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Teacher’s Guide and Worksheets

One Jew, Two Opinions: Rabbinic Theology through the Lens of Abraham Joshua
Heschel1

A Course on Rabbinic Theology Intended for High School Students, Grades 9-12,
Prepared by Ariel Beery

1
Note: These topic summaries are based upon lecture and reading notes from the class on Rabbinic
Theology taught by Rabbi Gordon Tucker at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the Fall of 2005.
About the Course

One Jew, Two Opinions: Rabbinic Theology through the Lens of Abraham Joshua

Heschel, is an adaptation for a High School audience of the argument made by Abraham

Joshua Heschel in his book Torah min-Shamayim, and of the issues discussed in the class

taught about the book by Rabbi and Professor Gordon Tucker at the Jewish Theological

Seminary in the Fall of 2005. The goal of the course is similar to the goal we can assume

Heschel himself set concerning his book: to challenge readers and participants in Jewish

life to reappraise their assumptions pertaining to the foundations of rabbinic Judaism, and

to rediscover the dissonance within.

The materials included in this packet draw on the sources cited by Heschel as he

made his arguments concerning competing rabbinic worldviews, and at times the sources

are also drawn from Prof. Tucker’s translation of Heschel, Heavenly Torah (cited later as

HT), since Heschel’s argument is often made best in his own words.

Methodology: The teacher begins the class with a quick review of the topic for the day,

distributes the worksheets (included after every lesson overview), and goes over the

contents very briefly. Students are broken into chevrutot, groups of two being best, and

given ten to fifteen minutes to review the sheets. Each chevruta is assigned responsibility

for presenting one text on the sheet in reference to the questions framing the lesson and in

relation to the other readings on the sheet. Multiple groups may be assigned the same

text. After their group study time is over, the class reconvenes, and groups are asked to

present their readings of the texts. The teacher’s role in the ensuing discussion is to

continually reconnect the discussion to the competing theologies that Heschel identifies,

Prepared for: Rabbinic Theology as taught by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, by Ariel Beery. 2
and the perspectives they bring to bear, with the help of the introduction to each class and

the sources provided.

Order of Syllabus:

Lesson 1: Finding Meaning in the Text – Connecting to God through Exegesis

Lesson 2: For God or For Human – The Purpose of Worship

Lesson 3: God in Search of Man or Man in Search of God

Lesson 4: God and Pain – Suffering While Believing

Lesson 5: The World to Come – Death and Reunion or Life in the Now

Lesson 6: I Want to Be Like God – The Power of Intention

Lesson 7: Seeing the Unseeable – Experiencing Revelation

Lesson 8: Wisdom from Beyond – The Torah and Creation

Lesson 9: Human as Partner in Revelation

Lesson 10: Censored or Uncensored, Edited or Unedited: Prophecy and Man

Lesson 11: Law as an End or a Means – Halakha and the Jewish Way

*A Note on Citations: In order to provide students with as much information possible for follow-up after
class, I have attempted to include as much citation information as possible on the sheets. Since there are
space restrictions, however, I was forced to make certain abbreviations which should be simple enough for
students to remember. Thus, BT is Babylonian Talmud, HT refers to Gordon Tucker’s translation of Torah
Min’Shamayim, entitled in English Heavenly Torah, and so on. Translations have been taken from the
Socino edition of the Babylonian Talmud, Jacob Neusner’s translations of Avot and the Psikta d’R’Kahane
and the Mekhilta d’R’Ishmael—with minor modifications as based on my personal understanding of the
passages.

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General Background:

In the second century C.E., a number of factions in the Jewish community of the

Land of Israel wrestled with ways to adapt the Jewish way of life to a world without a

Temple, which had been destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 C.E. One of these groups,

the Pharisees, had grown in strength during the end of the Second Temple period and

developed theological tools to grapple with both the metaphysical and physical

ramifications of the Temple’s loss. Abraham Joshua Heschel, who served as Professor of

Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America from 1945

to 1972 and was one of the foremost Jewish figures of the last century, identified two

paradigms of theology amongst the Pharisaic movement, one represented by Rabbi Akiva

ben Joseph and the other by Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha. To these two Heschel gives the

title “avot ha-Olam,” or “eternal paradigms.”

The Akivan and Ishmaelian paradigms–which will be explored throughout the

course of this course–are based on opposite understandings of God’s place in the

universe, on a human being’s access to God, what the ideal relationship a human being

can have with God is, and what is the bottom-line for Judaism. For Akiva, human beings

were to have a more personal relationship with their Creator. “Love God with all your

Heart and with all your Soul” (Deut 6:5) was Judaism’s bottom line, leading him to

follow the classic teaching of Rabbi Hillel that the “Torah on one foot” is to “Love your

neighbor as you love yourself” in recognition that both your neighbor and yourself are

creations of God. Moreover, God loved Israel so much that God decided to join them on

earth and dwell among them. Thus, God became immanent – that is, entered the world of

human comprehension – and granted Israel God’s own instruction manual and partner in

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creation, the Torah, which is a perfect book with each dot and preposition indicating

infinite wisdom to be searched out by thoughtful exegesis.

Ishmael, on the other hand, taught that God was an infinite being,

incomprehensible to humans. In a word, transcendent. God was to be loved, but that love

was only a pale reflection to God’s own, incomparable to God’s love–completely

different. The Torah was God’s gift to humans, a translation of the eternal truths into

human tongue intended to be understood by the Children of Israel at a specific date and

time, that is upon the Exodus from Egypt as Israel stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Thus,

the Torah speaks in human language, and is meant to convey specific rules and

understandings to enable humans to live good lives. At the basis of this system is

Ishmael’s bottom line assumption: all of the commandments were given in order to

prevent Israel from sliding into idol worship. Believing in one God, with no other gods

before God, is, to Ishmael, the key to living a Jewish life. And since all of the

commandments have this one unified purpose, there is no way to teach the Torah on one

foot; Jewish life is to be lived, and respect is to be paid to the Creator.

It is with these two paradigms as tools that Heschel takes on the major theological

questions of the ages, and shows how traditional Judaism can answers each in more than

one way.

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Lesson 1: Finding Meaning in the Text -- Connecting to God Through Exegesis

Questions to guide discussion: Is the Torah divinity itself or the communication of the

divine to humans in human tongue? How does that affect how we read it? What

difference does it make?

Background: Exegesis as a mode of connecting with the divine is a Second Temple era

development. The word doresh, at the root of the exegetical style of rabbinic Judaism

known as midrash, originally meant “to beseech” or “to inquire,” as exemplified in the

story of Rebekah: “She went to inquire [l’drosh] of the Lord, and the Lord answered her”

(Gen 25:22). This usage persisted throughout the early history of Israel, and was

especially prevalent during the time of the Prophets. By the return of the Children of

Israel to the Land in the time of Ezra, however, the Voice of God was no longer apparent,

leading to those who would inquire of God’s will to search for hints in the Torah. Ezra

was the first in the Jewish tradition to transfer the luminosity of God into the text: his

exegesis, and the exegesis he inspired, is a confrontation with the infinite.

Akiva and Ishmael, inheritors of this tradition of access to the divine, had different

styles of confrontation. Akiva taught that there was no superfluous word or letter or dot in

the Torah. If the Torah is a stand-in for God, it is perfect in all of its ways, and ever

apparent contradiction or grammatical irregularity was planned by the divine to pass on a

message that the plain-reading of the text itself could not contain. For example, a

repetition of a word such as “cut” (l’krot) in the phrase “the man will be cut off…” (in

Hebrew, “krot ikaret ha-Ish”) is read by Akiva as indicating that the person will be cut off

in this world and in the world to come. By seeing the Torah in this light, students of

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Akiva saw the Torah as a timeless entity, independent of the time and place given, each

letter bearing metahistorical significance. The Torah was a divine being, each word an

angelic messenger.

Ishmael, on the other hand, tended to teach that the Torah was written in the language

of the people, to be understood by them as simply read. Ishmael say that sometimes the

doubling of a word is just the doubling of a word—a style of speech that is used to make

the information easier to understand by humans. He did allow for certain types of deeper

reading into the text, but such deeper reading had to correspond to thirteen rules he

developed, and the use of the rules led to a straight-forward and rather logical system of

reading. This worldview, therefore, saw the Torah as a document of laws given to a

society with specifically set conceptual categories that were to be first understood before

the text itself could be mined for meaning. His rules helped those in future times to

understand the way the Torah was intended to be read by those same historically-bound

people who received it.

For Ishmael, Torah was prose; for Akiva, Poetry.

These different cognitive styles had very real effects. While Ishmael allowed for there

to be Halakhot (religious laws) that were not justified by the text of the Torah, Akiva

insisted that all customs were inherently holy, given by God, and traces of them can be

found through an exegetical reading of the text.

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Finding Meaning in the Text -- Connecting to God Through Exegesis

‫איש הפשט ואיש המסתורין‬


Is the Torah divinity itself or the communication of the divine to humans in human tongue?
How does that affect how we read it? What difference does it make?

Isaac pleaded For Ezra had dedicated himself to study [l’drosh] the Teaching of theBen Bag-Bag
with the Lord on Lord so as to observe it, and to teach laws and rules to Israel. [Ezrasaid: Turn it over
her behalf, 7:10] and over again,
because she was for all is therein;
barren; and the and Look into it;
Lord responded Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin and become grey
to his plea, and upon you this day is not too baffling for and old therein;
his wife Rebekah you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in neither move
conceived. But away from it, for
the children the heavens, that you should say, you have no better
struggled in her “Who among us can go up to the lot than that.
womb, and she heavens and get it for us and impart it [Avot 5:22]
said, “If so, why
do I exist?” She to us, that we may observe it?” Neither
went to inquire is it beyond the sea, that you should
(l’drosh) of the
Lord, and the
say, “Who among us can cross to the When Rabbi Eliezer
Lord answered other side of the sea and get it for us
Ben Hyrcanus, a
teacher of Rabbi
her. (Gen 25:21- and impart it to us, that we may
Akiva, expounded a
22)
observe it?” No, the thing is very close verse in a
nonstandard way,
to you, in your mouth and in your Rabbi Ishamel said to
heart, to observe it. [Deut 30.11-14] him: “Why, you are
saying to Scripture:
‘Be silent until I
expound your
Moses received the Torah on Sinai, and conveyed it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders, meaning!’” And
and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets conveyed it to the Men of the Great Rabbi Eliezer replied,
Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, develop many “Ishmael, you are a
disciples, and make a protective fence for the Torah. [Ethics of the Fathers, 1:1] mountain palm”
(which, because of its
What is the distinction between the language of Torah and human language? Humanaltitude, bears few
beings distinguish between form and content. There are words that add nothing to theand inferior fruits;
similarly, you seem
substance of a thought but are uttered because the conventions and rules of languageunable to bear fruitful
so dictate; their contribution is aesthetic rather than instructive. God’s ways, however,exegesis). [Sifra Tazri’a
are not human ways. With God, form is nonexistent; there is only content. Every68b, HT 54]
letter, every word, whether expanding or limiting a subject, is intended to teach a
lesson. Each idiom instructs and clarifies. There is no form here; all is content, all is
instruction. Just as heaven is loftier than earth, so the language of Torah is loftier than
the language of human beings. And our rational powers are insufficient to grasp the
esoterics of Torah; they cannot be handled with the tongs of logic alone. [Heschel, HT
55-56]

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Lesson 2: For God or For Human -- The Purpose of Worship

Questions to guide discussion: Is God immanent or transcendent? How does this

question influence our relationship with God? What is the purpose of worship?

Background: Akiva and Ishmael’s perspectives on the character of the Torah are part of

their larger theological understanding of God’s relationship to the world. Akiva, who saw

God’s will in every dot and preposition in the Torah, stressed God’s immanence—God’s

actual presence among the people of Israel, in the Torah of Israel. Ishmael, who viewed

God as the giver of law to a particular community of people, saw God as a transcendent

being.

Akiva taught that the immanent God is a present God whose fate is tied to that of the

Children of Israel. Ishamel, on the other hand, taught that the transcendent God is infinite

and above the world, and therefore cannot be bound by the text. Thus, the Torah is the

communication of God’s commandments in human language aimed specific to a time and

place, and should be understood in context.

Whether God is immanent or transcendent directly affects the purpose and method of

worship. Those who believe in God’s immanence are essentialists who believe that rituals

are essential to the functioning of the universe—God, who is present in this world,

requires certain rituals be done. Those who believe in God’s transcendence, on the other

hand, are conventionalists who believe that rituals are conventions that serve human ends

and nothing more; a transcendent God does not need rituals, not will the universe be

affected if, say, the Temple of God is destroyed.

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Akiva was an essentialist. He believed, according to Heschel’s paradigm, that the

entire universe was based on Torah and is upheld through the commandments given to

the Israel in the Torah. Since God is love, the highest of all commandments is to love

your neighbor as you love yourself—and all commandments stem from that central value.

Just as pure and true love is timeless, Torah too is timeless and context-less. Rituals,

therefore, are ways we humans can partner with God and aid in the upkeep of the world.

Physical acts, according to Akiva, had explicit metaphysical and even cosmic

significance.

Ishmael was a conventionalist. He believed that the commandments are conventions

set up to ensure Israel remain moral and stay clear of idolatry. Even the Temple itself was

not inherently holy to Ishmael—it was but a vehicle, a means, to ensure Israel remains

loyal to God and not slip back into the ways of its youth. The rituals, therefore, are no

more than sets of actions serving this purpose of ensuring loyalty—they have no magical

or self-justifying characteristic other than their prevention of idolatry.

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For God or For Human -- The Purpose of Worship

‫לשם שמיים‬
Is God immanent or transcendent? How does this question influence our relationship with
God? What is the purpose of worship?

Behold the heavens and see; Look at the skies high above you. If you sin, what do you do to Him? If your transgressions
are many, how do you affect him? If you are righteous, what do you give Him; what does He receive from your hand?
Your wickedness affects men like yourself; your righteousness, mortals. (Job 35:5-8)
The Lord said to Moses: R. Judah bar R. Simon
Thus shall you say to the With what shall I approach the said in the name of R.
Israelites: You Lord, do homage to God on high? Johanan: From the Divine
yourselves saw that I Power, Moses heard three
spoke to you from the Shall I approach Him with burnt commandments which
very heavens: With Me, offerings, with calves a year old? startled him and took him
therefore, you shall not Would the Lord be pleased with aback. First, when He
make any gods of silver, decreed: “Let them make
nor shall you make for thousands of rams, with myriads
Me the Sanctuary, and I
yourselves any gods of of streams of oil? Shall I give my shall dwell among them”
gold. Make for Me an first-born son for my (Ex 25:8), Moses said
altar of earth and
sacrifice on it your burnt
transgressions, the fruit of my bluntly to the Holy One:
body for my sins? He has told Master of the universes,
offerings and your
“Behold not even heaven
sacrifices of well-being, you, O man, what is good, And and the heaven of the
your sheep and your
oxen; in every place
what the Lord requires of you: heavens can contain
where I cause My name Only to do justice and to love Thee” (I Kings 8:27), and
to be mentioned I will goodness, and to walk modestly yet Thou sayest, “Let
come to you and bless them make Me the
you. (Ex 20:19-21)
with your God; then will your Sanctuary.” Thereupon
name achieve wisdom [Micah 6:6-8] the Holy One reassured
Moses: Moses, it is not as
thou thinkest; though the
Sanctuary is to be only
The Rabbis distinguished between commandments that overarch and encompass all twenty boards wide in the
of Torah and commandments that are specific. This led them to speculate: Can one north and twenty boards
find a general principle that all the mitzvoth serve? Rabbi Eleazar the Moad’ite wide in the south and
suggested one that would support all the mitzvoth: “’…Heed the Lord your God’ eight wide in the west, yet
(Exodus 15:26) – This is a principle that encompasses all of Torah.” Rabbi Eleazar I shall go down to the
was not suggesting a principle from which the contents and justifications of all earth below and shrink
mitzvoth follow by logical deduction. On the contrary, he was telling us not to rely on
My presence into their
reason. Rather, wisdom begins with the acceptance of the yoke of mitzvoth. What
midst, as it is said “And
does God want of you? To attend to His voice, to obey.
there I will meet with
On the other hand, there is a tendency among other Rabbis to view the
mitzvoth and their moorings through a moral and rational lens. For example, Rabban thee’ (Ex 25:22) [Psika
d’Rab Kahana 6]
Johanan ben Zakkai explained logically why the Torah dealt more stringently with the
burglar than with the robber (the burglar must return twice what he stole). Rabban
Johanan’s explanation is both moral and logical: the robber who steals openly
demonstrates brazenness before God and human beings, while the burglar who enters
stealthily demonstrates brazenness before God and fear of human authority. [HT, 73]

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Lesson 3: God in Search of Man or Man in Search of God

Questions to guide discussion: Does God need humans in order to exist? Is God

interdependent with humans or independent of us? Where is God? Is God within the

world or above it? Can God be both?

Background: An understanding of God as immanent implies a commitment to worship:

humans have a responsibility to prop-up God through worship and ritual. A transcendent

reading of this same passage has it that if one does not worship God, God will be no

longer be one’s protector—thereby seeing God above ritual and yet affected by it enough

to return the favor.

God’s relationship to ritual is related to God’s location in the world. According to

rabbinic terminology, one of God’s names is HaMakom, literally translated as “the

place.” An immanent understanding of God takes this to mean that God can be located in

a specific place: God has an address. A transcendent understanding of God has it that God

is everywhere and nowhere at once: God is the address. God is the ultimate coordinate

system, framing the world and our understanding of it yet not being limited by any aspect

of our understanding. Thus, in reference to the Temple, a believer in the immanence of

God like Akiva believes that God’s presence physically rests in the Temple, in the

“Holiest of Holies.” Ishmael, on the other hand, says that God is by the alter—by the

people, the worshippers—just as much as he is by anywhere else; God is where God is

called and invoked (“call my name and I will be there”), but is also everywhere else at

once.

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The Akivan tradition has it that the Temple on earth was created before the creation of

the universe, along with the Torah, and is a reflection of the heavenly Temple above.

Every action, every pebble in the Temple has cosmic significance, and must be held to the

highest standard of holiness. Ishmael, while also committed to the holiness of the Temple,

sees the Temple holy insofar as it serves as a tool for accessing the transcendent. But the

Temple also poses a danger for the transcendental school—the holier one holds the

Temple, the more likely the Temple will serve as an idol, diverting one’s eyes from the

moral teachings of the tradition. It is possibly for this reason that Rabbi Yochanan Ben

Zakkai, when asked for his wish by the conquering Roman general, opted for Yavneh and

her wise men over the Temple. Akiva, who viewed the Temple as a holy being in its own

right, remarked furiously, “thus it is said that God, turns wise men backwards and makes

their knowledge foolish (Isaiah 44:25)” [BT Gittin 56b]

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God in Search of Man or Man in Search of God

‫האדם ויאמר לו איכה‬-‫ויקרא י"י ה' אל‬


Does God need humans in order to exist? Is God interdependent with humans or
independent of us? Where is God? Is God within the world or above it? Can God be
both?
So the Holy One, blessed is He, said to Israel, “My children, I have created in you anR’Nahman said to R’
impulse to do evil, than which nothing is more evil. Sin crouches at the door and to you Isaac: What is the
is its desire (Gen 4:7). Keep yourselves occupied with the teachings of the Torah, and meaning of the
[sin] will not control you. But if you leave off studying words of the Torah, lo, it willscriptural verse, The
control you, as it is said, and to you is its desire (Gen 4:7). [Sifre Ekev, 45] Holy One in the midst
Scripture indicates of thee and I will not
that whoever rises up How was the right of the Willow- come into the city
against Israel is as (Hosea 11:9)? [Surely it
though he rose up
branch fulfilled? There was a place cannot be that] because
against the One who below Jerusalem called Motza. There the Holy One is in the
spoke and brought they came and cut themselves midst of three I shall
the world into being.
So Scripture says,
young willow-branches. They came not come into the city!
He replied: Thus said
Do not forget the and set these up at the sides of the R’Johanan: The Holy
voice of your Altar so that their tops were bent One, blessed be He,
adversaries, the
tumult of those who
over the Altar. They then blew [on said, “I will not enter
the heavenly Jerusalem
rise up against you, the shofar] a sustained, a quavering until I can enter the
who rise up and another sustained blast. Each earthly Jerusalem.” Is
continually. For lo day they went in procession a single there a heavenly
your enemies are in Jerusalem? Yes, for it is
an uproar (Ps time around the Altar, saying, Save
written, Jerusalem,
74:23). And whoever us we beseech thee, O Lord! We
thou art builded as a
helps Israel is as if beseech thee, O Lord, send now
he helped the One
city that is compact
who spoke and prosperity! R’Judah says, I and You! together (Ps 122:3) [BT
Ta’anit 5a]
brought the world Save us! I and You! Save us! [Mishna
into being, for it is Sukkah 4:5]
said, Curse Meroz,
said the angel of the
Lord, curse bitterly
Does not this doctrine [of Rabbi Akiva] diminish our image of the divine and limit our
the dwellers therein,
belief in the Creator’s omnipotence? Moreover, shall we say that the God of Israel,
because they did not
Who is the nation’s source of power and courage, needs Israel to give Him strength?
come to the help of
The true nature of this standpoint cannot in truth be grasped by a person who can
the Lord, to the help
calmly look in from the outside. The Rabbis in the generation we are considering
of the Lord against
experienced things that others have not seen: the sacking of Jerusalem, the humiliation
the mighty! (Jud
5:23). [Mekhilta d’Rabbi
of the House of Israel, and the profanation of the Holy Name in the sight of the whole
Ishmael, Shirata 6] world. Stormy eras filled with human agony also harbor troubling thoughts; even the
pillars of heaven shudder. And a nation that has been belittled by the nations of the
world is likely to verge on belittling the great presumptions: that God is merciful and
compassionate and that God is the great and the powerful. If there is mercy, there
surely is no power; and if there is power, there surely is no Mercy! For could one
maintain that the Holy and Blessed One empathizes well but does not carry through?
[HT, 118]

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Lesson 4: God and Pain – Suffering While Believing

Questions to guide discussion: Does God feel our pain? If so, why does God do nothing

to stop it? Are God’s powers limited? If not, is God really merciful?

Background: The question of why bad things happen to good people is central to any

theological tradition, so it is no surprise that the paradigms represented by Akiva and

Ishmael take different positions on the issue of suffering. Common to both traditions is

the assumption that God cares about the affairs of humans. Otherwise, why would God

give Israel the Torah and its commandments? But what happens after that point of contact

is up to interpretation based upon the different paradigm’s takes on the immanence or

transcendence of God.

For Akiva, since God is immanent, God feels Israel’s pain. When Israel suffers, God

suffers along with them. When Israel was in Egypt, the presence of God went down to

Egypt with them. This is to say that God is not solely empathetic—God actually, literally,

feels Israel’s pain. Ishmael, believing in a transcendent God, does not accept this view.

God might hear the cries of the people, and those cries might move God to take mercy

upon Israel and remember the covenant God made with the forefathers, but God as God

cannot feel human pain or be affected by worldly events.

The theological problems posed by this dichotomy are acute: either God’s power is

limited according to the Akivian paradigm (is God powerless to end the pain afflicted

against both God and Israel?) or God’s mercy is limited according to the Ishmaelian idea

(could God really be so heartless to allow Israel to continue to suffer—As Abraham

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asked, does not the judge of the world act justly? [Gen 18:25]). In the context of the time,

with the Temple’s ruins still smoldering in the minds of Israel, the nation and each

individual had to decide whether they would rather view God as omnipotent and yet

merciless or merciful and, somehow, limited. A powerful God is feared but not loved, and

a merciful God is loved but is vulnerable, and this vulnerability reinforces Israel’s

commitment to God in times of need. Rabbinic Judaism, choosing to believe in God’s

love rather than God’s coldness, followed Akiva.

These ideologies are reflected in the stories about the deaths of Akiva and Ishmael.

While Ishmael cried on the way to his execution, Akiva was happy—he was partaking in

God’s suffering, loving God with all of his heart and all of his soul, sacrificing his

physical Temple just as God had sacrificed his own.

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God and Pain – Suffering While Believing

‫איכה ישבה בדד העיר רבתי עם‬


Does God feel our pain? If so, why does God do nothing to stop it? Are God’s
powers limited? If not, is God really merciful?

Elijah said to Bar He-He, and others say, to R. Eleazar, What is the meaning of the verse: Behold I have refined thee
but not as silver; I have tried thee in the furnace of affliction (Isa. 48:10)? It teaches that the Holy One, blessed be
He, went through all of the good qualities in order to give [them] to Israel, and He found only poverty [or
affliction]. [BT Hagigah 9b]

R’Huna ben Berekiah said And the Lord continued, “I Had not the verse said it,
in the name of R’ Eleazar the tongue uttering it would
have marked well the plight have deserved
ha-Kappar: Whoever
associates the name of of My people in Egypt and dismemberment. But the
heaven with his suffering have heeded their outcry ancients have set the
will have his sustenance because of their precedent. It is analogous to
doubled, as it says, And the a young prince who
Almighty shall be in thy taskmasters; yes, I know attempted to life a heavy
distress, and thou shalt their pain. And I will go rock. As he lifted it, it fell
have double silver (Job down to rescue them from and crushed him. When the
22:25). R’ Samuel ben king heard that his son had
Nahmani said: His the Egyptians and bring
been crushed, he began to
sustenance shall fly to him them out of that land to a cry “I’ve been crushed!”
like a bird, as it says, And good and spacious land…” The palace guard,
silver shall fly to thee. [BT [Ex 3:7-8] uncomprehendingly, said to
Berakot 63a]
him: “Your son has been
crushed. Why do you say
Among the fundamentals of the faith is the idea that he Holy and Blessedthat you have been
One participates in the sufferings of Israel. Conversely, when Israel “dwellscrushed?” Such was the
in joy, there is joy for God.” This concept of the divine pathos, as expressedreaction of the Holy and
by the prophets of Israel, bestirred hearts to participate in the pain of the HolyBlessed One, as it were:
and Blessed One and shaped the inner character of the prophet as one whoBecause My people is
empathizes with the divine pathos…But along came Rabbi Akiva, who taughtshattered I am shattered; I
that the participation of the Holy and Blessed One in the life of Israel is notam dejected, seized by
merely a mental nod, a measure of compassion born of relationship to God’sdesolation. (Jeremiah 8:21)
people. The pain of compassion amounts to pain only at a distance; it is the[Lamentations Zuta 1:18,
quoted from HT, 117]
pain of the onlooker. But the participation of the Holy and Blessed One is
that of total identification, something that touches God’s very essence, God’s
majestic being. As it were, the afflictions of the nation inflict wounds on God.
[HT, 105-106]

“When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male [or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free on account of the
eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free on account of the tooth’s sake” (Ex
21:26)…But if his master persecuted him, knocked out his tooth, blinded his eye, or any of the other major limbs that are
visible to the eye, lo, this one has acquired possession of himself through his own suffering. And, lo, this yields an
argument a fortiori: if from the power of a mortal, one acquires possession of himself through his own suffering, all the
more so from the power of Heaven. And so Scripture says, “The Lord has chastened me sore, but he has not given me over
to death” (Ps. 118:18) [Mekhilta D’Rabbi Ishmael, Nezikin 9:14]

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Lesson 5: The World to Come – Death and Reunion or Life in the Now

Questions to guide discussion: Is this world no more than a prozdor before the World-

to-Come? Is there another way of understanding the idea of a World-to-Come? Why is

the World-to-Come not described in the Torah?

Background: The Torah seems on the surface to have known only this world—not once

does it mention an afterlife directly, although some have been able to read an afterlife into

the larger Biblical text.1 The Akivan paradigm, on the other hand, wholeheartedly

believes in an afterlife, which, being closer to God, is a truer reality than the one we

experience on this earth. Much like the Platonic concept of the “World of Shadows,” the

Akivian view holds that the world is illusory—a reflection of the infinite world in the

heavens. By rejecting the world and seeking to come closer to God through the

commandments no matter the consequences, one can break-free of this-worldly illusions,

and the best way to do so is through accepting the suffering with love. Suffering for

God’s sake bonds the finite with the infinite. It is the ultimate act of identification with

the God who suffers along with Israel. In this vein, it is said that when the Romans

decreed that Torah could no longer be taught in the Land of Israel, Akiva persisted in

teaching.

Ishmael, on the other hand, lives in this world. It is not for nothing, he taught, that

God looked over creation and saw “it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The law was to be

lived by and not died for—life being the ultimate aim of God’s law. Unlike Akiva, who

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saw this world as a prozdor or waiting room for the World-to-Come, Ishmael held that

this world was the ultimate aim of creation.

Is there a way for us to understand the idea of the World-to-Come as a this-worldly

possibility? If one would overlay the Ishmaelian worldview over the rhetoric of the

World-to-Come, one finds that many of the things hoped for are political goals that can

occur only in worldly reality. The hope for the Messiah, in the context of the turn-of-the-

Common Era, could have been more of the hope for a this-worldly political leader to win

independence from the Romans. The dream of the Lion laying by the Lamb can be

construed to indicate a hope for a day without war, one where Israel isn’t fighting

constantly for its right to exist among the great empires of its day.

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The World to Come – Death and Reunion or Life in the Now

‫ידון רוחי באדם לעולם‬-‫לא‬


Is this world no more than a prozdor before the World-to-Come? Is there another way of
understanding the idea of a World-to-Come? Why is the World-to-Come not described in
the Torah?

Rabbi Jacob says: This world is like an antechamber before the World-to-Come. Get ready in theR’Chiya bar Abba said
antechamber, so that you can go into the great hall. He would say: Better is a single moment spent inin the name of R’
penitence and good deeds in this world that the whole of the World-to-Come. And better is a singleYohannan: All the
moment of inner peace in the World-to-Come than the whole of a lifetime spent in this world. [Avot
4:16-17] prophets prophesized
only about the
“Then the Lord The next day [after the Gold Calf] Moses said to Messianic era, but as for
said, My spirit shall the people, “you have been guilty of a great the World-to-Come, No
not abide in man sin. Yet I will now go up to the Lord; perhaps eye except yours, O
forever for he is I may win forgiveness for your sin.” Moses God, has seen (Isaiah
flesh, but his days went back to the Lord and said, “Alas, this 64:3). And he disagrees
shall be numbered a people is guilty of a great sin in making for with Shmuel, for
themselves a god of gold. Now, if You will Shmuel said: There is
hundred and twenty
no difference between
years (Gen 6:3),” forgive their sin [well and good], but if not, this world and that of
said Rabbi Ishmael, erase me from the record which You have the Messianic era,
“What he meant is written!” But the Lord said to Moses, “He except for Jewish
this: “I shall not put who has sinned against Me, him only will I independence from the
my spirit in them erase from My record. God now, lead the dominion of foreign
when I am engaged people where I told you. See, My angel shall kingdoms, for it says,
in bestowing a go before you. But when I make an For the poor shall not
reward on the accounting, I will bring them to account for cease from the land
righteous.” [Genesis their sins.” Then the Lord sent a plague (Deut 15:11). [BT Berachot
34b]
Rabbah 6:3] upon the people, for what they did with the
calf that Aaron made. [Ex 33:30-35]

All Israel has a share in the World-to-Come, for it s R’Yannai and R’Simeon ben Laqish say, “Gehana in
written, Thy people also shall be all righteous, they point of fact is nothing other than a day which will
shall inherit the land for ever; the branch of my burn up the wicked. What is the scriptural evidence?
planting, the work of my hands that I may be For lo, a day comes, it burns as a furnace (Mal
glorified (Isaiah 60:21). And these are they that 3:19). Rabbis say, “In point of fact there is really
have no share in the World-to-Come: he that says such a thing, as it is said, Whose fire is in Zion, and
that there is no resurrection of the dead prescribed his furnace in Jerusalem [so Gehanna is in
in the Law, and [he that says] that the Law is not Jerusalem] (Isaiah 31:9). R’Judah b. R’Ilai:
from Heaven, and an Epicurean. R’Akiva says: Also “Gehanna is neither a day nor a real place. But it is
he that reads heretical books, or that utters charms a fire that goes forth from the body of a wicked
over a wound and says, I will put none of the person and consumes him. What is the scriptural
diseases upon thee which I have put upon the evidence for that proposition? You conceive chaff,
Egyptians: for I am the Lord that healeth thee (Ex you shall bring forth stubble, your breath is a fire
15:26). Abba Saul says: Also he that pronounces the that shall devour you (Isaiah 33:11) [Genesis Rabbah 6:3]
Name with its proper letters. [Mishna Sanhedrin 10:1]

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Lesson 6: I Want to Be Like God – The Power of Intention

Questions to guide discussion: Why should one follow the commandments? Can one

commit a thought-crime? Which is greater, good thoughts or good deeds?

Background: If human was made in God’s image, can a human become like God?

Neither Akivan or Ishmaelian theology taught that humans can actually attain the level of

Godliness God possesses, but Akiva did teach that one can aspire to be like God by

aspiring to be close to God. This yearning for closeness, the cleaving to God known as

dvikut, is an aspiration for unity with God—a full love of God with all one’s heart and all

one’s soul, so much so that one’s highest aspiration might be to let go of the world and

join the Eternal. This holds that God loves Israel and every individual person therein, and

that individuals can reciprocate God’s love, and, thereby, increase their intimacy with the

eternal. The commandments, according to this view, are the way towards intimacy, but

only the least one can do to maintain some sort of a relationship. For true intimacy, as in

any relationship, improvisation is necessary to develop one’s love.

The transcendental perspective of Ishmael teaches that such intimacy is impossible;

God’s love is beyond the bounds of human comprehension, qualitatively and

quantitatively different than human love. Thus Ishmael explains the story of Nadav and

Aviahu, who were burnt up when they brought “alien” fire to the alter (Lev 10:1-2), as

one where the two were so intoxicated by the moment that they had tried to reciprocate

God’s love in kind—an impossibility due to the finite nature of their being and the

infinite complexity of God.2

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This difference in outlook results in a difference in outlook regarding the nature of the

actions one takes during worship. Akiva, who believes in the necessity to strive towards

closeness with the Eternal, concludes that simply submitting to the actions of worship is

not enough: one must focus one’s intentions on the actions, so that each commandment is

fulfilled with all of one’s heart and soul. A person who simply goes through the motions

has not truly fulfilled the commandments, and one whose intentions were elsewhere

during the act of worship is judged to be as if one had not fulfilled the commandment at

all. Ishmael, on the other hand, who does not think that one can realistically ever attain an

understanding or closeness of the Divine, limits the commandments to the actions

performed. Intentions do not matter until they are acted upon—and if the act is fulfilled,

one’s intentions are besides the point. In other words, Akiva believes that one can commit

sins of thought, while Ishmael limits sin to wrong-deeds alone.

Taking these views into account, one can begin to understand the debate between the

Sages on whether it is better to study or to perform the actions delineated by the

commandments. Rabbi Tarfon, of Akiva’s generation, taking the side of the Ishmaelian

paradigm, declared that “the performance of mitzvot is greater.” Akiva, disagreeing,

declared that “the study of Torah is greater.” The Sages, in an attempt to harmonize,

declared that study is indeed greater because study will lead to performance.3

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I Want to Be Like God – The Power of Intention

‫מאודך‬-‫נפשך ובכל‬-‫לבבך ובכל‬-‫בכל‬


Why should one follow the commandments? Can one commit a thought-crime?
Which is greater, good thoughts or good deeds?

It is written, And Shechem loved the maiden (Gen 34:3). We only realize the extent of his love when we learn that he gave his
life for her. That is the true meaning of love. Of Shechem we read, And his soul cleaved to Dinah, daughter of Jacob. (Gen
34:3). Now of Israel the verse says, And you who cleave to the Lord your God…” [Tanhuma Bayyishlah 20, from HT 192]

“…and holding fast to Our Rabbis taught: When a


him” (Deut 11:22): Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our man prays, he should direct
Now how is it possible God, the Lord is one. You shall his heart to heaven. Abba
for a person to go up to love the Lord your God with all Saul says: A reminder of this
the height and to
your heart and with all your soul is in the text, Thou wilt
cleave to fire? And has direct their heart, Thou wilt
it not been said, For and with all your might. Take to cause Thine ear to attend (Ps
the Lord your God is a heart these instructions with 10:17). It has been taught:
consuming fire (Deut which I charge you this day. Such was the custom of R.
4:24), His throne was
Impress them upon your Akiva; when he prayed with
fiery flames (Dan 7:9). the congregation, he used to
[But God has said,] children. Recite them when you cut it short and finish in
“Cleave to sages and stay at home and when you are order not to inconvenience
their disciples, and I away, when you lie down and the congregation, but when
shall credit it to you as when you get up. Bind them as a he prayed by himself, a man
if you had gone up to would leave him in one
the height and taken it sign on your hand and let them corner and find him later in
[by struggle].” And so serve as a symbol between your another, on account of his
Scripture says, You eyes, inscribe them on the many genulexions and
have ascended on doorposts of your house and on prostrations. [BT Berachot 31a]
high, you have taken
captives (Ps 68:19).
your gates. (Deut 6:4-9)
Those who expound
lore say, “If you want
to know the one who
spoke and brought the R’Hama ben R’Hanina further said: what means the text, You shall walk after the
world into existence, Lord your God (Deut 13:5)? Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the
study lore. For out of Shechina; for has it not been said, For the Lord they God is a devouring fire (Deut
that you will truly 4:24)? But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be
know the one who He. As He clothes the naked, for it is written, And the Lord made for Adam and for
spoke and brought the his wife coats of skin, and clothed them (Gen 3:21), so should you also clothe the
world into existence nake. The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick, for it is written, And the Lord
and cleave to his
appeared unto him by the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18:1), so should you also visit the
ways.” [Sifre Deut, 49]
sick. The Holy one, blessed be He, comforted mourners, for it is written, And it
came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son (Gen
25:11), so should you also comfort mourners. The Holy One, blessed be He, buried
the dead, for it is written, And he buried him in the valley (Deut 34:6), so should you
also bury the dead. [BT Sotah 14a]

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Lesson 7: Seeing the Unseeable – Experiencing Revelation

Trigger activity: Describe on paper your idea/image/conception of God—students

should be given pens, crayons and blank paper and told to describe God in any way they

choose—be it in art, by words, etc.

Questions for discussion: How can one experience the infinite? Does it matter if

revelation is experienced through the eyes or ears?

Background: The Torah describes two ways of experiencing the Infinite, through sight

and through sound. At first, in the book of Exodus, the Torah tells us that human beings

can experience the sight of God, albeit in limited fashion: “Then Moses and Aaron,

Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel:

under His feet there was a likeness of a pavement of sapphire…they beheld God, and

they ate and they drank” (Ex 24:9-11). In Deuteronomy, however, it seems to state that it

is impossible to see the form of God: “You saw no shape when the Lord your God spoke

to you at Horeb out of the fire” (Deut 4:15). Sound, in this later description of the

revelation, was the principal way of experiencing God—one repeated throughout the ages

by the dictum, “Shma Israel.”

Akiva, as one who believed in the immanence of God, searched to see God—and

found God in the text. In one of the more famous passages in the Talmud, Akiva and three

of his collegues entered the Pardes, literally translated as “the orchard,” where one could

get a glimpse of the Eternal; Akiva was the only one of the four not harmed by the

Prepared for: Rabbinic Theology as taught by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, by Ariel Beery. 25
experience [BT Hagigah 14b]. Ishmael, who saw God as transcending human reality, did

not believe that a human being could behold the Eternal. Sound—that is, the hearing of

the Word—was the limited way we humans can behold the Infinite.

Whether God can be seen or only heard directly affects the way one interacts with the

Torah—Israel’s last remaining reflection of God after the destruction of the Temple. If the

Torah is truly a being infused with God’s immanence, God can be seen through the Torah

—exegesis becomes the act of union with the Eternal. If the Torah is simply the

collection of the instructions given by God to Moses, and heard in part by the people of

Israel, it is to be taught and understood in human terms; it is a record of communication

and no more.

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Seeing the Unseeable – Experiencing Revelation

‫שדי‬-‫כקול מים רבים כקול‬


How can one experience the infinite? Does it matter if revelation is experienced
through the eyes or ears?

And lo, the Lord Then Moses and Aaron,


passed by. There All the people witnessed the Nadab and Abihu, and
seventy elders of Israel
was a great and thunder and lightning, the blare ascended; and they saw the
mighty wind, of the horn and the mountain likeness of the God of Israel:
splitting smoking; and when the people under his feet there was the
mountains and likeness of a pavement of
shattering rocks
saw it, they fell back and stood
sapphire, like the very sky
by the power of at a distance. “You speak to us,” for purity. Yet He did not
the Lord; but the they said to Moses, “and we will raise his hand against the
Lord was not in obey; but let not God speak to leaders of the Israelites; they
the wind. After the beheld God, and they ate and
us, lest we die.” Moses answered they drank. (Ex 20:9-11)
wind—an the people, “Be not afraid; for
earthquake; but
the Lord was not God has come only in order to
in the earthquake. test you, and in order that he You have but to inquire about
bygone ages that came before
After the fear of Him may be ever with you, ever since God created
earthquake—fire; you, so that you do not go man on earth, from one end
but the Lord was astray.” So the people remained of heaven to the other, has
not in the fire. anything as grand as this ever
And after the fire
at a distance, while Moses happened, or has it like even
—a soft approached the thick cloud been known? Has any people
murmuring sound. where God was. (Ex 20:15) heard the voice of a god
speaking out of a fire, as you
When Elijah heard have, and survived? Or has
it, he wrapped his any god ventured to go and
mantel about his take for himself one nation
face and went out Another time the Emperor said to R’Joshua b.from the midst of another by
and stood at the Hananiah, “I wish to see your God.” He replied,prodigious acts, by signs and
entrance to the “You cannot see him.” “Indeed,” said the Emperor,portents, by war, by a mighty
cave. (1 Kgs 20.2) hand and an outstretched arm
“I will see Him.” He went and placed the Emperorand awesome power, as the
facing the sun during the summer solstice and said toLord your God did for you in
him, “Look up at it.” He replied, “ I cannot.” SaidEgypt before your very eyes?
R’Joshua, “If at the sun which is but one of the It has been clearly
ministers that attend the Holy One, blessed by He,demonstrated to you that the
you cannot look, how can you presume to look uponLord alone is God; there is
the divine presence!” [BT Hullin 59b-60a] none beside Him. From the
heavens He let you see His
great fire, and from amidst
When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire,that fire you heard His words.
you came up to me, all your tribal heads and elders, and said, “the Lord God has just(Deut 4:32-36)
shown us His majestic Presence, and we have heard His voice out of the fire; we have
seen this day that man may live though God has spoken to him. Let us not die, then, for
this fearsome fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any
longer, we shall die. [Deut 5:20-22]

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Lesson 8: Wisdom from Beyond – The Torah and Creation

Questions to guide discussion: Is the Torah the blueprint for creation or the human story

of historical experiences? What are the implications of seeing Torah as a blueprint, or

viewing it as a historically bound document?

Background: The transcendence or immanence of the Torah is somewhat switched when

it comes to the two paradigms’ understanding of the Torah’s relationship to history.

Akiva, who sees God as immanent, views the Torah as a book that transcends history: the

Torah was literally the book God read as God set upon the process of creation. Akiva

explains the verse in Genesis, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen

1:26), as God consulting with the Torah as a partner. Ishmael, who thinks that God is

transcendent, views the Torah as historically bound: it was simply the communication of

God’s will given to Moses at Sinai—an even set in human time and human space.

Heschel points out that these two views are present in the ways we have to describe the

giving of the Torah. One tradition, Akivan, holds that the Torah is from the heavens:

“Torah min Shamaim.” The other, Ishmaelian, holds that the Torah was given at Sinai:

“Torah miSinai.”

If the Torah was given from Heaven, each and every dot and preposition is holy and

divinely intended. As the blueprint for creation, it includes everything there is to know

about the world—all of those things seen, unseen and yet to be seen. Knowing the world

can be achieved solely through learning the text and understanding its subtext, unpacking

from each element infinite understandings of creation. If the Torah was given at Sinai

Prepared for: Rabbinic Theology as taught by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, by Ariel Beery. 28
through the medium of a human, the text itself is certainly important—but is not all

inclusive. Moses, as well as other prophets, were given additional insights and teachings

not included in the original text—that is, human beings and the human experience are

integral to understanding the correct way to live life according to God’s will. The first

view holds that humans can know God through the text; the second that humans can

know only that portion of God’s will given at the time, relevant to the time each teaching

is communicated.

Accordingly, whatever view one takes affects the way one views theology as a whole.

If one takes the view of Akiva—that the Torah was in fact given whole and perfect at

Sinai—humans can do no more than seek to understand that which has been given, and

those who came before and were closer to the revelation understood God’s will best. If

one takes the view of Ishmael, theology is an evolutionary process, one which develops

throughout time according to the circumstances of the day. Revelation is ongoing, driven

by those who question the understanding of the previous generations while maintaining a

commitment to the intention of the teachings and steering clear of idolatry in all of its

forms.

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Wisdom from Beyond – The Torah and Creation

‫זאת התורה‬
Is the Torah the blueprint for creation or the human story of historical experiences?
What are the implications of seeing Torah as a blueprint, or viewing it as a
historically bound document?
R. Banayah said: The world and all the fullness thereof were created only for the sake of Torah: “The Lord for the
sake of wisdom founded the earth” (Prov. 3:19) [Midrash Rabba Gen 1:5]

R’ Menachem and The Torah declares, I was


In the beginning God created the the working tool of the
R’ Joshua ben Levi
said in the name of heaven and earth, the earth being Holy One, blessed be He.
R’ Levi a builder unformed and void, with darkness In human practice, when a
requires six things: over the surface of the deep and a mortal king builds a
water, earth timber, wind from God sweeping over the palace, he builds it not
stones, canes and with his own skill but with
water. God said, “Let there be the skill of an architect.
iron. And even if
you say, he is
light”; and there was light. God saw The architect moreover
wealthy and does that the light was good, and God does not build it out of his
not need cane, yet separated the light from the head, but employs plans
he surely requires a darkness. God called the light Day, and diagrams to know how
measuring rod, as it to arrange the chambers
and the darkness He called Night.
is written, And a and the wicket doors. Thus
And there was evening and there God consulted the Torah
measuring rod in
his hand (Exek. was morning, one day. [Gen 1:1-5] and created the world,
40:3). Thus, the while the Torah declares,
Torah preceded [the Then why does Scripture say, The one lamb you shall offer In the beginning God
creation of the in the morning (Ex 28:39)? It is so that you will receive a created (Gen 1:1),
world] by these six reward for carrying out the religious duty. Along these same Beginning referring to the
things… [Midrash lines, And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell Torah, as in the verse, The
Rabbah, Gen, 1:8] among them (Ex 25:8). Why is this stated? And does not Lord made me as the
Scripture say, The heaven is my throne…where is the house beginning of His way (Prov
that you can build for me (Isaiah 6:1). Then why does the 8:22). [Midrash Rabbah, Gen
scripture say, And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may 1:1]
dwell among them (Ex 25:8)? It is so that you will receive a
reward for carrying out the religious duty. [Mekhilta
D’R’Ishmael, Pisha 16]

It was said: When Moses when up on high to receive the tablets of the Commandments, which had been
inscribed and put away since the six days of Creation – as it is said, And the tablets were the work of God,
and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets (Ex 32:16): read not graven (harut) but
freedom (herut), for whosoever studies Torah is a free man – at that time the ministering angels conspired
against Moses and exclaimed, “Master of the Universe, What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? And the
son of man, that Thou thinkest of him? Yet Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, and hast
crowned him with glory and honor. Thou hast made him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands;
Thou hast put all things under his feet; sheep and oxen, all of them, yea, and the beasts of the fields; the foul
of the air, and the fish of the sea, etc. (Ps 8:5-9). They kept murmuring against Moses, saying, “What is this
offspring of a woman who has come up on high?” As it is said, Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led
captivity captive; thou hast taken gifts (Ps 68:19).

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Lesson 9: Human as Partner in Revelation

Questions to guide discussion: Do humans discover unknown wisdom in Torah, or do

we invent it? Does God need humans to partner in seeking out wisdom in Torah? Who

decides the truth about interpretation?

Background: Is correct-action determined solely by commandments given by God, or

can humans improvise based on their understanding of what is right? This question

bothered the Sages when they read into a number of actions taken by Moses in seeming

contradiction to direct commandments given to him by God: separating himself from his

wife, shattering the tablets, and adding an extra day to postpone the revelation (BT

Yevamot 62a and Shabbat 87a). One can add to this list Moses’ commanding the Levites

in God’s name to “put a sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout

the camp and slay brother, neighbor, and kin” (Ex 34: 27) even though no-such command

can be found in the text. But Moses was not punished for any of these actions, leading the

Sages to conclude that God later agreed to Moses’ actions (BT Yevamot 62a and Shabbat

87a).

Akiva could not countenance this understanding: if the Torah is perfect, and

includes within it all that has happened and will happen, Moses must have been explicitly

instructed to take these actions when God spoke to Moses face-to-face. The Ishmaelian

paradigm is more open to the idea that Moses took such action of his own authority.

Moreover, by deciding to take such action independently, Moses showed that God’s will

Prepared for: Rabbinic Theology as taught by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, by Ariel Beery. 31
can be changed—that events that God might want to occur on a certain day can be

delayed due to the decisions of God’s representative on earth.

The participation of humans in the process of determining the divine will is taken

to an extreme in the story of Rabbah b. Nahmani, a Babylonian sage (Baba Mezia 86a). In

it, an argument between God and the Divine Assembly over the laws of leprosy leads to

their calling on a human being to settle the ruling—even though God had already

pronounced an opinon. The Assembly sent the Angel of Death to summon Rabbah, and,

as he was dying, “he exclaimed ‘Clean, clean!’ when a Heavenly Voice cried out, ‘Happy

are thou, O Rabbah b. Nahmani, whose body is pure and whose soul had departed in

purity!’ This story can be read either way: Akiva could have read into it the divine nature

of Torah, and the human’s role to discover within that divinity the eternal truth. Ishmael,

on the other hand, could view the importance of human opinion in determining the truth

—an importance even God and the Heavenly Assembly itself recognizes.

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Human as Partner in Revelation

‫תורת ה' ולעשות וללמד בישראל חק ומשפט‬-‫כי עזרא הכין לבבו לדרוש את‬
Do humans discover unknown wisdom in Torah, or do we invent it? Does God need
humans to partner in seeking out wisdom in Torah? Who decides the truth about
interpretation?

“…and the ox shall be Now, they were disputing


stoned.” Why is this I am brutish, less than a man; I lack in the Heavenly Academy
thus: If the bright spot
stated? For even had common sense. I have not learned preceded the white hair,
it not been made wisdom, he is unclean; if the
explicit, I could have Nor do I posses knowledge of the Holy reverse, he is clean. If [the
gained the contrary One. Who has ascended heaven and order] is in doubt—the
result through logic… come down? Holy One, blessed be He,
[a contradiction is Who has gathered up the wind in the ruled, He is clean; whilst
created if one would hollow of his hand? Who has wrapped the entire Heavenly
read this text Academy maintained, He
the waters in his garment? What is his is unclean. Who shall
according to the
previous rule inferred name or his son’s name, if you know it? decide it? Said they—
through logic, Every word of God is pure, A shield to Rabbah b. Nahman; for he
said, I am pre-eminent in
therefore] this rule those who take refuge in Him. Do not the laws of leprosy and
was subject to the add to His words, Lest He indict you and tents. A messenger was
encompassing rule you be proved a liar. [Proverbs 30:2-6] sent for him, but the
and was singled out Angel of Death could not
so as to supply approach him, because he
evidence concerning a The Sages are forever bringing words of Torah in order todid not interrupt his
fresh consideration. strengthen matters that they have instituted. For example: “Whystudies [even for a
Now Scripture did the Torah say that we should pour water libations on themoment]. In the meantime
restores it to its status Festival of Sukkot? For the Holy and Blessed One said: ‘poura wind blew and caused a
as part of a general water before me on the Festival, so that you will be blessed withrustling in the bushes,
rain…and recite before Me on Rosh Hashana the verses ofwhen he imagined it to be
rule. [Mekhilat D’Rabbi
Kingship, Remembrance, and Shofar, so that you will cause Mea troop of soldiers. ‘Let
Ishmael, Neziquin 14:1]
to reign over you, and that your remembrance will come beforeme die,’ he exclaimed,
Me with the sound of the Shofar.” (BT Rosh Hashana 16a) Andrather than be delivered
yet the Gemara very well knows that these precepts are rabbinicinto the hands of the
in origin. [Nahmanides, “Critical Glosses to Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot,” principle 1, citedState.’ As he was dying,
HT 450] he exclaimed ‘Clean,
clean!’ when a Heavenly
Voice cried out, ‘Happy
Four entered the Pardes: Ben ‘Azzai, Ben Zoma, the Other one, and Akiva. One are thou, O Rabbah b.
glanced and perished, one glanced and was smitten, one glanced and then cutNahmani, whose body is
down sprouts, and one went up whole and came down whole. Ben Azzai gazedpure and whose soul had
and perished. Concerning him, Scripture says, Precious in the sight of the Lord is departed in purity! [BTBaba Mezia]
the death of his saints (Ps. 116:15) Ben Zoma glanced and was smitten. Concerning
him Scripture says, If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you be
sated with it and vomit it (Prov. 25:16). Elisha glanced and cut down sprouts.
Concerning him Scripture says, Let not your mouth lead you into sin (Quo 5:5).
Rabbi Akiva went up whole and came down whole. Concerning him Scripture
says, Draw me after you, let us make haste. [The King has brought me into his
chambers] (SoS 1:4). [Tosefta Hagiga, 2:3]

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Lesson 10: Censored or Uncensored, Edited or Unedited: Prophecy and Man

Questions to guide discussion: Were Prophets vessels for God, or editors who added

their own spin? Is the prophet’s reason a factor in the truth preached, or is all truth

beyond reason?

Background: The Prophets played a critical role in early Israel by communicating the

message of God to the people of Israel, since the people themselves, it seems, as in the

case of Moses, could not bear the direct communication of God (Deut 5:24). But by the

time of Ezra and Nehemiah—that is, after the first exile of Israel to Babylon—prophecy

as an institution had ceased. Thus, with prophets no longer among them, the inheritors of

the Jewish tradition were left with texts and recollections of the words of the prophets,

but no way of knowing for sure how the prophetic experience occurred, and what

elements were involved. Specifically, the division between Akiva and Ishmael revolved

around whether the words of the prophets as recorded—including the words of Israel’s

greatest prophet, Moses—were the words of God or were a mediated version of God—

that is, a somewhat altered declaration; a censored version of God’s words. The question

was posed: were the prophets always uninhibited conveyers of God’s words and will, or

did they interact with God in such a way that the record we have of God’s words is in

some way distorted?

Akiva’s school, which believed in the divine nature of the text of the Torah, could

only conclude that the words of the prophets were the exact words put in their mouths by

God. That is, the prophet was no more than a vehicle for God’s expression, a shell filled

by God’s spirit when God wanted to communicate with the human masses who were

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themselves too fragile to hear God’s unadulterated voice. God was not only immanent in

the world for Akiva, God was immanent in the body of the prophet, playing upon her

vocal chords like a musician plays a harp.

Ishmael, who taught that the Torah was given at Mount Sinai—a specific time and

place to a specific nation with a specific language—concluded that even Moses, the

greatest of the prophets, could not bear the full presence of the Divine. Even Moses had

to be talked to in a language that could suit his conceptual framework—the infinite power

and wisdom of God had to be repackaged in human-size bundles if it was to be accepted

by the people of Israel. The prophet, therefore, would have to first process these bundles

and then later relay an even more simplified version of God’s word, since the people had

an even lower capacity for processing God’s communications than the prophet has.

Akiva’s vision of the prophet, therefore, is one that makes the prophet no more

than a tool for God’s work; an essential tool for the time, but one that has no agency of its

own. Ishmael’s vision of the prophet is one of a partnership between God and a human—

a joint venture between the infinite and the finite. Akiva’s conception of prophet allows

for the language recorded in the scrolls of the prophets to contain the same quality of

transcendence—that is, of divine quality—that the Torah itself has, even though Akiva

did not teach that the books of the prophets were given to Israel from heaven. Ishmael’s

conception of the prophet, on the other hand, extends the idea that the Torah forms a

relationship between God and humans, one which, due to the infinite/finite mismatch

requires the mediation of a human being of extraordinary qualities to ensure that the

interests of both parties are addressed. The prophet, in other words, is God’s agent vis-à-

vis Israel, and Israel’s agent vis-à-vis God.

Prepared for: Rabbinic Theology as taught by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, by Ariel Beery. 35
Censored or Uncensored, Edited or Unedited: Prophecy and Man

‫'כה אמר ה‬
Were Prophets vessels for God, or editors who added their own spin? Is the prophet’s
reason a factor in the truth preached, or is all truth beyond reason?

We are like those By the hands of Moses


weak-eyed persons I started down the mountain, a mountain was the Torah given at
who are unable to ablaze with fire the two Tablets of the Sinai, as it is said, And
bear the brightness of Covenant in my two hands. I saw how He wrote them upon
two tablets of stone,
direct light and must you had sinned against the Lord your and gave them unto me
depend on those with God: you had made yourselves a molten (Deut 5:19). And elsewhere
sharp eyes. Similarly, calf; you had been quick to stray from it says, These are the
we rely on the the path that the Lord had enjoined upon statuettes and
prophets who lived you. Thereupon I gripped the two tablets ordinances and laws,
before us and were which the Lord made
and flung them away with both of my
able to receive the between Him and the
direct Divine light. hands, smashing them before your eyes. children of Israel in
Even a person with I threw myself down before the Lord— Mount Sinai by the
sound eyes can only eating no bread and drinking no water hand of Moses (Lev 26:46).
observe the sun from forty days and forty nights, as before— The Torah which the
Holy One, blessed be
certain elevated because of the great wrong you had He, gave to Israel was
places and at certain committed, doing what displeased the given by the hands of
hours of the day in Lord and vexing Him. For I was in dread Moses only, as it is said,
order to describe it to of the Lord’s fierce anger against you, Between Him and the
others. So, too, can which moved Him to wipe you out. And children of Israel: Moses
the prophet who merited becoming
that time, too, the Lord gave heed to me.
visualizes the Divine God’s messenger to the
light, do so only at [Deut 9:15-19] children of Israel. [Avot
d’R’Natan Ch.1]
specific times and
places. [Kuzari, 3:2]
The word of the Lord came to me: Before I created you in the womb, I
selected you; Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you
a prophet concerning the nations. [Jeremiah 1:4-5]

Three things Moses did out of his own accord. He reasoned by inference and his judgment coincided with
God’s: He kept away from his wife, and his judgment coincided with God’s. He kept away from the tent of
meeting, and his judgment coincided with God’s. He broke the Tablets of the Commandments, and his
judgment coincided with God’s….So too did Moses the righteous make an inference of his own accord. He
said: “How shall I give these tablets to Israel? I shall be obligating them to major commandments and make
them liable to the penalty of death, for thus is it written in the tables, He that sacrifices unto the gods, save
unto the Lord only, shall be utterly destroyed. (Ex 22:19). Rather, I shall take hold of them and break them,
and bring Israel back to good conduct.” … Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra says: Moses broke the tablets only
because he was so told by the mouth of the Almighty, as it is said, With him do I speak mouth to mouth
(Num 12:8): mouth to mouth I said to him, “break the tables.”…Rabbi Akiva says: Moses broke the tables
only because he was so told by the mouth of the Almighty, as it is said, And I took hold of the two tables…
and I broke them (Deut 9:17). [Avot d’R’Natan Chp 2]

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Lesson 11: Law as an End or a Means – Halakha and the Jewish Way

Questions to guide discussion: Are the laws of Halakha the building blocks of creation,

or are they tools towards an end, thereby depending on context? Are Halakhic rulings

timeless or practical means for the time? If everything is context, and all laws were given

in a certain place and time, is Judaism still relevant? Do increased strictures—fence laws

—protect the laws and thereby serve the good of maintaining the Jewish faith, or does

every addition detract?

Background: One of the most argued claims against Judaism by Jews and non-Jews

alike is that Judaism is a religion of Law and not spirituality. Halakha was seen as

constricting by early Christians, who opted for faith over ritual, belief in the coming of

the Savior over keeping kosher or restricting oneself by other non-spiritual

commandments. There is some truth to the claim that Judaism is a religion of law: to be a

Jewish Jew in the eyes of rabbinical Judaism—that is, to be a practicing, observant Jew—

is first and foremost to act as a Jew acts.

But how should a Jew act? With prophecy no longer a part of the Jewish

experience, Judaism turned to the records left behind by the prophets—that is, the records

of the Divine will as recorded in the Torah and the books added later, known as the

Writings and the Prophets. As discussed in previous lessons, these writings were looked

at differently by Akiva and Ishmael: Akiva saw all as sacred and perfect, true reflections

of the divine, where every dot and preposition could justify a legal precept as understood

through a creative reading of the text. Ishmael agreed that legal rulings could be justified

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by the text, but not as often or as deeply as Akiva would like. While Ishmael himself

developed thirteen rules for exegesis, the authoritative systematic method for interpreting

the text, he accepted at times that certain laws were based upon rabbinic decision without

solid scriptural basis.

Beyond these two conceptions of the text, however, lays another problem for

rabbinic theology: how far does one go when attempting to protect those commandments

already accepted as authoritative. The Great Assembly—the successors to the Prophets

according to tradition—taught that the law had to be protected by a fence, that is, that one

could be justified in adding rules if those rules would protect people from breaking

commandments. The most extreme followers of this mentality set up a high fence around

the commandments, regulating their lives as much as possible in order to ensure that

God’s will be done. But the Sages also taught that, at times, the person who adds to the

amount of commandments may detract in the process; sometimes, making the burden too

heavy might lead to the rejection of the entire yoke. More can at times lead to less.

This led to the idea that one is only required to do the work—to follow the

commandments—specifically assigned to that person, and that anyone who does more is,

literally, an idiot. God, according to this view, does expect humans to fulfill every single

one of the 613 commandments. Rather, humans should do the best they can under the

circumstances to fulfill those commandments which apply. The great number of

commandments that exist are for the good of Israel: it provides a person many paths to

fulfill the will of the Divine. This view has it that it is not the quantity of commandments

that matters as much as the quality: that those commandments that are fulfilled are

fulfilled with a full heart and soul, with the intention of doing God’s will.

Prepared for: Rabbinic Theology as taught by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, by Ariel Beery. 38
Law as an End or a Means – Halakha and the Jewish Way

‫ללכת בדרכיו ולשמור מצותיו וחקותיו ומשפוטיו וחיית ורבית‬


Are the laws of Halakha the building blocks of creation or a tool towards an end? Are
Halakhic rulings timeless or practical means for the time? If everything is context is
Judaism still relevant?
Our masters sat andYou must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a
conducted an investigationfalse witness. With the majority you shall not side to do wrong – you shall not give
concerning the use offalse testimony, after the majority one must not incline. [Ex 23:1-2]
heathen’s oil and found that
R. Berekiah, R.
the prohibition [by the
rabbis] had not spread Moses received the Torah on Rabbis
Hiyya, and the
of
among the large majority of Sinai, and conveyed it to [Babylonia] in R.
Israelites; they accordingly Joshua; Joshua to the Elders, Judah’s name said:
relied upon the dictum of Not a day passes in
Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel and the Elders to the Prophets, which the Holy One,
and R’ Eliezer ben Zadok and the Prophets conveyed it to blessed be He, does
who declared: We make no the Men of the Great Assembly. not teach a new law
decree upon the community in the heavenly
unless the majority are able They said three things: Be Court. What is the
to abide by it. R’Adda ben deliberate in judgment, proof? “Hear
attentively the noise
Ahaba said: What Scriptural develop many disciples, and of His voice, and the
verse supports this rule? Ye
are cursed with the curse; make a protective fence for the out of His mouth”
meditation that goeth

for ye rob Me, even this Torah. [Ethics of the Fathers, 1:1] (Job 37:2). Now
whole nation – i.e., when the “meditation” refers to
whole nation has [accepted naught but Torah, as
an ordinance, then the curse in the verse, “But
which is the penalty of itsAnd Make a Protective Fence for the Torah: What led tothou shalt meditate
infraction] does apply,Eve’s touching the tree? It was the hedge which Adam puttherein day and
otherwise it does not. night” (Josh. 1:8).
around his words. Hence it has been said: If a man puts an [Bereshit Rabba 49:2]
[BT Avodah Zara 36a-b] (excessive) hedge around his words, he shall not be able to
stand by his words. Hence it has also been said: let no man
add to what he hears. [Avot d’R’Natan Chp 1]

We learnt elsewhere: If he cut it into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile. R’ Eliezer declared it clean, and the
Sages declared it unclean, and this was the oven of Aknai. Why the oven of Aknai? Said Rab Judah in Samuel’s name, it
means that they surrounded it with arguments as a snake [aknai], and proved it unclean. It has been taught: on that day
R’Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: “If the Law agrees
with me, let this carob tree prove it!” Thereupon the carob tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place—others say, four
hundred cubits. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” the others retorted. Again he said to them: “if the Law agrees
with me, let the stream of water prove it!” Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought
from a stream of water,” they retorted. Again he urged: “if the Law agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove
it,” whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R’Joshua rebuked them, saying, “when scholars are engaged in halakhic
debate, who are you to interfere?” Hence they did not fall, in honor of R’Joshua, but they did not return to be upright, in
honor of R’Eliezer, and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: “If the Law agrees with me, let it be
proved by Heaven!” Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: “Who are you to dispute with R’Eliezer, seeing that in all
matters the Law agrees with him!” But R’Joshua arose and exclaimed: “It is not in Heaven!” What did he mean by this?
Said R’Jeremiah: that the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because
Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority one must incline (Ex 23:2) [BT Baba Metzia 59a-
b]

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Prepared for: Rabbinic Theology as taught by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, by Ariel Beery. 40
1
Endnotes:

See L.J. Greenspoon “The Origins of the Idea of the Resurrection of the Dead” in Traditions in Transformation ed. Halpern
and Levenson (247-321)
2
Taken from 194
3
Discourse found in Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40b. This disagreement is discussed in 205