allegorical are among those that fail to truly grasp the wisdom and depth of chazal.

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    3. Thank you for your thoughts.

      I was just providing a general framework, but your point is well taken - especially in light of the fact that throughout world history the Torah seems to have applied differently in certain epochs.

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    4. Interesting thoughts, N8ZL. Just one question for clarification on your explanation.

      "God recognized that mankind was destined to sin, and He therefore instituted/activated reward and punishment (Gan Eden, Gehenom),"

      Wasn't man placed into Gan Eden before he sinned?

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    5. @student v

      Great question.
      The Gan Eden spoken of in the midrash is the counterpart of gehinom, i.e. heaven vs. hell. It's the rabbinic form of "gan eden" which refers to life after death, as opposed to the textual Gan Eden in the Torah.
      Same goes for gehenom, which has its sources in the text of Tanach (Yirmiyahu 7:31-32, 19:2-6, 32:35, Nechemiah 11:30, Divrei Hayamim 2_28:3, 33:6), but was used in a different context in rabbinic literature

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    6. Ah, thank you for the explanation.

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  7. As I understand it, the Torah is the shemos of Hashem, which is what underlies the world. It's not so much that the Torah is the blueprint of the world, it IS the world, just that with the descent to lower levels of spirit, and then the covering of matter, things appear differently to what they really are. The Shem Havaye would be the first act of creation - yehi or - from the ein sof. Like the Baal Hatanya said once when he walked into an inn, it wasn't the wooden pillar holding up the roof, it was the Shem Havaye. The mitzvos we do and the halochos we keep are kelim to keep us in tune with with what's going on at this level. Like we say with the lulav that the four species are the four letters of the Shem Havaye.

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  8. So, conservative Heschel is a reliable source now?

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    1. What could possibly be not reliable about Heschel? You have to be kidding, or just ignorant

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    1. What this means in plain language, is that re-imagining the Torah as a mystical entity gives you the ability to rewrite it into something more congenial to you. Of course, what is congenial differs from person to person, but historically, the most common motivation for people wanting to discover the 'ephemeral heavenly Torah' is that it allows them to do gross things that the boring earthly Torah says are forbidden.

      So, sure enough, 30 seconds on Google and I found this. Imagine my shock.

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    2. If you use the word "fundamentalist" you lose all credibility. Just know that.

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    4. Gavriel M, I don't think that that was the agenda of Rav Tzadok Hakoen.

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    7. Like earlier generations of Sabbateans, you are practiced at making equivocal statements that evade formal definitions of orthodoxy whilst signalling to your coreligionists the intended message. Unfortunately for you, another thing you share with earlier generations of Sabbateans is that your coreligionists are too undisciplined to keep their antinomian rituals private.

      But why stop at your pro-perversion writings? In your role as house-orthodox-Jew at Haaretz, you have expounded so many facets of the ephemeral heavenly Torah, which it so happens consistently contradict everything the boring earthly Torah says. It's almost like the Rabbi who mekareved you was lying when he said that liberalism and Judaism are compatible, but, no, that can't be. The answer must lie in the ephemeral heavenly Torah. It just must, because echoes of Sinai and, err, Hassidim.

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    10. those pesky Sabbateans who didn't believe in the Oral Tradition and thought that revelation was static

      Sabbateans did believe in oral tradition and they did not believe that revelation was static. Indeed, the defining characteristic of the movement, from Shabbatai's apostasy right up to the point that it was absorbed into the haskala, was the use of mystical concepts to justify, or necessitate (at least for some people), acting in a way contrary to the 'corporeal Torah'. Like you

      I will now engage with your arguments:

      As you know, the doctrine of the primordial Torah served two purposes:

      1) To sanitize the logos concept in such a way that it could be incorporated without too much damage into 'Rabbinic' Judaism.
      2) To polemicize against dispensationalist theologies by claiming that the Torah and all the mitzvot are not only eternal going forwards, but also going backwards.

      In response we can say:

      1) Without in any way derogating from the enormous achievement of the Rabbis in overthrowing logos theology, or minimizing the power that logos theology held over Jews in the 2nd temple era, the fact is that logos theology is pointless drivel. The doctrines that were developed to neutralize logos theology played a valuable historical role, but it does no good to think about them too much.

      2) If the primordial Torah is identical with the actual Torah, then this entails dozens of obvious absurdities. However, if one does not identify it with the actual Torah then this leaves open the possibility (indeed positively invites it) that the actual Torah must be changed to conform to the imaginary one. Therefore, trying to fix the doctrine makes it serve the opposite of its intended purpose.

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    14. So yes, you can call me a Sabbatean. I worry that you come out a Sadducee

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    16. 1) You need to update your Jewish intellectual history a bit. A lot of work has been done by Rachel Elior (who seems to have a limitless capacity to read inane drivel) on Sadducee beliefs. They certainly didn't believe in static revelation and they did believe in the logos

      2) What I said was that logos theology is pointless drivel and the reason for that is very simple. The logos is supposed to solve the 'problem' of divine transcendence by positing an intermediary that can bridge the unbridgeable divide between G-d and creation. But there's an obvious problem: if the intermediary is divine and uncreated then there is still an unbridgeable gap between it and the world, but if it is created and not divine then there is an unbridgeable gap between it and G-d. The concept of logos solves this by positing that the logos is both created and uncreated, but this is just retarded. It's as if I tried to solve the omnipotency 'problem' by positing that G-d can create a rock so big he can't lift it, and that he can lift it. It's just stupid and serves only as a testament to the folly of the human intellect when it tries to speculate about things outside the categories of human cognition.

      3) As for the doctrine of the primordial Torah, I have stated my position: it is a rhetorical or polemical device found in few dozen midrashim, many of them post Hazalic. There's nothing particularly objectionable about the idea on a poetic level, and, indeed, once we understand the historical context, we can see how it had a positive function. However, when people who either don't know, or don't want to know, the rhetorical context try to reify the conceit into a doctrine, the inevitable result is either contentless or pernicious.

      4) I read your article. Certain parts reminded me of my favourite philosophy article.. I'm quite in agreement that the metaphysics of the Geonim and Rambam were bad, but I'd take this observation somewhat further.
      What really struck me about the article, however, was the overt inconsistency in your use of academic scholarship depending on whether it supported your hypothesis, buttressed by the monstrous archetype of an 'orthodox Jew' who frumly relies on wrong girsas of the Mishnah, but is fascinated by Azzan Yadin's speculations on scripture. Of course, this is hardly new to me, because this is what literally all liberal Rabbis do every time they write or speak . And that's the rub. You want to play the 'Hello fellow Orthodox Jews, look at my great study of how midrash/hassidic philosophy/whatever shows that Torah is radically indeterminate and has to be progressively transformed. Not that I would ever advocated changing halacha. Heaven forfend. But we should stop being homophobic and prejudiced against reform Jews who are really awesome and here's an article in Haaretz about feminism and blah blah blah.' This game would be stupid and boring if it was you just playing it, but since there's an entire well-funded industry of Cardozos and Landes doing the exact same thing it's even more stupid and even more boring. You're not dumb, don't play dumb.

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    18. Obviously I am being hostile. I will now explain why such conduct is not only permissible, but obligatory.

      I had never heard of you before looking at this comments thread. However, simply by reading your comments and observing your use of certain vocabulary I was completely certain that I would be able to find material in which you promoted sexual deviancy. Why? Because it was clear you were a liberal entryist and a central theme of liberal entryism is promoting sexual deviancy.

      So, while it's nice to treat people as individuals with their own unique point of view, and take their specific formulations in isolation, the reality is this:

      1) Liberalism is the hegemonic ideology of the entire globe. The degree to which global capital supports the active promotion of liberalism can scarcely be overstated.
      2) Since liberalism is based on an anthropology that is ludicrously false, it is incapable of providing people with instruction for living. Societies that have become thoroughly liberalised can't even do basic things like reproduce. Therefore, liberals are driven to parasite off non-liberal systems. Almost every single religion on earth has a liberal faction all of which have literally identical beliefs to each other and work in cooperation. Many of these have gained complete power over their own host.
      3) Because the problems with liberalism are intrinsic to it, every success they have annuls itself. The parasite destroys the host. For example, the Anglican Church, in which liberals achieved total hegemony about 2 decades ago, has fewer adherents in its own country than does Sikhism.
      4) Every single movement in Judaism that does not subscribe to Haredi obscurantism will attract liberals like flies to meat. In short order, the liberals take over, the movement collapses and liberals move on to their next target. This process strengthens the Haredi stranglehold on those parts of Judaism that have held out, for obvious reasons.
      5) Therefore, there must be blanket rule for anyone who wants to set up a non-Haredi movement or organization of any kind, even if it's just a bridge club on Wednesday evenings: liberals are treif, liberalism is treif. There's no need to go overboard about this, but certainly anyone who comes in with a liberal buzzwords ('homophobia' was first used in print in 1969!) gets shown the door. No exceptions. Even aspects of liberalism that are in themselves unexceptionable and harmless should be treated in this manner, just as Hazal say that a man who insists on wearing white is not permitted to lead prayers.
      6) This approach to heretics is recommended by Hazal explicitly. It applies to heretics in general, but it applies particularly to liberals, since they are the most powerful and successful group today and pose an existential threat to the existence of the Jewish people.
      Once this rule is firmly established, then free and productive discussion becomes possible.

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    21. And by suggesting that homophobia is a bad thing, that means that I actively promote sexual deviancy?

      That's literally a tautology. Look, obviously you are a liberal and actively try to promote liberalism within Judaism. Obviously, none of the rules of conduct to which you refer apply to dealing with minim, let alone active proselyting minim. The question is whether liberalism should be considered minut. Try focusing on that instead of bringing lineage into it (interestingly enough, using presumed personality defects to cast doubt on the lineage of ideological opponents was pioneered by Natan of Gaza and became a staple of Sabbatean polemic).

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    25. Now you are being silly. The (racist!) Gemara to which you refer runs as follows:

      אמר שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים רחמנים דכתיב (דברים יג, יח) ונתן לך רחמים ורחמך והרבך ביישנין דכתיב (שמות כ, כ) בעבור תהיה יראתו על פניכם גומלי חסדים דכתיב (בראשית יח, יט) למען אשר יצוה את בניו ואת ביתו וגו' כל שיש בו שלשה סימנים הללו ראוי להדבק באומה זו

      Baishanut has nothing to do with whatever personality trait you imagine me to be deficient in. I will leave it to you to decide whether it is compatible with your motte and bailey approach to liberal advocacy or to the persistent recklessness with which you mis-cite classic texts.

      For what it is worth, the new evidence that has come to light to my mind portrays Sadduceeism as significantly more stupid and wicked than the account I was given at Cheder.

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    26. There was no need to quote that Gemara since I was the one who brought it to your attention in this discussion.
      I didn't miss-cite it or any classical text.

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    27. If you don't think you have mis-cited it, then you don't understand it. When people have a moral worldview that is radically alien to the Torah, it is common for them to unconsciously substitute their own beliefs in the place of Torah concepts. Read what the gemara says. It is obvious that baishanut does not mean what you think it means. (And why have you deleted all your comments?)

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    28. I've deleted my comments because I don't think that this has been a productive conversation.
      I'm sorry that you don't understand the gemara. It seems to me that when people have a worldview that's radically alien to the Torah, then they find it hard to understand what texts like this one are saying.
      I'm sorry that I can't help you any further.

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  10. Rambam, for example, takes all talk of God's consulting with beings - be they angels or the Torah - as a metaphor for the existence of Aristotle's separate intellects. The notion that the earthly Torah, or at least collective Jewish wisdom, over time, comes closer and closer to the content of the Active Intellect would surely have appealed even to the Rambam. I just think you're being too quick here. Also, it's more than a few midrashim. It's Philo, halakhic midrash, aggadic midrash, both Talmuds, the Geonim (including, after a fashion, even Saadya Gaon), many Rishonim, the list goes on.

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  11. So, although I'm sorry to keep citing my own work at you (which I know is not a good look), I'd really appreciate it if you started to engage with the analytic philosophy of religion. I tend to find the more that people engage with contemporary metaphysics, epistemology, and logic, the more one realises that some of the traditional taxonomies in Jewish studies are not fit for purpose (including the mystical-rational distinction). A truly rationalist Judaism, it seems to me, should be engaged with contemporary cutting edge philosophy. And when one is so engaged, you'll likely find that the philosophical problems that a minority of Rishonim had with the primordial Torah were not philosophically sound.

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  12. R. Slifkin, can’t wait for your book to come out. Any estimate on when it’ll be out?

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  13. Who's publishing your book?

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