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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Interlude--Is the Torah Really Telling Me to Do Stuff That I Don't Wanna?

Short answer--hmmm, maybe!


Here's some things to consider:

1) Unlike a lot of other books, the Torah comes with no title page, frontispiece, preface or introduction! In principle, we are left to our own devices to understand what it is saying. If you take the Talmudic point of view, you can take advantage of millenia' worth of considered and deep analysis and understanding coupled with long standing oral traditions.

2) That said, one of the things which distinguishes Jewish tradition vis a vis the Tanach from, say certain Christian traditions, is the lack of dogmatic understanding. Even the most orthodox of Orthodox Jews would not, if he/she were educated, make the claim that there is a single understanding of everything in the Torah. Perhaps the great strength of the Torah in Jewish tradition is that it can and does bear a multiplicity of interpretations.

Nonetheless, the Torah doesn't 'speak' to everyone. However, maybe it is more the case that not everyone 'listens.'

Again, I am not here to push a specific (read: Orthodox) agenda neither in regards to personal observance and practice nor in regard to biblical interpretation. However, I firmly believe that the Torah, as part of the Jewish collective subconscious, has something to say to us all. Certainly this book has resonated for thousands of years with not only Jews but other significant religions and their adherents.

As Jews, this book is the basis for a consciousness which carries its power to this day. Each of us will make of that what we will.

We can also ignore the book. But, to my mind, this is like ignoring who your parents, grandparents and all prior generations were. You may choose not to recognize how these people contributed to your existence, but that doesn't mean they didn't. Likewise the Torah.


On a related note, Maimonides writes in the Sefer Hamitzvot (the Book of Commandments--Maimonides' count of the 613 eternal commandments of the Torah):

ספר המצוות לרמב"ם מצות עשה ד והמצוה הרביעית היא שצונו להאמין יראתו יתעלה ולהפחד ממנו ולא נהיה ככופרים ההולכים בקרי אבל נירא ביאת ענשו בכל עת והוא אמרו יתעלה (ואתחנן ו) את י"י אלהיך תירא

Maimonides' Sefer Hamitzvot Positive Commandment 4 The fourth commandment is that we are commanded to believe (in) His fear, may He be esteemed, and to be afraid of Him so that we will not be like the deniers who attribute things to mere chance; rather we should fear the coming of His punishment at any time. This is what The Esteemed One meant when He said (Deuteronomy 6) You shall fear God Your Lord.

Maimonides goes on a bit more to demonstrate that this should indeed take its place as one of the 613 commandments. 

Bottom line here: Be afraid--be very afraid! 

Of course, there is also a commandment to love God which is a complement and contrast to this. But we are still left with the feeling that underneath it all we have to watch our step or risk being the target of Divine retribution. 

While I am not here to say whether or not such retribution exists and, if it does, what form or forms it takes, I want to point out that later in life, Maimonides shifted his understanding of this mitzvah. When he was older and writing the Mishneh Torah, his comprehensive halachic work, he described this mitzvah as follows:

רמב"ם הלכות יסודי התורה פרק ב הלכה ב והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו ויראתו, בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו הנפלאים הגדולים ויראה מהן חכמתו שאין לה ערך ולא קץ מיד הוא אוהב ומשבח ומפאר ומתאוה תאוה גדולה לידע השם הגדול א כמו שאמר דוד צמאה נפשי לאלהים לאל חי, 

וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו ויפחד ויודע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה עומדת בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות, כמו שאמר דוד כי אראה שמיך מעשה אצבעותיך מה אנוש כי תזכרנו, ולפי הדברים האלו אני מבאר כללים גדולים ממעשה רבון העולמים כדי שיהיו פתח למבין לאהוב את השם, כמו שאמרו חכמים בענין אהבה שמתוך כך אתה מכיר את מי שאמר והיה העולם. 

Maimonides, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 20:20: And what is the way to His love and to His awe (יראה yirah--the same word Maimonides used in the Sefer Hamitzvot rendered as 'fear')? At a time when a person will consider His doings and His wonderful, great creations and he will be in awe of them--His boundless, infinite wisdom--he will immediately love and praise and glorify and desire a great desire to know The Great Lord as David said, "My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God (Psalms 42:3)." 

And when he will think about these things themselves, he will immediately be taken aback and will be afraid and know that he is a small, lowly, dark creature, standing with slight, insignificant knowledge before The One Of Perfect Knowledge, as David said, "When I see Your Heavens, the work of your fingers: What is man that You should remember him(Psalms 8:4)?"

And according to these things, I explain major rules from the doing of the Sovereign of the World in order that this should be an opening for the one who (comes to) understand (how to) love God, as the sages said, "Because of this, you come to know the One Who Spoke and the universe came into existence."

You know, once I translated that, I realized that to fully understand all the basic things Maimonides is trying to say, I would have to write a whole bunch more. 

But, note that Maimonides in this passage combines love of God (אהבת ה') with the mitzvah of יראת ה' yirat Hashem which now we will render in this context as 'awe' of God. 

That is, there is a close tie between these two mitzvot--in order to do one  you really have to do the other. And now the other, the yirah, is not a fear that God will punish you if you don't do his commandments; rather, it is a reflection of the deep sense of awe you will achieve once you ponder the depths if His creation. 

I'll close today by pointing out that we live in a time when, for all kinds of reasons, many if not most of us are not really afraid of Divine punishment. That notion doesn't seem to fit into our 'modern' take on the way the world works. 

However, people everywhere and in all walks of life, artists, musicians, mathematicians, scientists, cake bakers and fabrication makers can be, and sometimes are overwhelmed with the profundity of creation. 

While there are virtually no Jewish courts to mete out halachic punishments, and so we don't generally have to be afraid of that sort of thing, and, as we noted, we tend to be less afraid of Divine punishments, this reality in a way frees us up to all the more so appreciate the depths of creation not from a place of fear, but from utter awe and respect. 

So, bottom line, maybe our relationship to Torah has now become much more up to us and less up to an external force like fear of punishment (Divine or otherwise) and is a step along the way for our individual and collective spiritual maturity. 


  1. I liked that. And I totally agree about having to know who you are and where you came from. Knowing one's roots and history is the basis for a meaningful future, even if that future is getting away from those roots. It's what culture stands on.

    Also, creation rocks, no matter if you spell it with a capital C or not.

  2. Thanks! And remember, there's nothing like Creation rocks! They're the best :)