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The Dream as a Parable

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg
21.09.2014

 

     As we have previously noted, the initial passages of the Kuzari emphasize the division between philosophy and religion regarding three central issues (I:4):

A.  The concept of creation;

B.  The doctrine of prophecy, and such relevant questions as the nature of God's knowledge of man, the divinity of the Torah, and man's dialogue with his Maker;

C.  The anticipation of individual and collective redemption.

 

     The legend which forms the underpinnings of the book compels the philosopher, albeit indirectly, to address the issue of prophecy.  At this juncture the discussion revolves around the lowest level of prophecy, the dream.  Yet despite its drab performance in comparison to the drama of a split sea or the Sinai revelation, the prophetic dream nonetheless successfully lures us towards the mystique of the supernatural.  We are granted a glimpse of realities far too distant in time or space to be accessible through our natural senses.

 

     The compelling nature of the prophetic dream leads to a discussion of the reliability of dreams and thus into the complex field of parapsychology.  This problematic "science" has become the focus of a continual controversy.  Many proponents of the field expected the eventual evolution of parapsychology into a legitimate channel for the scientific analysis of supernatural phenomena.  Yet despite numerous startling advances and breakthroughs, parapsychology is and will remain a controversial and questionable science.  We will return to this topic when we begin our discussion of the soul, and will treat it to the degree that the constraints of this forum will allow.  At this point, however, we will stress a different aspect of the dream.

 

     We have previously named Spinoza as a modern, sophisticated version of the Aristotelian philosopher.  And indeed, Spinoza did champion a natural, physical view of the world.  He perceived nature, and thus science as well, as the sole realities.  All other experiences were, in his opinion, either fraud, willful self-deception, or delusions.  By divulging the contents of his dream, the Kuzari king in effect compels us to confront the supernatural.  However, the confrontation alone will not suffice.  The Kuzari then points out the complete independence of the selfsame supernatural phenomenon from the development of those intellectual faculties lauded by the philosopher.  To the philosopher's chagrin, the Kuzari maintains that despite its significant advances elsewhere, philosophy has consistently failed to penetrate the deeper levels of our reality which occasionally surface by dint of supernatural phenomena such as the prophetic dream.

 

     This discussion takes place against the backdrop of the autobiographical motif of the Kuzari, who was himself motivated to embark upon his spiritual quest by a dream.  A deeper look at the conflict reveals that we, as Jews, stand between the two viewpoints.  Here, too, we must search out the golden mean between two dangerous and faulty exaggerations.  The intellect is not the sole yardstick of reality, yet neither may we allow the supernatural to blot out the natural and intellectual.  The Kuzari does not passively accept the sovereignty of the supernatural.  Rather, he attempts to find its place alongside the natural and intellectual realities.  This is an accurate reflection of the Torah's approach as well.

 

     We can express this attitude with the aid of a classic example from the Talmud: the story of Achnai's oven (see Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a-b):

 

 

     Rabbi Eliezer declares it ritually pure and the sages      declare it ritually impure.

 

     It has been taught: "On that day, Rabbi Eliezer used all   the arguments in the world, but they did not accept them      from him.  He said to them: 'If the Halakha is in    accordance with me, let this carob tree prove it.'  The      carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits - and some say four hundred cubits.  They said to him:    'One does not bring proof from a carob tree.'  He then      said to them:  'If the Halakha is in accordance with me, let the channel of water prove it.'  The channel of water turned backward.  They said to him:  'One does not bring    proof from a channel of water.'  He then said to them:       'If the Halakha is in accordance with me, let the walls   of the House of Study prove it.'  The walls of the House   of Study leaned to fall.  Rabbi Yehoshua rebuked them, and said to them:  'If Talmudic sages argue with one   another about the Halakha, what affair is it of yours?'    They did not fall, out of respect for Rabbi Yehoshua; but they did not straighten, out of respect for Rabbi   Eliezer, and they still remain leaning.  He then said to them:  'If the Halakha is in accordance with me, let it   be proved from Heaven.'  A Heavenly voice went forth and   said: 'Why are you disputing with Rabbi Eliezer, for the Halakha is in accordance with him everywhere?'  Rabbi Yehoshua rose to his feet and said:  'It is not in      Heaven.'"

 

     What does "It is not in Heaven" mean?

 

     Rabbi Yirmeya said:  That the Torah was already given on   Mount Sinai, and we do not pay attention to a Heavenly voice, for You already wrote in the Torah at Mount Sinai:      "After the majority to incline."

 

     Rabbi Natan met Elijah and said to him:  "What did the     Holy One, blessed be He, do at that time?"  He said to    him:  "He smiled and said:  'My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.'"

 

 

     This story vividly portrays the conflict between the supernatural, represented by Rabbi Eliezer, and the human intellect, represented by Rabbi Yehoshua.  The Talmud's decision to reject the authority of the "bat kol" (supernatural voice) teaches us that in some areas the supernatural does not hold sway.  The Torah itself contains the synthesis between "Torah from heaven" ("Torah min ha-shamayim") and "it is not in heaven" ("lo ba-shamayim he").  We will make do with this limited analysis of the question, with the reservation that Rihal himself explains the cited Talmudic passages in another way.

 

     Thus we discover that we are not faced merely with a choice between good and evil.  Our alternatives are far more complex.  We are indeed confronted by two options, but we must search for the third possibility: the golden mean, the synthesis between two extreme positions.

 

     We disagree with the perception that all phenomena can be explained through natural means.  However, we must exercise caution in our relationship with the supernatural.  We must be on guard against the illusions and deceptions which are part and parcel of the supernatural revelation.  The supernatural has caused grave mistakes, and cruel and evil actions have repeatedly been performed in its name.

 

The Dream: A Starting Point

 

     The book of the Kuzari is built around the encounter with the supernatural, yet the literary framework of the book takes the form of a rational argument.  In the "Epistle of Repentance" of R. Chasdai ibn Shaprut, which also recounts this legend, the Kuzari king reveals that the dream was not simply a starting point; rather, it led him to the resolution of his spiritual conflict.  The dream sufficed to convince the king that Judaism holds the keys to divine truth. Thus, the argument served merely as a useful literary vehicle.  In contrast, Rihal's literary structure positions the dream as the point of departure, the initial impetus for a spiritual quest.

 

     Let us examine a Talmudic passage which can serve as a fascinating background for our discussion.  In Tractate Yevamot 24b, R. Nechemia argues with the Sages regarding the status of converts whose motives were impure, such as the converts of Mordechai and Esther's day, who converted out of fear, or the converts of King Solomon's period, whose motive for conversion was, in our Rabbis' words, "to join the company of kings."  R. Nechemia states that "converts for lust, converts motivated by dreams, and the converts of Mordechai and Esther's day - are invalid converts."  Putting aside the argument, let us focus on R. Nechemia's example of a insincere conversion: he includes "converts motivated by dreams" in this category.  A surprising statement indeed!  If the Kuzari was inspired to convert by his dream, according to Rabbi Nechemia he joins the ranks of questionable converts!  Although the Halakha (Jewish law) sides with the Rabbis' approach, stating that all the above-mentioned groups are considered fully-fledged converts, the distinction between the various types of converts remains significant.  The Talmud wisely warns us to be wary of such "miraculous conversions."  In contrast, Christian legend glorifies Constantine, the Emperor of Rome, who converted to Christianity after dreaming that the cross marched before his conquering army.  Historians tend to doubt that the dream was Constantine's sole motivation, and they point out various political and economic interests which could easily have motivated him as well.  The Halakha takes a different approach.  It demands that the dream be accepted only after passing through the sieve of the intellect.  In other words, while we must recognize the existence of the supernatural, we must be wary of heedlessly fulfilling its directives.  The supernatural light must pass through the prism of the intellect, which in turn is influenced by Halakha.  False prophets also speak in the name of supernatural revelations, and yet we must resist their call.  In its conflict with Christianity, Judaism has consistently maintained that miracles could not induce a change in its views.

 

     The classical Jewish philosophers claimed that the difference between miracles and prophecy is reflected in the revelation at Mount Sinai.  The extraordinary events were indeed supernatural; however, our confidence in the divinity of our tradition stems not from the miraculous aspects of the event but rather from the actual giving of the Torah.

 

     Perhaps the discussion of the dream can be viewed as a literary foreshadowing of the book, since its premise is, in fact, divine revelation.  However, Rihal maintains that the divinity of the Torah is based upon the historic revelation to the nation as a whole, and not upon the prophetic dream of the individual.  We must also note that Rihal is under no obligation to identify with every position expressed by the Kuzari.  Even at those points where the Kuzari brilliantly defends Torah or Jewish nationalism, the differences between the Kuzari's position and that of the "chaver" (Jewish representative) can be radical, as we shall see.

 

     The final words in this segment are significant indeed:  "The Divine holds a different secret than the philosopher."  A similar statement is found, surprisingly, in one of the gems of world literature.  When Hamlet discovers the mysteries of the supernatural encounter, he informs Horatio:  "There are more things in heaven and earth ... than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (I:v).

 

This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.

Copyright (c)1996 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.

 

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