Skip to main content

The Jewish Response (1)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg
21.09.2014

God And His People: Lover And Beloved

 

            We have now reached the encounter between the Kuzari king and the "chaver" (Jewish representative).  The chaver purposely commences in an unexpected manner which arouses the king's wrath.  He begins by addressing an exclusively national issue: "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" freed us from Egypt.

 

            However surprising, this attitude is not new.  The chaver's opening statement mirrors God's historic introduction to the Jewish people upon Mount Sinai in the first of the Ten Commandments.  Yet noting this obvious parallel does not mitigate our puzzlement.  Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra voices a similar bewilderment in his commentary on the book of Exodus (20:1).  There he informs us that Rihal himself asked him the following question:

 

"Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, may he rest in peace, asked me why [God] declared 'I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt,' and did not say, 'who created the heavens and the earth and created you.'"

 

            Upon hearing this statement, the Kuzari king responds with a dual charge:

A) The chaver begins his presentation from the middle.  The beginning is missing!

B) This opening bears significance for the Jewish people who were taken out of Egypt and perhaps for their descendants.  It is irrelevant to a Gentile, living upon the banks of the Don or the Volga.

 

            Certainly this is a planned surprise, and it demands explanation.

 

            The chaver informs us of two possible approaches to religion.  The first consists of a man-initiated search for the Divine, utilizing one's intellectual capacities.  However, another approach exists as well.

 

            The difference between these two approaches constitutes one of the central topics of Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik's essay "U-vikashtem Mi-sham."  This work can be described as a commentary on the Song of Songs.

 

            Allow me to say a few words regarding the exegesis of the Song of Songs.  Those who believe in a literal reading of the Song of Songs do not consider the allegorical interpretation particularly daring.  But one must wonder at the presumptuousness of a work which adopts the language of human relationships to describe the deepest expression of spirituality - the love between man and God.

 

            Judaism exults in the love between man and woman.  In the proper context, this love is considered holy.  Love songs contain elements which may elevate them to the level of holy liturgy.  However, the Song of Songs is not simply holy: it is termed the "holy of holies."

 

            Through this approach to the Song of Songs we can understand another plane of religious terminology.  When we speak of our relationship with God, we borrow semantic tools from three areas.  The two first areas are easily palatable, even for a youngster.  They find expression in the phrase which echoes throughout our prayers: "Our Father, our King."  These two basic human relationships are present in our interaction with God: the relationship between father and son, and the relationship between master and servant.  We have borrowed the first image from family life, and it represents the initial example of authority to which we are exposed as children.  The second comparison is taken from the societal sphere.  Both these expressions possess practical and ideological ramifications of the first order.  They form the basis of the central Jewish concept, "The kingship of Heaven," (malkhut shamayim).

 

            Using only these two expressions, we can describe God both as our Father in heaven and as King of the entire world.  However, the Bible teaches us that a third relationship exists which is in some ways more significant than the others.  This is the boldest image of all - the image of lover and loved one, of man and wife.  The first source of this image can be found in the second of the Ten Commandments: the reference to a "jealous" God hints at the suspicion of unfaithfulness which exists between lovers.  The image appears repeatedly in the Prophets, and the structure of the Song of Songs is built upon it as well.  Our prophets, seeking to admonish the people, tend to describe situations of tension between the "lovers."  The Song of Songs portrays the love itself.  Beyond the basic areas of respect and awe - respect for a father and awe of a king - the third dimension of love exists.  This concept heralds the development of an entire area of Jewish thought: the doctrine of deveikut (cleaving), which reached its ultimate expression through Jewish mysticism.

 

            To briefly summarize the long history of this rich treasure of ideas, we must stress that a number of possible interpretations exist beyond the literal plane.  If we disregard the kabbalistic interpretation, we are left with two central approaches:

A) The Midrashic approach explains that the Song of Songs constitutes a dialogue between the Jewish people and God.  This dialogue lyrically depicts all of Jewish history.

B) According to the second approach, the dialogue takes place between the individual soul and God.  This interpretation also has its roots in Chazal (our Sages, the sources of our rabbinic literature) who used the Song of Songs to explain the spiritual ascent experienced by the Talmudic mystics.  The possibility of a personal relationship with the Creator gave rise to the doctrine of deveikut.  Rav Soloveitchik uses this model to describe the relationship between man and God in terms of the relationship between lovers.

 

            The woman in the allegory represents the mortal in search of God.  The history of philosophy documents this quest for the Divine.  Man seeks and finds God, yet he does not encounter Him face to face.  The method boasts but limited success.  However, another avenue beckons: The lover searches for his beloved.  God seeks man.  The revelation upon Mount Sinai was a powerful manifestation of this truth.  The reaction of the beloved reflects the history of the Jewish people and their response to the Torah.  God conceals Himself from he who seeks him in philosophy, and reveals Himself through prophecy alone.  Thus a new difficulty arises.  For when the lover knocks upon the door, the frail mortal may fail to respond, and thus can destroy the possibility of intimacy and devotion forever.

 

Beyond Philosophy: The Boundaries of the Intellect

 

            Let us briefly survey the history of human spiritual development from a different angle.  We will begin with the approach of the primitive idol worshipper who considered the natural elements his gods and felt that the meeting ground between man and God was nature.  Wind and rain, lightning and thunder, were, he believed, the actions of the various gods.  It was necessary for man to revolutionize this primitive conception, overcome his childish attempts to identify the gods with nature, and reach a higher plane.  Man then achieved the level of the philosopher who leaps beyond the visible, and searches for God not with his senses but rather with his intellect.

 

            Now, however, an additional question arises.  Is this human tool, the intellect, indeed infallible?  The Greeks, and the philosophy they constructed, believed in the all-encompassing power of the intellect.  They had faith in its innate ability to eventually light up every dark corner of the world.  This was the firm belief of the blind optimists among the philosophers, as well as the philosopher in "The Kuzari," to some degree, and Spinoza, whose system of thought echoes our philosopher's words.  These thinkers believed in the unconquerable strength of the mind.  They had faith in their ability to reach God through the scientific observation of nature.  In their eyes, the intellect wielded the power to construct a new "religion," a practical system capable of instructing men, a "religion" based upon logic and reason alone.

 

            Rihal attacks this "religion."  Why?  Where is philosophy's weak point?

 

            It finds expression firstly in a historic lack of consensus: As the chaver states flatly, "If you ask the philosophers, you will not find them agreed upon any topic."  In other words, we have seen that in the name of the selfsame intellect, humanity flounders helplessly in its various attempts to construct a way of life.  Yes, there were periods in which one philosophy or another held sway and appeared to possess truth.  However, Rihal claims that philosophy, by its very nature, is incapable of attaining unity.  It is in a constant state of indecision and fragmentation.  Each philosopher makes a fortress of his position and claims that his philosophy alone is true, and no philosopher can conquer another fortress.  Thus, Rihal stresses that doubt remains the starting point of every philosophical position.  Doubt is reflected not only in conflicts with others; it surfaces in man's internal struggles as well.  This is an element of self-destruction since philosophy is based upon the search for certainty.  Philosophy speaks of proofs.  Spinoza's book, for instance, is written as though it were a work in geometry.

 

            Philosophy lures us with promises of answers, and yet it cannot shake the ever-present doubt, which bodes a future of uncertainty.  Rihal, through the words of the chaver, teaches us that "this religion [of the philosophers] is based upon claims of which only some can be proven absolutely."  This is a reference to philosophy in its optimal state, which was the way it was commonly assessed in his day, and he divides human intellectual endeavor into three parts:

 

A) The matters which can be proven beyond a doubt, such as mathematics or those philosophical principles which can be scientifically proven.

B) The ideas which have sufficient evidence.  While certain more or less convincing claims can be made in their favor, they have no truly scientific proof.  Most human claims cited in ideological arguments fall into this category.

C) There are some areas in which, without articulating the fact, people construct conceptual edifices based upon assumptions which simply do not exist in reality.  This is a constant and eternal fact.  Perhaps the content changes over the generations; however, the human tendency to build without foundation remains constant.

 

            In contrast to the doubts inherent in the intellectual approach, Rihal presents us with the complete certainty that can be achieved only through prophecy.  This is an internal certainty, an independent belief.  The two foundations of medieval Jewish thought were miracles and revelation, or prophecy.  We will yet discuss the relationship between miracles and prophecy in the systems of various thinkers.  Rihal presents us with both proofs at once - the power of miracles, and that of Divine revelation or prophecy.  Rihal refers to a revelatory process which did not terminate upon Moshe's death - a process which continued throughout the era of the prophets, and beyond.

(This shiur will be continued next week.)

Translated by Gila Weinberg.

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

 

 

 

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!