Category Archives: Torah

Peshat and Derash

Jews study the Tanakh (Bible) on multiple levels:

The first level is פְּשָׁט‎ peshat, taking the text at face value, in context . This doesn’t quite mean “literal”, because we of course take into account idioms, metaphors, personification, etc. The peshat is the message that the original author intended to get across to the original audience.

The second level is the distinctively Jewish way of reading our Bible: דְּרַשׁ ,derash. This the way that Ḥazal (חז”ל‎‎) – the rabbis of the Mishnah, Midrash and Talmuds – interpreted the text.  In derash we ask why the text is phrased the way that it is. Rabbinical literary techniques plumb the depths of the text to find new meaning, or may bring out lessons that may not have been intended by the original authors.

Discussions by Ḥazal (חז”ל‎‎) reveal that, in some cases, they felt that derash was discovering the original meaning of the text, while in other discussions they clearly understood derash as filling-in-the-blanks – creating new meaning. Often they were writing Biblical homilies. See Are Midrash literally and historically true?

During the medieval era both schools of thought continued: Some meforshim (classical Bible commentators) such as Rashi, often accepted much derash as literally and historically true, while others (Rashbam, Abraham Ibn Ezra) felt otherwise.

Conflating the derash with the peshat later became a defining characteristic of fundamentalist versions of rabbinic Judaism. Understanding that they are not identical became characteristic of non-fundamentalist versions of rabbinic Judaism.

Ari Marcelo Solon writes “Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir) clearly
distinguished between peshat and derash. His terminology relating to the peshat category is well-defined. Rashbam consistently interpreted in accordance with the peshat method; that is to say, he limited himself to the text itself, interpreting it according to its vocabulary, syntax and context, in relation to biblical parallels, according to common sense as well as derekh eretz (what is customary). Unlike Rashi, Rashbam did
not integrate biblical text and Midrash. It was Rashi who paved the way towards a clear distinction between peshat and derash in the writings of his successors. Yet in his commentaries, such a distinction still remains unrevealed.”

Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) may deny that there is any difference between peshat and derash. They characterically teach that we are obligated to accept the derash as if it is the literal, original and only interpretation of the Bible. They may refer to any other approach as heretical.

In contrast, rabbis who appreciate great medieval Bible commentators such as Abraham Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, or who follow philosophical rationalism, have the opposite approach: Such rabbis are found within some of Modern Orthodoxy and all of non-Orthodox Judaism (Conservative Judaism, Masorti, Reform, etc.)

To see examples of Jewish bible study, see Jewish Tanakh (Bible) commentaries in English.

Modern Orthodox Rabbi Shalom Carmy (Yeshiva University) explains the difference between peshat and derash like this

1. Peshat–what text meant for first generation audience. Derash- what it may mean in retrospect. (Rabbi D.Z. Hoffmann says this).
2. Peshat– what’s in the lines; Derash- what’s hinted at between the lines, OR
2′. Peshat–what’s in the text; Drash- “filling in gaps” of what’s not explicit in text.

The relations between these levels is complicated & function differently in Halakhic and narrative contexts.
There are also ambiguities–what’s written in the first chapter of a book often has one meaning when you read the book the first time and another meaning when you get to the end. Likewise what a pasuk means in Shemot may appear different after you have reached Dvarim.


Correctly Construing Biblical Verses Upon which Halakhot Claim to be Based, Professor Rabbi Marty Lockshin

Ibn Ezra vs. Rashbam –  Can The Torah Contradict  Halacha (Jewish Law)?

Does Halakha Uproot Scripture? Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin

Peshat and Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis” by Rav Prof. David Weiss Halivni (Oxford U. Press 1991)

The Religious Significance of the Peshat, Uriel Simon. Tradition 23 (2), Winter 1988 also here at

Book: Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra: Studies in the Writings of a Twelfth-Century Jewish Polymath, Edited by Isadore Twersky and Jay M. Harris. Chapter Abraham Ibn Ezra as an Exegete, by Nahum M. Sarna

What do we do when a verse in the Torah says one thing but halakha, Jewish law, attributes a very different meaning to it? Some people engage in fundamentalist wordplay to conclude that there’s no difference between the peshat of the Torah, and Halakhah. But such differences exist; Even the Talmud notes this:

In the nineteenth century, Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal; 1800-1865) developed a new way of solving the peshat-halakha dilemma, suggesting that midrash halakha (rabbinic interpretation of biblical legal texts) often represents rabbinic legislation, and NOT biblical commentary. He makes his clearest and most detailed statement on the topic in his commentary on Parashat Tzav…. Shadal’s approach to the peshat–derash issue is novel and simple: Whenever the peshat says one thing and the midrash says something very different, Shadal says that the peshat is what the Torah means and the midrash represents rabbinic legislation, not biblical interpretation…. From a halachic point of view, this approach may be problematic: these laws that were connected to biblical verses by means of a derashah were standardly considered by the rabbis to be of Torah, not rabbinic, origin (דאורייתא, not דרבנן), as Shadal’s approach apparently implies. Remarkably, for Shadal, the classical rabbis were religious reformers who changed the laws of the Torah, making them less stringent. Shadal lived in the early days of Reform Judaism and took issue with its innovations. Accordingly, he takes pains to distinguish the motivations of the classical rabbis from what he understood to be the motivations of his more liberal contemporaries [Classic German Reform Judaism]

Peshat vs. Halakha Dilemma: Shadal and Tradition


Rebecca and Isaac

D’var Torah by guest author Rebecca! Temple Beth Abraham Hebrew School, Kitah Dalet student

Today, everyone is a hero. Doctors, teachers, scientists, police officers, and firefighters no matter what gender. In the bible heroes are soldiers, kings, leaders, and prophets (people who speak to God.) They are mostly men. But in the story of Rebecca and Isaac, Rebecca – or Rivkah – is the hero and the prophet.

Eliezer and Rebekah at the Well by Gustave Doré

Eliezer and Rebekah at the Well by Gustave Doré

In the story, Abraham’s wife Sarah dies, he realizes he won’t be long after her. So he sends one of his most trusted servants to go to Nahor, his birth place, to find Isaac a wife. Once there the servant goes to a well where women are collecting water. He asks God for a sign that a woman will give him water, and that she will be Isaac’s wife. When Rivkah comes over, she gives him water after him asking, and offers to give the camels water too. That is when the servant knows that she is the one.

God is telling Rivkah to act kind. After Rivkah and Isaac are married, Rivkah comforts Isaac over his mother’s death. Rivkah’s name means to tie or to bind. Like healing someone.She is a shepherd, a loyal wife, and is very kind. Rivkah and all the other women prophets, Sarah,Leah, and Rachel, are all true bible heroes.

Though as they grew older they had two kids, Jacob and Esau. Rivkah loved Jacob, for when she heard his voice the more she loved him. He would stay at home with her all day long. But, Isaac loved Esau more for he provided viands – choice cuts of meat. Esau was stronger than his brother and hunted, while Jacob was more of a studier. (1)

Later as Isaac was dying, he told Esau to prepare him a venison dish and that then he would bless him afterwards . Rivkah overheard Isaac talking and because of her strong love for Jacob said. “ Go get some goat skin and I will prepare the dish.” Jacob did as he was told, and Rivkah put the goat skin on jacob’s arms so his would feel as his brothers hairy arms. Fooled, Isaac blessed Jacob instead of Esau. (2)

(1) The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Ed. Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yohoshua Hana Rivitzky, Trans William Braude, Schocken Books, NY, 1992, p.43

(2) The Illustrated Jewish Bible for Children, Hastings, Thomas and Burch, DK Publishing, 1994

The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem

In “The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem”, Professor Avi Sagi deals with the extensive Jewish literature on this subject. The article appeared in the Harvard Theological Review Vol.87, No.3 (1994) p.323-46. Avi Sagi is associated with Bar Ilan University and the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, Israel.

Avi Sagi, Shalom Hartman Institute

A summary follows:

Gustave Dore

Gustave Dore

No less an authoritative text than Talmud Bavli, in Yoma 22b, notes that punishing children for the sins of their parents is wrong. In this gemara, on the basis of a ritual pointing to the sanctity of an individual life in biblical tradition, the Talmud derives a fortiori that inflicting grievous harm on many human beings must certainly be forbidden. Some might point out that there is another place in the Talmud, where the Talmud does seem to obligate Jews to kill Amalekites. Sanhedrin 20b states that the obligation to destroy Amalek os one of the three duties incumbent on Israel after conquering the land of Canaan. However, there are a number of fatal problems for this view:

(A) Not every statement in the Talmud is meant to be taken literally.

(B) Not every statement in the Talmud is codified as law. In fact, most statements in the Talmud are not halakha.

(C) This part of the Talmud contradicts Yoma 22b.

(D) Sanhedrin 20b is further contradicted by another place in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 96b. The Talmud notes that Haman is a descendent of Amalek. (Whether this is a historical fact or not is irrelevant to questions of Jewish law). And contrary to Sanhedrin 20b, it is clear that Jews are not obligated to “cut off the seed of Amalek”. Rather, Sanhedrin 96b, reads “The descendants of Haman studied Torah in Bnei Brak [and they included Rabbi Samuel ben Shilath]! So the Talmud flat out states that we know who some of the Amalekite descendants are, yet we not only not kill them, we accept them as converts, and rabbis! [Some editions of the Talmud have the section in parenthesis about R. Samuel b. Shilath, some do not]
Several nineteenth century Orthodox halakhists assumed that despite the enormous problems that exist with this imperative, one should theoretically consider Exodus 17:14 as a literal commandment to wipe out Amalekites, thus precluding their acceptance as converts. However, in their writings they are troubled by the unethical implications of this, so they creatively pasken that this rule is one that can never be carried out. They relied on a principle dating from Tannaitic times in order to justify their innovation. For instance, Rabbi Hayim Falaggi (1788-1896) wrote that descendants of Amalek were not to be killed. In fact, Amalekites could convert to Judaism, because we can rely on the maxim that in ancient times, Senaherib confused the lineage of many nations. [Eynei Kol Hai, 73, on Sanhedrin 96b]

This approach was also supported by other halakhists. Yosef ben Moshe Babad (1800-1875) explicitly stated that we are not commanded any longer to blot out Amalek, for the same reasons as stated by Rabbi Falaggi. [Minhat Hinukh, 2.213, commandment 604]. Other Orthodox rabbis supported this view as well, for instance Haim Hirschensohn, in Malki ba-Kodesh 1.33, and Avraham Karelitz in his Hazon Ish al ha-Rambam, 842]

Avraham Bornstein (1839-1910), one of the best known Orthodox halakhists of his generation, writes:

I believe they teach that the seven nations have themselves sinner and committed all iniquities and become liable to die. And we would think that this means that repentance will not help…. But Amalek is punished for the sins of their fathers. Yet it is also written [in the Torah] ‘Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, neither shall children be put to death for their fathers.’ “…If they have repented and accepted the seven Noachide commandments, this means that they do not persist in their ancestor’s deeds, and should not be punished for their iniquities.
[Avnei Netzer, part 1: Orah Hayim, 2.508]
The Netzer goes further. He not only states that Jews are forbidden from harming descendants of Amalek, but that even the gentile nations of the world are similarly forbidden from doing so. [Ibid, Unnumbered footnote to 2.508]

Rabbi Moshe Amiel (1883-1946), ruled that we should not understand Amalek as being a particular ethnic group. Rather, he viewed Amalek as the symbol of armed might. In Rabbi Amiel’s view, a permanent war prevails between the sword and the book, and “one can only be built on the ruins of the other”. [Derashot el Ami, 3.132, 3 volume set, Tel-Aviv, 1964]

Rabbi Amiel directly confronts the moral problem that exists from the excessive view, which states that descendants of Amalek must die, which of course is a contradiction to the Torah’s injunction that a child may not be punished for the sins of its parents. Rabbi Amiel concludes that Jews must not harm Amalekites, and writes “the view of Judaism is that the prosecution cannot turn into the defense, evil cannot be extirpated by evil means, terror cannot be eliminated from the world through the use of counter-terror”. [Ibid, 3.132] Rather, Jews wage “war” against Amalek with the book – “Write this for a memorial in a Book” Exodus 17:14. Thus, Rabbi Amiel states that the blotting out of Amalek is not meant as physical destruction.

In Talmud Bavli, Berachot 10a, Beruriah states that it is only the sins of Amalek that must be removed, not Amalekites themselves. No less an Orthodox authority than Rabbi Amiel relies on this as a source for normative halakha. He quotes this to show that the obligation to blot out the memory of Amalek should not be understood literally:

Because it is written [in Psalms 104:35] “let sins be consumed out of the Earth, and not “let the sinners”. And as for Amalek too, the Torah stresses mainly the
“remembrance of Amalek”, when Amalek turns into a memory, a culture, a lofty ideal, a sublime notion….It is this remembrance of Amalek that we are commanded to blot out. [Derashot el Ami, 143]

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1880), the founder of Neo-Orthodoxy, progenitor of Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy, holds a view similar to that of Rabbi Amiel. Hirsch notes that Jews do not kill Amalekites, rather Jews only remove the remembrance and glory that Amalek desired. He elaborates on this in his exegesis of the verse ” ‘I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek’ – not Amalek, but rather its remembrance and glory.” [Commentary on Exodus, 171, Exodus 17:14]

SomeOrthodox authorities claim that no Amalekite can ever convert to Judaism. [For instance, Avraham Danzig, Hayei Adam, Hilkhot Megillah, 155a] They state this as a plain fact, so plain that they see no need to present any proof for their claim. However it is hard to understand why they have done so, as the Mishneh Torah is quite clear on this issue: Amalekites may indeed convert to Judaism. [details below].

Maimonides approach to this subject provides a broad and comprehensive approach. He states that “all heathens, without exception, once they become converts…are regarded as Israelites in every respect…and they may enter the congregation of the Lord immediately…excepting the four nations”.

[Mishneh Torah, Laws concerning forbidden intercourse 12.17, in “The Code of Maimonides”, volume 5, The Book of Holiness, Yale Judaica Series]

However, this in only a general guideline: Maimonides then cites the Tannaitic principle of commingled nations, and rules that members of even the four nations may enter the congregation of the Lord, i.e. become Jews. [Ibid. 12.15] When specifically considering Amalekites, he notes that neither their conversion nor inclusion in the community poses any problem. Maimonides approach regarding 2 Samuel 1:13-16 and the slaying of the Amalekite stranger differs from that adopted in the Mekhilta (a midrash collection):

It is a scriptural decree that the court shall not put a man to death or flog him on his own admission [of guilt]. This is done only on the evidence of two witnesses. It is true that Joshua condemned Achan to death on the latter’s admission, and that David ordered the execution of the Amalekite stranger on the latter’s admission. But those were emergency cases, or the death sentences pronounced in those instances were prescribed by the state law.
[The Book of Judges, Laws concerning Sanhedrin 18.6]
Maimonides thus assumes that the only grounds for slaying the stranger were the fact that it was either an immediate emergency, or a penalty prescribed by state law, and not that he was an Amalekite. Whereas the Mekhilta assumes that slaying the Amalekite stranger complies with the biblical injunction to destroy Amalek, Maimonides assumed this killing, unless justified in terms of another legitimate principle, would be unacceptable.

How then did Maimonides understand the injunction to blot out the memory of Amalek? He took a different and severely restricted view of this phrase. An analysis of several other of his rulings allows us to understand the extent of his restrictions. Maimonides writes “No war is declared against any nation before peace offers are made to it. This obtains both in an optional war and a war for a religious cause, as it is said: ‘When you draw near to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it’. (Deut.20:10) If the inhabitants make peace and accept the seven [Noachide] commandments enjoined upon the descendants of Noah, none of them is slain, but they become tributary.
[Mishneh Torah, The Book of Judges, Laws concerning Kings and Wars 6.1]

Before declaring an optional war – one not commanded by the Torah – as well as before declaring a war for a religious cause, such as “the war against the seven nations, and against Amalek”, a peace offer must be made [Ibid. 5.1] This peace offer should propose to renounce war if the enemy agrees to three conditions (1) to accept the Noachide commandments (2) pay tribute, and (3) submit to servitude. [Ibid. 6.1]

The requirement that a peace offer be made even prior to waging a war for a religious cause would appear to deviate from the biblical command to blot out the memory of Amalek. Deuteronomy 20:10, which Maimonides quoted, concerns only optional wars, as it is made clear further on: “Thus shalt thou do to all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations. But of the cities of these peoples, which the Lord thy God gives thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breathes” (Deut. 20:15,16). The Sifre commentary on this explicitly states “When you draw nigh unto a city – Scripture speaks here of a non-obligatory war”.

In fact, Maimonides could well have noted even more biblical support. Among other examples, Deut. 2:24-26 suggests that a declaration of war must be preceded by a peace offer, and Moses offers peace and doesn’t slay Sihon King of the Amorites, although Sihon is a king of a nation condemned to destruction. In accordance with such biblical examples, Talmud Yerushalmi notes that before embarking on the conquest of the land of Canaan, Joshua offered the Canaanite nations three options: to make peace, leave the land, or go to war. [Yerushalmi Shevi’it 6.5; also see Nachmanides commentary on the Torah to Deut. 20:10]

All these biblical and Talmudic sources can be relied upon to support the lenient view, but these apparently only refer to the Canaanite nations. Maimonides understanding of the situation was innovative: Maimonides explicitly includes Amalek in the lenient policy, equating them with the seven nations.

“In a war waged against the seven nations, or against Amalek, if they refuse to accept the terms of peace, none of them is spared, as it is said ‘But of the cities of these peoples…you shall save nothing alive that breathes’. So too with respect to Amalek, it is said ‘blot out the remembrance of Amalek’ “. [Laws concerning Kings and Wars 6.4]

Relying in rabbinic exegesis which made the destruction of the seven nations contingent upon their behavior, Maimonides concluded that the command to blot out Amalek should also be considered contingent, and restricted to specific circumstances in which Amalek refused to accept a peace offer.

Why does Maimonides do all this? Because he understood that Judaism and Torah stand for the highest expression on ethics, as he writes “There is no vengeance in the commandments of the Torah, but compassion, mercy and peace in the world.” [Laws concerning the Sabbath 2.3]

As Avi Sagy notes: “Maimonides moral interpretation is in accordance with the spirit of the Torah and its fundamental premises regarding human justice, premises that should come into play in our behavior toward all human beings. It is on this basis that Maimonides radically restricted the ruling to destroy Amalek, “seeing neither obligation (nor merit) in eradicating or harming this nation without a moral justification

[Gerald J. Blidstein, Ekronot Mediniyim be-Mishnat ha-Rambam (Ramat Gan, Bar Ilan Univ. Press, 1983), p.223]

What really happened at Sinai?

What Really Happened at Sinai?

Henry B. Balser

Conservative Judaism, Vol.XLVII, No.2, Winter 1995, p.64-68

Non-Orthodox Jews are extremely uncomfortable with the question, “What really happened at Sinai?” You cannot ask a question afraid of the answer. Those intrepid souls who have tried to examine the issue have tended to disregard the account given in the book of Exodus and instead imposed their theology on it. For Mordechai Kaplan, revelation by a supernatural God is impossible, so the Sinai event is a mythological event, of little importance to him. Buber asks the question directly in his book Moses. He tries to make sense of the text but admits:

It is precisely when we make the most earnest efforts to establish a reality, a reality consisting of actual facts, that we are possessed by the feeling that the words of the Covenant, the Ten Words could surely not have entered the
world thus, in such optical and acoustical pomp and circumstance; and where the narrative reports them as having them been written on Tablets of Stone, things happen quite differently, in and solitude. We the late-born,
oppressed as we are by the merciless problem of Truth, feel in our own minds a singular echoing of the protest which found its expression in the story of the Revelation at Sinai.

We interpret the text in the light of certain assumptions. We reject the story we are given a priori; it could not have happened that way. But what is this Truth that oppresses us? Of course it is the truth of modern rationalism which assumes that the story left to us by our ancestors could not be true. God cannot be heard in a loud and clear voice. Nor can God be seen. Yet the Torah is very clear that the people heard and saw God. We start with assumptions that make the biblical story impossible, and then we try to interpret that story.

In practical terms, we can pretend that we believe they heard God, and we pretend that the text does not say that they saw God. But hearing God is no more rational, no less anthropomorphic than seeing God. So perhaps our ancestors heard the voice of catholic Israel at Sinai.

I propose taking the experience of our ancestors seriously. Without assuming that we accept the text literally, I would like at least to start with the possibility that the text we have received reflects a real experience. Once we get rid of our modern arrogance, the confidence that we certainly know more about Truth than they could possibly have known, we might be able to be struck with the same sense of God’s presence and have the same awe for God’s appearance that they did.

Modern biblical criticism does not prove anything about the nature of the Sinai event. It may show us that there is more than one source and that it was not all written down at the same time by the same author. But the text tries to tell us a story in which the voice of God was heard and the glory of God was seen.

I am making the following assumptions about the text: What we have is the memory of the event as it was passed down through the generations. I do not assume that the words are all from God. We have the integration of several stories of the event, but they do represent what was reported about a real event. We do not have to interpret the story exactly as they interpreted it, but we do have to take seriously their experience of it. And the heart of that experience is that they heard and saw God.

Is it possible to hear or see God? Or can God be apprehended only intellectually? To answer this question we have to go to Maimonides. According to Maimonides, all the prophets with the exception of Moses used their imaginative faculty in apprehending God’s message. In other words, they saw and heard certain things, but only Moses understood God’s message without the intermediary function of the imagination.

According to Maimonides, Moses had become pure intellect and had ceased to be a body. So he heard no sounds and had no visions. His understanding of God was purely rational. The text, on the other hand, is purely metaphorical when it talks of hearing God’s voice or seeing God’s kavod.

While Maimonides does violence with the text, his defense of the Torah can work within his intellectual framework. He can assert that Moses was the one and only human being to reach the level necessary to apprehend God, and so the Torah is the only form that God’s “word” can take once it is put into human language. Thus, the Torah, while it is written in the language of ordinary human beings, is the only purely divine document that we can possibly have. There is no revelation. Imagination would impose subjectivity and cultural bias on the Torah. Thus, if Muhammad had attained the same level of intellect and prophecy that Moses had, the Quran would have had the same commandments as the Torah. The only difference would be that the Quran would be written in Arabic for the benefit of its audience.

Maimonides assumes that God is pure intellect and can be apprehended, to the extent that it is possible, purely intellectually Words and pictures distort God. Intellect is totally objective, while imagination is subjective. But if we were to talk to God as pure consciousnrss, we might conclude that the rational faculty and the imaginative faculty are both avenues to apprehending God. Neither is purely objective and neither is totally subjective either. (A deconstructionist might say that everything is subjective. A modern Marxist might say that everything is based in class, gender, culture, and race bias. But I will assume that we are not fully in these camps.)

One of the most profound developments that has come from modern physics is the acknowledgement that there is no such thing as pure objectivity The Heisenherg Principle asserts that the observer always affects that which is observed. This does not mean that there is no truth in the observation, but it does mean that the observer is part of the picture or equation. This concept has been extended into other intellectual endeavors. The historian and social scientist, as well as the scholar of literature, must now be aware that they view the subject matter or the text from a particular vantage point.

We cannot maintain today that Moses was a totally unbiased, nonsubjective receiver of God’s message. There is no such thing. The cultural relativist will maintain that Moses was a product of his time and culture, and the Torah and the commandments are only artifacts of that time and culture. They therefore have no divine mandate. We assert, however, that it is possible for a limited human being, who speaks a particular language and is grounded in a particular society and time, to reach out and perceive God’s will, even though the perception will be influenced by who that person is.

Why should a rational perception of God’s will be preferable to an imaginative perception involving sights and sounds? If reason inevitably has an element of subjectivity in it, can we not assume that imagination has an element of objective truth in it? Is a Mozart symphony a purely subjective creation or does it contain elements of divine revelation? Would a painting by Rembrandt or Picasso be a more immediate way of expressing a truth from God than would be a logical train of thought?

Even Maimonides asserted that prophecy involved a flow that could be called superrational, in that it is above and beyond the limits of human language. Maimonides makes the assumption that any translation of the flow into the imagination faculty is necessarily a distortion Only Moses gets the message in a totally undistorted fashion. Today we must describe prophecy as the touching of the human consciousness by the pure consciousness which is God. Then, if we can avoid prejudging the relative merit of the internal dialogue which we call reason and the hearing of sounds and the seeing of visions, We come closer to understanding prophecy in genera] and Sinai in particular.

When consciousness flows from God to humans, we experience a bifurcation into reason and imagination. This, to a large degree, parallels the division in our brains into right and left hemispheres. Consciousness is not simply a product of the brain and its functions. The brain and its functions enable humans to tap into consciousness, but consciousness comes from God and returns to God. It is the rational faculty that reaches out from the human experience and drives us to seek the truth. It is the imaginative-creative faculty that allows us to tune into God.

When the flow of consciousness comes from God to the prophet, it splits into thoughts and immediate experiences and sensations. The two together make up the whole of the revelation. The rational side evaluates the experience: It questions whether this is truly from God; it attempts to filter out that which is not God. The imaginative side experiences it directly. If the critical side is totally dominant, we do not experience God at all. Indeed, we may question if there is a God or there can be revelation. If the imaginative side is dominant, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the real from the unreal, that which is from God and that which comes from other sources.

Let me share with you an experience I once had lying in bed as I was drifting off to sleep. I found myself on the boundary between dreaming consciousness and waking consciousness. For a short while I was able to control the process and move back and forth between being awake and being asleep. I could see a thought turn into a picture and then reverse the process. The thought and the picture were two forms of the same thing. It was a startling experience. Neither was more true than the other. One was a critical rational experience, the other was a direct imaginative experience. If the only experiences that are real are those that are critical and rational, then we are truly oppressed and incapable of an active engagement with the consciousness that is around us. If we are incapable of critical distance, then we are imprisoned by our immediate sensations, which may or may not correspond to external reality.

Kaplan and Buber were both “oppressed … by the merciless problem of truth.” For Kaplan there is no consciousness beyond that which is in nature, so Sinai did not happen. For Buber, God’s consciousness does not translate into words, thoughts, pictures, or sounds. We, however, may not have to be oppressed by rational Truth as it is perceived by Kaplan and Buber. For those who are oppressed by the Truth, the biblical story at Sinai is either an invention of later generations or a hallucination.

This is the critical juncture for the non-Orthodox Jew. Is there really such a thing as prophecy? Did Sinai really happen? I have absolutely no reason to discredit the account passed down to us and preserved in the biblical record. The fact that the text has different versions of the experience does not trouble me. What we have is the event as our ancestors experienced it and passed on to the next generations.

Thus there was a group of escaped slaves who experienced their freedom from bondage as coming from God. At Sinai they encountered their God. He spoke to them. They heard Him and saw Him. Our rational faculty asks: Was what they heard truly the voice of God? Was what they saw truly the Glory of God? But if our rational faculty can be convinced that the imaginative faculty has its own way of perceiving truth, then we can begin to accept that they “heard” God and “Saw” God, not as we see the physical objects of the world, but as best as they could perceive, given their human limitations. What they saw and heard was God-as-Israel-sees-and-hears-Him.

We cannot separate the God of Israel from our experience of Him. Similarly, I cannot separate my wife and my children from my experiences of them. Surely they exist apart from me, but I cannot know them as they are totally apart from me. My feelings, needs, and understandings necessarily color my view of who they are. So God’s speech cannot be separated from our understanding of it. God’s appearance cannot be separated from our vision of it. Was it a hallucination? The people present certainly did not experience it as such. They were certainly critical of the appearances of other gods. In judging it, all we can say with our rational faculty is that we have an experience of God, one that we can reexperience in the life we live as Jews. On Pesah we are back in Egypt. On Shavuot we stand at Sinai. On Shabbat we stand both at Sinai and in Egypt. As we reexperience, not as nostalgia and not as a long dead story but as a living event, then we know that what happened was real and powerful.

Possessing critical reason, we understand that we can testify only to what our people experienced at the Exodus and at Sinai. That is our gateway God. It is true for us. When I say that, I do not mean that it is just a subjective experience that is true only for us. It is true for us because we can verify it as an authoritative experience. We then try to bring its truth into the world by our action, our mitzvot, and our testimony. Our job is to make the world into the image of our revelation. It then begins to ring true to others as the way the world ought to be.

Meanwhile, other groups have had their own experiences of God. Muslims have Muhammad and the Quran as their gateway. Christians have Jesus and his resurrection. I have no personal way to verify the veracity of their claims except by the witness of their experience. I also cannot attack the veracity of their relationship with God. I can only judge where their revelations may conflict with the truth of our experience. I start with truth of our revelation.

For modernists, for people whose world-view was framed by the idea that there exists an objective reality whose nature can be deciphered only by our rational intellect, Sinai remains a metaphor, a mythological event, or a hallucination. But if we assume that human beings grope for truth both through their intellect and with their creativity and imagination, them we have to acknowledge that the revelation at Sinai is as real as any other event, probably more so. It really happened. And our ancestors saw and heard God.
Henry B. Raiser is Rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Winnipeg, Manttoba.

How Many Biblical Authors? Rabbi Emanuel Rackman

In the Think Judaism blog, Yitzchak Sprung writes:

….Rabbi Rackman tells us that revelation is a historical fact, its historical reality is crucial to his faith, and that he’s not sure how it took place. This presumably means that like most of us, he does not know how prophecy works. He continues:

“The most definitive record of God’s encounters with man is contained in the Pentateuch. Much of it may have been written by people in different times, but at one point in history God not only made the people of Israel aware of His immediacy but caused Moses to write the eternal evidence of the covenant between Him and His people. Even the rabbis in the Talmud did not agree on the how.”

I’m not sure what Rabbi Rackman’s intent is in this comment. Does he mean that God encountered man, who wrote down or preserved pieces of prophecy, before Moses rewrote it from scratch through his own prophecy? Or when he suggests that “much of it may have been written by people in different times”, does he simply mean that indeed, the Bible may have multiple authors, because the patriarchs wrote down their prophetic experiences which were supplemented and perhaps edited by Moses, who wrote the “eternal evidence of the covenant between” God and the Jewish people?

The latter understanding, controversial as it is, seems to better explain his note that “Even the rabbis in the Talmud did not agree on the how.”

Crucial to our understanding of this point is another quote from Rabbi Rackman, which I saw in a guest post by Rabbi Michael Broyde on Hirhurim:

“The sanctity of the Pentateuch does not derive from God’s authorship of all of it, but rather from the fact that God’s is the final version. The final writing by Moses has the stamp of divinity-the kiss of immortality.” (Judaism, Spring 1969, page 153)

As R. Broyde explains it, This is a sort of “Orthodox version of the documentary hypothesis”, allowing for “claims that there might have been a J, P, E or D, but the R (who the secularist call “the redactor”) really is Moshe Rabbenu mipi haGevura.”

This view seems to imply something which our first quote did not: perhaps when God, through prophecy, instructed Moses to write and edit the Torah, the instruction was to include materials which were not originally prophetic at all!

At any rate, Rabbi Rackman writes that while the mode and details of prophecy are subject to some disagreement, there is something the Rabbis all agreed on:

“But all agreed that the record was divine and they cherished it beyond description, even as they cherished a manner of exegesis which Moses simultaneously transmitted to his colleagues and disciples. In their ongoing relationship with God they sought to fathom the meanings- apparent and concealed- of every word and letter of His revelation. And that quest has not yet ended.”

This being the case, Rabbi Rackman seems to emphasize in two short paragraphs that the importance of revelation is that it occurred in history, but not how exactly it occurred in history, which may seem to fly in the face of Rambam’s seventh and eighth principles, which we have summarized elsewhere. However, Rabbi Michael Broyde, in the article noted above, writes explicitly that he does not consider Rabbi Rackman’s views to be in violation of the 13 principles. In his opinion, Rabbi Rackman doesn’t contradict the Jewish dogma that “each and every word” was given to Moses at Sinai; “He just speculates as to where God got the original material for the Torah from.”

See the rest of Yitzchak Sprung’s essay here: How Many Biblical Authors?: Rabbi Emanuel Rackman

Shofetim: reaching perfection must include the whole of our selves


Tucked away in today’s sidra, in a narrative about idolatrous worship listing the abominations practised by the surrounding peoples, is a verse that stands out for its shortness and its power:
תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה, עִם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
You shall be whole-hearted with the Eternal your God. (Deut18:13)
The word translated here as “whole hearted” is “Tamim” perfect, whole, steadfast – but the word means so, so much more. It is used differently throughout bible to describe a set of characteristics of quite diverse people and things. Noah is described as an ish tamim hayah be-dorotav” – someone who was ‘tam’ in his generation. Jacob is described as of “ish tam yoshev ohalim” – a simple man (tam) who dwelled in tents.
The Torah itself is characterized by this quality of Temimut. The psalmist tells us “Torat Adonai temimah meshivat nefesh” ‘The teaching of the Eternal is temimah, renewing the soul” (Psalm…

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