Mekori Q&A – Major Problems with the Kabbalah

Q: Someone asked…

I have heard you mention on several occasions that you object to the kabbalistic idea of there being multiple manifestations of divinity. Do you believe that such ideas are avodah zarah (idolatry)? The kabbalists who employed such language were strict monotheists, and it seems that their depictions amounted to little more than poetic illustrations of the many perceptions of God found within the Tanakh and rabbinic literature. If someone were to affirm such ideas, but still believed in Ein Sof, would you still have a problem with that? Thanks.

A: Thank you for your questions.

I do indeed view the “multiple manifestations of divinity” concept (referred in the kabbalah to as partzufim, or “faces”) as being avodah zarah. The Kabbalists who used this language were not strict monotheists. Rather, they were instead very strict dualists who affirmed a belief in a transcendent god (which they termed Ein Sof, or “The Infinite”) who, prior to the creation, “creates” (or, emanates) another god which is imminent (i.e. finite). This language is explicit in the Zohar literature, especially in its explanation of Bereshit 1:1.

Zohar 1:15a [ד] –

 בְּהַאי רֵאשִׁית בְּרָא הַהוּא סְתִימָא דְּלָא אִתְיְידַע לְהֵיכָלָא דָא
הֵיכָלָא דָא אִקְרֵי אֱלהִים וְרָזָא דָא בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלהִים

“With this Reishit (beginning), the Concealed One which is not known created (bara) this chamber, and this chamber is called Elohim (God). This is the secret meaning of the verse, ‘Be-Reishit bara Elohim‘ [i.e. ‘Using Reishit, Ein Sof created Elohim’]”

This passage reads Bereshit 1:1 as referring to two gods (powers, potencies, emanations, or what have you), one creating the other. Incidentally, the Gemara on b.Megillah 9a discusses certain changes that were made by the hakhmei ha-sanhedrin when preparing the first Greek translation of the Torah as requested by King Ptolemy. One of the changes they made was to switch the order of the words in their translation from בראשית ברא אלהים to אלהים ברא בראשית in order to avoid the appearance of polytheism since, due to the common style, as enabled by the syntax of the Greek language, the most important word would be placed first. This being the case, the hakhamim were afraid that בראשית, appearing first in the Torah, would be misunderstood as a reference to a deity. As Rashi explains there:

אלהים ברא בראשית. את השמים – שלא יאמר בראשית שם הוא ושתי רשויות הן וראשון ברא את השני

“God created in the beginning – the heavens, etc. [This rewording] was so that no one would say that Bereshit is a name and that there are therefore two gods (reshuyot, “powers”), and the one created the other.”

The commentary of the Tosafot on this passage says that,

הרי בראשית אינו שם כלל אלא בתחילה

“Behold, Bereshit is not a name at all, rather [it means] ‘In the beginning.'”

The Zohar not only adopts the mistaken reading of Bereshit 1:1, but it also purports that it is the “secret” meaning of the original words.

Just in case you think that my reading of the Zohar is uncharitable, the Kisei Eliyahu (written in the 19th century by Eliyahu Suleiman Mani as an introduction to the Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah) makes a sharp distinction between the Ein Sof – to which he says it is forbidden for us to direct our prayers – and Zeir Anpin (one of the lower manifestations/faces), which is referred to as “our God” and which, together with his celestial wife Nukba, cares for and governs the world on behalf of the Ein Sof.

From page כ”ו – [brackets mine]
kisei-eliyahu-citation-1

“The principle that arises [from the previous section] is that the First Cause – which is called Ein Sof by mouths of all the kabbalists – is the one who emanated, created, formed, and made all things, and he conceals himself within Zeir Anpin. Therefore Zeir Anpin is the ruler of all the created things, and directs them, and nourishes them, and provides for them with the power of Ein Sof that is in him. Therefore, he [i.e. Zeir Anpin] is our God and we are his people, for our souls are a part of him, and he is whom we should worship, etc.”

From page כ”ז – [brackets mine]
kisei-eliyahu-citation-2

“And so you see that all the directing of the world is done through Zeir Anpin, and everything is by the power of Ein Sof, blessed is he, which illumines him like a soul within him For with his power [i.e. the power of Ein Sof] Zeir Anpin performs all of his deeds, and also with all of our calling out to him. All of our prayers are to him [i.e. to Zeir Anpin] because ‘he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock of his hand’ [cf. Tehillim 95:7]. And just as our teacher [Yitzchak Luria] has written (may his merit protect us) in the book Mavo Shaarim, ‘We are his people Israel and all of us are guarded by Zeir and Nukba, and we are their children, as it is written: You are children of HaShem your gods’ [cf. Devarim 14:1, apparently elohim here is being taken by Luria to be plural and a mystical reference to the heavenly couple of Zeir Anpin and Nukba].”

This type of language is unfortunately not rare, and it is highly problematic.

As for the monotheism of those who espoused such ideas, I would say that while they may have strongly professed a strict monotheism, their writings betrayed otherwise. Rav Yihyeh Qafih, z”l refers to this type of profession in his Milhamot HaShem as being no different than when Christians, after explaining all of their ideas about multiplicity within God, the incarnation through a virgin, etc. then proceed to say “but we really just believe in one God” – it is not much more than lip service to a monotheistic idea. In saying this, Rav Qafih quotes directly from a very important passage in the Moreh HaNavokhim of the Rambam which says,

If, however, you have a desire to rise to a higher state, viz., that of reflection, and truly to hold the conviction that God is One and possesses true unity, without admitting plurality or divisibility in any sense whatever, you must understand that God has no essential attribute in any form or in any sense whatever, and that the rejection of corporeality implies the rejection of essential attributes. Those who believe that God is One, and that He has many attributes, declare the unity with their lips, and assume plurality in their thoughts. This is like the doctrine of the Christians, who say that He is one and He is three, and that the three are one. Of the same character is the doctrine of those who say that God is One, but that He has many attributes; and that He with His attributes is One, although they deny corporeality and affirm His most absolute freedom from matter; as if our object were to seek forms of expression, not subjects of belief. For belief is only possible after the apprehension of a thing; it consists in the conviction that the thing apprehended has its existence beyond the mind [in reality] exactly as it is conceived in the mind. If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of the belief or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief is true. Renounce desires and habits, follow your reason, and study what I am going to say in the chapters which follow on the rejection of the attributes; you will then be fully convinced of what we have said: you will be of those who truly conceive the Unity of God, not of those who utter it with their lips without thought, like men of whom it has been said, “Thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins” (Jer. 12:2). It is right that a man should belong to that class of men who have a conception of truth and understand it, though they do not speak of it. Thus the pious are advised and addressed, “Commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still. Selah.” (Ps. 4:5)

(I:50 – Friedlander Edition)

True monotheism is necessarily apophatic, and consists in our taking every measure to nullify any corporeality or spatio-temporal attributes from our conception of God. Doing this is essential to “pulling the plug” on even the possibility of idolatry, which a proper monotheistic conception of God necessarily precludes.

The Kabbalah, however, is not only decidedly cataphatic, but its practitioners relate to divinity in very practical and matter-of-fact ways on the basis of such mistaken descriptions of God. I wish that it were an uncommon occurrence, but I regularly hear the kabbalistic rabbis in my own city make bold and unabashed statements such as, “You’re God, I’m God, everything is God. In Judaism we believe that the entire world is just God” (this is a direct quote). The repeated instances of these and similar statements simply disallow me from accepting the thesis of the kabbalistic apologists. To claim that all of the cataphatic statements made in the Zohar and other mystical books are mere “metaphors” or “poetry” to illustrate certain concepts does not stand up to textual scrutiny. Further, it defies the consistent events of history and cannot be maintained with complete intellectual honesty. While I do believe that some kabbalists (e.g. the Ben Ish Hai) worked very hard to distance the kabbalah from this troubling phenomenon, and they should be respected and praised for doing so, the fact is that the majority then did not, and today still do not, do so.

Another important point about the “poetic” language used to express acts of God in the kabbalah is the switch from kingly decrees in the Torah’s creation narrative to very intense and graphic sexual imagery in the narrative of the Zohar. One of the reasons, in my view, that the Torah expressed creation in terms of statements or decrees (i.e. “let there be,” etc.) is because an expression of God’s will in a decree or a statement is one of the least corporeal concepts we can relate to, being readily translated into simile and metaphor. This portrayal was in sharp distinction to nearly every other creation myth in antiquity wherein the world was seen as either being manufactured from the bodies of the gods and goddesses themselves, or as a product of copulation between various divinities. Even the eminent scholar of kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, acknowledges the sexual mythos inherent in the Zoharic depiction of God in the act of creation, describing it as a “re-emergence” and admitting that such imagery is foreign and in direct tension with the Biblical account (cf. On The Mystical Shape of the Godhead, p. 108).

The purpose of not employing such common ancient mythological imagery – even though we do have a principle of torah dibrah ke-lashon benei adam (“the Torah speaks in human terms”) – was, I believe, to immediately divorce the ancient hearer of the Torah from such ideas. That the basis of creation are divine pronouncements or decrees was also explicitly championed by Hazal (cf. Pirkei Avot 5:1ff) – they never made any mention of supposed “divine sexuality.” The kabbalah, however, reintroduced these mythological concepts to the point where kabbalistically-minded individuals truly believe that blessings, etc. come into the world via the supposed unification of male and female forces in a heavenly realm. So, even though Yermiyahu HaNavi (cf. 7:18; 19:4-5; 23:27; 44:17-22, et al) railed against the worship of Baal and the Queen of Heaven (which featured sexual relations with temple prostitutes in order to encourage the deities to do likewise above), husbands and wives are now taught that the mystical purpose of their sexual relations on Friday night is for the supposed unification of the sefirot of Tiferet (also called “Tzadik” and representative in the kabbalah of the male member) and Malkhut (also called “Shekhinah” and representative in the kabbalah of the female genitalia). In effect, we have in many ways returned to our ancient errors through such teachings. “As a dog returns to its vomit, so also does a fool repeat their folly” (Mishlei 26:11). May we be delivered from all such foolishness.

Lastly, and most importantly, the standard for idolatry is much lower than needing to express cataphatic views of God or adopting a form of Panentheism. As Rambam explains in the opening chapters of Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, idolatry – in its most basic form – consists of merely using or appealing to other beings (or perceived beings) as intermediaries between oneself and God – even if one does not believe that such intermediary beings are themselves gods or a part of God (cf. 1:2-3, Yemenite Manuscripts). Rambam is very clear there that professing a strict monotheism does not rescue one from committing serious acts of idolatrous worship.

Thanks for writing. I hope this helped to answer your questions.

Kol tuv,

YB

One Story or Two? – Rosh HaShanah and Breishit 1 & 2

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

The Discussion Of Creation On Rosh HaShanah

In the Talmud Bavli (Rosh HaShanah 11a-b) there is a mahloket between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua regarding whether the creation of the world took place in the month of Tishrei or the month of Nissan. While Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the former position, Rabbi Yehoshua is adamant of the later. While both views eventually took on their own respective midrashic implications, only the view of Rabbi Eliezer was accepted for halakhic purposes (cf. b.Rosh HaShanah 27b).

The Baal HaTurim, commenting on the first pasuk of Sefer Breishit, refers to the well-known fact that the letters of בראשית can be rearranged to spell א’ בתשרי (“the first of [the month of] Tishrei”) which would cause the opening phrase of the Torah to be homiletically read as, א’ בתשרי ברא אלוקים – “On the first of Tishrei Elohim created [the heavens and the earth].” This is seen – at least by the author of the Baal HaTurim, Yaakov ben Asher – as decisive proof Rabbi Eliezer’s position on the matter.

As is pointed out by several Talmudic commentators, the actual discussion between these two Tannaim is not when the world was created, but specifically when man – the ultimate purpose of the world – was created (cf. Tosafot on b.Rosh HaShanah 8a, and the Ran on the Rif to b.Rosh HaShanah 3a). In other contexts it is related explicitly that Adam was created on the day of Rosh HaShanah itself (cf. Vayikra Rabbah 29:1, and implied in Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer, chapter 8). Thus, both the creation of the world and the creation of Adam Ha-Rishon have been traditional subjects (among others) which make up the study and spirituality of Rosh HaShanah.

Breishit 1-2: Two Creation Stories?

A discussion of creation and the origins of man necessarily brings one to the first two chapters of Parashat Breishit. However, due to the yearly cycle of sidrot both ending and beginning anew within the same festival week on Shemini Atseret (popularly “Simhat Torah”), it rarely – if ever – is apportioned the same one-week period for its study as is the case with the other portions of the Torah throughout the year. Therefore, it makes sense to take the thematic opportunity in the month of Elul to take a closer look at the account of creation found in the opening chapters of the Humash.

As is well-known, the narratives contained in the first two chapters of Sefer Breishit tell very different stories, each seeming to have a respective account of “creation.” This unfortunately has led many to err and assume that these chapters represent two ancient Mesopotamian accounts of the creation of the world which were placed at the beginning of the Torah by a “redactor” who, being religiously unable to decide between them, ultimately settled on including them both. This position has grown to be almost standard in most academic circles of critical Biblical scholarship. However, I would like to suggest that this reading of the text is premature. The claims of redaction and the presence of separate contradictory stories are made in an attempt to account for the various glaring differences between them. However, a question not often considered is: How different do two stories need to be before we must conclude that they were never meant to be the same story? The common position of critical Biblical scholarship – and particularly the Documentary Hypothesis – asserts that Breishit 1-2 were at one time two narrative with conflicting details, but once the Hebrew of the Biblical text is properly examined and understood in context – being taken at face value – it can be clearly seen that these two stories are actually one continuous narrative speaking about different things. Further, when we note certain general findings in the field of anthropology, we find that the cohesive truth of the Torah comes into uncanny focus.

The Rambam’s Use Of Anthropology

It is often wondered whether there is validity to using anthropology to aid our understanding of the Torah. However, the use of relevant cultural, scientific, and historical information is the hallmark of many commentators, from Rav Saadia Gaon to Rashi and many others throughout the ages of Jewish history.

One of the most well-known usages of anthropological texts amongst the Rishonim is found in the Guide to the Perplexed of the Rambam. He makes heavy reference to the culture of the “Sabeans” whom he understood as being a people extant during the lifetime of Avraham and the Avot. Additionally, he refers extensively to a work cited as the “Book of Nabatean Agriculture” which Rambam presents as giving a direct look into the practices of the ancient Canaanite societies of Erets Yisrael (cf. Guide 3:29, et al).

Using these tools, the Rambam comes to many conclusions about the meaning and intent of certain mitsvot that are unique and which are not necessarily in line with the views of his predecessors. He was well aware that as the world progresses, the knowledge of history progresses and it is therefore not only possible but important to use what is available to us in order to better understand the Torah.

Examples of such conclusions, based directly on the “Book of Nabatean Agriculture,” and are in response to ancient pagan agricultural practices. In 3:37 of the Guide, the Rambam explains that the laws of orlah (not eating or benefiting from the fruit of a newly planted tree in its first three years – cf. Vayikra 19:23-25) are to prevent a certain act of witchcraft, wherein the “Sabeans” (an ancient people that the Rambam is convinced by his cultural-anthropological studies are contemporaries of Avraham) put a certain rotted matter around the base of a tree, accompanied by some incantations, as a way to ensure growth. He also explains there that the laws against kilayim (planting mixed seeds in a field) and the cross-grafting of fruit trees stem from similar idolatrous concerns. Throughout the Guide, but especially in the third volume, the Rambam describes the ancient context and cultures of the Biblical world through his research into the pagan and pantheistic cultures of the time. In his view, there was simply no other way to study and obtain an understanding of the practical reasons behind the legal pronouncements of the Torah.

Breishit 1-2: How Are They Different?

While there are many differences between the First Narrative (henceforth FN) and Second Narrative (henceforth SN) of the creation account, I will attempt to highlight those generally viewed as the most significant.

  1. FN recounts a creation of heaven and earth in six days (1:1ff, 2:1-2), while SN states that they were created in a single day (2:4).
  2. FN begins with “the beginning” (1:1) in a seemingly ultimate sense while SN begins with the world already created (2:4-5).
  3. FN mentions the creation of light, day, and night (1:3-5), the sky or atmosphere (1:6-8), land and seas (1:9-10), sun, moon, and stars (1:14-18), fish and sea life (1:20-22) – SN mentions none of them.
  4. SN mentions a “garden” in a place named Eden (2:8,10,15), four rivers (i.e. Pishon, Gihon, Hidekel, and Farat), specific outlying geographical locations (i.e. Havilah, Gihon, Kush, Asshur), and precious metals and stones that are indigenous to the region of Havilah (2:10-14) – FN mentions none of them.
  5. FN presents a chronology wherein vegetation is created first (1:11-12), then animals (1:24-25), and then mankind (1:26-27), whereas the chronology of SN has first the formation of man (2:7-8), then vegetation (2:9), and then animals (2:19).
  6. In FN man and woman appear to be created simultaneously (1:26-17) and both of them only after plants and animals have already been created. In SN man is created first (2:7), then plants (2:8-9), then animals (2:19-20), and then woman (2:21-25).

It is also important to note some key differences in Hebrew terminology between FN and SN.  The terminology is listed below and then defined in the following section.

  1. Creation – In Breishit 1-2 the operative terms of “creation” are bara (ברא), asah (עשה), and yatsar (יצר). FN uses only the bara and asah, while SN uses only yatsar (with a single couplet usage of bara and asah in the introductory statement of 2:4).
  2. Earth – The terminology used for “earth” are more diverse: arets (ארץ), adamah (אדמה), and gan (גן). With a single exception (1:25 – adamah is used as an Adjectival Noun to describe a certain type of animal), FN uses only arets, while SN uses mostly a combination of adamah and gan (the exceptions being the use of arets in the introductory statement in 2:4-2:5 and in reference to certain outlying regions in 2:11-13).
  3. God – In reference to “God,” FN exclusively uses Elohim (א-להים), while SN uses HaShem-Elohim (הוי”ה א-להים).

From the above list of narrative and linguistic discrepancies between the two accounts of Breishit it should become clear that the differences between them are neither subtle or nuanced.  Instead, there is a clear and fundamental diversion of SN from FN, all the while maintaining central themes between them – the Creator, the world, and man.

Lashon HaKodesh: No Synonyms

When these two accounts are read – especially when in English translation – it is often taken for granted that words used in reference to creation, earth, and God are either the same or similar. Even among those who are aware of the essential differences in Hebrew terminology (some of which are listed above), there is a tendency to see these terms as synonymous with one another. It is perhaps from this simplistic error, more than anything else, that the difficulty and confusion among critical Biblical scholars arises in attempting to interpret FN and SN.

The assumption of synonymous language is only made worse when the difference in Hebrew terminology is ascribed to multiple authors, each of which are supposedly using their own unique literary style to relate the same story in contradictory fashion – an a priori assumption which is based on similar unnecessary a priori ontological commitments to multiple authors. Noting such abrupt differences in almost every aspect, a student of the Biblical text must ask themselves at what point it must be concluded that the two narratives are not telling the same story in contradictory fashion, but they are instead telling two different stories.

The Rambam in the Guide dedicates the majority of the first section to making distinctions between various words and phrases used in Biblical Hebrew which appear to be synonyms but in reality are not – their respective nuances being essential for a proper understanding of both the Tanakh and, by extension, the incorporeality and unity of HaShem. There are places in Hazal which either list different Biblical terms used to refer to the same concept or which comment on the use of two words used in similar passages of the Torah. However, the overwhelming consensus among Torah scholars is that although lashon ha-kodesh (i.e. Hebrew used in the Tanakh) contains general synonyms, it does not contain any true synonyms (cf. Malbim, Mevo HaMahberet and Yair Or). While being generally similar in meaning and scope, words in lashon ha-kodesh always maintain a unique meaning and purpose which makes them wholly distinct from all other similar terms.

For a Semitic language such as Hebrew, one which likely began as purely logographic (each symbol representing a word or idea) and eventually – like many Ancient Near Eastern languages – became a purely phonetic language, it makes sense that every word is unique and has no true synonyms, even if it has a relative synonym. Due to the tri-radical system of roots used by Hebrew – which anciently were a combination of [usually] three logograms – many times words which appear to be generally synonymous are in actuality vastly different from one another.

The following is a list of basic definitions of the Hebrew terms listed above:

[A] Arets (ארץ) – A general term for earth or land, which includes all strata within in it and what is on the surface (cf. Malbim, Yair Or – Ot Alef, 42).

[B] Adamah (אדמה) – Denotes “soil” and is used to refer to the top layers of earth (cf. Malbim, Ibid.)

[C] Bara (ברא) – Creation of something from nothing (i.e. yesh me-ayin יש מאין); not necessarily absolute nothingness, but rather the creation of a thing which did not exist prior (cf. Ibn Ezra on Breishit 1:1, Rambam, Guide 2:30, and Malbim, Yair Or, 10:9).

[D] Asah (עשה) – According to some commentators (cf. Rambam, ibid.), asah is a general term for action which can take on the nuances of other verbs used in conjunction with it (essentially equating it in FN with bara). According to others (cf. Malbim, ibid.), it specifically communicates the idea of completing something.

[E] Yatsar (יצר) – The verb form of the word tsurah (צורה), meaning “form” (cf. Malbim, ibid.), it denotes the application of a physical attribute (i.e. “accident”) to an already existing substance (cf. Rambam, ibid.). In other words, the creation or modification of something which existed previously.

[F] Elohim (א-להים) – Used in reference to God when performing strict justice, i.e. calculating and inflexible (cf. Breishit Rabbah 12:15 & 14:1, Shemot Rabbah 30:13, and Pesikta Rabbati 40. See also Rashi on Breishit 1:1). It is also the plural of eloah (אלוה) which is the general term for “god” or “deity,” being coupled with singular verbs when used in reference to God – the plural being what the grammarians call the pluralis excellentiae (“plural of excellence”) or pluralis majestatis (“plural of majesty” – often referred to as the “Royal We”), of which there are many examples in the Tanakh, even in reference to great human figures or those occupying positions of political power (cf. Rav Saadia Gaon, HaNivhar Emunot Ve-Deot II:6). The word underlying both elohim and eloah is el (אל) which can mean deity, but also “power” or “judge.” As such, term can even be used to refer to human judges or courts (cf. Shemot 21:6, Tehilim 82:1, et al).

[G] HaShem (הוי”ה) – The Four-Letter Name, this name of God denotes principally the attribute of mercy (cf. Ibid.). Known also as the Shem Ha-Meforash, this name most aptly expresses the personality and actions of the Creator (cf. Rambam, Guide 1:61) in relation to mankind, and especially Am Yisrael (cf. Shemot 6:1-2, and see Rashi there).

Macro & Micro: Putting It All Together

Based on the above-listed definitions, differences in general context (also listed above), as well as many other details which are too many to enumerate here, it should be clearly seen that is indeed possible to propose an informed and non-forced reading of FN and SN that shows them to be continuous not contradictory at all.

In basic terms, FN (Breishit 1:1-2:3) should be understood to giving a macro perspective – the overall creation of the world (i.e. every location in the world) – and SN  (Breishit 2:4-2:25) to be presenting a micro perspective – the development of Adam and Havah in the garden (i.e. in a specific location in the world, namely Eden). In other words, it might be said that FN is dealing with physical cosmology while SN is dealing with anthropology.

In this vein, the following understanding can be easily proposed:

FN begins with a generic declaration of the creation by God (1:1) and then proceeds to describe a planet which is tohu va-vohu (1:2) – “astonishingly empty” according to Rashi and “completely covered with deep waters like an ocean” according to Rav Saadia Gaon – with the unrealized potential for organic life. After this brief introduction, we see the stages of development from the perspective of the entire planet (which may or may not be intended to be sequential) in a series of separations – light and darkness, clouds and seas, water and dry land, etc. – and a series of generations – vegetation, fish, birds, animals, etc. In the end, we see the creation of mankind, creating them generically as “male and female” with a divinely-appointed purpose to rule the earth (1:26-28).

SN begins with a declaration acknowledging the events of FN, but then proceeds to announce the presentation of the toledot (“outcomes” or “recorded genealogy”) of the creation of heaven and earth (2:4). It begins with noting that no vegetation had sprouted, but uses a curious modifying noun “of the field” (2:5, ha-sadeh) which denotes crops which are cultivated rather than just general flora. In fact, the text of SN explicitly attributes the lack of such cultivated crops being due to that fact of there being “no man to work the soil” (2:5). Man is “formed” (2:7, vayyitser…et ha-adam, from yatsar) – meaning that there was a pre-existing creature known as man that was imbued with a divinely-bestowed faculty that enabled human spirituality, rationality, and intelligence (cf. Ramban on Breishit 2:7, Sforno on Breishit 1:26, and Rambam, Guide 1:7). After “the” man (ha-adam in 2:7 – note the definite article) is formed, he is placed in a garden (2:8, 2:15) which has fruit trees (2:9) and rivers flowing from it, which flow to neighboring lands which are deemed good for mining various metals and stones (2:10-14). The intention of the man being placed there is to engage it agriculturally (2:15). Shortly after this, various animals “of the field” (2:19-20, see above explanation) are “formed” – i.e., “domesticated” (cf. Rashi and Rav Saadia Gaon on 2:19) – and then given names by the man (2:20), which in an Ancient Near Eastern context implies ownership. A woman suitable for the man’s new pursuits is provided for him (2:21-25) and the couple becomes the model for future marital relationships among mankind (2:24).

The basic components of both FN and SN may also be seen as follows:

FN 1:1-2:3 SN 2:4-2:25
Creation of the human species in general Specific human couple being “formed” (i.e. modified) into spiritual and fully rational beings
Creation of the world and what it contains (i.e. a general perspective) Formation of a “garden” (i.e. agricultural plot) in a specific location, complete with cultivated crops and domesticated animals
God is referred to by Elohim, creating definite boundaries and physical “laws” (i.e. the natural order) as applies to the universe as a physical entity – i.e. the raw natural order God is referred to by HaShem Elohim, creating a defined system of human society, industry, and relationships (HaShem being a name signifying self-expression and covenant-devotion to human beings) – i.e. the raw natural order plus the imposition of man’s rational faculty on that order

Far from being contradictory, FN and SN constitute the Torah’s expression of two different and important beginnings – general and specific – each account complimenting the other.

The Neolithic Revolution

According to modern anthropology, humans have undergone several stages of development. The longest stage of human development lasted from their inception (estimated around 2.6 million years ago) until around 5,000-10,000 years ago, known generally as the Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras. During this time, humans were hunter-gatherers that were basically nomadic and lived in groups, very much akin to packs of animals. They had no developed language, only primitive superstition as their religion (if any), and no technology other than primitive implements made of stone, bone, and wood. They ate only what they could fish, hunt, gather from the wild, or scavenge. Human life continued this way until the time which anthropologists call the Neolithic Revolution.

General estimates are proposed for its subtle beginnings (i.e 10-15,000 years ago), but generally date its most complex and punctuated phase (a sort of “boom”) in the region of Mesopotamia (and particularly in region of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia, the site of modern-day Iraq) between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. This estimate works well if we understand the current Jewish calendar as being representative of the record from mankind in the “Garden” (retrojected at some point when calendrical years began to be tracked by human society) rather than being representative of the complete span of time since the initial creation – which is dated at roughly 13.5 billion years ago.

Thus, Breishit 2:4-2:25 seems to record (not in the technical sense) the evolution of Adam and his mate, Havah, and their sanctification by HaShem from the primitive, brutish (and one could even say that in many ways it was animalistic) hunter-gatherer mode of life, to a more refined pair of the human species which engaged in cultivation of plants for harvest, domestication of fowl and livestock, the systematic use of language, spirituality, monogamy, and other positive developments of the Neolithic Revolution. These developments set the stage for the eventual building of civilizations and societies (cf. Breishit 3-4), which in turn set the stage for the very purpose of the world: Israel and the observance of the Torah (cf. Rashi on Breishit 1:1).

The ultimate goal of this divine bestowal and direction of human development is to refine a person in his relationship with God and with his fellow man (cf. Rambam, Guide 3:27), leading to the merit of Olam HaBa.

Rosh HaShanah, Teshuvah, & Humanity

“Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a decree of the pasuk, it has in it an allusion [to something deeper], as if to say, ‘Awake, awake you sleepers from your sleep! And arise slumberers from you slumber! Search your deeds, return in teshuvah, and remember your Creator…”

– Rambam, Misneh TorahHilkhot Teshuvah 3:4

The connection between the theme of teshuvah and creation on Rosh HaShanah is that we, as the Jewish Nation, are called by the kol shofar to return to our essential God-given human distinctions and fully acknowledge the Source of all existence, HaKadosh Barukh Hu. The Torah reminds us of our “animal” potential and the need to re-dedicate ourselves to the ways in which we are different than the animalistic cultures which bustle around us (cf. Rambam, Pirush HaMishnayot – Intro to Sanhedrin 10:1) while we labor in the “garden” of the Torah and the mitsvot (cf. Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Breishit 2:15). In other words, we are not supposed to be merely “humans” but “Jews” (cf. b.Keritot 6b, b.Bava Metsia 114b, and Maharal mi-Prag, Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 1).

Breishit 1-2 give us a deep explanation of our origins. It tells us that without that which we share in common with the Divine, we are merely an animal living in the outward form of a human body, but not truly people. We would all do well to remember the fate of Nevukhadhnetsar in Sefer Daniel (chapter 4) when HaShem removed from him his Tselem Elohim (“Divine Image”) for a period of seven years. The passage says that the lesson for Nevukhadhnetsar in being made to live like an animal was so that he would “know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of man, and to whomever He wills, He gives it.” (ibid. 4:29)

When hearing the tekiot ha-shofar on Rosh HaShanah, may we all awaken from the sleep of complacency, shake off the slumber of exile, consider our ways, return to the Torah of HaShem our Creator, and recognize that there is only One King who should rule absolutely in kingdoms of mankind.

Hotamo shel HaKadosh Barukh Hu emet – The seal of the Holy One Blessed is He is truth.” (b.Shabbat 55a)

“Gemar Be-Hathimah Tovah! – Finish with a good seal!”

 

My Recent Discussion with a Chabadnik

Currently, my family and I belong to a really warm and exceedingly friendly “Modern Orthodox” shul. It was originally a small, traditional community synagogue that broke away from the local Conservative place two decades ago and many of the families who founded it can still attend. Occasionally, we have “visitors” from the local Chabad-Lubavitch outpost, whose missionary efforts are in full swing among our membership. These subverters attend when they need to escort someone over to their home whom they have invited for a meal. They also show up to shul functions, working the crowd as if they are the hosts, even though they have opened their own meeting hall right up the road. It is well-known that their entire presence in our shul is for the purpose of a long-sighted coup d’état – through erosion, not force – and it would be comical if it weren’t so sad.

While I normally do my best to ignore them, there are times when I can no longer take their suffusive know-it-all comments and I engage them. I have called-out several Chabadniks who have quoted passages from the “Rambam” that do not exist, asking them to open the Mishneh Torah and “prove it,” and I have had to break it to them that their Torah scrolls are not “the most kosher” but are actually pasul, etc.  A few nights ago after `Arviyth I decided to educate one of them about the heretical nature of his beliefs about God, good and evil, and creation. As I later told the community rabbi, “Someone has to keep them honest. Plus, I tire of their continually confident ignorance about Judaism.”

Most people only see the externals of dress, apparent piety, and the ease of participation in Jewish rituals that Lubavitchers offer. Underneath, however, lies an entangling web of heresy and `avodhah zarah. The theology of Hasidism in general – and of Chabad-Lubavitch in particular – stands in complete opposition to Judaism in its most basic definition of monotheism. I cannot tell you how many times that I, after expressing concern over their core beliefs, am told, “But they do so much good work! And they are non-judgmental and accepting. Many of the Jews who go to their functions would never even observe Shabbos if it wasn’t for them. At least it’s something.” Yet I am completely sure that if these same Jews were going to functions sponsored by Jews for Jesus, none of these same individuals would make reference to “all the good work” that Jews for Jesus does in an effort to excuse their religious doctrines – even if they were to, for some reason, hold them on Shabbath. Instead, their hospitality would be seen as predatory and the greatest fear of these same people would be the possible conversion of these irreligious Jews to another religion altogether. All “the good work” they do would be viewed as drawing these poor Jews into a religious trap.

Before I relate the contents of the discussion I had with this “rabbi,” I want to emphasize a point of central importance. When the majority of the world was not monotheistic, it was incumbent upon religious monotheists, such as Muslims and Jews, to philosophically explain what they meant by the “unity” and “incorporeality” of the One God. Even Christians entered the discussion, albeit with a paganized form of Platonism that, on the one hand rejected the pantheon, but on the other hand was not truly monotheistic, as it admitted multiplicity, corporeality, and spatial reference in regard to God (has wa-halilah). However, in our post-modern and post-monotheistic society today, most people assume that professing a belief that “there is only one God” is enough to qualify for being called a “monotheist.” Since most people in our times who believe in God do not accept explicit polytheism, the ability to explain the philosophical tenets of pure monotheism has fallen largely into disuse. According to the Rambam and others, learning them is a misswath `aseh (cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Yesodhey HaTorah 1:4[6]).

In Shu”t HaRiva”dh, Mori Yusef Qafih z”l is asked the following question (p. 3):

TEXT

שאלה: מדוע פותח הרמב”ם את חבורו בהלכות יסודי התורה דווקא – ח אדר תשנ”ט

תשובה: הרמב”ם פתח ספרו בעניני אמונה. הוא סבור כי ללא אמונה טהורה ומזוקקת אין יהדות טהורה והקימה להלכות ודינים

TRANSLATION

Question: Why is it that the Rambam begins his work [i.e. the Mishneh Torah] with Hilkhoth Yesodhey HaTorah [dealing primarily with the philosophical tenets of pure monotheism]? (8 Adar 5759)

Answer: The Rambam began his book with matters of belief.  He is of the opinion that without pure and unadulterated belief [one’s] Judaism is [thus] not pure and so he put it first, before halakhoth and diniym.

Books such as Kellner’s “Must a Jew Believe Anything?” and Shapiro’s “The Limits of Orthodox Theology,” while making some important observations and raising some good points, attempt to place the “blame” for the concept of necessary beliefs on the shoulders of the Rambam, who formulated the 13 Principles of Jewish Faith (as they are popularly known), and act as though necessary beliefs are not an authentic Jewish value. However, this is incorrect as both the Mishnah and the Gemara make statements regarding basic necessary beliefs, as well as the division between Judaism and heresy, in just as strong a fashion. Aristotelian philosophy, despite what many may prefer to believe, was not the source of Jewish “dogmatics.” Instead, it was Hazal who made these determinations in the mesorah they authored for us. The answer to Kellner’s question is “Yes” and the actual limits that Shapiro is looking for are likely more narrow than he envisions. [1]

Twice in the Mishneh Torah the Rambam refers to pure monotheism as “she-zeh hu `iqqar ha-gadhol she-hakol taluy bo – this is the greatest principle [of belief] upon which everything depends” (cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Yesodhey HaTorah 1:4[6] and Hilkhoth Qiryath Shema` 1:2). In other words, if an idolater were to outwardly live an “orthodox lifestyle,” but inwardly was an atheist, a polytheist, or believed that the Transcendent God is subject to physicality, then none of his mechanical carrying-out of the commandments would matter – it would be nothing more than an act of futility. In fact, this is exactly what Mori Yusef Qafih z”l writes in his introduction to his edition of the Moreh HaNavokhiym (Intro, p.17):

“…For a great many are those who are involved with the intricate details [of halakhah] and forget the principle above all other principles [of belief], and there are those who indeed turn to a path of personal piety, but submerse their days in intricate halakhic analyses and in casuistry regarding far-fetched and invented situations, which who knows if they will ever occur in actuality, and yet they neglect the foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdom, that is the [proper] knowledge of HaShem – Blessed is He – just as the Rambam began his greatest book [i.e. the Mishneh Torah], ‘It is the foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdom to know that there is a Prime Being, and He causes to exist everything that does exist, and everything that exists, whether in heaven or earth or that which is between them, does not exist except by the verity of His existence…and this [concept] is what the prophet means when he says, And HaShem, God, is true.’ For without knowing this greatest fundamental [principle], as much as is possible [2], a person is liable to be externally observant of the commandments without ever becoming aware of this. According to the opinion of the Rambam, the essence of these commandments performed with external appendages without [proper] knowledge of the One who commanded them and without knowing their nature or purpose, are merely (in the definition of Rambam in [the Moreh HaNavokhiym] III:51, ‘like one who turns the soil with the spade or hew trees in the forest.’ [i.e. those who perform intensive yet mindless labors]”

[I would encourage anyone who is able to read the 51st chapter of the third volume of the Moreh for a complete overview of this concept.]

My discussion with this particular Chabadnik was as follows. Although I have taken great care to preserve the content and verbiage, in the interest of organization I have taken some constructive liberties in laying out the material (much like Rav Yehudhah HaLewiy did in putting together the Kuzari). The topic begins as seemingly innocuous, but it progresses to become more serious and comprehensive. This was not the first difficult conversation he and I have had, but it was our first time discussing these particular issues.

***

As I was walking out of evening prayers last Friday night and wishing everyone “Shabbat Shalom,” I was met by a local Chabad “rabbi” who greeted me with a hollow, “Good Shabbos. It’s good to see you.” I responded jokingly as follows:

Me: “Jews in shul is always a good thing…that is unless we are hiding from someone!”

Chabadnik: “Even then there is good. There is good in everything.” 

Me: “Except in evil of course. There is no good in evil.” (This is where I essentially baited him, knowing he would immediately object.)

Chabadnik: “That’s not true, everything is a mixture of good and evil. The Tanya says…” (He began to make a reference to the Lubavitcher “bible,” Likkutei Amarim Tanya, a collection of discourses and letters by the first leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic sect, Shneur Zalman of Liady, which explain the kabbalistic doctrines of Hasidism. )

Me: “Now, rabbi, the idea that there is evil even in good is a latter-day Hasidic doctrine and it belonged to the followers of Shabbetai Tzvi before it belonged to you. The Rambam says that evil is not a positive substance, but is the absence of good. Evil is a privation. Have you read the Moreh HaNavokhiym? The Ramban also refers to the Moreh on this subject in his commentary on the Torah. Don’t Lubavitchers study the Rambam?” (cf. Rambam, Moreh HaNavokhiym III:10-12 for an explanation of evil from a Jewish philosophical perspective. In the Kabbalah, God has a “right” and a “left” emanation, the left being Sitra Ahara [Aramaic for “the Other Side”] and the source of evil. For kabbalists, evil is just another action of God – has wa-halilah. This entire idea flies in the face of Hazal in Bereshiyth Rabbah 1, “No evil comes down from above” – which, of course, is twisted around by kabbalists to be a proof for their error that, since they hold that evil comes from God, all evil is actually good since “No evil comes down from above.”)

Chabadnik: “So there’s no such thing as evil, then?” (This was not a genuine inquiry. He actually thought this was going to be a “gotcha” moment.)

Me: “No, there is evil, but evil is not a positive creation, it is the absence of good. Like darkness is the absence of light and not a substance in and of itself. God is not the source or the Creator of evil.” (See the Moreh there where Rambam utilizes this very metaphor. The Rambam in the Moreh, Rav Sa`adyah Gaon in Emunoth wa-Dhe`oth [1:3], Ralbag in Milhamoth HaShem, and many others among the Rishonim who quote or refer to these works, affirm that God is indeed not the author of evil. Saying “evil is not a positive creation” or “evil has no positive reality” is not the same as the kabbalistic notion that “evil is an illusion,” which means that things which we perceive as being evil – tragedies, sickness, disabilities, starvation, rape, murder, etc. – are really “good” [halilah] and, according to such a view, it is only our perspective that is skewed.)

Me: “But even those who hold that evil has positive existence among the Rishonim do not hold that good can be found in it. They hold them to be polar opposites.” (Rabbenu Nissim in Meghillath Setariym appears to [possibly] espouse an ontological understanding of evil, as does Rav Yehudhah HaLewiy in the Kuzari [i.e. those things which lack the `inyan elohiy].)

Chabadnik: “So what about a pig?”

Me: “What about a pig?”

Chabadnik: “It’s evil isn’t it?”

Me: “No, it’s just a pig.”

Chabadnik: “But you can’t eat it.”

Me: “You can’t eat your children either. Are they evil?”

Chabadnik: [Looks a bit stunned, but continues] “So why can’t we eat it?”

Me: “Because HaShem forbade it to us as a tamei animal.”

Chabanik: “Well, isn’t tum’ah evil?”

Me: “No. When your wife has children she becomes tamei’ah, right? Is having children evil or sinful? When you have relations with your wife, you become tamei, right? Is a married couple having relations evil?” (In the kabbalah, as well as the superstitious environment that preceded it, ritual impurity is understood to have an objective reality, whereas the Rambam in the Moreh [III:66] explains ritual impurity as being [essentially] a legal state meant to deter an over-emphasis of the temple cultus (and also to keep us from handling harmful, unhygienically-filthy objects, e.g. carcuses, corpses, bloody cloths, etc.). The Mishneh Torah is explicit that the concepts of ritual impurity – tum’ah – and purity – taharah – are legal concepts meant to impress themselves on the human intellect, being divorced from any physical reality [Hilkhoth Miqwa’oth 11:15[12].)

Chabadnik: [At a bit of a loss, but setting up for another intended “gotcha” moment.] “So where does my energy come from?” (I assumed when he said this that he meant “negative” energy, but then he waved his hand over his entire body, indicating that he meant the entirety of his “energy.”)

Me: “It’s a beriyyah (a creation). It’s not the essence of God, if that’s what you mean. You are a creation of God, not a piece of God. God does not have pieces or parts. Again, this is right in the Rambam.” (I was referring to the Hasidic/Kabbalistic idea that every Jew is a “chelek elokai mimaal mammash – a literal ‘piece’ of God above” – cf. Tanya, chapter 2 – which Lubavitchers love to cite since it features popularly in their ideology.)

Chabadnik: “So there’s something outside of God? How can there be anything but Him?”

Me: “Are you referring to the misreading of ein `odh milevado? Look at the pasuqiym again in context and with the traditional commentators. It means ‘there is not another God beside HaShem,’ not that God is the only thing in existence. God is not inside of you, this table, the trees, or anything else.” (In context [cf. Devariym 4:35-39], this is meant as a statement against polytheism, not against the reality of the created world. דו”ק)

Chabadnik: “Why can’t God be inside of everything? Why can’t everything be an emanation of God?”

Me: “Again, don’t you Lubavitchers learn the Rambam? He writes very clearly in the third Principle of Jewish Faith that “eyno guf” – He is not a physical body – “wa-lo koah be-ghuf” – and He is not a force that resides within bodies. God is transcendent and completely separate from the creation. This is a central tenet of monotheism!” (cf. Rambam, Piyrush HaMishnayoth, Sanhedriyn 10:1 – The word ‘body’ here is being used here it the philosophical sense of ‘an object or entity which has substance and/or form.’)

Chabadnik: “So you’re saying that HaShem is not continually recreating the world and bringing it into existence at every moment?” (This Gnostic idea is another major doctrine in Hasidism.)

Me: “Yes. The world has been created already and now continues on it’s natural course, as it says in the Gemara, ‘`olam ke-minhago nohegh.’ He does not need to ‘redo’ anything after He has decreed it.” (cf. b.`Avodhah Zarah 54b – In other words, since the time of creation, the universe moves along its natural course. The Rambam in the Moreh [2:29] discusses this very principle in regard to the nature of miracles and whether they should be seen as innovations within, or permanent/temporary changes to, the natural order.)

Chabadnik: “So then what does it mean when it says, ‘ha-mechadesh b’khol yom tamid maiseh breishis’?” (This is from the first berakhah of Qiryath Shema` in the morning recitation. This text of the berakhah also appears in the seder tefiylloth of the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah and in the siddur of Rav Sa`adyah Gaon.)

Me: “That is a Hasidic misinterpretation of the text of the berakhah. It says explicitly in the Gemara that ‘ha-mehadhesh be-khol yom tamiydh ma`aseh bereshiyth’ refers to the sun coming up and re-illuminating the darkness of night. Look at Rashi there and you’ll see how it was understood originally.” (cf. b.Haghighah 12b – This is an explicit explanation of exactly what is meant by the wording of this berakhah, and it has nothing to do with a supposed continual recreation of the universe. Rather, it is referring to the darkness of night being dispelled by the light of rising sun, and vice-versa, thus “re-enacting” the original “Let there be light” of Bereshiyth 1:1-3. Rashi appears to re-interpret the simple meaning of the Gemara  to make it fit with his own understanding of astronomical processes, but it is nevertheless a astronomical process being related by Hazal, not a Gnostic process of continual emanation –

TEXTS

Haghighah 12b - Ma`aseh Bereshiyth - Text

Haghighah 12b - Ma`aseh Bereshiyth - רשי

TRANSLATIONS

Gemara – “…Rather, morning enters and night exits, and [He thereby] ‘mehadhesh be-khol yom ma`aseh bereshiyth – renews daily the Work of Creation’…”

Rashi – “Morning enters – into its container and the light becomes visible. And night exits – from its container and spreads out beneath the light, and behold the world becomes dark. And this is His ‘daily renewal of the Work of Creation.'”)

Chabadnik: “Well, the Ramban (Nachmanides) talks about a continual creation.”

Me: “I don’t believe you. But if you can produce it, I would love to see it. Another Chabad rabbi who comes here regularly quotes fictional Rambams. You guys are in the habit of misquoting things.”

Then the community rabbi interrupted us and asked if we would lock up before we left. We both responded that we were just leaving. I ended up walking the rabbi home. He was amused at my confrontation with the Chabadnik. I just told him that I was just “having some fun.”

I will try to publish updates and answer questions as they come up.

Kol tuv,

YB

NOTES:

[1] I in no way intend to express disrespect for the work of either Dr. Menachem Kellner or Dr. Marc B. Shapiro, for whose scholarship I have a great respect in many ways. I only intend to strongly disagree with their assessments of the nature and necessity of correct beliefs within Judaism and Jewish tradition.

[2] “As much as is possible” is an important point to note, since it is meant to assuage fears that the proposition of proper beliefs necessarily damns those who, either by mistake or by mental incapability, cannot fully grasp them.

Why Such a World in the First Place? – God & Evil – Part III

This is another installment in a group of posts on the subject of theodicy from a meqori perspective – the other post can be found here (God & the World), here (God & Evil – Part I), and here (God & Evil – Part II).

In my previous post I shared in brief my personal understanding of theodicy, based largely on the writings of Maimonides (Rambam) and Gersonides (Ralbag), as found in their well-known works of Jewish philosophy, the Moreh HaNavokhim and Milhamot HaShem respectively.

I stated there that, like Maimonides, I do not believe that God creates or causes “evil” in the world and I believe that evil can only be attributed to him in an “indirect” way since He created a world in which evil and tragedy have the potential to occur (Gersonides also affirms that God is not the author of evil in the world, but attributes it to the world having been formed from a pre-existing matter – as taught in the Platonic school – the nature of such matter is intrinsically imperfect and thereby gives rise to “evil”). However, this often evokes a further line of questioning: “Why did God choose to make the world with the potential for evil in the first place? What is the purpose of the creation? Why did God make a world at all?” And it is to these questions we now turn.

In my experience, these questions are usually fueled by two basic assumptions: [i] that “evil” is predominant in the world overall, and [ii] that mankind is the pinnacle of creation. There are some additional upsets in the thinking of many people related to the creation, and I will attempt to address these in the course of this post as well.

In the Moreh HaNavokhim (3:12), the Rambam discusses the error – common in his time as well as ours – that the “evils” in the world are more predominant than the “good” when in fact evil and tragedy are, on the whole, in the minority. The Rambam also discusses there how ludicrous it is to assess the amount of evil in the world on the basis of the life experiences of one individual or a small group of people. The same is true today; many people feel that what predominates the daily lives of humanity is evil, tragedy, suffering, etc. when in fact the opposite is the case. This illusion is strengthened due to the media and the internet through which millions of people can choose to make themselves constantly aware of every salacious crime and scandal that happens anywhere in the world. Although this certainly makes it feel as though the level of evil in the world is predominant over good, the reality is that it is not. Humanity and civilization are affected by tragedies and difficulty based on locale, etc. and era – they are not a constant occurrence in every place, in every time, or for every person. If we track various crimes committed in society, we find that these things happen to a minority of people, i.e. most people are not robbed, most people are not assaulted, most people are not murdered, most people are not kidnapped. And notice that everything I have mentioned is a form of person to person evil! And even fewer people are killed or injured in floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes worldwide!

Beside the illusion of evil’s predominance in the world, another erroneous assumption that causes people to wonder why God created the world as it exists is the idea that mankind is the pinnacle of the created world. Although it is true that Rav Saadiah Gaon in his HaNivhar Emunot Ve-De`ot holds that humanity is the center and pinnacle of the entire creation, the Rambam in the Moreh (ibid.) explains that the world was not created for man and that mankind is a lowly creature in the overall schema of the creation, albeit of great importance. He further explains that only “fools” interpret the words בשבילי נברא העולם (“for my sake was the world created” – b.Sanhedrin 27a) in their literal sense (cf. Rashi there) and he brings proofs from Tanakh, Hazal, and logic for his position. This misconception often leads people to feel “entitled” to argue with God over their lot in life, if however the world was not created “for us” then we have little to argue about since we are a species in the Creator’s world that enjoys quite a bit more prosperity and opportunities than do other species. Add to this our ability to have a spiritual relationship with God, and I would say that people should feel privileged to be human (i.e., “What is man that You are mindful of him?…etc.” cf. Tehillim 8:5).

This line of questioning is brought on by a self-centered and myopic view of the world. Each person feels justified in condemning the way in which God ordered the creation because of his own circumstances. The fact is that God gave us a good world (cf. “…it was good” – Bereshit 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, and 31) and to us he gave the potential to be successful and happy, living peaceful and productive lives, but humanity has historically chosen a world full of war, economic disputes, and tragedy. God is not doing those things, people are. One of the most difficult things for most people to accept is that humanity as a whole lives in the state of the world that they have collectively chosen through their own choices. The innocent victims affected by those choices are our victims, not God’s. The problems in the world are our mess and God had nothing to do with them. And none of us are purely innocent; we all make choices that are wrong and negatively affect others. This means that we are all a part of the problem, but in repairing our own lives we will eventually repair the world that the Creator gifted to us.

So the question of “why” God made the creation in the way that He did still remains. I think that the answer to this question is best related to in the following way. The Rambam, in the same section of the Moreh, discusses the purpose of creation (i.e. the question of “why”) and answers that we are meant to understand that the world as it is could theoretically have been different, but it’s not – and it exists in its current manner simply because of the will of the Creator; that His infinite wisdom dictated that it be so (see there). Further, I think that just as we are only able to describe God by way of negation (i.e. stating what He is not, versus what He is – which is not possible) and metaphor (i.e. drawing comparisons between His perceptible actions and familiar objects or phenomena), I think that we must relate to this question in a similar manner. The Rambam explains that everything in the universe exists for its own purpose; the purpose for which the Creator brought it into existence. The end. Anything much beyond this is a mystery, the answer to which is currently unavailable to us. I personally believe that the simpler question of “Why did God create the world?” has no perceptible answer.

It is also my view that asking these questions ultimately leads to absurdity. What I mean is this: while the question may sound reasonable when asked in general terms – so apparently reasonable that on its basis many complain – but when asked specifically, the questions (and complaints) become nonsensical. Why do we have five fingers on each hand instead of six or nine or twenty? Why do trees grow up? Why is grass green and not pink? Why is sugar sweet and not sour? The answer to all of these and similar questions is: because that’s the way the world is! And it is no different with regard to our capacity to make free choices, our intellectual abilities, the resources afforded by the planet, etc.

The world is the way that the world is. And we can complain about it, but it isn’t going to change. The fact is that we know that we have the power of choice and that the world is set up so that we generally suffer the consequences of poor choices and reap the benefits of good ones. We also know that our choices can negatively or positively affect others. We know that certain foods will make us healthy while others will slowly kill us. We know all of this – yet we want to blame God for giving us the space to fail? This is no different from a child’s complaint that it is someone else’s fault that they make a mistake – their self-centered and immature outlook makes them want to shirk responsibility onto others for what they have either done or not done. Humanity as a whole is apparently no different.

Bottom line is: we are here in this world and have a job to do. Why the world is set up this way is because the Creator willed it to be that way (obviously, or it would be different!) We need to face up to that reality and deal with it. God made a good world and gave us the choice to keep it that way or not. We chose not and have been trying to fix that mistake ever since.

God’s Involvement In The World: A Mekori Approach

The way in which the Creator runs the world is termed in classical Jewish sources as hashgahah (השגחה) which means “supervision.” The concept of “supervision” is subdivided into the categories of hashgahah peratit (השגחה פרטית), “direct (or, specific) supervision,” and hashgahah kelalit (השגחה כללית), “indirect (or, general) supervision.” The former being a direct intervention by HaShem into the events of the world, and the latter being that HaShem has pre-programmed the world – and its various components – to function a certain way and thus they continue in their created path.

It is important to understand that hashgahah peratit does not indicate “[something] within God’s control/knowledge/domain” and hashgahah kelalit does not indicate “[something] outside of God’s control/knowlege/domain” (has va-shalom). Rather, the entire world is under HaShem’s hashgahah – some things being directly effected and/or managed and others being effected and/or managed indirectly, or it is possible to say “actively” and “passively.” However, these are terms used by us in order to facilitate understanding and cannot in their fullness apply to the One Transcendent Creator, may his name be blessed.

Some common examples of hashgahah kelalit would be leaves falling from trees, spiders catching flies, bigger fish eating smaller fish, et al. While the Creator is certainly aware of these events and has designed the nature inherent in each of them, He does not actively determine which leaf will fall or where it will land, which fly will be caught by which spider, or which fish will be swallowed by another. These are natural events that are a part of the world which He has designed to function in this way. Inherent also in hashgahah kelalit is the idea of “chance” – which is essentially nature taking its course with the scientific variables being too far beyond conscious human perception for us to know with certainty what will happen next. This concept is expressed by Hazal where it states: “olam ke-minhago noheg – the world continues on its natural course.” (b.Avodah Zarah 54b).

The cognate to this is when the Creator specifically intervenes in the lives of certain humans, “bending” the course of the natural world to accommodate them in various ways according to His will. The condition for this type of hashgahah is that the individual draw close to HaShem’s will in thought, word, and deed. To the extent that a person trusts in and aligns himself with the Creator at any given moment, he is able to “draw” – as it were – the Creator’s specific supervising influence into the events of his life. A common example of this is the life of Yosef HaTzadik in the Torah. Other such individuals on this level, like Avraham Avinu, were granted special hashgahah peratit for the sake of HaShem’s overall plan for mankind.

Most Rishonim – if not all – limit the scope of hashgahah peratit in some way. And according to the majority of those do, the world and the various creatures which it contains, are governed mainly by hashgahah kelalit and hashgahah peratit is limited in scope to human beings – specifically the righteous among the Jewish nation. This view is expressed by the Rambam (Moreh HaNavokhim III:17-18), the Ralbag (“Gersonides,” Sefer Milhamot HaShem IV), the Rihal (Sefer Kuzari 1:109), the Ramban (“Nahmanides,” Pirush Al HaTorahShemot 13:15), and those Rishonim who are essentially Maimonidean in their philosophical orientation (e.g. Radak, Ibn Tibbon, Seforno, Me’iri, et al).

In fact, the Sefer HaHinukh (attributed to the Spanish Rishon, Rav Aharon Levi HaBartziloni) states this limitation quite succinctly:

TEXT

שיש כתות בני אדם יחשבו כי השגחת הש״י על כל ענייני העולם בין בעלי חיים או כל שאר הדברים כלומר שלא יתנועע דבר אחד קטן בעולם הזה רק בחפצו ב״ה ובגזרתו עד שיחשבו כי בנפול עלה אחד מן האילן הוא גזר עליו שיפול וא״א שיתאחר או יקדם זמן נפילתה אפי׳ רגע וזה דעת רחוק הרבה מן השכל

TRANSLATION

“There are sects of people who think that the hashgahah of HaShem yitborakh is upon all matters of the world, whether animals or other things, that is to say that not even one small thing in the world moves except by His will, blessed be He, and by His decree, to the point that they think that with regard to the falling of one leaf from a tree that it is [Divinely] decreed upon it that it should fall and that it is impossible that it could have fallen either earlier or later than the [Divinely decreed] time of its falling even by a single moment. Such an understanding is very far from intelligent.” (Parashat Tazria, Mitzvah 169)

The idea commonly espoused by many in the Jewish world today (described as incorrect by the Sefer HaHinukh), namely that everything in the world and everything that happens in the world is subject to and governed by hashgahah peratit, was virtually unknown until the mysticism of Isaac Luria (16th century) the preaching of the Baal Shem Tov (17th-18th centuries). The adages [apparently] spoken by Baal Shem Tov vary depending on the source retelling them, but at times he said to have attributed hashgahah peratit to the turning of a leaf, a blade of grass in the wind, or to grains of sand falling into a hole. In their estimation, the concept of hashgahah kelalit either did not exist or was an illusion – a blatant departure and re-invention of standard hashkafah that threw the doors wide open for all manner of divination and avodah zarah in the name of “kabbalah.”

The reasoning is that if God actively wills the occurrence of every detail in the physical world, then those details must have some sort of meaning, and this meaning (the “omen”) can be “decoded” through mystical means. This error led to the widespread engagement in “readings” by mystics and rebbes: the flight patterns of birds (ornithomancy), the shape of smoke as it rises (capnomancy), the letters of a person’s name (onomancy), the palms (cheiromancy), the face (schematomancy), and others – all of which are expressly forbidden by the Torah (Devarim 18:10-15).

In my humble opinion, such a stance is in stark contradiction to centuries, comprising more than a millennium, of consistent Torah teaching on the subject (not to mention that such a view leads inevitably to the attribution of absurdity – has va-halilah – to the Creator, may he be blessed, and a host of other philosophical errors). Therefore, it seems that it must be rejected like any other latter-day teaching that sets aside the Torah and Hazal in favor of “new revelations” (see Devarim 12-13).