Saturday, March 3, 2007

True Beliefs vs. Necessary Beliefs

Question: Why isn’t a bracha made before writing a sefer torah?
Answer: Because of the uncertainty of being able to execute the mitzvah without error, since we don’t know the correct spellings or orthographic notation.

Driving home one day from my office I took notice of the fact that I was humming a tune that I learned decades ago, probably in kindergarten or first grade. It’s the tune set to “Yigdal”. It’s a great and catchy tune, probably one of the most popular poems in our literary history, written and composed by Rabbi Daniel Bar Yehudah of Rome in the early 14th century, about one hundred years after the death of Maimonides. It is a poem affirming the thirteen articles of faith as articulated by Maimonides. Yigdal never enriched its composer financially, but enriched the Jewish people and continues to do so six hundred years after its composition. It’s a prayer chanted by hundreds of thousands of Jews every morning, included in all prayer books and is an integral part of the morning tefillah.

It created however, in the hearts and minds of millions of Jews through the ages facts that really can’t be substantiated. It brought into the consciousness of millions of people a dogmatic belief system that is questionable. It was ingenious, because nothing stated in the Yigdal can ever be substantiated, nor does it have deep roots in any of our primary texts. On the contrary, there were many great scholars through the ages that took exception with the dogma articulated by the Rambam, and artistically phrased in the Yigdal. Their voices, however, never received the exposure, popularity and acceptance that Yigdal received.

The popularity of Yigdal reminds me somewhat of the psychology that says “if you say something long enough you begin to believe it”. If you say the Yigdal long enough you begin to believe it. But not everything in the Yigdal is as clear as the poem states as Menachem Kellner comented on Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith in his book Must A Jew Believe Anything. One example of this is the eighth of the thirteen principles of faith that the Rambam insisted was critical basing this and the other 12 principles on the first Mishneh of the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin.

But before getting into specifics let me point out that the Thirteen Principles of Faith are universally accepted by the traditional Jewish community. Even the early maskilim such as Judah Leib Ben Ze’ev accepted the thirteen principles. The early reform movement and even some of their rabbis today are in acceptance of these principles. But to paraphrase Gershom Scholem, how is it possible that something so universally accepted can be so wrong? To be sure there were traditionalist that questioned the thirteen principles, such as R.Luzzatto(1800-1865) , R. Reuven Amar and R. Bezalel Naor. Incidentally, even the Artscroll, the final word for today’s orthodox community, refers to the thirteen principles as “virtually universally accepted”.

The eighth principle of faith states: “I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses”. The Yigdal, reflecting these sentiments reads: “God gave a true Torah to his people, through his prophet trusted in all His house.” Essentially, all this principle does is to authenticate the masoretic text edited and brought to light by Aaron ben Moses ben Asher which was in the tenth century. Prior to that there was a string of edited texts many of which are referred to as masoretic texts, or tikun soferim. One is led to believe that according to the Rambam the text we have today of the Pentateuch is the same one given to Moses at Sinai three thousand years ago, in spite of our knowledge of the masoretic text and tikun soferim. Ask any child with a day school education, or your typical yeshiva bachur and he will tell you that the torah we have today is that which was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. How does he know? He will answer because it’s one of the thirteen Ikarim. Not to believe it is tantamount to being a heretic.

Regarding the tikun soferim, as Marc Shapiro points out in his book The Limits of Orthodox Theology, there were significant textual changes in the Pentateuch. In many cases the soferim made changes if they felt the existing text was inappropriate. For example, Genesis 18:22 ought to read that God stood before Abraham, since it was God who came initially to Abraham. However, the tikun soferim reversed it to read and Abraham stood before God, because in their opinion it wasn’t appropriate for God to be depicted as standing before Abraham. In this vein, there is scholarly evidence that supports the thesis that Ezra, while not changing the intended mitzvoth, took the liberty to embellish the text. Incidentally, Ibn Ezra believes that significant verses of the text were written after Moses departed from the scene. He doesn’t dispute the fact that it was written with Divine intervention, he just maintains that it was someone other than Moses.

The picture becomes more complex when one takes into account the fact that there wasn’t one masoretic text, but many. Furthermore, as far back as the Babylonian period when the Talmud was edited there was awareness of gross errors in the Torah text regarding spelling and orthographic notation. As Shapiro suggests, there were halachic discussions on what happens if the Torah text differs with that of that quoted in the Talmud, or a discrepancy between texts quoted in Talmud and that of the masoretic text. An example of this is found in the Ten Commandments. In the Talmud Yerushalmi, the first commandment spells the word “hotzesicha” without a “yud”, but the masoretic text in Exodus and Deuteronomy spell it with a “yud”.

These aren’t minor errors. Sages of the Talmudic period were aware and concerned with the multiple discrepancies in the Torah text. Midrash Rabbah comments that the Torah texts of R. Meir differed from that of R. Akiva. In Genesis 1:31 the words Tov M’od appeared as the wording in R. Meir’s text , but in R. Akiva’s Tov Mavet appears in place of “Tov Me’od”. In genesis 3:21 the word “Or” appeared with an “ayin”, meaning clothing, but in R. Meir’s text it appeared with an “aleph”, thus rendering the word to mean light. Furthermore in T.B. Makot 11:a the opinion is expressed that Joshua and not Moses authored the last eight verses of Deuteronomy. This is just an abbreviated list of the inconsistencies of the text. The point is, since we have these inconsistencies how could the Rambam compose the eighth principal, in effect, rendering the sages as heretics?

Obviously, the Rambam was aware of all this. How can he still posit this eighth principle of faith as one of the thirteen ikkarim? Arthur Hyman, a Maimonides scholar and author of several texts on medieval Jewish philosophy (referenced by Marc Shapiro) suggests that the Rambam worked with two systems: “true beliefs” and “necessary beliefs”. According to Hyman, when the Rambam formulated this principal, he knew that Moses didn’t write the entire Torah. His overriding concern was for the welfare of Am Yisrael at a particularly difficult time in Muslim Spain and felt the necessity to perpetuate this idea for the sake of the “amcha”. By perpetuating this and other notions, it would keep the Jewish community from straying and help maintain their abiding faith. Keep in mind that at this time Muslims were accusing Jews of intentionally altering the text of the Pentateuch. So it was all the more important for the Rambam to underscore the divinity and pristine nature of the total text.

Having said all this I will conclude with another question which unfortunately has no simple answer.
Question: If it is true that the Torah, written with Divine inspiration, but not dictated word for word by God and therefore not immutable, (as evidenced by the various versions of masoretic texts and tikunei soferim, coupled with variants in texts even during the Talmudic period)than is our halachic system flawed, since its foundations do not rest on bedrock?
Answer: To be addressed.