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The reading of religious texts and reaching a clear understanding

BS”D

 

Being a religious Jew and an academic student of religions, can sometimes present you for some interesting reactions, especially when you live in a society like the Israeli, where the idea of various religious groups living together is okay, but studying each other religious texts are less normal (it does happen though).

One reaction I’ve gotten a couple of times is based on a mishnah in the Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin, which states that:

… these do not have a portion in the world-to-come: One who says, ”Resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah,” and ”the Torah is not from Heaven,” and an heretic apikoros. Rabbi Akiva says, Even one who reads external books…” (Sanhedrin 10:1 – Kehati translation)

The problem being R. Akiva’s statement. According to the people reacting to when I tell what I study, what I study is contrary to what is allowed from the Mishnah (and the Mishnah is considered holy, also by me). The Hebrew is “af haqore bisfarim haḥitzonim” (אף הקורא בספרים החיצונים), the “ḥitzonim” meaning something external, that is, outside the accepted tradition, which would include any religious (or non-religious) book you can imagine, which is not either part of the Canon or Rabbinical of nature. Or does it mean this?

Let us take one Jewish commentary, before we delve into some of the interesting aspects of Talmuds and manuscripts, that of R. Yitzḥaq Alfasi, who states that these books are books of heretics who interpreted the Biblical texts according to their own opinions, rather than to follow those of the Rabbinical Sages, z”l. From this we can learn that external texts are not so much connected to non-Jewish religious texts, as they are connected to Jewish religious heretical texts. This will also be clear from the following discussion.

First I want to relate to the Babylonian Gemarrah on the Mishnah, which is found in Sanhedrin 100b. Here we can read (differences of wordings is caused by the use of a difference translation, the Hebrew is the same):

R. Akiva said: Also he who reads uncanonical books, etc.” A Tanna taught: This means the books of the Sadducees. R. Joseph said: It is also forbidden to read the book of Ben Sira.

So here we see that the books thought about, as understood by a Tannaic rabbi, as well as the later Amorai, R. Joseph, are Jewish books. They don’t relate to, e.g., Greek or Persian religious writings, only Jewish – in their eyes – heretical writings.

In the Yerushalmi we can read the following on the same mishnah (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 28a):

R. Akiva adds: one who reads the outside books such as the books of Ben Sira and the books of Ben La’aga. But he who reads the books of Homer and all other books that were written from then on, is considered like one who is reading a secular document… (here is a quote from Ecclesiastes 12:12)… Hence, casual reading is permissible but intensive studying is forbidden.

Also here we see that it is related to other Jewish writings (Ben Sira and Ben La’aga both being Jews) as being problematic, as far as they are considered heretic, while Greek texts, and texts written after that particular time are not.

The question is why this is the case? What is so bad about the Jewish heretical writings, which is not found in the non-Jewish religious texts? The answer is found in the discussion following R. Joseph’s statement in the Talmud Bavli. Basically – to sum up – the problem lies in the fact that the Jewish heretical writings are too similar to the canonical Jewish writings, that is, the Canon of the Bible and the sayings of the Rabbinical Sages, z”l. One – particularly an unlearned – can easily confuse the two (as an example try to read the writings of Ben Sira and compare them with, e.g., Ecclesiastes), while this is not the case with non-Jewish religious writings (compare, e.g., the Torah and the Quran). Also, since they at this time, of the Mishnah, did have a canon, when it came to the Biblical writings, then it would not be a problem with later texts, since we would know that they are written too late to be part of the Biblical canon.

According to the Sages, z”l, what we are dealing with is a question of accepted texts being part of the canon, and therefore holy, or heretical texts proposing themselves as being holy texts, part of the canon.

There is also the question of which words were used about the texts in questions. We find differences depending on which manuscripts we are reading. As we saw, the Tanna taught that what was meant was “books of the Sadducees,” but some manuscripts have “minim” (מינים) instead of “Sadducees.” This word is used about heretic Jews, particular Christian Jews – which most likely also is why “Sadducees” have been inserted in some manuscripts, since Christians in the Medieval times didn’t take so lightly on what could be considered an affront to Christian dogmas and teachings.

But all in all we get a picture of a statement, which most likely was primarily concerned with the confrontation between canonical Holy Texts, and heretic writings, which might have been confused with Holy Scripture, rather than a statement against the study (even more the modern academic study) of non-Jewish religious texts, which – as we saw – were considered on level with secular writings, and as such would not be object for the same intensive study, as would be the case with Jewish Holy texts.

What can we learn from this, besides the already explained? Well, that when we are dealing with religious texts, particularly when they are found within a religious tradition (and most religious texts are, not surprisingly), then we need to get into the details and expand the reading if we want to really understand their meaning. Just reading one text artificially, and then believe that we get the full picture from that, is simply misleading. Unfortunately many religious people today seem to read their own religious texts that way, something which damage and bring their religion down on a level, rendering it without meaning or purpose. Religions, whether it be Judaism or other religions, are not afraid of the critical study of their texts, on the contrary, they demand it. They want the believer to understand what the religion is about, not just based on a shallow reading of one or two text, for then to believe that the answer and solution is found, based on that inadequate reading.

Time for Exams!

BS”D

The finals for this semester are closing in, and it provokes the inevitable question: What am I going to write about in my assignments?

This summer will present me for five finals, which all need a written assignment, one of them being a seminar paper, so there will be a lot of writing, which is fine, I do love to write, but it also takes a lot of extra reading. Nothing to do about that, besides to read.

What is nice about this semester, contrary to the last, is that I have more freedom to choose subjects, so the subjects will be more interesting for me. Anyway, as far as I have decided the subjects I am going to write about are:

The Use of Quranic Verses in Umayyad Architecture: In the course Archaeology and History of Muslim Jerusalem I have been wondering where to put my focus. Since the course mostly focused on the archaeology, and not so much in the history (well, it is part of it), I wondered how to combine it with my study of religion. My decision fell on the use of Quranic verses, which seems to be have very widespread during the Umayyad Caliphate, e.g. in the Dome of the Rock, so I thought that it could be interesting to see how the Quran was used as part of architecture and whether it was meant as some sort of educational tool, as was the case with other expressions of thought, e.g. in mosaics.

Christian Thought on Free Will: In the Early Christianity and Late Antiquity we have dealt most of this semester with studies on Augustine. In one of the classes we dealt with another Christian and contemporary of Augustine, Pelagius, who did provoke some controversy, among other thing on the question of free will and original sin. I found the thought interesting, especially from a theological point of view. Do we really have free will? If not, is God then Just? And if so, is God then All Powerful? It’s going to be interesting to see what these two thinkers thought of it.

Abraham ibn ‘Ezra’s response to Muslim Polemical Arguments: In the Medieval Jewish Exegesis we have dealt with the commentaries and methodology of four great Jewish commentators from the medieval Western Europe, namely Rashi, his grandson Rashbam, Abraham ibn ‘Ezra, and RaMBaN. Since I am mostly focused in the meetings between Islam and Judaism, I have decided to focus on ibn ‘Ezra and possible answers against Muslim attacks on the Jewish faith. I have to admit that I’m not too sure whether he really did deal with it, so I might change focus to his answers to the Karaites instead, in order to keep my focus on the Muslim world.

The Jewish Convert’s Attack on Judaism, and the Jewish Thinker’s Responses: The Battle over the Bible has really been an interesting course, where I’ve learned a lot of new things concerning approaches to the Bible as text and as phenomenon, both concerning Jewish, Christian and Muslim attitudes. Especially one Muslim caught my attention, the 12th century Jewish convert, Samaw’el al-Maghrabi, who wrote a polemical work against the Jewish faith called Ifham al-Yahoud, Silencing the Jew. This work apparently did become rather known, since we see a lot of later responses to it. One who responded rather early is Maimonides, though not on all of the Ifham, and probably not directly on it either. In his Iggeret Teyman, Letter to Yemen, he responds on some of the claims which is being brought forth in the Ifham. It could be interesting to see how the two view the Bible, and how Samaw’el’s approach differ from earlier Muslim approaches to the Bible.

Jewish Influences on Early Islamic Jurisprudence: This is one I’m really looking forward to, and which I have spend a lot of time considering. In the Early Islamic Texts and the Formation of the Muslim Community I have chosen to write my first seminar paper. I did decide from the outset to focus on Islamic law, since I feel that there are a lot of similarities between law in Islam and in Judaism, both in rules but also in methodology and attitudes. It is going to be a challenging subject though, leaving me with four problems to choose between. The first is the obvious comparative study of Jewish and Islamic Jurisprudence, where I wondered about whether there are any Jewish influences in the way early Islamic scholars approached the deduction of laws. One reason why I think so is the contrast in method there existed between the two earliest schools of law in Islam, al-Maliki and al-Hanafi, the former being situated in Medina and Mecca, and traditionally focused on tradition, based on the logic that since the prophet lived there, then he would naturally correct people who did things incorrect as well as showing the people the correct ways, whereas the latter, situated in Iraq, was much more inclined to relate to logical reasoning, something they might have learned from the many great Jewish scholars which had their ancient dwelling there, namely in the old Babylon. It wouldn’t be totally weird for the early Muslims to have relations to the Jewish scholars of Iraq. This doesn’t mean that there was influences or that they were total in so far as there were. The problem is how to relate to the matter, do we choose to make an external or internal study, do we compare the apparent similarities or do we go in and focus on the approach and outlook.

The interest in this particular subject was raised by two articles, one by Judith Romney Wegner, “Islamic and Talmudic Jurisprudence: The Four Roots of Islamic Law and their Talmudic Counterparts,” and one by Joseph E. David, “Legal Comparability and Cultural Identity: The Case of Legal Reasoning in Jewish and Islamic Tradition.”

In Islamic Jurisprudence there are four sources traditionally, two revealed sources, Quran and the Sunnah of the prophet (as it is found in the Hadith-literature), as well as Ijma, which means consensus, as well as Qiyas, which means analogical reasoning. The two first sources are agreed upon a hundred percent by all four schools, where as the two latter sources are subject for discussions.

Wegner, in her article, argues that the four sources are influenced by Jewish sources in the Talmud, the Quran being the Islamic answer on the Written Torah, the Sunnah on Oral Torah (written down in what is called Mishnah, which root is close to the root of sunnah), the consensus of the Ulamah, the learned Islamic scholars, being the Islamic answer on the consensus of the Sages, and Qiyas, legal reasoning being the answer on the Talmudic reasoning, two forms of reasoning which seem pretty similar, at least from an external point of view. And it is here where David comes in with his article, where he deals with different approaches to the comparative study, attempting to present a new approach, “jurisprudential consciousness”, based on the conscious ideas, principles, concepts, beliefs and reasoning of the jurist, which contrary to Wegner’s approach is a much more internal approach, leaving a different impression than the first.

An example is in its place, taken from David’s article. In both the Talmudic reasoning as well as in Islamic reasoning there is an understanding of judicial error, that is, a judge who makes a faulty decision. There are two categories under this subject, those faults which are based on lack of knowledge or understanding of the revealed sources, and those which is caused by flawed legal reasoning. In both Judaism and Islam the former has to be corrected, whereas the latter is accepted. And in both religions the former is based on precisely the same criteria, going against the revealed sources (in Judaism the Written and the Oral Torah, and in Islam the Quran and the Sunnah), where is the criteria differs in the latter case. In the Talmud the flaw based on legal reasoning is based on the wrong choice of two differing opinions, which have never been dealt with. It can be the case of two Tannaim (Mishnaic Sages) or two Amoraim (later Sages from the Gemarrah) who have a disagreement which was never solved. A later judge might then base his decision on one of the two opinions, whereas the general practice follows the other opinion. It is a fault, since he should have followed the normal practice, but it is still accepted. In case of Islamic thought, at least according to Shafi’i, the fault is caused based on flawed legal reasoning based on the principle of qiyas, analogy, not on the judge deciding the wrong of two differing opinions. And here we see a contrast between Jewish and Islamic legal reasoning.

But this is only the first of the four possible problems I might choose among. That is, how much similarity or difference are there between Jewish and Islamic legal thought, and can this be a sign of Jewish influence on early Islamic legal thought? The next problem is to establish connections. Namely, are there any Jewish converts who had influence on early Islamic law? If not, can we then assume that early Muslim legal scholars met with Jewish scholars and discussed with them? That is also an interesting question, a question which demands a different approach, focusing on historic accounts on interfaith meetings between Jews and Muslims within the first centuries of Islamic time.

The third question deals with the reasoning and methods of the “ahl al-ra’y,” the people of reasoning, the early Islamic scholars in Iraq, an important step in understanding the way the resonated in their dealing with legal questions. The reason for the importance of this, is obvious. If Shafi’i, a third century AH Islamic scholar, can be said to be influenced by Jewish thought, whereas the earlier Islamic scholar in Iraq differ strongly, then the question is how much Jewish legal thought influenced Islamic legal thought, and if at all.

The fourth problem is the already mentioned difference in approach found in the Meccan-Medinan legal thought, as expressed by imam al-Maliki, and the Iraqi legal thought, expressed by imam abu Hanifa, and their disciples. There are differences and the root and cause of these differences can be hinting to some Jewish influences on the one of them, so far as we can point to any similarity in the legal thought of the two religions.

My problem is to choose only one of these for problems, not having room or time enough to deal seriously with all of them. And I am in doubt which one of them to focus on.

So, there you are. This is my program for next two months. I’m looking forward to share thoughts and progress with you.

What is (the) Truth?

BS”D

Paul Salahuddin Armstrong posted af picture with a quote by Hazrat Inayat Khan, which really inspired me. The quote is one of ten utterances said by him, concerning the unity of mankind and the world (and everything in between). These ten utterances is considered the foundation of his Universal Sufism and goes:

  1. There is one God; the Eternal, the Only Being; None exists save He.
  2. There is one master; the guiding spirit of all souls that constantly leads all followers toward the light.
  3. There is one holy book; the sacred manuscript of nature, the only Scripture that can enlighten the reader.
  4. There is one religion; unswerving progress in the right direction toward the Ideal, which fulfills every soul’s life purpose.
  5. There is one law; the law of reciprocity, which can be observed by a selfless conscience, together with a sense of awakened justice.
  6. There is one brotherhood; the human brotherhood which unites the children of earth indiscriminately in the fatherhood of God.
  7. There is one moral; the love which springs forth from self-denial and blooms in deeds of beneficence.
  8. There is one object of praise; the beauty which uplifts the heart of its worshipper through all aspects from the seen to the unseen.
  9. There is one truth; true knowledge of our being, within and without, which is the essence of Wisdom.
  10. There is one path; annihilation of the false ego in the real, which raises the mortal to immortality, in which resides all perfection.

The one quoted by Salahuddin Armstrong is the ninth, “There is one truth; true knowledge of our being, within and without, which is the essence of Wisdom.” It made me think about what truth indeed is. Of course, all of us hold a set of beliefs, whether based on religious principles or not, which we understand our worlds from, and these beliefs are what is making up ‘truth’ for each and every one of us. In that manner truth is relative, being condoned to the holder and how he or she sees the world.

But what Hazrat Inayat Khan presents us for here is something else, something more confound. It is not merely knowing things or believing in something, but insight and understanding of our existence. I am not sure we can fully obtain truth, only attempt to reach it, but it can – I believe – only be obtained or approached by the full attempt to contemplate and ponder on our existence, our own private being, as well as the existence surrounding us, whether in the small or the big. Of course, not many of us have neither the time nor the opportunity to do that, at least not on a constant level, but that doesn’t mean that we should abstain from doing it at all, rather we should attempt to spend the time given us, no matter how much or little that might be, to delve into the nuances and understandings of our existence.

That said, when I read Hazrat Inayat Khan’s utterances, then I get the feeling that he indeed reached a glimpse of true understanding. Maybe not the truth itself, but at least true understanding of things, and how we are connected.

Anyway, just some thoughts I wanted to share.

The Chosen People

BS”D

Michael Kay, at “Thinking through my fingers” (visit his blog, he is seriously an amazing writer and brilliant thinker), wrote a post where he reflected on the Jews as a “Chosen people.” I found it highly inspiring and felt the need to let it out on him, so I wrote the following as a response (which I also posted there):

Hi Michael

And thank you for a wonderful and inspiring post:o)

I have some reflections to share, I hope it is okay with you. Unfortunately I’m not at home, so I can’t give precise sources every time I will be using them, but I will get back to it, bli neder.

I really do love R. Sacks and his attempts to connect our modern way of thinking and Judaism. In that sense I believe that he follows the tradition of many other historical Jewish thinkers, though whether he is on the same level always can be discussed (I don’t believe that he is on the level of a thinker like haRaMBaM, Z”L, nor do I expect him or any other today to be).

I believe though that the answer is found in each of the three categories, though mostly in the two latter ones. But we do find examples on the Jewish nation being something exemplar to the other nations in some Jewish traditions, one place is the Babylonian Talmud, tractate ‘Avodah Zarah, where God more or less makes a fool out of the nations, leveling Israel above them. That is one of the few examples on this though, the more dominant approach being the Biblical approach in Deuteronomy 7:7-8, quoted by you, expressing that Israel “were the fewest of all peoples.” If number or greatness of a people would be the deciding factor, then Ishma’el would be more likely, as we see that God will bless him “and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 17:20). In this respect is it also interesting to consider the midrash on the giving of the Torah, how God had to hold the mountain over the Israelites, threatening them by destruction, since the sole reason for their existence is Torah (something also repeated in the Quran).

The Jews are chosen, not to be superior, at least not in might, that one seemed to go more to Ishma’el and ‘Esaw, but to be a light to the nations, and as a student of the Torah. You mention that “there is the problem of the Jew who abandons their responsibility and assimilates into the surrounding culture,” and that is – I believe – also reflected in the Torah, in the story of Dathan and Aviram, refusing to “go up” to Moses, and instead were swallowed by the earth. I read in this the consequence of assimilating, refusing to “go up to Moses,” that is, staying “loyal to the Torah.”

Our role as a “light unto the nations,” is not fulfilled by being perfect observant, but by spreading (Jewish) values to the world, not by hiding in a ghetto, but by taking part in the world, while still staying true to the Torah. By relating to our brit with God do we show God’s intentions for all of us, that is, not necessarily by not eating milk and meat together, nor by not mixing materials in our clothes, wearing tzitzit (that us more for our own sake) and so on, that is mostly in order that the world may realize that we are Jews, and by that seeing our – hopefully – examples as related to God. And then there are some of our commandments which carry in them a deep ethical understanding, where the sole fulfilling of the commandment is giving a light, such as the already mentioned not eating meat and milk together. Think on Rashbam’s commentary to the verses dealing with not cooking the kid in its mother’s milk, and how he points out that it is deeply unethical to kill something and then enjoying it with its life source. The giving of tzedaqah, as contrasted to charity, is showing that caring for those in worse situations than ours is a plight, a duty, not something we are doing to feel good about ourselves. And so on. And the more we interfere with the world and get out there, the stronger this will stand. It is obvious that by hiding in the ghetto we, first and foremost, won’t experience much challenge (just doing what everybody else is doing), and, secondly, we are actually being “lights for the world,” not merely “lights.”

And it certainly speaks miles about God, that He would want to choose the Jews as His people. History have shown again and again that we have failed. Even today we find it hard to show our gratitude to finally having a country of our own (as well as others also, we shouldn’t forget that), but yet He stayed loyal through it all, even when we – in general – did not. Sure, He punishes, but more than that does He forgive, care, and love.

I think that we should have a double understanding of the choseness, not only talking about a chosen people, but also of chosen individuals. Abraham, more than anyone, allowed him to act in pure trust, going against the ways of his people. Abraham, though bringing a household with him, acted as an individual, for that he was rewarded, but he also became the example for each and every one of us.

Finally, I think that much of the bad reactions we get from Christians and Muslims, when they react to us being “chosen,” is projections. Both Christianity and Islam work with an understanding of choseness themselves, such as only having Christians being saved, as well as the Islamic Ummah being the perfect Ummah. They transfer understandings of these concept to how they believe Jews view the idea of being “chosen.” And maybe, probably, many Jews actually are viewing the notion of being Jewish and “chosen” the same way. But all in all that is something that is far from the Jewish thought (and not the thoughts of Jews).

Again, thanks for an inspiring post:o)

All the best

A little about Pessah

BS”D

 

As most people in the Western part of the world probably have figured out, these days are of special importance for the Christians. For those living in or near to Jewish neighborhoods it is probably obvious that not only the Christians, but also Jews, are celebrating something they consider of certain importance. But is it the same? And if not, why on the same time then? And what exactly are they celebrating?

Well, as I stated in my post from Friday I’m celebrating Pessah. And I also said that I might write a little about this, so that’s what I’m going to do. But first things first, since I am a student of Comparative Religion, I will take the obvious opportunity to do a little comparison of the Christian and Jewish holidays being celebrated right now.

The first and most obvious question is, is it the same? No, actually not. But then again, they are connected, having the Christian Passover being based on the Jewish, but still being particular Christian. What the Jews are celebrating is the redemption of the Israelite People from the slavery of Egypt, while the Christians are celebrating the redemption of whoever believes in Jesus from the slavery of sin. When the Jews had to leave Egypt, they had to slaughter and unblemished lamb and put the blood on the doorposts of their houses, so the angel of death would pass over their houses (hence the English name for Pessah, Passover), while the Christians teach that God had to slaughter (or sacrifice, that doesn’t sound as bad as slaughter) the unblemished ‘lamb,’ and the only ‘lamb’ that fulfilled that role was Jesus, being born by a virgin (and thus not being blemished by the inherited sin of man), as well as being the son of God, acting totally according to the will of his heavenly father. His blood then would redeem the believer from the chains of sin, allowing them to join him in Paradise, whenever that time may come. Now, I’m not going to deal with who is right or wrong, me being a Jew should be enough of an explanation of what I believe to be right, and if you feel the need to know why, then you’re free to contact me, but that really isn’t the focus of this post.

Anyway, so as is obvious we do have some elements from Judaism going again in Christianity, which isn’t without reason, having the Christian teachings stating that everything that happened in the “Old Testament” being a forewarning of what would be fulfilled by Jesus.

As we see, the Jews have the redemption of the Egyptian slavery, the Christians of the slavery of sin. The Jews have the sacrifice of the unblemished lamb, the Christians of the unblemished ‘divine lamb,’ being Jesus. The Jews have the blood from the lamb on the doorposts, in order for the angel of death to pass their houses, the Christians have the blood of Jesus, in order to escape the eternal death, that they may live with Jesus in Paradise.

There are other interesting factors, which we could deal with in this comparison, but I won’t make an extensive study here, that would probably be too boring for most. One thing that I will note, only in order to relate to a possible future post on that matter, is the questionable status of their fathers, both of them being raised by a man not their true father. For Moshe Rabenu, A”S, it is Pharaoh, for Jesus it is Yosef. Both of them, at least according to their traditions, has some royalty connected to them, Moshe Rabenu, A”S, via Pharaoh, while Jesus holds it via God (and here we have an interesting example of a ‘cross-comparison,’ being similar in the one part and differ in the second, but still have all the element reflecting each other). The reason why I won’t go into detail about this, besides what I already have written, is that I see this element being represented in case of most religious founders. See for example Muhammad, whose father died even before he was born, and thus grew up without a father. It is an interesting issue, but it’s not that related to my focus here.

 

Anyway, let’s get back on track. So far we have found out that Christians celebrate Jesus (well, his death) and their redemption from sin, while the Jews are celebrating that Pharaoh got rid of us. Eh, that we got rid of Pharaoh, and now could stop being his slaves, and instead worship God freely. That’s basically what Pessah is about. Of course, just to state that would be boring, so fortunately we have a story to tell of how Moshe Rabenu, A”S, was sent to Pharaoh, by God, to redeem his (and His) people from slavery. How Moshe Rabenu, A”S, struggled with Pharaoh, helped by Aharon, A”S, his brother – and God most importantly – having to send ten plagues in order to make Pharaoh give in, and then lead the Jews out of Egypt. All this is more or less the introduction, the exact Biblical base for the celebration of Pessah is found in Shmot (Exodus) chapters 12 and 13, having God telling Moshe Rabenu and Aharon, A”S, to command the Israelites about Pessah, stating that “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you…”[1] This is both the introduction to the last of the ten plagues, the death of the firstborns, as well as being the de facto creation of the Jewish People as a People belonging to God. This verse, the second verse in the twelfth chapter, holds such a big significance for the self-understanding of the Jewish People, that later commentaries stated that the Torah basically could have begun here.[2] This is not without reason, basically taking the Israelite People out of an existence as slaves, being submitted to the rulers of the world (here exemplified through Pharaoh), and becoming a people ruled by God. This is the de facto transfer from being one of the people of the world, to becoming the people under God. Sure, in the future the Jewish People surely would be ruled and tyrannized by other people, the Seleucids, the Romans, the Christians, Muslims and so on, but from this point and onwards the true ruler of the Jews would be God, following His Laws, even when it demanded their lives. This is the Jewish understanding, as expressed by the tradition.

So that’s Pessah, at least the basic understanding of Pessah. Much more can be said about it, both an analysis of the Biblical account, how it is celebrated, the rules connected to Pessah, and so on. That’s for the coming posts, for now I just wanted to give a basic understanding of what we Jews are celebrating these days.

So, Pessah Kasher w’Sameah. And happy Easter to the Christians


[1] Shmot 12:1 and onwards.

[2] See for example Rabbi Yitzhaq, being quoted both by Rashi and RaMBaN (Nahmanides) on Bereshit (Genesis) 1:1.

Emptiness and Void!

BS”D

 

In the second verse of the Torah, which deals with the creation, we find the expression “והארץ היתה תהו ובהו” – The earth was in utter chaos. The problem I have with this statement is that I don’t feel that I fully appreciate the meaning of the expression “Tohu vaVohu.”

The roots of the two words, Tahah (תהה) and Bahah (בהה), make it all even more difficult, having Tahah meaning to wonder, to be amazed, to be dumbfounded, to ponder or to reflect, while Bahah means to stare into space, to daydream, or to gaze. The thing is, the expression “Tohu vaVohu” has always been understood as utter chaos, or without form, and still is. If we look at the four most used English Jewish translations,[1] we will see the expression being translated as follows:

Astonishingly empty’ (Judaica Press and Artscroll), and ’unformed and void’ (Soncino and JPS)

Checking a number of Christian translations, we reach the same understanding of the words, meaning without form, empty, or void.[2]

This is also the sense left us when we relate to various commentators, e.g. Rashi who writes that Tohu “is an expression of astonishment and desolation, that a person wonders and is astonished at the emptiness therein.” This is an interpretation which leans on the meaning of Tahah, though he doesn’t relate to the second part of the expression, Bohu. Ibn ‘Ezra understands the expression as “empty waste,” while Nahmanides states that the “lower prime matter, after its creation from nothingness, was completely prime matter, that is matter without substance.” So also here are we dealing with understandings of the expression as something without form or, as Nahmanides express it, substance. Contrary the other commentators Nahmanides attempts to translate Bohu on its own, explaining that it consists of ‘bo’ and ‘hu,’ that is “is in him,” relating to the idea of a being. I would suspect that he somehow attempts to relate it to Bahah, ‘seeing’ something that will be in ‘it,’ that which still is without form.

Onkelos, the Aramaic Targum found with any Hebrew Bible, which was written in the beginning of the second century, translates the expression as “צדיא וריקניא” –Tzadya w’Reqanya, meaning something desolate and empty, also dealing with the same meaning. The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah) takes another approach, relating the Tohu vaVohu to evilness and wrongdoing, though still in the negative understanding of void and waste.

When we look at other Biblical passages using the words, then we find Tohu ten places, all relating to something being vain, void or confusion, while Bohu is found three times, relating to emptiness.

So by now we have established that the understanding of Tohu vaVohu means something astonishing/confusing emptiness, void, desolate being without form or something in that regards. For me, when I read this expression, I get the idea of a world still not being formed or ‘expressed,’ sort of speaking. Something has to be added, we are still viewing something not yet decided on.

That said, I still don’t feel that I have the full understanding of the expression itself, nor of the words. They escape me, my full understanding of them. I need to approach them closer, but how? Also their relations to their roots, how can they change their meaning like that? Do they change meaning at all? Something I’m sure of is that this isn’t the last time I’m going to deal with this subject.


[1] Artscroll, Soncino, Judaica Press, and JPS.

[2] See for example KJV and NIV.

Radiating Love and Tolerance

BS”D

I felt like sharing another of R. HaKohen Kook’s letters with you, this talking about the relation between one’s quest for God and his love for mankind.

It seems like there’s something about it. I feel that in the periods where I tend to draw closer to God, and meditate more on His Teachings, then I become more relaxed and patient. I tend to see people more positive, and not wanting to get into long intense discussions.

R. HaKohen Kook calls it the “Higher Holiness,” which would seem to be to be related to one’s nearness to God, being shown through the holiness radiating from God through the believer, being visible through his care and tolerance for others. Anyway, judge for yourself:

The Holiness That Abounds with Love for All

The higher holiness abounds with love, compassion and tolerance, as the mark of its most radiant perfection.

Hatred, sternness and irritability result from forgetting God, and the extinguishing of the light of holiness.

The more intense the quest for God is in a person’s heart, the more the love for all people will grow in him. He will also love the wicked and the heretics and desire to correct them, as he indeed corrects them by his great faith.

However, a person is unable openly to show love except to someone in whom he finds a good element. He will thus be able to direct his love to the dimension of the good. He will not be hurt by the evil side in those people to whom he will extend love in meeting his commitment to love people, which involves being good and extending good to the wicked as well as the good.

Orot HaQodesh, Vol. III, p. 317

Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabenu, A”S

BS”D

 

I had a conversation with a fellow student from my program yesterday, a Christian, about our religions and the central figures in them. Of course, as is probably always the case, we had our disagreements when it came to certain central themes, but he did say something, about two of the most central figures in Judaism, which I found rather interesting and, well, correct.

He related to the different focus of Avraham Avinu, A”S, and Moshe Rabenu, A”S, roles, the one being a man of faith, whereas the other was a man of law – rather simple put, I know, but nevertheless. I think that is pretty obvious, the main focus of Avraham Avinu, A”S, certainly was faith, being told to leave everything he know for an unknown country somewhere out there. And, thinking about it, he wasn’t presented for many wonders by God, more by promises, some of them coming true in his own live, true, but nevertheless. Moshe Rabenu, A”S, on the other hand, had his amount of miracles performed in front of him. Think about how he was saved as a child, though through the action of man, it still does appear miraculous. Or consider his meeting with God, which – if anything – certainly appeared, well, miraculous. A burning bush?

Avraham Avinu, A”S, did what Moshe Rabenu, A”S, didn’t have to do, namely acting more or less solely on faith, at least in the beginning. He certainly was a man of faith. Moshe Rabenu, A”S, I believe, also was, but he had other challenges, those as a leader for a grumpy and complaining people. Moshe Rabenu, A”S, couldn’t have much doubt of God’s plans and might, that was revealed to him constantly.

But why did we meet the man of faith before the man of law? Why the establishment of the faith, before we got the right direction to express our faith? I believe that it was because it was needed like that. Because no one will act on direction without faith, without some kind of belief that what you are told to do is the right thing. The Jews, when being given the Torah at Mount Sinai, responded to God with the words “Na’aseh w’Nishmah!” We will do, and then will we understand (literally ‘hear’, but always being interpreted as meaning ‘understand’). It was faith that led to the acceptance, faith that God knew what was right. Well, according to the Midrash also a portion of fear, but nevertheless.

My friend told me about a meeting he had with a Jew, who basically told him that faith didn’t matter, only actions, and that is probably a picture many Christians, and unfortunately also some Jews, have of Judaism, as a religion purely of actions, without any focus on faith, a religion of law! But that is a twisted view of religion. Our founding father was brought forth solely based on his faith in God, without which no Jewish people would have been, nor – I guess – any Arab forefather found in Ishmael.

We need faith, faith in ourselves, in our surroundings, and in our leaders. And Judaism, as much as any other religion, teaches that.

What’s Going On?

BS”D

 

As I hope you have noticed it has been some time since my last post. I am sorry for that, but the last couple of weeks have simply been too busy and packed, among other things with the conclusion of my assignments and the beginning of the new semester.

When I have received my grades I will most likely share one or more of my assignments, or at least tell about them, so for those interested, there is something to look forwards to!

My new semester offers both the continuation of some old courses, as well as the introduction of some new ones. Early Christianity and Early Islamic Texts are continuing, though with the unfortunate change in the former, that Dr. Paula Fredriksen is not going to teach us anyway, so we are continuing under Dr. David Satran (who definitely is a good teacher, no doubt). The focus in the new semester will be on Augustine, so I’m looking forward to spend some time on one of the biggest Christian thinkers. If any of you out there can recommend any material on him, then please let me know.

Hebrew is also being continued, though on a new level, which also introduce me to a course on Jewish Texts. On Hebrew. High level Hebrew. Just hope that it’s not going to be too high, though I do speak Hebrew I’m still not used to it in an Academic context, but I’ll guess that will change now.

The new courses are Medieval Jewish Exegesis, with focus on Rashi, Rashbam, and Ibn ‘Ezra, Z”L, going to be interesting, and after the first class I can see that it’s certainly is going to teach me a lot of new things. Stay tuned for that one. I also am going to begin a course in History and Archaeology of Muslim Jerusalem, something I really am looking forwards to, but we are waiting for the first class, because of strikes (big dislike). And finally a course called “The Battle over the Bible!” on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim polemics and interpretation of the Bible. Definitely also going to be interesting, already having discussed whether the Rabbis believed that they had the exact original text being revealed in their hands (they didn’t!), so also a course I’m going to relate to a lot.

 

What else will I be focusing on this semester? Since I’m going to write a seminar paper on Fiqh, Islamic Jurisprudence, there probably will be some focus on that, as well as gender studies in Judaism and Islam, since my focus will be on that in context of religious law the next coming semesters (I think). I’m working on Langmuir’s and Geertz’ theories of Religion, so I’ll probably also deal a little with that.

Besides that it’ll probably be whatever comes to my mind, as normal.

 

That’s it I think. Take care out there!