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Notes from the Marom Bet Midrash


Rabbi Joel Levy

Use of language in the Bible.

How is the word "faith" used in the Bible? As an intellectual assertion: I believe in a fact, e.g. that G-d exists. Also, assertion of commitment to a way of life. This is a choice made. I believe the world is becoming a better place. ("I believe baseball is the best sport" is a statement that says something about the speaker more than about the subject covered.) Its first recorded use is Gen 15:6:

He believed in the LORD, and he counted it to him for righteousness. והאמין בה׳ ויחשבה לו צדקה׃

This is about trust.

No instance of the use of this verb in the Hebrew Bible is used to mean "I believe that G-d exists"; it always connotes trust rather than existence. The Bible preassumes G-d exists; it is not an act of faith. G-d is very present in the text. Faith in G-d is about building a relationship instead. It's also always in the Bible about action, rather than intellect or social commitment.

Even the rabbinic texts preassume the existence of G-d; there is no dogma saying that one must believe in the existence of G-d. In the Talmud faith is used in terms of social commitment.

One might have expected to find it in such places as laws dealing with Jews changing status, such as converting—we might expect a conversand be expected to affirm faith—or coming of age: barmitzvah.

Conversion is dealt with in Yevamot 47. You teach people a few things about מצות and their punishment, and if they accept that, convert them. Coming of age does not involve any catechism either.

The only place in the Talmud Bavli where there is any notion of dogmatic faith is Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter 10 Mishna 1, about the World to Come:

All Israel have a share in the world to come, for it is written: "Your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified" (Isaiah 60:22).

But the following have no share in the world to come:

  • He who says there is no resurrection of the dead [from the Torah]
  • And the Torah is not from heaven
  • And an apikoros
R. Akiva says:
  • Also one who reads external books
  • And one who whispers over a wound saying, "I will bring none of these diseases upon you which I brought upon the Egyptians, [for I am the Lord who heals you]." (Exodus 15:26)
Abba Saul says:
  • Also one who pronounces the Divine name according to its letters.

כל ישראל, יש להם חלק לעולם הבא, שנאמר "ועמך כולם צדיקים, לעולם יירשו ארץ"׃ ואלו שאין להם חלק לעולם הבא—האומר אין תחיית המתים, ואין תורה מן השמיים, ואפיקורוס׃ רבי עקיבה אומר, אף הקורא בספרים החיצונים, והלוחש על המכה ואמר "כל המחלה אשר שמתי במצריים, לא אשים עליך"׃ אבא שאול אומר, אף ההוגה את השם באותותיו׃

Because we are not living on the land now, the quote from Isaiah must be a reference to the World to Come; or anything inheritable forever must refer to the World to Come. This is an extreme statement of inclusion: All Israel will be included. It rules out people trying to deny people their place in the World to Come. (This is the reason for the contradiction: All Israel... but these do not.)

Where is resurrection of the dead taught in the Torah? The Talmud spends the next five or six pages trying to find proof somewhere in the תנ״ך. There is no pshat [literal meaning] reference to resurrection of the dead anywhere; you have to work pretty hard for it! Rashi makes an interesting comment: there is no pshat, it's only drash [interpreted meaning]. Who is it that does not believe in the resurrection of the dead? It's those who do not believe in the Oral Law: the Sadducees (at the time of writing; the Karaites in Rashi's time). (Philo confirms that the Sadducees did not believe in the World to Come, or even the soul. The Essenes believed in the soul continuing after death; the Pharisees believed in physical resurrection.)

The second category for exclusion, תורה מן השמים, is often understood as a reference again to the Oral Torah.

As for the apikoros, some academics think this refers to Epicurus (300 BCE), who did not believe in G-d*. Other rabbis believe the word comes from הפכר, the the world is "ownerless". The Talmud said an apikoros is someone who mocks the Talmudic tradition. Again, referring to the Sadducees.

* It's time to crank out that quotation again. :o)
"God† can either take away evil from the world and will not, or, being willing to do so cannot; or neither can nor will, or lastly, is both able and willing. If He has the will to remove evil and cannot, then He is not omnipotent. If He can, but will not, then He is not benevolent. If he is neither able or willing, then He is neither omnipotent nor benevolent. Lastly, if He is both able and willing to annihilate evil, how does it exist?"
As we have this quotation, reported to us by (the Christian) Lactantius in the fourth century. I have no idea whether Epicurus would originally have said "the gods" or "God".

They're fighting old battles here: there were no more Sadducees by the time the Mishnah was written. Either that or that is a common historical thread running from the Sadducees on to the Karaites years later.

This is the most dogmatic statement in the entire Talmudic corpus. As such, there are things you'd expect missing, such as belief in G-d.

It also says—and the mediaeval commentators apart from Rambam make a big deal out of this—it doesn't talk about someone who believes that there is no resurrection of the dead, it talks about someone who says this, i.e. goes out and spreads their insidious beliefs. It's all about being faithful to the community of Israel.

All this gets washed away by Maimonides in the Twelfth Century. He creates a dogmatic version of Judaism, the Thirteen Principles of Faith which were written as part of the introduction to his commentary on the above mishna. There are other people before him who hold judaism has ikarim, important principles, but he is the first to come up with a creed:

  1. I believe with perfect faith that G-d is the Creator and Ruler of all things. He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.
  2. I believe with perfect faith that G-d is One. There is no unity that is in any way like His. He alone is our G-d; He was, He is, and He will be.
  3. I believe with perfect faith that G-d does not have a body; physical concepts do not apply to Him. There is nothing whatsoever that resembles Him at all.
  4. I believe with perfect faith that G-d is First and Last.
  5. I believe with perfect faith that it is only proper to pray to G-d. One may not pray to anyone or anything else.
  6. I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.
  7. I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses is absolutely true. He was the chief of all prophets, both before and after Him.
  8. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses.
  9. I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be changed, and that there will never be another given by G-d.
  10. I believe with perfect faith that G-d knows all of man's deeds and thoughts. It is thus written (Psalm 33:15), "He has moulded every heart together, He understands what each one does."
  11. I believe with perfect faith that G-d rewards those who keep His commandments, and punishes those who transgress Him.
  12. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he tarry, I will await His coming every day.
  13. I believe with perfect faith that the dead will be brought back to life when G-d wills it to happen.

[This form of them, however, the אני מאמין, I don't think was written by Maimonides.]

In The Limits of Orthodox Theology, Mark Shapiro, an Orthodox rabbi, quotes thousands of examples of pre-Haskalah [Enlightenment] Orthodox scholars rejecting each of the Thirteen Principles. He has made it his life's work to demonstrate this, to reject the concept of the Thirteen Principles of Faith being the definition of normative Judaism.

[Since I attended this talk, I have now read this book. I wish I'd read it several years ago, when I was wrestling with not buying into all thirteen principles myself. My brother recommended me R. Jeremy Rosen's Exploding Myths That Jews Believe, but I found it a cop-out: R. Rosen effectively said it was okay to doubt, but not to deny, but since you can't prove that G-d won't, frex, resurrect the dead, that's not a problem. I found this to be weaselling out of tackling the issue head on; something The Limits of Orthodox Theology does do. I wouldn't have had the opportunity to read it then, though, however, as the book had not yet been written.]

See also "Beyond Belief: Doctrine in Judaism".

Jewish learning notes index


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