Rava’s Copernican revolution

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Rava was one of the great rabbis of the Talmudic period.  While Maimonides (who lived in the 12th century) stands out as the great systematic philosopher of the Jewish tradition, whose aim was to reconcile the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition with Greek philosophy; the rabbis of the Talmudic period, by contrast, were not systematic theologians or philosophers, but teachers of law, and religious leaders, who offered moral and spiritual guidance.  The Talmudic rabbis made no such effort to reconcile the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition with Greek philosophy.  The Talmudic and Midrashic literatures from the Talmudic period, like the Biblical literature, are completely absent of systematic philosophic analysis and argument, but not absent of philosophic ideas.  Like the Biblical literature, the Talmudic and Midrashic literatures contain many important and deeply profound philosophic ideas.  However, those ideas are not presented in the form of philosophic analysis and argument.  Rather, they are presented in the form of midrashic commentaries to the Hebrew Bible (legal and non-legal) and literary forms, such as parables, folk tales and stories.

The absence of systematic philosophic analysis and argument from the Talmudic and Midrashic literatures, though, is far more astounding than its absence from the Hebrew Bible.  Systematic philosophy did not originate in ancient Greece until toward the end of the Biblical period.  Thus, it is not surprising that the Biblical literature is absent of systematic philosophy.  But, regarding the Talmudic and Midrashic literatures, the early Talmudic rabbis were living in a Hellenistic, Greco-Roman world characterized by the spread of Greek culture throughout the ancient near east.

Though there is debate among scholars as to what extent the Talmudic rabbis were familiar with Greek culture, it seems to me unlikely that they were completely unfamiliar with systematic philosophy.  Also, in light of historical scholarship it seems clear that midrashic principles of logic that the early Talmudic rabbis used to interpret the Torah and Hebrew Bible, in order to derive both legal and non-legal (moral and philosophic) teachings, were borrowed from the surrounding Greek culture.  In light of such scholarship, the Talmudic and Midrashic literatures can be described in large part as the application of Greek principles of logic to the study of sacred Scripture by the Talmudic rabbis.  Furthermore, the method of study in Yeshivot (study academies) in the Talmudic period (and until this day) was one of systematic argument and debate, and a clear influence of the Socratic method of argument.  There is a well-developed concept of democracy in the Jewish tradition as well, in which the democratic principle of decisions according to the will of the majority in the event of dispute is a fundamental principle of the Jewish law and judicial system, representing an influence of the surrounding Greek culture.

Thus, in my view, the absence of systematic philosophy from the Talmudic and Midrashic literatures represents a conscious decision by the Talmudic rabbis to avoid incorporating systematic philosophy into the Jewish tradition, in distinction to principles of logic borrowed from the Greek culture that they were willing to use in studying Scripture, the Socratic method of argument that they adopted as a method of study and the concept of democracy that they were willing to incorporate into the Jewish law – and means that the Talmudic rabbis were selective in what they borrowed from the surrounding Greek culture.  In my opinion, the absence of systematic philosophy from the Talmudic and Midrashic literatures represents a conscious rejection of systematic philosophy by the Talmudic rabbis, in contrast to the Biblical authors who were unfamiliar with systematic philosophy living prior to the spread of Greek culture throughout the ancient near east during the Hellenistic period.

 

Rava’s orthoprax (correct practice) and anti-theological conception of Judaism

 

I want to cite a remarkable Talmudic source in which Rava, one of the great Talmudic rabbis, presents an extreme orthoprax and anti-theological conception of Judaism.  The source (Shabbat 88a) is based upon the verse, “And they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19, 17), referring to the people Israel standing at Mount Sinai prior to the revelation of the Torah (the 5 books of Moses):

 

Rabbi Abdimi ben Hama ben Hasa said:  This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an inverted cask, and said to them – if you accept the Torah, it is well, and if not, there shall be your burial.  Rabbi Acha ben Jacob said, this furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.  Rava said, yet even so, they accepted it in the days of Achashverus, as it is written, “the Jews confirmed and accepted upon them” (Esther 9, 27) – they confirmed what they had accepted long before.

 

Rabbi Abdimi ben Hama ben Hasa midrashically interprets (not according to its plain meaning) the verse “and they stood at the foot of the mountain” as meaning that God threatened the people Israel with death, by bringing the mountain of Sinai crashing down upon them, if they did not accept the Torah.  The phrase “this furnishes a strong protest” is an Aramaic phrase that is a technical, Halachic (legal) term.  The term means that an agreement or contract entered into under duress has no binding force.  The receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, according to the Bible, was part of a mutual covenant or agreement between God and the Jewish people.  Thus, Rabbi Acha ben Jacob objects that if, according to the midrash, God threatened the Jewish people with death unless they accept the Torah, then the Torah was accepted under duress and has no binding authority over the Jewish people.  Rava answers that, in any case, at a later period historically, the Jewish people accepted the Torah upon themselves voluntarily.  He quotes from the Book of Esther (9, 27), “the Jews confirmed and accepted upon them”, which he interprets to mean that the Jewish people confirmed as binding upon them what they had previously accepted at Sinai.

In my view, Rava’s answer is revolutionary and reflects an orthoprax, anti-theological conception in which the source of authority of the Torah as a binding legal constitution upon the people Israel is not the result of the Torah being Divinely revealed from God Above to the Jewish people below as part of a mutual covenant entered into by God and the people Israel – as depicted in the Book of Exodus in the Torah.  Rather, in Rava’s view, the source of authority of the Torah is historical, and not theological, in that the Jewish people accepted the Torah upon themselves voluntarily as part of a unilateral decision by the Jewish people to accept the Torah upon themselves as binding, as reflected in the verse that Rava cites as a proof text that does not mention God – “the Jews confirmed and accepted upon them”.

 

Rava’s proof text

 

I want to point out two things regarding the verse (Esther 9, 27) that serves as Rava’s proof text (“the Jews confirmed and accepted upon them”).  First, it is not by accident that Rava, in formulating an anti-theological conception of the source of authority of the Torah, has chosen a verse from the Book of Esther.  The Book of Esther stands out in the Bible, as a great example of the orthoprax and anti-theological nature of Biblical theology.  The term God does not appear even one time in the Book of Esther, and everything that occurs in the story appears to happen by chance.  The name of the holy day of Purim (based upon the story) comes from the word “Pur” in the story (Esther 9, 26), which means “lot” in the sense of the random casting of lots in the attempt to exterminate the Jews (Esther 3, 7 and 9, 24).

Incidentally, there is a Talmudic source (Moed Katan 28a) in which Rava argues that attaining a long life, children and sustenance are matters not of Divine providence but of luck or chance.  In the Talmudic source, Rav Joseph is celebrating his 60th birthday, and in an ensuing discussion Rava says that attaining a long life (and he says the same of children and sustenance) depends not on merit (Divine providence) but on luck.  Rava points out that both Rabbah and Rav Hisda were righteous, and yet Rabbah died at a young age while Rav Hisda lived a long life – and, thus, Rava prefers to view the attaining of a long life not as a matter of Divine providence but of luck or chance.

It is often rationalized that what appears to be happening by chance in the Book of Esther is in reality Divine providence, as God is directing affairs behind the scenes.  This is a rationalization because it turns a completely secular story, not mentioning God, upside down, interpreting it in accordance with a major theme of the Hebrew Bible of Divine providence.  This is a theme, for example, of the story of Joseph and his brothers, in which Joseph sees the hand of God directing affairs in his having been sold into slavery in Egypt, when he says to his brothers – “So now it was not you who sent me here but God” (Genesis 45, 8).  The Book of Esther, in which God does not appear, and is on the face of it a glaring exception to a major theme of the Bible that God directs all human actions, is then rationalized and twisted so that it conforms to the Biblical theme of Divine providence.  I want to suggest that the term God does not appear in the Book of Esther because the book is a completely secular book, in which the focus is not God but the people Israel.

The Book of Esther is a story of an attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, written long before Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.  Furthermore, I want to suggest that in the Biblical conception there is no fear of raising the possibility that God does not exist (and is not provident), and that events in life may occur merely by chance, as expressed on the face of it in the Book of Esther.  The Book of Esther, in my view, is characterized by an attitude of faith in the sense of an optimistic outlook, according to which even in the case that God does not exist (and is not provident) and events may occur by chance, we as human beings are able to take responsibility for our lives and influence events (at least to a certain extent) thus improving our “lot”.

The Book of Esther is a story of anti-Semitism (Jew hatred) and persecution of the Jewish people, and thus there is no mention of God, and no connection to theology, as the entire focus is the Jewish people.  Indeed, there is a central passage that, in my view, stands out as a high point of the book, in which Mordechai expresses a truly profound spiritual and religious message to Esther.  Mordechai wants Esther, the queen, to intercede before the king on behalf of her people, the Jewish people, who are to be exterminated.  However, according to ancient Persian court procedures, none (including the queen) may approach the king without being called, under penalty of death – unless the king allows the person to live (Esther 4, 11).  So, Esther must risk her life if she is to approach the king on behalf of her people.  Mordechai tells Esther (Esther 4, 13-14):

 

Do not think in your heart that you shall escape in the king’s house any more than all the other Jews.  For if you do at all remain silent at this time, then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from elsewhere.  But you and your father’s house shall perish.  And who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this?

 

Mordechai here makes three points of a deeply spiritual and religious nature, especially expressing his profound faith in the sense of an optimistic attitude.  First, if Esther does not intercede her fate will be the same as that of all other Jews – “Do not think in your heart that you shall escape in the king’s house any more than all the other Jews”.  Here Mordechai is encouraging Esther to take responsibility regarding the fate of her people (even though events may occur by chance) by pointing out that her own personal fate or lot will not be any different than other Jews.  Second, in any case, salvation shall come, if not from her, then from elsewhere – “For if you do at all remain silent at this time, then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from elsewhere”.  This is a profoundly spiritual and religious message of faith in the sense of optimism and trust that there will be salvation for the Jewish people, if not through Esther then through some other agency.  However, Mordechai, strikingly, does not say that salvation shall come from God!  Mordechai’s expression of faith that salvation will come is expressed in a completely secular, anti-theological formulation.  Third, Mordechai asks Esther to consider that perhaps her mission in life, and the ultimate reason that she has been chosen queen, is to intercede and save the Jewish people – “who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this?”.  This, too, is a profoundly spiritual and religious message that Esther may have been singled out and chosen for some larger, transcendent purpose or mission – perhaps by fate or chance (lot), and not necessarily by God.  Significantly absent is any reference by Mordechai to her having been chosen by God.  Parenthetically, this message may be understood allegorically as referring to the Jewish people as having some larger, transcendent purpose (the notion of chosen people in the Biblical conception is intended to be a feeling not of superiority but of responsibility).  But, significantly, the message is expressed by Mordechai not in a theological formulation of God having chosen Esther for some larger, transcendent purpose; but, rather the message is expressed in a completely secular formulation encouraging Esther to take responsibility regarding the fate of her people in viewing herself as having been singled out and chosen for some larger, transcendent purpose or mission without any mention of God.

From this remarkable passage it is clear that, in the Biblical conception, such central religious ideas as responsibility, faith, salvation and a sense of transcendent purpose or mission may be expressed in a completely secular formulation (the formulation or vocabulary in which the ideas are expressed not necessarily being crucial).  In Rava’s anti-theological conception, the Jewish people themselves are the source of authority of the Torah in voluntarily accepting the Torah as binding upon themselves, and thus he chooses his proof text from the Book of Esther, in which the entire focus of the book is the Jewish people – and not only is God not mentioned, but religious messages of the book are formulated in a completely secular formulation.

There is a second point that stands out in Rava’s choice of a proof text from the Book of Esther, which is even more important and crucial in understanding Rava’s philosophic conception.  As I have indicated, the Talmudic rabbis did not present philosophic ideas in the form of philosophic analysis and argument.  Here, Rava is no exception, and his philosophic conception is revealed in his choice of a Biblical verse as a proof text.  If Rava did not intend to challenge the Biblical conception of the covenant of Sinai, in formulating a secular, anti-theological conception, then he could have cited proof texts from either the Book of Joshua (Joshua 24, 19-26) or the Book of Nechemiah (Nechemiah 8, 1-18), where in both these cases it is recorded that a covenant renewal ceremony (renewing the covenant of Sinai) took place at a later historical date.  In both cases the Torah is presented as being given by God, and the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people is primarily an expression of obedience to God’s will and authority.  Therefore, if Rava wanted to preserve the Biblical conception of the covenant of Sinai, in which the Torah was given from God Above to the Jewish people below as part of a mutual covenant, and, at the same time, answering Rabbi Acha ben Jacob’s objection (that the covenant of Sinai is not binding as the Torah was accepted under duress at Sinai, according to the midrash), then he could have chosen either of these sources from Joshua or Nechemiah, in which the covenant of Sinai was renewed voluntarily by the Jewish people.

Moreover, Rava cites a verse from the Book of Esther (“the Jews confirmed and accepted upon them”) as his proof text that in its plain meaning, in the context of the story, is referring to the Jewish people confirming and accepting upon themselves the holy day of Purim, and has nothing to do with the acceptance of the Torah!  Remarkably, Rava is willing to ignore the sources from Joshua and Nechemiah that in their plain meaning speak of the voluntary acceptance of the Torah and the renewal of the covenant of Sinai, as part of mutual covenant between God and the Jewish people; and to uproot the verse from the Book of Esther, out of its context (relating to the holy day of Purim), and to use it as a proof text for his own secular, anti-theological conception that the source of authority of the Torah is the historical and unilateral acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people as binding upon themselves.

 

Rava’s rejection of the Biblical concept of Divine revelation as a source of authority of the Torah

 

I want to add one further and compelling piece of evidence that Rava is indeed consciously rejecting the Biblical concept of Divine revelation as a source of authority of the Torah as binding upon the Jewish people.  In the Talmud (Megillah 7a), a remarkable debate is recorded regarding the Book of Esther.  It is known that there was debate regarding a number of books of the Hebrew Bible, including the Book of Esther, as to whether they were to be included in the canonization of the Hebrew Bible by the Talmudic rabbis.  The obvious reason that there was a question regarding the Book of Esther is that, as I have indicated, the term God does not appear in the book at all.

In the debate recorded in the Talmud, various rabbis attempt to demonstrate that the Book of Esther must have been composed under the inspiration of the Divine Spirit.  For example, one such proof is brought by Rabbi Eliezer, who cites the verse “and Haman said in his heart” (Esther 6, 6).  The background is that the king, Achashverus, seeks to honor Mordechai, and Haman mistakenly thinks that the king seeks to honor him.  Rabbi Eliezer’s point is that the Biblical author could not have known what Haman was thinking unless inspired by the Divine Spirit.  Several other proofs of a similar nature are brought by other rabbis.  The Talmud brings the opinion of Shmuel, who was not part of the debate.  Shmuel says, “had I been there, I would have given a proof superior to all”, and he cites the same verse cited by Rava in the previous source – “the Jews confirmed and accepted upon them” (Esther 9, 27).  The very same Rava then says that all of the other proofs (such as that of Rabbi Eliezer) can be refuted except that of Shmuel.  For example, regarding Rabbi Eliezer’s proof, Rava points out that “it is reasonable to suppose that Haman would think so (that the king wanted to honor him), because there was no one who was so high in the esteem of the king as he was”.

Thus, Rava gives a completely naturalistic explanation as to how the author of the Book of Esther could reasonably infer Haman’s thoughts without being inspired by the Divine Spirit.  Rava similarly refutes the other proofs of a similar nature.  However, Shmuel’s proof cannot be so refuted because it is not a philosophic proof.  The proof text of Shmuel implies that, in Shmuel’s view, the sanctity of the Book of Esther is not due to theological reasons (in being composed under the inspiration of the Divine Spirit), but due to historical circumstances.  The Jewish people accepted the holiday of Purim upon them and the Book of Esther as sacred, and such a historical fact cannot be refuted by philosophic argument.  Rava then adopts Shmuel’s argument regarding Purim and the Book of Esther, and applies it to the Torah.  On the basis of this Talmudic source recording the debate regarding the Book of Esther, it is clear that Rava is aware that philosophic argument (and faith in a philosophic sense), in being subject to philosophic counter-argument and refutation, is a weak basis upon which to establish the binding authority of the Torah.  He prefers to establish the authority of the Torah independent of such a concept as Divine revelation, simply on the basis of the historical fact that the Jewish people accepted the Torah upon themselves as binding, which cannot be refuted by philosophic argument.  For Rava, the binding authority of the Torah is not due to theological reasons (as the Divinely revealed word of God) but due to the Torah being accepted, historically, by the Jewish people as binding upon them.

 

Jewish peoplehood and Jewish history as the source of authority of the Torah

 

In distinction to Maimonides who as a philosopher raises questions as to the meaning of the concept of Divine revelation, Rava is not challenging the concept of Divine revelation itself.  Rava does not necessarily reject the concept of the Torah as the Divinely revealed word of God in his citing the verse, “they confirmed what they had accepted long before”, which means what they accepted long before at Sinai.  Significantly absent from this phrase, though, is any reference to the Torah being accepted as the Divinely revealed word of God.  Rava simply ignores the philosophic question as to whether the Torah represents the Divinely revealed word of God and, if so, in what sense.  Rava entirely omits the concept of God from his formulation.  Such an extreme anti-theological formulation serves to unite rather than divide the Jewish people by seeking points of agreement rather than disagreement.  Every Jew, from secular through ultra-orthodox, can identify with Rava’s anti-theological formulation that historically the Jewish people accepted the Torah upon them as binding.  Such a matter is simply a matter of historical fact that cannot be disputed.  By contrast, whether the Torah truly represents the Divinely revealed word of God or not is a matter of philosophic debate.

Maimonides raises philosophic questions regarding the Biblical and traditional Jewish conception of Divine revelation, and, in effect, rejects the Biblical and traditional notion (at least in a literal sense).  For Maimonides, as a systematic thinker, the Torah does not represent the Divinely revealed word of God in any literal sense of a verbal revelation from Above to below – as the concept of revelation, understood literally, implies an anthropomorphic (human) conception of God (in conceiving of God speaking).  Maimonides understands the concept of Divine revelation in a figurative sense (in light of his Aristotelian conceptions), in which the Torah is the product of the intellectual enlightenment of Moses (and he presents Moses as a Greek philosopher rather than as a political and religious leader as in the plain meaning of Scripture).  Rava, by contrast, is not challenging in a philosophic sense the concept of Divine revelation itself; but, rather, is challenging in a pragmatic sense the concept of Divine revelation as a basis upon which to establish the authority of the Torah as binding upon the Jewish people.

Maimonides, as a systematic philosopher, is committed, first and foremost, to the pursuit of intellectual truth as an ultimate value, and therefore he is willing to adopt philosophic positions that may be considered radical in relation to the Jewish tradition (though he does attempt to disguise them from the unlearned masses).  Rava is not a systematic philosopher.  He is a teacher and authoritative interpreter of the Torah, the constitution of the Jewish people.  Furthermore, his anti-theological (and anti-philosophical) conception flows from an opposition to philosophy in the sense that the philosophic concept of Divine revelation cannot provide, in his view, a strong basis upon which to establish the authority of the Torah as binding upon the Jewish people.  Even more importantly, in my opinion, Rava is actually not even relating to, or concerned with, an abstract question of philosophic thought.  Whereas Maimonides, as a systematic thinker, is concerned with the abstract meaning of the concept of Divine revelation, Rava, as a teacher and authoritative interpreter of the Torah, is concerned with a much more pragmatic question regarding the source of authority of the Torah as binding upon the Jewish people.

In my view, Rava is very much aware of the orthoprax nature of Judaism as a way of life – characterized not just by central beliefs, but especially by moral and legal obligations and commitments.  The central question for Rava is the pragmatic question of what is the authority for such a way of life.  In Rava’s anti-theological conception, the source of authority of the Torah is not in its being the Divinely revealed word of God, though this is a central idea of the Bible and Jewish tradition (which he does not necessarily reject), but in its being accepted historically by the Jewish people as binding upon them.  The implications here are enormous as Rava provides a rationale for observance of tradition not due to theological reasons but as an expression of Jewish culture and history.  Such a rationale does not presuppose the existence of God, or belief in the existence of God, and can thus appeal to secular Jews including even atheists who may not believe in the existence of God.  Incidentally, according to academic scholarship, it is widely accepted that Moses did not write the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and that the Torah did not come from Sinai.  It is clear that Rava would not have been threatened by such scholarship as in Rava’s conception the sanctity and authority of the Torah are due to historical reasons; and, the Torah was accepted historically by the Jewish people as sacred and authoritative – no matter who wrote the Torah and no matter when the Torah was written.

It has been said of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the reconstructionist movement, that his conception of Judaism as a civilization (culture) represents a “Copernican revolution” in that the Torah is for him a creation of the Jewish people arising out of their historical experience, and does not represent the Divinely revealed will of God in a literal sense from Above to below – shifting the focus from God Above to the Jewish people below, as Copernicus shifted the focus from the earth to the sun.  I want to suggest that Rava, in conceiving of the source of authority of the Torah as being accepted historically by the Jewish people as binding upon them, preceded Rabbi Kaplan by over 1500 years in creating such a Copernican revolution.  Rava presents a secular, anti-theological conception of Judaism in that the basis of Jewish identity and observance of Jewish tradition is a matter of Jewish history and peoplehood rather than theology.

I repeat that Rava is relating to a pragmatic question – what is the source of authority of the Torah as the way of life of the Jewish people?  The answer to this question in the plain meaning of Scripture is that the Torah is obligatory upon the Jewish people as the Divinely revealed will of God given from God Above to the Jewish people below as part of the Covenant of Moses.  Rava (who in his Talmudic thinking is not fundamentalist and not bound by the plain meaning of Scripture) rejects this Biblical answer, and in interpreting the Biblical verse “the Jews confirmed and accepted upon them” not according to its plain meaning is suggesting that the authority of the Torah as the way of life of the Jewish people comes from the history of the Jewish people.  Not only has Rava then shifted the focus in his Copernican revolution from God and theology to the Jewish people and history; but, he has shifted the focus from the Covenant of Moses (religion) to the Covenant of Abraham (peoplehood) as the source of authority of the Torah.  In so doing, Rava has presented a rationale for observance of Jewish tradition not as a matter of faith or theology but as a matter of history and culture, which can be identified with across the Jewish spectrum including even by Jews who may not believe in the existence of God at all.

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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