Monday, November 28, 2005

The Necessity of Faith?

Are the skeptics useful? So asks Hayim.

"The problem starts when the community leans too heavily in one direction. Freewheeling "metaphysics", or an exaggerated emphasis on scholarship to the detriment of other approaches of Judaism, are deplorably overprevalent in our day and age. So we need the skeptics, if only to give us a reality check on the direction our community is taking.

On the other hand, an excess in the opposite direction is even more disastrous. I, for one, would not want to be in Mis-Nagid's shoes. Overskepticism, i.e. the drive to only destroy and never build, must leave you unfulfilled and sour. I am glad to see that some still realize this."

Are you familiar with R' Kook? What you say here is pretty similar to his views. He said that atheists weren't rejecting God, they were rejecting faulty human images of God. That they were actually serving true Monotheism by keeping the faithful on their toes and keeping them from slipping into comfortable easy-thinking heresy.

What you call "overskepticism" would actually be a form of nihilism. This is the where the individual believes essentially in _nothing_. Does not believe in morals, human values, respected traditions, patriotism, progress, the future, and disbelief in religion and God go without saying.

Some nihilists even go so far as to say that there is no point at all in living (since they hold value in nothing). They only strive for the end and to help others get there too through helpful mutual destruction.

There are some who argue that the necessary conclusion of systematic skeptical thinking is the arrival at some form of nihilism. They have a point. If you keep asking "why?" you will eventually hit a wall, an axiom, that you must actively choose to accept, or not. Those that find that they cannot accept even those axioms are often lead directly to nihilism, which is really a depressing and dangerous place to be.

To note though, I do not believe that Mis-nagid is a nihilist.

I, for one, do not think nihilism is good thing. Nor do I think is unrestrained credulity. There may be a happy middle ground, but frankly, I'm not really a fan of this "faith" business at all. What I am slowly realizing though is that even while we may not like faith, it is a necessary and unentangleable part of meaningful human life.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Kabbalah Corruption; Just a Matter of Time

Kabbalah Center head charged with defrauding cancer patient

"She asked them to help her get better, and Rosenberg said that whoever donates a serious sum of money to the center can achieve a full recovery," Zonis recalled. "I immediately offered to donate around NIS 5,000, but we were told that we have to donate 'a sum that will be painful for us' and not an easy expenditure and we were asked to donate $30,000."

The couple borrowed money from relatives and friends and tapped their long-term savings to pay the center by credit card, in two installments. In return, the couple was promised, members of the center would pray for them. Leah Zonis was told she could buy a bottle of holy water, which would aid her recovery if she drank it.


"He told us that the previous donation we made was apparently not enough and that we have to donate more," Boris Zonis explained. "We had no money by then so we turned to Leah's mother, a woman who had worked hard all her life, and it was she who agreed to give us her savings - some $25,000. They specifically told us that this time when we give the money, Leah will get complete health, and again they promised to read from the 'Zohar' book specially for her."

"The woman's condition continued to deteriorate," the couple's lawyer, Haim Cohen, charged Sunday, "and instead of telling the truth, that these were empty promises, they took more money and cheated with a medication that is just a bottle of water."

Not long before his wife died, Zonis asked Youdkevitch for financial help. He says he was directed to an unknown donor who was asked to help him and gave him $5,000. Despite that, Leah realized shortly before her death that she had been the victim of fraud and asked her husband to go to the police."

She was a sick person, on the verge of despair. And in that state a patient grabs at any straw to be saved. They were our straw until we realized that we had been exploited," according to Zonis.

Disgusted, yes. Surprised? No.

Holiday Obligations

I recently had a conversation with someone who said that he looked down on the goyish holidays like Thanksgiving because there are no obligations to the day. It's a day off, but you don't actually have to do anything as one would on Jewish holidays. There are no Halachic responsibilities to fulfill.

To an extent I understood what he was staying and I do appreciate that Jewish holidays are often more community-oriented and there are things that need to be done that add to the holiday aura. The hunt for top notch esrogim, while silly in one sense, does add to the festivities in some hard to define way. It just wouldn't be Succot if such hunting stories weren't shared.

But the fact is, Thanksgiving is full of traditions even if there are those individuals who don't partake. A big meal with the obvious traditional foods, different types of holiday decorations in the halls or on the lawn, and even to seriously sit down and count your blessings. In the same way that people compare the size of their turkeys I see people talking about the level of beauty in their esrogim or how late they finished their seder or how long their break was on Yom Kippur. Of course there are those that don't care for any of those things and simply do not involve themselves, but regardless of that these are aspects of the traditional holiday observance that still exist.

It is true that many Americans can go through Memorial Day with just a barbecue, if that. But some take it very seriously and may take a few hours of their day to visit a veterans' cemetery to show their respects and deep appreciation for the sacrifices of others for their sake. Some towns schedule whole events and parades and really make a big deal of it all.

So I think the differences are really relative. The person I spoke to just didn't see American customs as obligatory. On Jewish holidays there are things that need to be done a certain way or else the holiday is not properly fulfilled and for some serious-minded Americans it is exactly the same way.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Contra Mr. Professor

By the way, those who say that Judaism and general Halachic observance cannot survive a realization that following it cannot be justified through divine command actually devalue their religion and Halacha. They are essentially saying that the laws make no good sense in themselves and the only reason Jews will continue to do them is if they are convinced God commands it of them. They are saying that there is no internal value in the Law.

For other people who recognize value inherent to the Law, at least in a general sense, they don't need a divine source and it is through them that traditional observant Judaism will continue even after dogma falls.

Take that Mr. Professor.

A Thesis Problem

I am currently taking a class in school where the students are supposed to write an original thesis paper at a scholarly level. It's supposed to be a year-long project. The semester had been going well so far but one day I came across a book that essentially was my paper of what I thought to be "original" work and I was in a bit of a puzzle. It was a rather specific topic, it isn't really important what the topic was, and I couldn't think of a way to take the paper from a different angle in order to make it different from this other work. So after some thought I decided to start over from scratch, choose an entirely new and different topic and go from there.

What I had thought to do was to engage my personal interests with my schoolwork in order to do both at the same time and really enjoy my work. It would be a relatively easy paper to write because I feel engrossed in the subject matter anyway. What I had chosen to investigate was basically a work following the obvious conclusions which came from the book "The Limits of Orthodox Theology" by Marc B. Shapiro. As many people reading this post already know, Shapiro demonstrates with clear argument and overwhelming erudition that many great rabbis and experts on Halachah, both before and after the time of Maimonides, who are today held in great standing by Orthodox groups, did not hold by all the principles of Maimonides and in some cases he shows that even Maimonides himself contradicts a couple of these principles. These individuals cannot be considered heretics, since if they were then the entire foundation of Orthodoxy falls apart. The conclusion from this reasoning is simple: the fundamental principles cannot really be so fundamental at all.

The clear questions which follow then are what is the nature of dogma in Judaism? Is there any? And if there is, what are the true fundamental principles?

I know this could potentially be a gigantic effort to work out, but I figured I could tease out a more narrow subject to write about for my paper while actually doing the work independently on this larger effort. I suspect that one may not be able to speak of the fundamental principles for "Judaism" itself, but perhaps for each movement insofar as they have certain general similarities in themselves which provide structure. The fundamental principles then would be, in theory, what is common to all these groups. I suspect they would be very minimal.

I showed this idea of study to my professor and he was very interested. He said that it was quite appropriate for the time we live in and had deep contemporary relevance. "What do you mean by that?" I asked. He said that it was a good commentary of our age of existential crisis where people all over are trying to grab onto _something_ and identify themselves by it. One could say that it is an unconscious response to nihilism which is found in the modern rising strength of fundamentalist movements.

After that I visited my faculty advisor (every student in the class needs to find a faculty member to work with) and I showed him my work. He also seemed interested but since he's just an English teacher (a goy to beat too) he said that he really had no knowledge of what I was proposing and that I should find a different advisor to work with. He suggested a Jewish professor who had recently gotten a grant for studying textual oddities in the Bible and he thought that guy would be a good person to work with.

Ok fine then, I went off to find the guy and have a conversation. I thought to myself that he doesn't sound like a bad choice. Although he's an Orthodox Jew (ostensibly, at least) as I found through a quick web search, he was studying textual oddities in the Bible in a scholarly way, so how much of a closed mind could he be? Indeed, I was even hoping that he was skeptical in a way a lot like me.

When I gave him a call and we started talking, he was obviously a smart and well read guy. I was telling him about my previous topic and my problems with it and he knew off the bat who I was talking about and the general ideas behind it. I was impressed anyway. But soon I lead to discussing my new topic and he also knew right away what "The Limits of Orthodox Theology" was and the author. But then he said that the book was "devastating." Huh? Devastating? He seemed so excited upon my mentioning of the work, I thought he considered it a good bit of scholarship, but then how is it devastating? It was an odd response and so I asked him about it.

It was obvious then that he stepped out of "professor" mode and stepped into "Orthodox Jew" mode. He said it was devastating because it undermines the Principles in very scholarly and probably irrefutable way. See, it was devastating because it damaged his belief system, the legitimacy of Orthodoxy and the survivability of Judaism, in his mind. He asked me if I believed that the Torah we have today is the same as the one God gave to Moses (principle #8/9). I replied to him in an uncharacteristically open way that I was "highly skeptical" of such a notion. Well then, he said, if we doubt that the Torah we have is not the same as the one from God then we cannot trust it for sacred history or for legitimacy of Halacha. Following Halacha then turns into a lifestyle choice since all divine compulsion is removed and then the religion is gone.

After he started going in that direction I was rather unwilling to start an argument and all I responded was, "Well, yeah, in a sense." And then he seemed to get really upset and he replied, "No, dammit, in every sense!" Ok then...

Following that I was getting eager to get off the phone and I started to speak in very clipped responses. I think he got the message. He said that he was not the guy to be an advisor for me and suggested I hunt down a guy from the Judaic Studies department. I thanked him and hung up.

Yeesh! Although I had considered some controversy in the chosen topic of study I really wasn't prepared for that kind of response from a college professor. I thought professors would stay mostly aloft from personal convictions and just make sure that my work followed certain guidelines and stayed at a scholarly level. They might disagree with my paper or my conclusions, but if I had the sources and made the argument, what is it to them?

I sat down and went deep into thought. I had to write out a whole report and make a presentation on my progress so far on my project in two weeks but if I was going to get that kind of response then I had to reconsider what I was going to do. I could present in class and have the few Jews in the class ask my funny questions and maybe look at me a little differently, but I didn't think that was a big deal. What I was nervous about was that type of thing being spread around and having my public reputation tarnished in a negative way. That kind of negative attention to me was not worth saving myself the little bit of work of writing a paper on a topic of more neutral interest. But on the other hand, I still had my original project and its same problem which prompted me to switch topics in the first place and it was way too late start a new project. What was I to do?

I stayed deep in thought for a couple of hours. I even went to my lab while in this trance-like state, though I'm lucky enough to have the best lab partner who let me work out my little problem while she took care of all the lab work. (You know who you are MP ;-) ) Eventually though, I figured out what the best solution is - postpone the whole issue! I'll tell my professor and my original advisor that I'm going back to my original topic but I'll also present my problem with it. Maybe in my presentation the other students of the class will be able to see things from a slightly different way and they'll have some solutions in how to write a slightly different but original thesis. I'm not very hopeful that they will, but it's enough of a report to finish off this semester and gives me the time to start over with an entirely new project next semester if need be.

Although the solution does solve my problem temporarily, it leaves me a little cold in that it seems that my work was effectively shut down (publically at least) because of the negative reaction of one man. Am I so self-protective that critical reactions can control what I do? Bothersome. I won't stop my investigations privately, but will I one day have the will to produce and publish my work publically? I hope so.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Implications of Free Will

I know that it really feels like we are free, but even more importantly, if we do not have free will then our lives lose a heck of a lot of meaning. It's a depressing view where we are mere biochemical machines thinking that we choose how we act but where even our very thoughts and desires are determined by mindless chemical interactions. We cannot then assign moral value to anything and even praise or blame for any action whatsoever is entirely misplaced.

After chewing on that for awhile I think most people will not want to live in such a worthless view of life and decide that they believe in free will regardless of what the evidence so far supports. Whether free will exists or not, I don't know, but the point is that in "choosing" free will we demonstrate that the positivist's method is not good enough to build a meaningful philosophy. We find that we must engage in speculation and live as if many unproven things are true. Essentially, even the atheist must have a form of faith.

With such a realization it is apparent that the atheist can no longer claim complete rationality in his views. Does this prove the theist correct? Not at all. But it does serve to hurt the atheist's standing and perhaps provides the justification to begin exploring other meaningful kinds of speculation.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Our Valuable Judaism

"I mean Jewish life was always meant to be in Israel. I look at Judaism as a national culture, not a religion per se. And a national culture should have a national home land. It really doesn't make sense to have a separate Jewish law in this modern day and age. I think it made sense when the Jewish people didn't have a home land. Wow, I'm sounding like a Zionist! I never really thought of myself as a Zionist. I know you disagree, and I would be interested to hear why"

I think there is more to Judaism than just a national culture, though it is that. I know it sounds corny, but it is a way of life and gives each Jew a sense, if they're so inclined, of history and peoplehood and connectance and tradition that transcends anything else of impermanence that is our modern world. One could make the argument that the land of Israel is the only "proper" place for Judaism, but I think that Israel is really just a base of operations for Jewish activities abroad. It is important and it is of immeasurable value that any Jew can call it home, but there is greater strength in Judaism and Jewish communities elsewhere that give testament through their staying power even in the most adverse conditions.

I think it has incredible power that a person can live in America, be an American citizen and so on and at the same time be a Jew. We Jews are world travelers and we have the freedom to settle anywhere and still retain our sense of identity without being coddled in the womb of a single state. Yes, you could call it a "national culture" but it's really more of a peoplehood identity program that is not restricted to mere physical boundaries.

In some ways it does restrict us, but really it frees us. You as an individual can go anywhere and do whatever you want, but you will get lost in the river of history and will be an orphan to time. As a Jew you retain a sense of self that nothing in the world can take away. And while your great great grandchildren may not know who you are, they may not even know your name, they'll still be able to know you in some sense as their family's history becomes their community's history and eventually their people's history. It is this connectance to something larger than mere individuals that is of real value.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Concerns About Humanism

I asked an atheist Humanist a few questions:

edit: This was the Jewish Atheist, and the discussion is located here.

"I (usually) believe in free will because it feels so strongly like I have it. I'm also fascinated by the fact that I have no plausible explanation for how it works."

Me too, but the very fact that I do that bothers me. We take free will on faith, essentially, but in doing so we damage our stance in reason. Doesn't the theist do exactly the same thing?

I ask: "Why should the Humanist act morally?"

He answered: "Empathy plus the belief that no person has more worth than another."

I think it is a little more complex than that. Why should we necessarily trust our empathetic feeings? Emotions are notoriously irrational.

It bothers me that we really have two choices. We can go down one path and find our lives devoid of any meaning and worth. In the strict positivist stance we cannot even say that we are free, or moral, or conscious. We are mindless animals equipped with illusory control and a fictional sense of morality.

Or we can give credence to ideas that really do not deserve credence in a strict empirical sense, but which provide our lives with order and meaning and value. The Humanist might be able to restrict this urge to free will and meaningful moral commands, but can he truly judge himself as being less irrational than the theist? Maybe in degree, but certainly not in kind.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Free the Mamzer

Wolf has a recent discussion on his blog about the pros and cons about giving Orthodox marriages for otherwise unOrthodox couples for fear of creating mamzerim.

Ok, that's fine and all and I can understand why you'd want to avoid having more mamzerim around if you hold by the laws stringently. As far as anyone knows, most people are not mamzerim and a mamzer can only marry other mamzerim (or converts). It leaves quite a stigma which never goes away. No matter how far the initial mamzer's line descends. His lineage will forever be one of mamzerim.

However, let's look at this more closely. What is the only real difference between a mamzer and a non-mamzer? The only real difference is this social stigma and the limitations on who the individual can marry. The only reason one would not want to be a mamzer is because one'll be looked down on by all the non-mamzerim and will be limited in marriage choices.

Wouldn't the social situation be so much better if _everyone_ were mamzerim. Then there would be no "untouchable" nebuch class in Judaism and there would be no marriage restrictions (beyond the other regular stuff). And one a mamzer, always a mamzer, so there would be no way to turn back into "regular" Israelite.

I say we should just assume we are all mamzerim and not worry about it. What's the worst that could happen? We could marry a mamzer and our kids could really be mamzerim? Oh no, that's exactly the same.

Just so y'all know, I'm not a mamzer, but I do work for the Free the Mamzer Foundation. Check us out at

My Views on the 13

1. Belief in the existence of a Creator and of providence

Well, I don't believe the Universe has existed eternally, nor do I think it likely that the whole complexity and highly ordered nature of our world was merely an accident. But on that same token, the idea that an eternal, intelligent superbeing wished it all into existence also strikes me as absurd.

What I can believe is that there is some creative force on which our world's existence depends on. That force may or may not have any sort of consciousness or intelligence or be a "person" in any sense, though I think it is more likely impersonal. Its "providence" can only be summed up as far as the qualities that the reasoned order of our universe supplied to life and living beings so prodigiously that they could survive and prosper through their own activities.

2. Belief in His unity

To term this force "His" is pushing it, but that's likely just metaphorical. Though I also have no problem in believing that there is only one fundamental creative/maintaining force on which the world depends.

3. Belief in His incorporeality

I also have no issue in understanding this force to be without material form.

4. Belief in His eternity

As far as the universe is inclusive to "all of time," since time itself is a product of our universe, this force would exist as long as the universe would - which would be "for all time." Essentially eternal since time is likely illusory anyway.

5. Belief that worship is due to Him alone

If there's anything that deserves worship it would be this force. Though I'm not thrilled with "worshiping" anything. I like to think more along the lines of feeling in awe and having deep respect for all that I see in the natural world. This is akin to the views of Einstein.

6. Belief that G-d communicates with man through prophecy

What is "prophecy" exactly? If it is understood in the sense that "prophecy" is man's connection with a new idea, where he might find a muse hiding in the regularity of everyday life, that I can understand. Since "God" is really the sum of all that is in existence, these new ideas and abilities to learn and to understand can only come from God. "Prophecy" is the point at which one can say, "Eureka!" or come to some deep emotional understanding where some connection is made through our mental powers which, along with all other things, from some creative force which underlies the whole. In this sense I can believe in prophecy.

7. Belief that Moses was the greatest of all the prophets

In following the Jewish tradition, Moses (assuming he existed, though even if he didn't and things were just attributed to him) was the one who set the basic foundations for what Judaism is and how it would be forevermore. He surely had great insights to produce such a solid basis from which Judaism has maintained itself for so many millennia and from which so many other people of the world through Christianity and Islam find meaning. In this sense, whether in history or in legend, Moses was the greatest prophet.

8. Belief in the revelation of the Torah to Moses at Sinai

What does it mean to be a revelation? Ultimately, all things come from this creative force so how can the Torah not be? Does this mean it is divine in origin? Not really. But we must hold strong meaning for it anyway because we have given it meaning through so many years of tradition and history that now the Torah is (and has been) an integral part of Judaism and what it means to be a Jew.

Do I think a personal, intelligent superbeing gave Moses the Torah word for word? No. But I do think Moses (or whoever wrote it and later attributed to Moses) hit on some great ideas and in this sense we ought to hold it in high regard. Especially since the Torah has such deep meaning in Judaism and to the Jewish understanding of identity that it cannot really be separated from what it is to be a Jew.

9. Belief in the unchangeable nature of the revealed Law

Even the Mishnah and Talmud don't really hold by this as they create so many new ideas and sometimes controvert the basic meaning of the scriptural text. What is a prozbul exactly? And how come an "eye for an eye" isn't taken literally? We can thank our forward-thinking Jewish ancestors for that. I think Halachah is of vital importance to Jewish identity and Judaism's longevity, but that it is of divine origin or forever unchangeable, that I do not agree with.

The basic foundations of the Law, however, respect for human life, compassion for your fellow human beings, maintaining the environment, etc. These I do see as incontrovertible and fundamental. The technical laws themselves can and should change as the social situations change (for example how women are viewed and treated in Orthodoxy today) but the fundamental _spirit_ of the laws must be maintained.

10. Belief that G-d is omniscient

Since I don't believe that "God" is even conscious or capable of "knowing" anything, it makes it incredibly difficult to imagine this apersonal force being omniscient, i.e. all knowing. Though, again, if all things are inclusive within "God" then the sum of all that is known must be what God knows. Thus God knows all that is known - all knowing.

11. Belief in divine reward & retribution in this world and in the hereafter

Perhaps in the sense of strict rationality, one can find that generally you will live a happier and healthier life if you are a good person, are friendly and cooperative with others, etc. People who are mean and uncooperative will often live poor lonely lives. There is some balance here. If you are a rotten person, people will generally not want to be your friend. Also, if you break the law, perhaps you'll get away with it, but many other times you will get caught. The world is not perfect and there are countless examples of injustice, but there is also some justice to be found. I believe it is humanity's responsibility to bring as much justice as can be brought into the world.

In the sense that humanity is derived from the creative force and concepts like justice and right and wrong are also from this source, reward and punishment become possible in human experience. Were the universe mindlessly random, these concepts would have no meaning. These things do exist, but I think only to the extent that human beings bring them into existence.

In the "afterlife," I can only say that justice is done on the individual through how he is remembered by the people that knew him and what kind of reputation he held. Do you wish to be remembered as an asshole or a great contributor to the betterment of humanity? That choice is up to you. I don't think, however, that really any part of us as a conscious mind survives the body in death. What survives us is our works, our name, and our reputation.

12. Belief in the coming of the Messiah

I believe that humanity can improve itself. That we can all be better people. That we can invent new technologies to make our quality of life better. That we can discover new philosophies and new ideas with which to give our lives more meaning. In this sense I believe that we, as a species of moral, intelligent consciousnesses, are capable of progress on all fronts and may one day reach a "Messianic" age where all of humanity lives in peace with one another and where each individual's life is free from fear, hunger, pain, and need.

I don't believe that one man will ride up on a donkey and then see to the conquest of the whole world which will lead to Israel's ascendency on the world stage. As Gersonides once said, "a peace that comes from fear and not from the heart is the opposite of peace." I do think that one day the world will find peace through mutual respect and brotherhood and not through fear of the sword.

13. Belief in the resurrection of the dead

This "ikkar" has always confused scholars. The afterlife, in Judaism, is never the central feature of any theological theory and really holds little place in general Jewish metaphysics. Although it was standard fare to believe in an afterlife, what that afterlife would be like was freely speculated on and to this day there is no "Orthodox" view on the afterlife. Why then did Maimonides focus on this and make it a _fundamental_ of the Jewish faith?

I don't think resurrection of the dead is going to happen. And although you may read possible science fiction considerations of such a human project to reanimate all the dead human consciousnesses in the future (e.g. 3001 The Final Odyssey), I just don't think it is very likely or even possible. I think we get one shot at life and there is no "reset" button. Let's make the best of what we've got.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Gersonides the Heretic?

Levi ben Gershon, or Gersonides as he was known in more latinized circles, or the Ralbag as he is known in more Jewish circles lived in the beginning of the 14th century. He was a great astronomer/astrologer (there's a crater named after him on the Moon), an inventor, a halakhist, Torah commentator, and a philosopher. As a philosopher, he was one in a long line of Jewish Rationalists who met Aristotle's well known teachings and attempted to integrate them into traditional Jewish theology. Maimonides is the most famous of these Jewish Rationalists.

What is interesting about Gersonides, however, is that although he is a godol in Halacha and Torah commentator, his religious views were often highly unorthodox. When rationalism would grind against what the Torah said he would, as opposed to the methodology of Maimonides, find in favor of rationalism.

"The position of Levi ben Gershon in Jewish philosophy is unique. Of all the Jewish Peripatetics he alone dared to vindicate the Aristotelian system in its integrity, regardless of the conflict existing between some of its doctrines and the principal dogmas of Judaism. Possessed of a highly developed critical sense, Levi sometimes disagrees with Aristotle and asserts his own views in opposition to those of his master, Averroes (Islamic Rationalist); but when, after having weighed the pros and cons of adoctrine, he believes it to be sound, he is not afraid to profess it, even when it is directly at variance with an accepted dogma of Jewish theology. "The Law," he says, "can not prevent us from considering to be true that which our reason urges us to believe" (Introduction to the "Milchamot," p. 6)."

I've highlighted a few of his more unorthodox views:

On Omniscience: "In contrast to the theology held by Orthodox Judaism, Gersonides held with those who denied God's omnipotence. "Gersonides, bothered by the old question of how God's foreknowledge is compatible with human freedom, holds that what God knows beforehand is all the choices open to each individual. God does not know, however, which choice the individual, in his freedom, will make." (Louis Jacobs, God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism without Fundamentalism)"

"The sublime thought of God, he says, embraces all the cosmic laws which regulate the evolutions of nature, the general influences exercised by the celestial bodies on the sublunary world, and the specific essences with which matter is invested; but sublunary events, the multifarious details of the phenomenal world, are hidden from His spirit."

On the soul and immortality: "Gersonides posits that people's souls are composed of two parts: a material, or human, intellect; and an acquired, or agent, intellect.. The material intellect is inherent in every person, and gives people the capacity to understand and learn. This material intellect is mortal, and dies with the body. However, he also posits that the soul also has an acquired intellect. This survives death, and can contain the accumulated knowledge that the person acquired during their lifetime. For Gersonides, Seymour Feldman points out, "Man is immortal insofar as he attains the intellectual perfection that is open to him. This means that man becomes immortal only if and to the extent that he acquires knowledge of what he can in principle know, e.g. mathematics and the natural sciences. This knowledge survives his bodily death and constitutes his immortality." (Gersonides, Trans. Seymour Feldman Wars of the Lord, Book 1, p. 81, JPS, 1984)"

On Creation: "Having thus demonstrated that the world is not eternal "a parte ante" and is eternal "a parte post," Levi gives his own view of creation. He chooses a middle position between the theory of the existence of a primordial cosmic substance and that of a creation "ex nihilo," both of which he criticizes. According to him, there existed from eternity inert undetermined matter, devoid of form and attribute. At a given moment God bestowed upon this matter (which till then had only a potential existence) essence, form, motion, and life; and from it proceeded all sublunary beings and all heavenly substances, with the exception of the separated intelligences, which were direct emanations of the Divinity."

However, given such unusual views, it is to be expected that he would be criticized by the more traditional rabbis:

"Levi's philosophical theories, some of which influenced Spinoza (comp. "Theologico-Politicus," ch. ii., where Spinoza uses Levi's own terms in treating of miracles), met with great opposition among the Jews. While Hasdai Crescas criticized them on philosophical grounds, others attacked them merely because they were not in keeping with the ideas of orthodoxy. Isaac ben Sheshet (Responsa, No. 45), while expressing admiration for Levi's great Talmudical knowledge, censures his philosophical ideas, which he considers to be heresies the mere listening to which is sinful in the eyes of a pious Jew. Abravanel (commentary on Josh. x.) blames Levi in the harshest terms for having been so outspoken in his heretical ideas. Some zealous rabbis went so far as to forbid the study of Levi's Bible commentaries. Among these were Messer Leon Judah and Judah Muscato; the latter, applying to them Num. i. 49, says: "Only thou shalt not number the tribe of Levi, neither bring his Commentaries among the children of Israel" (Commentary on the "Cuzari," p. 4). Shem-Tob perverted the title "Milchamot Adonai" (= "Wars of God") into "Milchamot 'im Adonai" (= "Wars with God"); and by this corrupted title Levi's work is quoted by Isaac Arama and by Manasseh ben Israel, who attack it in most violent terms."

Despite all of these attacks however, the Ralbag is still found as a commentator in most printed Chumashim that have more than just Rashi and Onkelous. (Maimonides too had his fair share of critics and he too is found right along the great Torah commentators with the Ralbag.) And in modern strains of Orthodoxy, no Rishon can ever be "wrong." If a view was held by a Rishon, then that is an acceptable view in Orthodox Judaism.

What then does it mean to be "Orthodox" when there are so many options to believe? It is certainly apparent that Gersonides' views don't fit well with a number of Maimonides' "essential" thirteen ikkarim.

Sources: Jewish Encyclopedia and Wikipedia

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Not His Finest Hour

"A woman who studies Torah is rewarded, but not as much as a man is, for the reason that she has not been commanded to learn. Anyone who does something voluntarily is not rewarded as much as someone who is obligated to do it is. Even though she is rewarded for learning, the Sages commanded that one should not teach Torah to one's daughter, for the reason that most women don't have the mentality for learning, and they think of Torah matters as being nonsensical. The Sages said that teaching one's daughter Torah is like teaching her trivialities. This is talking only about the Oral Torah, but one nevertheless shouldn't teach her the Written Torah either, but if one did it is not like teaching her trivialities."

- The Rambam, Hilchot Yiseodei Hatorah