I must now deal with R. Joseph Ibn Caspi, who is often described as holding a view similar to what we have seen already, but more radical in that he saw it as a general principle of interpretation. I refer to the notion that the Torah incorporates all sorts of untruths because these were what people believed at the time. It is said that this is how Ibn Caspi understands the rabbinic phrase “The Torah speaks in the language of men.” Here is a lengthy quotation from the late Isadore Twersky taken from his classic article on Ibn Caspi.
Kaspi frequently operates with the following exegetical premise: not every Scriptural statement is true in the absolute sense. A statement may be purposely erroneous, reflecting an erroneous view of the masses. We are not dealing merely with an unsophisticated or unrationalized view, but an intentionally, patently false view espoused by the masses and enshrined in Scripture. The view or statement need not be allegorized, merely recognized from what it is. . . . Many scriptural statements, covered by this plastic rubric, are seen as errors, superstitions, popular conceptions, local mores, folk beliefs, and customs (minhag bene adam), statements which reflect the assumptions or projections or behavioral patterns of the people involved rather than an abstract truth. In its Kaspian adaptation, the rabbinic dictum may then be paraphrased as follows: “The Torah expressed things as they were believed or perceived or practiced by the multitude and not as they were in actuality.”Leshon bene adamis not just a carefully calculated concession to certain shortcomings of the masses, that is, their inability to think abstractly, but a wholesale adoption of mass views and local customs. . . . The Torah did not endorse or validate these views; it merely recorded them and a proper philosophic sensibility will recognize them.
Many people have understood Twersky to be saying that the Torah includes within it all kinds of superstitions and folk beliefs that were shared by the masses. (According to Ibn Caspi, the Torah does contain “necessary beliefs” that are not true, but these are of a different sort, as they relate to the masses’ inability to grasp philosophical truths.) While it is true that according to Ibn Caspi these beliefs are included in the Torah, they are notadvocatedby the Torah, but are to be understood as mistaken beliefs of the masses. In other words, Ibn Caspi does not say that the Torah itself, that is, when it is God speaking to Moses or in general narrative sections, should be regarded in this fashion.
So, for example, in the story of Rachel, Leah and the mandrakes (Gen. 30: 14-17), Ibn Capsi suggests that Rachel and Leah shared a common superstition that these mandrakes would help one conceive, and the story in the Torah is from these women’s perspective.Yet the Torah itself never states that the mandrakes have magical properties. That is, the Torah does notincorporatea superstition because this is what people believed, but ratherrecordsa superstition that was believed in by some. Another example is that the Torah mentions that God told the Israelites (Ex. 12:13) to put blood on their doorposts. Ibn Caspi explains that this was due to the ancient superstition that blood had magical qualities.The Torah thus commanded an action that took into account the masses’ superstition, but it was not the Torah itself advocating the superstition.
I am unaware of any place in his writings where Ibn Caspi states that the Torah itself is expressing a superstitious belief, that is, where itaffirmsthe efficacy of a superstition or a folk belief because it is reflecting the views of the masses.
Readers will recall that in part 1 I quoted examples where the Bible, including the Torah, includes incorrect scientific information because this was what was believed at the time. Someone who wishes to remain anonymous called my attention to Samuel David Luzzatto’s commentary to Gen. 1:6. Shadal offers another example of what he thinks is the Torah using incorrect science because of what was the common ancient belief, and he includes this example under the rubric of “the Torah speaking in the language of men”. The Torah speaks of arakia, and describes it as standing between the waters, that is, the water on earth and the water in the heavens. Shadal explains, and brings other biblical verses to show that this conception of water being found in the heavens was later rejected.
Because the termrakiawas based on the belief in higher waters, “the waters that are above the heavens” (Ps. 148:4) and which therakiasupported, and because this belief became obsolete and forgotten, the termrakiaitself became obsolete. . . . Hence the Torah spoke on a human level and according to human belief when it said, “let there be arakia.” However, its intended message remains true and settled: God set the waters in nature to be lifted up and then to fall to earth.
R. Samuel Moses Rubenstein offers another example of what he thinks is the Torah using language that is not accurate but reflects the mistaken beliefs of the masses.He refers to the fact that the Torah speaks of God in a way that implies that there are also other gods in existence, a phenomenon scholars refer to as "monolatry". This means belief in many gods but worship of only one.
Monolatry was clearly the belief of much of Israel throughout the biblical period. When Israelites worshipped the Baal or other gods, it is not that they rejected the existence or power of the God of Israel. It is just that they were hedging their bets, and if they were in need of rain it made sense to them to also worship Baal, the storm god. The question is, does the Bible itself assume a monolatrous world? Traditional commentators assert no, while many academic scholars believe that it does. (Yechezkel Kaufmann was a notable exception.)
The academic biblical scholars argue that the Bible takes the existence of other gods for granted, and cite many biblical verses in support of this assumption. For example, Ex. 15:11: “Who is like thee, O Lord, among the gods.” See also Deut 4:19: “And lest though lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven, thou be drawn away and worship them, and serve themwhich the Lord thy God hath allotted unto all the peoples under the whole heaven.”
As mentioned, traditional commentators offer alternative interpretations of verses such as these. Yet Rubenstein concluded that the Bible reflects the mistaken monolatrous views of the masses. InKadmoniyot ha-Halakhah(Kovno, 1926), pp. 44-45, he writes:
מקומות אין מספר בכתה"ק מתארי ה':"הא-ל הגדול הגבור והנורא",א-להי האלהים","ה' א-ל רחום וחנון"ודומיהם המראים שה' א-להי ישראל לא היה גם אצל ישראל לא-לוה יחידי מוחלט לכל העמים והארצות רק לא-להי ישראל והארץ ובעל תארים נכבדים שאין כמוהם לאלהים אחרים.
He is careful to point out—contrary to critical biblical scholars— that this was not the belief of Moses or of the wise men of Israel. Yet he also insists that the peshat of the Torah and other parts of the Bible indeed reflects the mistaken views of the masses(ibid., pp. 44-45, n. 1):
אין מספר להמקומות המתבארים ומובנים על אמתתם בכתה"ק על פי זה. אבל יש לדעת כי אמונה זו היתה רק אמונת ההמון. והגדולים וגם המחוקק בעצמו הוכרחו לדבר לפי רוח ההמון ואמונתם. אבל אין לחשוב בשום אופן כי כן היה גם אמונת ראשי העם והגדולים. ולזה א"א שתמצא חוק בתורה שתחזק אמונה זו.
The notion that the Torah records things that are incorrect actually goes back to Maimonides. InLimits of Orthodox Theology, pp. 68-69, I noted how according to Maimonides the corporeal descriptions of God were intended to be taken literally by the masses. This was the way to educate then about God’s existence. Only after His existence was certain in their minds were they able to move beyond the corporeal conception of the Deity.
There is also Maimonides’ famous conception of “necessary truths” inGuide3:28. For example, the Torah describes God as expressing anger. Yet God has no emotions, so why does the Torah describe Him this way? Maimonides says that this is a “necessary belief” and as explained by Efodi, Shem Tov and many others, this means that even though the belief is not true, the Torah teaches it so that the masses will be led to obedience of God. Only the elites can be expected to understand that God doesn’t have emotions and thus interpret the verses figuratively. However, and this is the novelty of Maimonides (as explained by many of his interpreters), the Torah intended for the masses to adopt an untruth that the Torah itself taught. In other words, according to this interpretation, not everything in the Torah is “true”, that is, factually true. However, these untruths are contained in the Torah because they accomplish an important goal. Here are Shem Tov’s words:
ועוד צותה התורה להאמין קצת אמונות שאמונתם הכרחית בתקון עניני המדינה כמו שצוה להאמין שהשם חר אפו ויכעס על עוברי רצונו, וזאת האמונהאינה אמתיתכי הוא לא יתפעל ולא יחר אפו כמו שאמר אני ה' לא שניתי, וצריך שיאמין זאת האמונה האיש המוני שהוא יתפעלואף שהוא שקר הוא הכרחי בקיום המדינהולכן נקראו אלו אמונות הכרחיות ולא אמתיות, והחכם יבין כי זה נאמר בלשון דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.
While on the subject of “necessary beliefs,” I want to call attention to an error that was very common for decades. InGuide3:28 Maimonides gives as one of the necessary beliefs the notion that God responds immediately to the prayer of someone wronged or deceived. (He obviously means one whose prayer is expressed in a proper fashion.) Now I don’t think that any of the masses today really believe this, though you can correct me if I am wrong. I think that even the masses today are sophisticated enough to realize that you can pray all you want, with the bestkavvanah, and you still might not be answered. For example, if it is your time to die, then all the prayer in the world will not prevent this.
Maimonides, however, saw this as a “necessary belief”, something that it was important for the masses to accept. In other words, it was vital to their spirituality to think that if they only prayed better, they would be spared whatever bad thing was upon them. As mentioned already, I have never met people who think like this. However, it could be that even today there are those who are convinced that if only he or she would have prayed with morekavvanahthen the evil decree would havecertainlybeen averted. Yet anyone with some degree of sophistication knows that this isn’t always the case. Even complete believers in divine providence are aware that sometimes, when God has made a decision (such as to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah), nothing you do can change this.
With this in mind, which appears obvious from so many Jewish sources, I was surprised to find that theTur, Orah Hayyim98, has a different perspective. He writes, after describing how one should pray:ואחר שיעשה כל זהמובטח לושתתקבל תפלתו
R. Joseph Karo must have also found this formulation strange, because in his comment in theBeit Yosefhe writes:הם דברי עצמו. In other words, there is no rabbinic source for theTur’s notion, which Maimonides sees as a primitive belief, namely, that proper prayer will automatically bring about a good result.
Returning to Maimonides inGuide3:28, I have often seen articles where people write that in Maimonides’ opinion it is a “necessary belief” that God responds to prayer. In fact, within the last year I read a manuscript from a contemporary scholar who made the same comment. My reply to him was that Maimonides nowhere says that God does not respond to prayer. If you want to argue that this is his esoteric teaching, and the only reading that makes sense when speaking of an unchanging God, that is one thing. But to say that Maimonides regards the notion that God responds to prayer as suitable only for the unsophisticated, and to give as a sourceGuide3:28, is incorrect. As mentioned already, all Maimonides says in this chapter is that the “necessary belief” is that God respondsimmediatelyto prayer. Yet he says nothing about God responding to prayerper se.
It always bothered me that so many people, including scholars, had made such an error. I never knew what to make of it, since anyone who looks in theGuidecan see clearly what Maimonides is talking about. Just a few months ago I stumbled across the answer to my problem. If you look at Michael Friedlaender’s translation of theGuide, which is found online and was the standard English translation for some seventy years, this is how he translates the end ofGuide3:28: “[I]n other cases, that truth is only the means of securing the removal of injustice, or the acquisition of good morals; such is the belief . . . that God hears the crying of the oppressed and vexed, to deliver them out of the hands of the oppressor and tyrant.” In other words, according to Friedlaender’s rendering, which is in opposition to all the other translations, Maimonides is denying that Godeverresponds to prayer. It is based on this translation that so many were led astray.
Returning to R. Kook'sLi-Nevokhei ha-Dor, in chapter 5 he tells us that there comes a point when the events at the beginning of Genesis move from a general story of humanity's development to the actual historical tale of one man, whom he refers to as.האדם ההיסטוריThis is the one of whom the Torah lists his descendants in precise detail. R. Kook is not prepared to read the genealogies given in Genesis in a non-literal fashion.
The genealogy beginning with Cain in Gen. 4, as well as the detailed genealogy of Seth's descendants in Gen. 5, are obviously a difficulty for those who want to read more than the first few chapters in a non-literal fashion. In fact, it was the children that Eve is said to have bore (and for two of these children there follows genealogical lists) that convinced Gersonides that both Eve and Adam of Gen. 2-3 were real people.His comment is directed against Maimonides, whom he identifies by name,for he understands Maimonides to regard Eve as an allegory. Gersonides cannot accept this approach, for what then are we to do with the genealogy beginning with Eve that the Torah provides? While Gersonides asserts that the story with the snake must be understood allegorically,he is equally certain that Adam and Eve are historical.
The same question about genealogy that Ralbag asks with regard to Maimonides can also be asked of Ibn Caspi, who explains Maimonides as saying that the Torah does not speak of a historical Adam.According to this reading, the "Adam" described in the opening chapters of Genesis is really speaking of Moses who is the first “man,” that is, the first human to reach the heights of intellectual perfection.As Lawrence Kaplan has further pointed out,Ibn Caspi states that according to Maimonides the account of creation continues through Gen. 6:8. This means that the detailed genealogy of Gen. ch. 5 is also not to be regarded as historical, and the first real genealogy we get is in ch. 10, with the descendants of Noah..
Returning to ch. 5 ofLi-Nevokhei ha-Dor,there is one other point that is noteworthy. R. Kook describes how life would have continued in Paradise, had it not been for human sin. There would have been the potential for all sorts of things, including space travel and settlement in outer space!
כי ברב ההשתלמות ההדרגית יתגלו עוד בנקל דרכים להתיישב בכוכבים רבים ועולמות אין מספר.
* * * *
1. Someone sent me the following page from R. Aharon Feldman’s new book,The Eye of the Storm.
My correspondent asked me if there is any truth to this story. I have to say that it is a complete fiction. R. Weinberg did not know Ben Gurion from his youth, and he never met him after he became Prime Minister. I am also certain that the Ben-Gurion never met the Chafetz Chaim.
2. With all that has been in the news recently, I am sure that I am not the only one looking at the writings from the Spinka dynasty. I recently found a passage that I don’t understand. I understand the words, but I don’t understand how the Rebbe could have said it, and if anyone can explain the passage I will be grateful. It appears inHekel Yitzhak, parashat Toldot, p. 30b:
ושמעתי מאאמו"ר זצוק"ל שמקובל מרבותינו שמעולם לא נתגייר גר מישמעאל כי הוא כולו ערלה ר"ל . . . אבל מעשו נתגייר כמה גרים כדאי' בדחז"ל, ולעת"ל כולם יתגיירו משום דשרשם בקדושה כדאי' בהארי ז"ל.
My concern is not with the notion that Esau and his progeny are superior to that of Ishmael. Rather, how could he possibly state that there have never been Arab converts?
To be continued
“Joseph Ibn Kaspi: Portrait of a Medieval Jewish Intellectual,” in Twersky, ed.,Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature(Cambridge, 1979), pp. 239-241.
Matzref Kesef, p. 74. The same approach is adopted by Radak in his commentary to Gen. 30:14. This is only one possible answer given by Ibn Caspi, and he also suggests that perhaps mandrakes do indeed have special properties that help a woman to conceive.
SeeMatzref Kesef,p. 137. Based on this Ibn Caspi explains why Tziporah circumcised her son (Ex. 4:25):
ותקח צפורה וכ'. אין עלינו עכ"פ לתת טעם הכרחי מה זאת הרפואה לחולי משה, כי לא כתבה התורה שציוה לה משה שתעשה כן, ואיך שהוא, מבואר כי בימים ההם היה דעת פשוט בהמון העם, כי הדם יש לו סגולה לכל חרדה והתגעשות, ולכן צוה השם שישימו דם על המשקוף ועל המזוזות בבתי ישראל, בחרדתם והתגעשם על צעקת כל מצרים. . . לכן ותקח צורה צור ותכרות את ערלת בנה.
The example of the mandrakes and Tziporah circumcising her son are cited by Isaiah Dimant, “Exegesis, Philosophy and Language in the Writing of Joseph Ibn Caspi” (unpublished doctoral dissertation, UCLA, 1979), pp. 55-56
Translation in Daniel A. Klein,The Book of Genesis: A Commentary by Shadal(Northvale, 1998).
Rubenstein began as a traditional rabbi, as can be seen from hisAvnei Shoham(Warsaw, 1902), which includes correspondence between him and R. Joseph Zechariah Stern. However, he later adopted an approach that today we would term “academic”. There is a great deal that can be written about Rubenstein, but as of yet only one article has appeared: Hanan Gafni, “R. Shmuel Moshe Rubenstein, ha-Hoker ha-Rabani mi-Shavli (1870-1943),”Moreshet Yisrael5 (2008), pp. 139-158. To give an example, not mentioned by Gafni, of how Rubenstein's later thought broke with tradition, see hisHa-Rambam ve-ha-Aggadah(Kovno, 1937), p. 103, where he claims that the story of the miracle of Hanukkah is almost certainly a late aggadic creation, and like many other miracle stories in aggadic literature was not originally intended to be understood as historical reality:
ספק הוא אם הנס של "פך השמן" הוא אפילו הגדה עממית קדומה, קרוב שהוא יצירה אגדית חדשה מבעל הברייתא עצמו או מאחד מבעלי האגדה, ונסים אגדיים כאלו רבים הם בברייתות וגמרא ומדרשים ע"ד ההפלגה כדרכה של האגדה. ולבסוף הובן נס זה למעשה שהיה. עיין שבת כ"ג א'. [טעם ברייתא זו הובא גם במגילת תענית (פ"ט) אבל כמו שנראה היא הוספה מאוחרת, ועיין (שם) ובפסיקתא רבתי (פיסקא דחנוכה) עוד טעם להדלקת נרות חנוכה].
During the most recent Hanukkah I was using R. Joseph Hertz’ siddur, theAuthorized Daily Prayer Book. Based upon how he describes the holiday and the lighting of the menorah, omitting any mention of the miracle of the lights (pp. 946-947), I assume that he also didn’t accept it literally. Note how he states that the lights were kindled during the eight-day Dedication festival, and this is the reason for the eight days of Hanukkah, rather than offering the traditional reason that the eight days of Hanukkah commemorate the eight days that the menorah miraculously burnt.
Three years to the day on which the Temple was profaned by the blaspheming foe, Kislev the 25th165, Judah Maccabeus and his brethren triumphantly entered the Holy City. They purified the Temple, and their kindling of the lights during the eight-day festival of Dedication—Chanukah—is a telling reminder, year by year, of the rekindling of the Lamp of True Religion in their time.
There is no mention of this passage in Benjamin J. Elton's recent wonderful discussion of Hertz's theology and religious policy. SeeBritain's Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry, 1880-1970(Manchester, 2009), chs. 7-8. (He also doesn't mention Hertz's comment that those Jewish commentators who understand aggadah literally are "fools." See Hertz's Foreward to the Soncino Talmud, printed at the beginning of tractate Berakhot.)
Lawrence Kaplan, ”Rationalism and Rabbinic Culture in Sixteenth Century Eastern Europe: Rabbi Mordecai Jaffe’sLevush Pinat Yikrat” (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 1975), p. 246 n. 139, comments that when Ralbag later in this passage criticizes those who understand Cain, Abel and Seth allegorically, he has Maimonides in mind, but avoids mentioning him out of respect.
Regarding Eve and the serpent, R. Chaim Hirschensohn speaks ofרעיוני ההתפתחות במליצי המיטלאגי
In other words, he sees the Torah as using mythological language in the Creation story. SeePenei Hamah, p. 6, which is part 2 of Hirschensohn’sMusagei Shav ve-Emet(Jerusalem, 1932). Dov Schwartz has recently discussed this passage. See his “Maimonides in Religious-Zionist Philosophy,” in James T. Robinson, ed.,The Cultures of Maimonideanism(Leiden, 2009), p. 399:
Hirschensohn assumes as self-evident that the Bible had been influenced by mythological language. The author of the Creation story “couches the ideas of development in mythological metaphors.” How did Hirschensohn explain these mythological stories? He separated paganism from the “original” mythology. In his view, the mythological stories had been, from the start, a description of a class struggle for which the narrators resorted to symbolic language, just as the Bible refers to the sons of God and the daughters of men (Gen. 6:2). Only later, then, did their deference and their fear of their ancestors lead Greeks to literal interpretations of their mythology: “But before philosophy became dominant there, the later Greeks had mistakenly revered their ancestors and thought of them as gods” [Penei Hamah, p. 36]. The Bible, then, uses a mythological style but its messages are social and ideological.
When one sees how Ralbag describes Eve, I think many readers would wish that he had interpreted her allegorically. Here is his comment earlier in Gen. 3 (p. 110 in the Birkat Moshe edition):
והנה קרא האדם שם אשתו "חוה", כאשר השיג בחולשת שכלה, רוצה לומר שלא עלתה מדרגתה על שאר הבעלי חיים עילוי רב, ואם היא בעלת שכל, כי רוב השתמשותה אמנם הוכן לה בדברים הגופיים, לחולשת שכלה ולהיותה לעבודת האדם, ולזה הוא רחוק שיגיע לה שלמות השכל.
Ralbag’s view of Eve was also transferred to women in general. One of my teachers once referred to him as the first advocate of the kollel philosophy, for as Ralbag explains in a number of places, the role of women is to enable men to reach their intellectual perfection. That is, their essence is entirely utilitarian. All the relevant references can be found in Menachem Kellner’s essay comparing Ralbag’s and Maimonides’ view of women, which has now appeared in English in his just publishedTorah in the Observatory. (This book was published byAcademic Studies Press, which in the last few years has published a number of important volumes by top scholars including José Faur, David Berger, David Shatz, and Zvi Mark.)
Take a look at this passage referring to women and tzitzit, from towards the end of Ralbag’s commentary onShelah(p. 188a in the old edition):
למדנו שאין הנשי' חייבות בציצית וראוי היה להיות כן כי הענין אשר העיר עליו זאת המצוה הוא רב העומק ולא יתכן שיגיע אליו שכל הנשים לקלות דעתן
I wonder, if a haredi spokesman quoted this Ralbag as part of his attack on Orthodox feminism, would he take any flak in his own community? Would the haredi women protest? I have another question and I am curious to hear readers’ responses. (I have my own view, but also want to hear from others.). Do leaders of the haredi world believe in separate but equal when it comes to men and women? This is what is often claimed, but I wonder, do they really hold a Ralbag-like position?
The same question I asked at the beginning of the previous paragaph with regard to Ralbag can also be asked about Radak. Here is what he writes in his commentary to Gen. 3:1:
ואמר אל האשה ולא אמר לאדם, האשה קרובה להתפתות יותר מן האיש, כי דעתה קלה
If this explanation appeared in say the EnglishYated, independently offered by a contemporary rabbi with no mention of Radak, would haredi women be offended?
And would women be offended if the following passage, from R. Zvi Travis’Pirkei Hanhagat Bayit, ch. 2 (which I am told used to be a popular sefer), appeared in an English newspaper (called to my attention by Dr. Yitzhak Hershkowitz; emphasis added):
אף אחר בריאת האשה אין כאן שותפות. אלא, וטול כלל זה בידך,תכלית הבריאה היא האיש, והקדוש ברוך הוא נתן לאיש מתנה שתעזור לו, והיא האשה.
Another good example is found in R. Avraham Blumenkrantz’Gefen Poriah, p. 352, where he quotes approvingly another rabbi who states as follows(emphasis added):
Her tears are ever ready to flow at the most miniscule suggestion of being dealt with as a maidservant. She will concede you the service ofוהוא ימשל בך. She will consent to call youבעלי, but don't accent theדגשin theביתtoo heavily. She must constantly be reassured that there is honor and dignityin her subservience. Honor her more than you honor yourself. She must be compensatedfor her subjugation, and be made to feel that she has a genuine share in the dignity of the throne.
Do haredi women really feel that they are subservient or subjugated? Do haredi men feel this way about their wives? Haven't the masses in haredi society (American haredi society at least) also accepted the notion of separate but equal when it comes to men and women?
In his commentary toGuide2:30, Ibn Caspi also discusses the creation story, and records what was apparently a popular saying in his day. For those of you who sometimes get frustrated with some of your co-religionists, it is worth bearing in mind:אלמלא המשתגעים יהיה העולם חרב. Regarding the saying, see also R. Judah Leib Zlotnick,Midrash ha-Melitzah ha-Ivrit(Jerusalem, 1938), p. 57. The saying is also found in Maimonides' introduction to Nezikin.