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As If


Over Shavuot we have been thinking about how the Torah was given on Sinai. It is one of the fundamentals of our religion that we often take for granted. But what actually happened on Sinai is not at all clear. Even the Torah itself gives different descriptions in Exodus 19 and 24. And the rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash give differing opinions too. Nevertheless, Torah as we have it is the foundation of Judaism.

One of the most significant divides in religious communities is between the literalists and the figurativists–those who feel bound to take holy narratives literally, at face value, as opposed to those who put much greater emphasis on the idea, the significance, and the symbolism beneath the surface. The latter do not necessarily deny the historical background or that miraculous or amazing events took place, but see the text as a spiritual and behavioral guide, rather than a scientific textbook.

The Talmud, the Midrash, disagrees as to exactly what was transmitted on Sinai and when it was written down. But there is now a general assumption noit only that the Torah comes from God but that all the Written and the Oral Law was given at one moment in time. To many Jews, even some Orthodox ones, this seems it seems a trifle fanciful especially if one thinks that God told Moses on Sinai about Purim, Chanuka, two sets of crockery, the eiruv, or indeed how to use a time switch for Shabat.

The question, then, is whether one can remain within tradition and still find room and significance for those ideas that rationally one struggles with? What I have to say will not even be considered by the fundamentalist school of Jewish theology. But I am writing for those who do, indeed, try to reconcile rationalism with faith.

There is a solution in the idea first put forward by a German thinker, Hans Vaihinger (1852–1933). Dealing with “reality” and whether what we see and experience is “true”, he argued that human beings cannot really know the reality of the world. For example, the way a table looks to the human eye is very different to the way it looks through a powerful magnifying glass. Which is “real”? We behave “as if” the world matches what we think we see.

George Kelly (1905–1967), an American psychologist, also encouraged people to try different ways of looking at events to see what might happen when they act “as if” these alternative ways might work; in this way they might learn to change their ways of behaving.

So what matters is not if something really IS the way we see it, but how we respond to it and act. A wall may not be “solid” through a microscope, but I do not try walking through it. Would you rather someone who believed in being good but was not, or someone who questioned what it meant to “be good” but behaved completely and consistently according to the highest standards?

I am not convinced we are expected to adopt unquestioningly those ideas we have intellectual doubts about. I believe the rabbis of Talmud accept this when they say that what they cannot accept is the person who denies, rejects, as opposed to those who are still in the process of clarifying how to understand certain ideas. Only a “kofer” (a denier) is excoriated. Not the honest questioner.

As for how the rabbis want us to understand what they mean when they say something, the great medieval commentator Rashi, himself, says that Chazal often use language in an exaggerated way to attract the attention of the simple folk (Shabat 30b Mutav Techabeh). One of the most common hyperbolic forms of language used in Midrashic and Talmudic Judaism is the Hebrew word “keilu” which does actually translate “as if”.

We are familiar with the phrase in the Hagadah, “In every generation one is obliged to see oneself as if one has actually come out of Egypt”(Pesachim 116b). Obviously this means “imagine” and is clearly not literal. But here are some other examples from the hundreds to be found in the Talmud:

“He who eats and drinks on Tisha B’Av [a rabbinic fast] it is as if he eats and drinks on [the stricter Biblical] Yom Kipur.” (Taanit 30b)

“Whoever tells Lashon Hara [gossip] it is as if he denies the existence God.” (Arachin 15b)

“Whoever studies Torah one day in the year it is as if he has studied all year round.” (Chagigah 5b)

“Keilu” is important. But it is not a halachic fact. It is an essential idea. What matters is what one does. One can behave in a way that indicates devotion to God and the Torah, or in a way that in practice ignores or denies God and Torah. What the rabbis wanted was for us to treat Jewish law as if we personally have heard it from God. As if God were speaking to us now. That is why we adhere to Jewish traditions.

The theological ideas of our tradition, as opposed to the behavioral ones, are there to help us avoid thinking of the world we inhabit only as material, but try to imagine a spiritual world and spiritual values as well. If one wishes to be part of the mainstream of tradition, one needs to treat all the theological imperatives of Judaism with respect and a serious desire to understand what they mean. But ultimately we must try to hear God speaking to us through them and to understand what the real message is, not just the superficial meaning of the words. Remember they chose a way of speaking that had to allow for the simple man as well as the intellectual giant.

To adapt the idea to current politics, one may disagree with the vast majority of Jews either because one is not as right-wing or as left-wing as one’s neighbor. But what matters is how much one is doing to perpetuate the Jewish tradition and keep it alive.

8 thoughts on “As If

  1. I found "As If" quite helpful. I was just about to send a slightly angry email to our local Jewish Care Home complaining about the closure of the car park on Shavuot (and the hypocrisy since all visitors drive there anyway) – when I rethought and after reading "as if" am content to see it as a reminder that that Jewish traditions are in some form God given and symbolic rather than the letter of the law.
    Thanks Jeremy!

  2. jaslek:
    Ah car parks and turning such blind eyes, one can lose one's sight altogether!! At the JCC in Manhattan they had thousands of youngsters because they had music and films all night! Not really "kosher", of course. But they also had shiurim throughout the night and hundreds came to study. I was asked if I minded that amongst the sheitels and beards there were some making notes and recording. I felt it was their business what they do. I was just delighted they wanted to study Torah on Shavuot night.

  3. Thanks for the concise, well-written article.

    On whether our entire tradition was established at Sinai: Clearly, traditional observance has changed throughout time. I believe it is a Midrash (?) that states on Mt. Sinai Moses was given a glimpse of Rabbi Akiva in the classroom and did not even recognize what was being taught. Every generation, and every individual, creates their own chiddushei Torah. That is, to me, the value of our tradition. As Rav Soloveitchik said, "Halakhic man is a man who longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original. The study of Torah, by definition, means gleaning new, creative insights from the Torah." We aren't a people meant to follow one leader's rulings, because it is up to each Jew to "toil in Torah" and create our own connection to it. (Although, I'm sure many disagree with me.)

  4. The issue of literality in the Torah is troubling, because I think it actually denies a true spiritual approach to be forced to take everything at literal face value, even in cases when it palpably does not fit.

    Let's as an example look at the numerology issues in some of the recent Sidrot. We are encouraged by the literal school to understand that @ 600,000 adult male Israelites left Egypt, and that the number of the travelling party swells to nearer to 3 million with children, women and aliens added. Let's stand on one side estimations that (a) the demography of ancient Egypt suggests a total population of the entire empire of 1 million and (b) the Sinai Desert probably not supporting a populace of 30,000 or more. Let's just look at the material in context.

    The census instruction was given on 1 Iyyar (permit me for simplicity to use the anachronistic Babylonian month names we now have), and on 20 Iyyar the people were already in marching order and on the move. If you assume three Shabbatot in that 19-day period, and that folk there had to eat, sleep, pray, generally organise themselves for a good part of each of the 16 remaining days, then a count process for 8 hours of each day would leave (I have done the maths here) 468,800 seconds of census time. They have no better way of counting than to physically touch and tag them, and then tell them all where they are supposed to assemble in marching and camping order. And that order includes the others, so this is not just entirely about the able-bodied men. So a process that affords Moses, Aaron and the 12 prince-elders (that's all we read about) approximately 0.75 seconds per adult male Israelite is not plausible (never mind the parallel instructions to be given to all of the others).

    The problem is partially resolved if the word "elef" does not mean 1,000 (as it undoubtedly does today and probably did by Mishnaic times) but denotes some other sort of social or military grouping.

    The problem we have is that those who have assumed that "elef" literally means 1,000 have allowed or encouraged the miraculous providence of the Exodus and Sinai experience to morph into a fairytale. They want anything to be possible and all literary and rhetorical devices (including clear hyperbole such as "you never wore out your clothes in 40 years") to be understood literally.

    Surely, the Torah is not asking us to suspend our belief in reality? I have a problem if it is.

  5. And if they'd counted "not one, not two, not three" it'd be even more difficult, for a literalist.

  6. Daniel:
    Of course, that is another example of literality, as is God taking them out of Egypt on eagle's wings (must have built pretty strong eagles in those days, unless they were pterodactyls).
    But I do draw a distinction between legal imperatives and poetic narrative.

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