Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

Monthly Archives: October 2011

B’reishit 5772

KOSHI: How does creation frame our faith? 
Genesis I: 1-7
B’reishit 5771

Remez…The CONTEXT—FORGING FAITH
V.1   In the beginning God created
the heaven and the earth…

RASHI…This verse says nothing if not: “Darsheyni!”  If you would come to explain it in accord with its p’shat, explain it as follows: “In the beginning of the creation of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was bewilderment and void…”  For the verse does not come to teach us the order of Creation, for if this is what it meant, it should have written “BaRishona—At first…”  If this were so,  you should be perplexed by yourself, for the waters preceded the heavens and the earth, as it says, “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” …

BACHYA…The first word “B’reishit,” should be rendered as independent in form, not attached to what follows.  Thus we understand  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

VILNA GA’ON.…  The word “Reishit” was chosen to indicate a definite beginning, before which one cannot imagine any forms of existence…Thus, “At the beginning…”  It cannot be a construct phrase, but must rather stand alone because it designates the very first state of existence, preceding all of Creation and preceded by nothing except for God.

ABRAVANEL… “B’reishit Barah Elohim”   is the unprecedented act of God’s creating, as the three mentions in association with the creation of man and woman make clear, for it refers not simply to physical formation but to the imaging of ‘a likeness’—a being with reason & intellect…

R’ S.R.HIRSCH… “Barah” means to bring something into reality which only before existed in the mind.  Before Creation, the world existed only in the “mind of God.”  “B’reishit Barah–In the beginning” is then the materialized thought of the Holy One…God’s unfolding imagination made real.

 NACHMANIDES… [13th cent, Spain…Poet, Phil., Physician, Sage. Torah Commtator—leader of Spanish Jewry…] RASHI says, “The Torah, which is the book of laws, should have begun with the verse, “This month shall be unto you the first of the months…” [Ex 12:2]  What then is the reason it begins with creation?…”

It was indeed very necessary to begin the Torah with “In the beginning God created…” for this is the root of faith, and he who does not believe in this and thinks the world was eternal denies the essential principle of the Jewish religion, and has no Torah at all.

R’ MOSHE LEIB of SASSOV… “In the beginning, God created…”  The first thing a Jew must know is this: God created the heaven and earth.

 V.2   Now the earth was unformed-tohu and void-vohu—
with darkness sweeping over the face of the deep…

SEFER HaBAHIR… [Book of Bright Light, Kabbalistic midrashic commtry, 11th cent, Provence]  R’ Berachya asked: “What is the meaning of the verse “And the earth was Tohu vaVohu”

What is Tohu?  It is a thing which “astonishes” people.  For it becomes “Bohu”  And what is Bohu?  It is a thing which was nothing and suddenly attains substance, the complete opposite of what its surface meaning implies. As it is understood—bo  hu—in it there is substance.

NACHMANIDES… [13th cent, Spain…Poet, Phil., Physician, Sage. Torah Commtator—leader of Spanish Jewry…] “In the beginning—B’Reishit…” RASHI wrote: “If you wish to explain it in keeping with its plain meaning, explain it as: “At the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth…”  If this is so, the whole text leads to the creation of light…R’ Abraham IBN EZRA explained it in an identical way, and following his understanding, only light was in fact created on the first day…Listen now to the correct and clear explanation in all its simplicity.  The Holy One created all things from absolute non-existence.  Now we have no expression in the sacred language for bringing forth something from nothing other than “bara—created” …God brought forth from total and absolute nothingness a very thin substance—devoid of corporeality, but having a power of potency, fit to assume form and proceed from potentiality to reality.  This was the primary matter “created” by God…He did not “create” anything, but He formed and made things with it…bringing everything into existence and clothing the forms into a finished condition…

D’rash…The SEARCH—CONFRONTING CHAOSnFINDING FAITH

 Rabbi Eugene KORN… [Director of the Center for Jwsh-Christian Understanding]
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”  Belief in Creation was a major point of contention between the Jews and the Greek philosophers who believed that the world was eternal….At stake for the Jews was the possibility of miracles, the power of God over nature and the truth of Revelation, but the metaphysical debate seems stale today.  In our modern scientific view of the universe, what difference does it make?

Maimonides understood the issue differently.  He was a student of Aristotle and was deeply committed to science and reason.  Because of this commitment, he conceded that if there was a valid proof against Creation, he would drop the idea but still believe in the Torah….However Maimonides demonstrated that Aristotle’s proof for eternity was flawed and so insisted on continuing to believe that God created the universe.  Yet the Rambam’s creation was hardly the traditional one of God acting at a specific moment in time….Maimonides’ Creation was the Divine overflow of God into the world, a continuous connection between God and His creatures, the one thing that Aristotle’s self-sufficient, supremely solitary God lacked.…For Maimonides, then, believing in an uncreated, eternal  universe means believing in a world that is an impersonal, mechanistic arena….Belief in Creation is significant not because it demonstrates God’s power over nature, but because it turns the universe into a caring place, one where God showers compassion towards people and, in turn, where people are able to reach beyond themselves and love others…

Creation is the bridge between philosophy and ethics, between the contemplative and the activist life…The idea of Creation is essential to a Jewish understanding of the world, for its importance lies not in relating scientific truth, but in laying the foundation for human ethics and the godly life…Human acts of “chesed” mirror the overflow of Creation’s unfolding, so Maimonides was fond of quoting Psalm 89:3, “The world is build with chesed.”  Though Rambam would have translated it as “The world is created with chesed,”…every single day.

[The Jewish Week, The Jewish Stake In Creation, 10.1.10]

 The INTERPRETER’s BIBLE… [Abingdon Press, 1952] “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”  Does the universe have a meaning?  The Bible is sure it does, and that the meaning is a heavenly one…As some cosmogonies relate, it is a dark and doubtful welter of forces from which the world and human life emerge.  Later philosophies are more intellectual, but they are equally arid for hope and faith to grow in. …But in the one strong opening verse, “In the beginning God created…” there throbs the virile Hebrew faith in the unconditioned creatorship of God.  The universe did not come into existence by chance.  It did not advance by the blind gropings of unconscious energies…On the contrary, it was the purposeful creation of One who is the fount of life.  Therefore in God all things belong to some consistent pattern; the world makes sense…With faith in a Divine Creator, there is coherence in the fabric of existence, and though the pieces may not always seem to fit together, there is an unfolding purpose in history and in life.                                        [Volume I, pgs 466-467]

Sod…The REVELATION—RESPONDING to SINAI

Franz ROSENZWEIG… [The Star of Redemption, 1918-19] We learn that God loves but not that He is love.  He draws near to us in love…[yet] the what—the Essence—remains concealed.  It is concealed precisely by being revealed.  A God who did not reveal Himself would not permanently hide His essence from us…We catch sight of the Creator and Redeemer only from the vantage point of a God of love.  We can see what has been and what is to be only to the extent that a flicker of that divine love shines…Revelation teaches us to trust in the Creator—and hopefully, to wait for the Redeemer…[Thus] Revelation extends as far back as the Creator.  Its first word is “In the beginning,” its second, “He created.”  Before the beginning there may have been that inner vitality of God which grew out of divine self-creation…but we could only depict it analogically…by allowing God to experience within Himself what emanates from Him…Such vitality concealed within itself hid God from us too…To answer what He might have been then, we would have to say: Nought.  For vitality in the Uncreated—in the realm of the dead, is nought… Though the God of the proto-cosmos had not Himself been dead, he was Lord of dead matter.  From Creation we learn that the meaning of the proto-cosmos is death, just as we learn in Creation that the meaning of the cosmos is life…We Jews, we who know The Name, who are called by it, and on whom The name is called, we acknowledge it—though we are not allowed to pronounce it.  For the sake of our eternity, we must anticipate the silence in which it and we together will one day rest.  We must substitute for the Name itself that which God is as long as He is still called upon as Creator of the world of Being…The Lord, we call Him, in place of His Name.  For as Creation spells out His Name in Revelation, so too will it fall silent one day on our lips when He is All-One in all the world, when His Name is One.

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Chol Ha’Moed Sukkot

KOSHI: What do the revelation of “Divine Attributes” teach us about “Knowing God” and ourselves?

P’Shat…The Text: Hearing Echoes:  Exodus 34:1-7

Remez…TheContext: Forging Faith

V.5   The Lord descended in a cloud; he stood with him there and proclaimed the name Lord.

RASHI…We read this as does TARGUM ONKELOS, “And he called out with the Name YHVH.”

ARTSCROLL…The translation “and he [Moses] called out…” follows MIZRACHI and SIFTEI CHACHAMIM, but according to GUR ARYEH [based on TOSAFOT to RH, 17b] it should read “and He [God] called out the Name…”

MUNK.…  That is, “And He called out with the Name—HaShem”  In the description of the giving of the second tablets, God is referred to by the Ineffable Name, replacing Elohim, the Name used in reference to the first tablets.  WHY?  Initially, Torah bore the stamp of absolute justice-midat ha-Din, for man was meant to serve with perfect faith.  But after Moses saw Israel yielding to the sin of idol worship , he understood that man could not survive by strict justice alone, and so destroyed the first tablets.  Accordingly, in response to Israel’s repentance, the second set of tablets were presided over by Divine love and mercy—midat ha-Rachamim, as God solemnly proclaimed His Name by enumerating the Thirteen Attributes.  Henceforth, Israel shall be governed by a combination of justice and mercy

 V.6   The Lord passed by him and proclaimed:
Adonai, Adonai—God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger

PIRKEI D’R’ELIEZER…  When the ministering angels heard that Moses would behold God’s Glory, they were jealous, and sought to harm/kill him…But God sheltered him in The Presence—the palm of His Hand [Ex 33:22] And as He passed by, the Holy One of Blessing removed His Hand from before him and Moses beheld Shechinah’s aftereffect. And [as he did] Moses began to shout in a great voice: Adonai, Adonai, Eyl Rachum v’Chanun…

SA’ADIA… [first great Medieval Yphilosopher, head of Sura Academy, intellectual head of Jewry-Babylonia] It must not be thought that the attributes involve a plurality, for we use multiple expressions only due to the limitations of language.  They are all simply implications of one expression…The Christians erred in this matter in making God a trinity…For in saying that there are several attributes in him distinct from one another, they say in effect that he is corporeal…They quote Scripture in their support, for example, “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me, and his word was upon my tongue.” [II Sam, 23:2]

“Word,” they say, denotes his attribute of wisdom and “spirit,” his life.  But they are mistaken.  There are other similar instances which they cite, and in their ignorance of  Hebrew, take metaphorical  expressions literally.  If they were consistent, they would add many more persons to the Godhead, in accordance with the many phrases of the Bible:  the hand of God, the eye of God, the glory of God, the anger of God, the mercy of God, and so on…

BACHYA ibn PAKUDA…[11th cent Spain, Dayyan—judge of the Jewish community, classical work of ethics, Duties of the Heart] God is the cause of the universe, hence, he is the true and absolute unity, and all change and multiplicity are foreign to him.  This unity of God is not in any way derogated from by the acsription to him of attributes.  For the latter are of two kinds, essential and active.  We call the first essential because they are permanent attributes of God, which he had before creation and will continue to have after the world ceases to be.  These are three in number: Existing, One, Eternal.  These attributes do not imply change in the essence of God…The active are those attributes which are ascribed to God by reason of his actions or effects on us.  We are permitted to apply them because of the necessity which compels us to get to know of his existence so that we may worship him…

MAIMONIDES… [12th cent, Spain…Egypt—doctor to Sultan; Greatest Yphil-Guide for The Perplexed & legalist-Mishneh Torah of all] It is a self-evident truth that an attribute is something different from the essence of a thing; an accident added to the essence. Otherwise, it is the thing over again, or the definition of that thing and the explanation of its name, composed of these elements…This is absurd. We who believe in the Unity of God uphold that He is a simple essence, without any additional elements whatsoever…There is no difference whether these various attributes refer to His actions or to relations between Him and His works.  In fact, these relations, as we have shown, exist only in the thoughts of people’s minds. [Guide I, 191]…Because Moses request for God to reveal His essence was met by Moses perceiving “achorai—My back”…He proclaimed these thirteen attributes, a lesser revelation, representing “Kol Tuvi—the totality of God’s goodness.” [Ex 33:23]

 D’rash…The SEARCH—CONFRONTING CHAOSnFINDING FAITH

 Rabbi Isidore EPSTEIN… [Principal of Jews’ College, London & Editor of Soncino Talmud]  The whole Jewish religion revolved around the acceptance of the existence of a personal God.  By this is meant the affirmation that…God is not a blind force about which we know little…Being a Supreme Being, though beyond our imagining, God is possessed of intelligence, purpose, will and other excellent qualities which we are wont to associate with the term “personality.”  Of course…the term “personality” is totally inadequate with which to describe God…When we speak of God as “person,” we mean that God is not an impersonal force.

This must be insisted upon, as we could not, as persons, have any relationship, such as that which constitutes the essence of all religious belief, with an impersonal force.  An impersonal God must remain impervious to human prayer and supplication, and cannot be possessed of those higher values we strive to realize in our lives.  It was in order to awaken and safeguard  this sense of personal relationship that the Bible did not hesitate to resort to anthropomorphic descriptions of God, ascribing to Him the attributes of a person….To obviate any religiously dangerous implications, Judaism emphasizes the incorporeality of God, as all limitations in human personality are imposed in large measure by the body that envelops it; but God is affirmed to be Pure Spirit.

…It is evident that religion has no meaning without the postulate of a “personal” God. The mistake of moderns who recoil from the thought of ascribing to God human attributes is to confuse “personality” and “corporeality.”  “Corporeality” is restrictive;” “personality” is expansive….What imparts to a mind personality is the power to direct and unify the various component parts of the body into a single purpose.
[from Jewish Thought, Louis Jacobs 1970, pgs 29-34]

Sod…The REVELATION—RESPONDING to SINAI

 Rabbi Harold SCHULWEIS… [For Those Who Can’t Believe, 1994]

In our home, the children were put to bed at night with some conversation and a prayer.  One evening my young daughter, six or seven, asked the perennial question, “Where is God?”…I decided to adapt her “where” question, so I asked her to touch my arms.  She did.  I asked her to touch my nose.  She did.  Then I asked her to touch my love.  She stopped for a minute…She could not. She smiled…The “where” question anticipated a question about the reality of God.  The exercise enabled my daughter to learn that there are things in the world that are very real, in fact the most real, things we care deeply about, but they cannot be touched, probed, or located in space…

In the course of spiritual growth, many questions and answers will refer to the nonmaterial qualities ascribed to God, such as mercy, or justice, or loving-kindness, or truthfulness.  Like touching love, the attributes of God cannot be seen or touched…Theologians consider ineffability, the inability to express certain experiences in words, as a sign of the mystical…But the mystery is not based on a split universe, material and spiritual, natural and supernatural.  The power and significance of transcendence, something beyond the limits of the five senses, is grounded in earthly love…Godliness, like love, is located not “in me” or “in you” but between us…Like the experience of God, love points to a relationship with an “other.”  …This concept of “betweenness” means that there is a spiritual reality greater than me or you, but that includes us both..

…In the Bible, Moses’ request to know God’s Name is rejected.  God is “I am what I am…” [Ex 3:14]  God is not a static noun but a dynamic verb…The focus on the Godly attributes that make up Godliness instead of viewing God as an unknown subject noun possesses a venerable history.  Both mystic and rationalistic theologies agree on the unknowability of God…For the mystics the infinite God is concealed beyond the reach of our intellect.  The rationalist Maimonides agreed that God’s essence is unknowable, and that even His qualities may be grasped solely in terms of what they are not.  Thus God’s goodness, life, and power mean at most that God is not evil or lifeless or impotent.  If we know anything about Divinity, it is not God the noun but God the verb, not God the inscrutable person but God’s knowable qualities that may be emulated.  What is it then to know God?…Godliness is behaved.  Godliness is believed through doing justice, in caring, in curing…To behave in Godly fashion, is this not to know the divine? The 20th century philosopher Franz Rosenzweig asserted, “Truth is a noun only for God; for us it is an adverb.”

The Revelation: Responding to Sinai

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Revelation means that the thick silence which fills the endless distance between God and the human mind was pierced, and man was told that God is concerned with the affairs of man; that not only does man need God, God is also in need of man.  It is such knowledge that makes the soul of Israel immune to despair…Thus the word of God entered the world of man; not an “ought to,” an idea suspended between being and non-being, a concession of the mind, but a perpetual event, a demand of God more real than a mountain, more powerful than all thunders….

The spirit of philosophy has often been characterized as the quest of values…What is the spirit of the Bible?  Its concern is not with the abstract concept of disembodied values…Its concern is with man and his relation to the will of God…Judaism is a way of thinking, not only a way of living…[But] Jewish thought is not guided by abstract ideas, by a generalized morality.  At Sinai we have learned that spiritual values are not only aspirations in us, but a response to a transcendent appeal addressed to us…At Sinai God revealed His word, and Israel revealed the power to respond.

[God In Search of Man, pgs 200, 260]
Rabbi Abraham Joshua HESCHEL

The Search: Confronting Chaos, Finding Faith

IF there has been a major focus to all of my teaching, it has been to affirm that a coherent Jewish theology is indispensable as the basis for a Jewish religious identity…I begin theology, then, with the issue of revelation.  I remain convinced that how we deal with this determines how we handle the issue of authority in belief and practice…which determines how we deal with the claims of tradition on us…That opens the gates to a reconsideration of how we understand God, for God is at the heart of Torah….I believe that the function of religion is to discern and describe the sense of an ultimate order that pervades the universe and human experience.  With that sense of an ordered world intact, we humans also have a place—we belong and feel ultimately “at home;” without it we are in exile, “homeless,” and our lives without meaning.  The whole purpose of religion…is to highlight, preserve and concretize this sense of cosmos, and to recapture it in the face of the chaos that perpetually hovers around the fringes of our lives.”              

[Doing Jewish Theology, Preface-pg 3]
Rabbi Neil Gillman

Historical Context: Forging Faith

By Prof. Eugene Borowitz

…Modernity challenges us to mediate between the Jewish truth we have inherited and cherish, and that which our surrounding culture deems worth embracing.  It seems to me, however, that Jewish spirituality has been decisively molded by six momentous folk experiences:  Covenant, Settlement, Rabbinism, Diaspora, Emancipation, and post-Holocaust Disillusionment.

The first, most formative experience was entering the Covenant…as the One God of the universe made a pact with Abraham, renewed it with his descendants, confirmed it in the Exodus, and made it specific in giving Torah to the people Israel at Mount Sinai…Judaism revolves around the Covenant experience of choice, promise, demand, redemption and mission…Believing Jews live in the reality of Covenant.

The second phase occurred in the Land of Israel between 1250-500 B.C.E. as a family becomes a nation through settlement, kingdom, establishment of the Temple, social division and decline, prophecy, destruction and exile…These events and the writings [of this period] greatly amplified the Covenant, reaching a climax in the visions of a messianic Day when all humankind, led by the people Israel, would finally serve God fully and freely.

The third decisive stage in Jewish religiosity began when…our people created the religious life described and advanced by the writings of “the rabbis,” or Rabbinism…who framed our people’s religion as we know it today.  We read the Bible through their eyes, we celebrate, mourn, pray and study in the patterns they created…In classic rabbinic text, law intertwines and spiritual teaching, together creating a religious way that seeks sanctity through educated participation.

Our Diaspora existence of the next thirteen centuries engendered the fourth step in our growth, most of whose distinctive spiritual tone arose in response to the debased social situation that Islam and Christianity imposed upon us….We came to see ourselves as God’s suffering servant in history and knew that our defamers, by their very persecution of us, could not be God’s chosen.  In the face of external hostility we created rich patterns of family and community to sanctify our inner existence.

With modernity—that is, with the radical social and intellectual changes we call the Emancipation—the fifth phase began…Freedom from segregated existence brought on a transition from a life oriented by revelation, tradition and a sense of the holy to one in which religion became privatized if not irrelevant or obsolete…It also meant that as the realm of religiously neutral activity expanded, the twin questions of Jewish identity and continuity became increasingly troublesome…For American Jews the confrontation with Emancipation has been relatively recent…Though our modernization has been swift, its accompanying secularization has been thorough…We stopped relying on our traditional God to save us and instead put our faith in humanity’s power to create justice…as ethics became our surrogate for mitzvoth….

The sixth period in Jewish spirituality resulted, as many suggest, from Hitler’s murder of six million Jews and the existence of the State of Israel.  Once Jews could confront the Holocaust in its own satanic fullness…they identified Western culture as an ethical fraud.With modernist messianism discredited, we modern Jews…have had to rethink our most fundamental beliefs…As we have recognized that our intense commitment to Jewish survival has a parallel grounding, spirituality has become the twin of our postmodern ethnicity…

We are searching for a new understanding of the transcendent ground of our ethical and ethnic commitment; we have made a postmodern turn to our people’s Covenant…We can now seek to strengthen these fresh Jewish intuitions and make them the basis of our existence…Our work is devoted to that task: striving to clarify the nature of our contemporary Jewish religious experience, to grope for the God with whom we still stand in partnership, to articulate what we mean by reasserting that we are a people of the Covenant, and to delineate the nature of Jewish responsibility that arises from this new/old affirmation.

From Renewing The Covenant—A Theology For The Post-Modern Jew,
Prof. Eugene BOROWITZ

Textual Voice: Hearing the Echo

 …To this day, there is no intellectually formulated conception which has acquired authoritative recognition in Judaism as the only true idea of God.  The inevitable conclusion to which we are led by the consideration of the God-idea in the textual encounter and the history of our people…is that the Jewish civilization cannot survive without the God-idea as an integral part of it, but it is in no need of having any specific formulation of that idea authoritative for all Jews.

 From Judaism As A Civilization, pgs 393-394
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan
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