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    “Where faith leaps, philosophy moves slowly”: Is the God of Abraham also the God of Aristotle?

    September 22nd, 2023

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 22 September, 2023.

    Franz Rosenzweig

    The power of Yom Kippur is immense and compelling. As a traumatic religious experience, Judaism’s “Day of Atonement” has been a turning-point for many Jews — but for none more significantly than Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929).

    Yom Kippur in Berlin in 1913 brought Rosenzweig back from the brink of apostasy, and he decided he could never be anything other than a Jew. What happened to Rosenzweig that day, he never explicitly related. But it is significant that years later, in The Star of Redemption, he described what Yom Kippur means to the Jew:

    “On the Days of Awe … he confronts the eyes of his judge in utter loneliness, as if he were dead in the midst of life, a member of the community of man which, like himself, has placed itself beyond the grave in the very fullness of living.”

    Elsewhere, he said: “Anyone who has ever celebrated Yom Kippur knows that it is something more than a mere personal exaltation (although this may enter into it) or the symbolic recognition of a reality such as the Jewish people (although this also may be an element) — it is a testimony to the reality of God which cannot be controverted.”

    In these passages Rosenzweig not only hints at what one particular Yom Kippur meant to him; he provides a classical description of the nature of religious experience.

    Personal exaltation and participation in a worshipping community are part of it, but fundamentally religious experience is what William James calls a private faith-state, when, as Rosenzweig says so movingly, one confronts the eyes of God in utter loneliness.

    This is an intense, overwhelming, existential experience, almost beyond the realms of expression in words. It happens rarely, and it cannot always be maintained at such a peak. But this is religious experience, oblivious to time, place, context or company, and it is this which Rudolf Otto, moved by Yom Kippur in a simple North African Synagogue, called “the numinous”.

    The God whom one confronts in utter loneliness is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel would put it, the God of the prophet, not the God of the philosopher.

    For the prophet has an overwhelming, intuitive apprehension of God, while the God of the philosopher is the result of a long, careful process of reasoning. The one, says Heschel, uses “situational thinking”; the other “conceptual thinking”.

    Yet for Judaism both approaches — “the God of Abraham” and “the God of Aristotle”, as the medieval Jewish teachers expressed it — are not only acceptable but necessary. Each provides a corrective to the other.

    As Rosenzweig put it: “To have found God is not an end but in itself a beginning … The reasoning process comes afterwards. Afterwards, however, it must come.”

    The reasoning process prepares for, reinforces, and evaluates religious experience. It helps to protect the sensitive person from the excesses of his own imagination. It guides him to establish and maintain an on-going relationship which the God confronted in utter loneliness.

    But the reasoning process can, as William James argued, suffer from a “tendency to let religion evaporate in intellectual terms”. One can study God so coldly and clinically that one freezes out the warm, personal Father in Heaven.

    The pathway to God can be that of the prophet and it can be that of the philosopher. Each seeks the same truth.

    “The philosopher seeks at the end and what the prophet knows at the beginning”, writes Arthur Cohen. “Where faith leaps, philosophy moves slowly.”

    Judaism is adamant that faith and philosophy must finally come to the same truth.

    “The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is truth”, said the sages. The truth which the prophet sees in a moment of intuition is the same truth at which the patient reasoning of the philosopher must eventually arrive.

    As the classical Jewish thinkers put it, a man weighs several hundred identical coins and knows in a moment how many he has; but instead of weighing the coins he might count them one by one, and though this will take longer he will come to the same result in the end.

    The problem the religious teachers of the classical age faced is different in degree but not in kind from that which confronts the contemporary believer, who is adamantly informed by the agnostic and the atheist that the use of reason does not confirm, but denies, the truth of the religious claim.

    The believer suggests in reply that apparent contradictions are largely due to the limitations of human intelligence and reason.

    The fifteenth-century philosopher Yoseph ben Shem-Tov was right to remark that there is a distinction between that which is above human reason, and that which is counter to reason. Similarly, my teacher, Isidore Epstein, wrote:

    “Judaism, whilst having too much respect for human intelligence to subscribe to any proposition involving the total surrender of human reason, nevertheless rightly recognises the limitations of the human faculties and senses and may well proclaim as an act of revealed faith, Credible quia non intellectum est (“To be believed because it is beyond the understanding”) — quite a tenable and rational position which it would be unscientific to assail or deny a priori.”

    What Judaism could not do would be to assert Credo quia absurdum — “I believe because it is absurd” — Credible quia ineptum — “To be believed because it is foolish” — or Certum est quia impossibile est — “It is certain because it is impossible”.

    Saints who sin

    September 18th, 2023

    The word “sin” comes into basically every page of the Yom Kippur service. Its sparring-partner, “saint”, hardly figures at all.

    Nobody is expected to be perfect. Nobody is such a tzaddik that they do only good and never sin: Ki adam ayn tzaddik ba’aretz asher ya’aseh tov v’lo yecheta (Koh. 7:20). The only complete tzaddik is God.

    When my teacher, Rabbi Koppel Kahana, asked us to expound a Tosafot he gave members of the class 50%, 60 %, 70%… but no more, and he said, “Only God gets 100%”.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe says that anyone who sins is being stupid. He quotes a verse, “If anyone goes astray…” (Num. 5:12). That, he said, is what sin is – stupidly going astray. It is not only that the sages say that a person does not sin unless they have been overtaken by a spirit of stupidity. Rarely does a sinner act in defiance and rebellion against God; on the contrary, they let themselves go astray from the right path.

    Sin does occur, but usually it is not deliberate. It happens by mistake when we lose control and go astray.

    Wrongs & songs

    September 18th, 2023

    A couple of weeks ago when we read Parashat Ki Tetzei, a sidra which contains such a large number of commandments, someone told me that Rav Kook advised people not just to say the words of each commandment but to sing them.

    Rabbi Nachman of Breslov gives the same advice when he says, “I sing to God b’odi – whilst I am still alive” (Psalm 146:2). Rabbi Nachman says, “When you see a particular mitzvah before you, rejoice that God has given you the opportunity of making this a nicer, more harmonious world.”

    The idea is to celebrate the mitzvah and enjoy living the commandment-life.

    But how can one possibly sing when there is no-one without their faults? The answer is: don’t obsess about your failings and your faults. Concentrate on your virtues and capacities; use them to sing to God (Likkutei Moharan 282:2).

    The fast train to nowhere

    September 18th, 2023

    The Torah reading for Yom Kippur is probably the origin of the habit of casting blame on others.

    Sins committed in the Israelite community were transferred to a goat which was sent out into the wilderness (Lev.16; Mishnah Yoma 6:4). The high priest drew lots LaShem, “for God” and La’Azazel, “for despatch into the wilderness”.

    What did Azazel mean? Maybe it indicated the goat, maybe the destination in the wilderness.

    If it is a place, the terrain was hard and rocky; in folklore it is a place to which two fallen angels, Uzza and Aza(e)l, were banished because they had besmirched the Creation.

    If the name indicates the goat, it possibly denotes “the one that goes” (in the Septuagint, “the sent-away one”).

    Various Midrashim think it symbolises a power opposed to God. These sources, plus the Dead Sea Scrolls, say that in the end all the negative forces in the world will be overcome and destroyed.

    Maimonides (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46) regards the “scapegoat” procedure as symbolic: in order to eradicate all trace of sin it suggests despatching it to a distance (an example of “put it on a fast train to nowhere”).

    Unfortunately, transferring blame somewhere else is a prevalent habit, “passing the buck”, accusing the other of doing things for which we ourselves are responsible.

    The best approach is the Talmudic story of Elazar ben Durdaya (Avodah Zarah 17a) who after trying the scapegoating approach and blaming heaven and earth, night and day, came to the honest conclusion, “My fate depends on me myself”.

    Out of the woodwork

    September 18th, 2023

    Yom Kippur always brought great crowds to the synagogue. The numbers swelled even more when the time came for Yizkor and people came out of the woodwork, so to speak.

    Even people who claimed to be atheists who are angry with God or question His existence found their way to their people and its memories.

    The origin of the Yizkor ceremony derives from the Torah reading which depicts events “after the death of the sons of Aaron” (Lev. 16:1). The reference to the death of our ancestors gave rise to the idea that memorial prayers should be said by people who are bereaved, regardless of how long ago the death took place.

    I know that some people whose parents are still (Baruch HaShem) alive tend to go out of the synagogue when the memorial prayers are said. It is a practice that really has nothing to commend it. It would be much better for people to stay in the synagogue and give thanks for the blessing of having parents alive.

    Likewise it would be better to stay in the synagogue and say a prayer for the martyrs whose lives were lost in the destruction of European Jewry or in defence of the State of Israel.

    If you say, “My father wasn’t such a tzaddik: why bother with his memory?” Maybe in God’s eyes your father was one of the 36 hidden saints, even though you yourself might be unaware of his value to Heaven…