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The Jewish Response (2)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg
21.09.2014

 Beyond Philosophy, History and Prophecy

 

            Rihal, in discussing the contents of the prophets' doctrine, stresses that they "called [the people] to the Torah with the promise of reward for its keepers and punishment for its transgressors."  One major implication of this statement relates to the cohesiveness or coherence of prophecy.  Each prophet demonstrates the other's veracity, and their messages complement one another.  These important facts will be discussed again by Rihal in the fourth chapter.  Here Rihal briefly alludes to one of his basic positions: he maintains that prophecy proves its own worth through the consistency and unity of the various prophets.

 

            Let us approach the problem as though it were a question of verification of evidence.  When we examine witnesses, we compare their versions.  This allows us to reconstruct the events, with each witness not only informing us of what he has seen, but simultaneously strengthening or weakening the credibility of the other witnesses.  If his version indeed corroborates those of the other witnesses, his own statement is verified.  In a similar manner, the integrity of Moshe's Torah is not based solely upon Moshe's claims or those of the Jewish people who were present at the time of its revelation.  When the prophet Mal'akhi instructs us to "remember the Torah of Moshe," these words and similar ones of the other prophets complete the original revelation.  Therefore we must discuss the veracity of prophecy with the entire spectrum of evidence in mind.

 

            In truth, there are other methods besides prophecy to demonstrate the truth of the Jewish position.  For example, God has been hidden within nature ever since creation.  This particular path can be dangerous, however, since one can easily fall into the abstractness of the philosopher or the concretism of the idol worshipper.  But yet another type of revelation exists: God's continuous revelation through history.  Rihal chooses this path, asserting that history leads unerringly to God.

 

            Rihal constructs his historical proof of the Torah's divinity upon the foundations of the Jewish tradition, taking into account the difference between our generation and our predecessors.  We are not prophets.  We are but the children of prophets.  We cannot directly experience the miracle and the prophecy; we perceive it indirectly, through a medium.  This medium is our tradition.  Thus our challenge differs from that of the Sinai generation.  We must use our intellect in order to address religious questions.  When we examine the issue of prophecy, we are compelled to approach it in the same way that we cross-examine witnesses, for though our souls were present at the revelation upon Mount Sinai, our eyes did not behold the splitting of the sea or any of the other miracles.  This fact forces us to cling to our tradition.  This, incidentally, is a central principle in Rav Sa'adia Gaon's philosophical approach.

 

            And yet, the central proof of Judaism's supremacy lies not in the past but in the future; not in the historical record, but in the historical process.  The continued forward march of time will reach its pinnacle with the promised redemption, and it is this redemption which will furnish the final proof of the prophecies.

 

Man As An Individual

 

            Jewish history commences with the fact that God "took the Jewish people out of Egypt with miracles and wonders, and maintained them in the desert and bequeathed to them the land of Canaan."  This introduction lays the foundation for God's continual appearance in history, and, moreover, constitutes the solution to an existential problem we have previously discussed.  The philosopher's path is abstract and impersonal, allowing no opportunity for a direct relationship between man and his Maker.  Their relationship can take the form only of a macrocosmic interaction with nature, what classical Jewish philosophy would term "general providence."  Man is merely a part of the natural system, another insignificant detail submerged in the larger picture.  His name, of course, is of no interest, and were he to disappear, another man could quietly take his place.  However, in history, names do matter.  History holds significance for individuals as well as nations, and it is within history that man meets his Creator.  In this encounter we discover the greatest proof of a relationship with the Divine.  This is the significance of the revelation at Sinai.

 

            The emphasis placed upon reward and punishment reveals to us an additional facet of the prophetic message as summarized by Rihal.  Religious truths are not abstract concepts which interest us in the same way that mathematics and law, for example, interest us - simply because they are true.  The importance of Torah lies in the fact that it affects reality; it makes a difference.  Rabbi Yosef Albo expressed this idea, a few hundred years after Rihal, when he formulated and defined the three central beliefs, or roots, of Judaism: the existence of God, the divinity of the Torah, and the idea of reward and punishment.  That God's existence is a crucial principle is obvious; it is the basis for all that religion holds dear.  The divinity of the Torah is that which characterizes our religion and makes it unique.  What of reward and punishment?  The concept of reward and punishment implies that our religious worship has practical ramifications.  We believe that the world will be a different place if we adhere to the Torah's commandments.

 

Lessons of History

 

            Our last remark bears special significance for the Kuzari king.  Through the Kuzari's words, Rihal demonstrates the world's eternal difficulty in accepting the message of the Jew.  With brutal honesty, Rihal expresses through the king's mouth his reluctance to consider Judaism in his quest for the true religion, since, in the infamous phrase of the British historian Arnold Toynbee, the Jew is in fact merely a "fossil."  This is a dual charge.  Not only has "their chain of tradition already been cut and their wisdom decreased," but, in addition, "their exile has not left them with any good qualities."  In essence, the claim is that the lack of wordly success of the Jewish nation proves the falseness of its position.

 

            This constitutes a significant thesis in the anti-Jewish campaign, albeit a less threatening one than that which we discussed in an earlier chapter, for it does not deny the fact that both Christianity and Islam are based upon Judaism.  The Kuzari king himself bears witness to this fact (I:10): "I see that indeed I must inquire of the Jews who are the remnants of ancient Israel, and I see that they constitute the proof that God has given a Torah to the world."  He cannot deny that the very existence of religion is based upon the revelation to the Jews.  However, it is still possible for an antisemite to distinguish between the historical Jewish people and the present day Jews.  This is a tactic employed to this very day by those theologians who speak of the Israelite era as opposed to the Jewish era, with Toynbee's "fossilization" of the Jews giving political and historical expression to this specious religious claim.

 

            Jewish tradition has become part of universal history.  Not so the repulsed and persecuted contemporary Jew.

 

The Great Paradox: The Gentile Encounters Judaism

 

            The Kuzari king found what he sought: a direct encounter with the Divine.  His dream became a micro-model of Godly revelation, one sixtieth of prophecy.  However, prophecy itself he finds only in the Jewish people.  And yet, ethnic and biological and, above all, psychological barriers stand between the king and the Jews.  He is faced with Jewish particularism, with the uniqueness of Jewish existence.  The chaver presents him with the "calling card" of his faith, and thus the king discovers that it is based upon the distinctness of the Jews.  The Kuzari king remains isolated.  He is a Gentile.

 

            This is undoubtedly an intentional paradox.  We could easily soften this issue with apologetics, silencing the elements which stress Jewish uniqueness.  However, Rihal not only does not mute them, he accentuates them.  He purposely begins his discourse with these elements, and places the Kuzari in direct conflict with them.  We must immerse ourselves in these questions.  This is one of the important tasks which remain before us.  The particularism will achieve completion through our historic destiny, a destiny which involves the entire world.  At present, we are faced with a powerful question and to find the answer we must embark upon an arduous journey through the annals of Jewish thought, with the chaver as our guide.

 

(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)

 

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

 

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