Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Midrash on Moshe and Metaphysics

R' Abbahu said: All the forty days that Moses was on high, he kept on forgetting the Torah he learnt. He then said: 'Lord of the Universe, I have spent forty days, yet I know nothing.' What did God do? At the end of the forty days, He gave him the Torah as a gift, for it says, AND HE GAVE UNTO MOSES. Could then Moses have learnt the whole Torah? Of the Torah it says: The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea (Job 11:9); could then Moses have learnt it all in forty days? No; but it was only the principles thereof which God taught Moses.

-Exodus Rabbah 41:6

This is an interesting midrash. The most striking point is that it says that God only taught Moshe the principles of the Torah - which runs contrary to the typical Orthodox perspective that God revealed all of the Torah and all of the Oral Law to him. But secondly, there's the point that "Torah" is defined here not as the Pentateuch, but through the reference in Job which uses "The measure..." to describe the mysteries and (non)limits of God - "Torah" is then defined essentially as all metaphysical truth of God's ways.

Job 11:
7 "Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
8 They are higher than the heavens—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave—what can you know?
9 Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.


So what is the midrash saying that Moshe received at Sinai? He received the principles of metaphysical truth.

For those of a skeptical bent who yet still recognize wisdom in the scriptures, this may be a helpful perspective in one's approach to Judaism.

5 comments:

alex said...

"The most striking point is that it says that God only taught Moshe the principles of the Torah - which runs contrary to the typical Orthodox perspective that God revealed all of the Torah and all of the Oral Law to him."

Lo kashya. The 'typical Orthodox perspective' that *I* learned was that God taught the principles, but that these principles were a lot more specific than you have in mind.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

What kind of principles are you thinking of? Are the rules of Talmudic exegesis from Sinai?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Great post, fascinating citation. But I tend to agree with Alex that depending on how you study Torah, "principles" can have a broad array of meaning.

I don't believe every discussion of Abaye and Rava was revealed at Sinai; just that the fundamental principles of metaphysical truth and normative halachic behavior were given over to Moshe, and subsequent generations were charged with the task of exploring, clarifying and applying them to the extent of their ability.

Lurker said...

As I understand it, R. Abbahu is saying the following: Over the course of forty days, God taught Moshe the Torah. At the end of that time, Moshe complained that he couldn't remember what he learned. God then responded by presenting Moshe with the written Torah. As an afterthought, the midrash asks how it could have been possible, even theoretically, for Moshe to have learned the entire Torah in only 40 days. The answer given is that God only taught him the general principles. In other words, Moshe failed to absorb even those general principles; so at the end God said, "I give up. Here's a hard copy for you." My main point here is that by saying "He gave him the Torah as a gift", the midrash is saying that God did give the entire written text of the Torah to Moshe on Sinai.

Orthoprax said...

Lurker,

That's not an improbable understanding of it, but the Midrash clearly implies a larger definition of "Torah" than just the Pentateuch. So "the Torah" that was gifted to Moshe is undetermined.

As I read it, "the Torah" that was given to him, is the same as "the Torah" which he kept on forgetting - which was just the basic principles of the "whole Torah."