Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Interpreting the First Commandment: Philosophy or Prophecy

July 16, 2013 12:53 pm 0 comments

A sculpture of Judah Halevi. Photo: Raananms.

One of the most profound disagreements in Judaism is that between Moses Maimonides and Judah Halevi on the meaning of the first of the Ten Commandments.

For Maimonides (1135-1204), the first command is to believe in God, creator of heaven and earth:

The basic principle of all basic principles and the pillar of all sciences is to realise that there is a First Being who brought every existing thing into being. If it could be supposed that He did not exist, it would follow that nothing else could possibly exist. If however it were supposed that all other beings were non-existent, He alone would still exist . . . To acknowledge this truth is a positive command, as it is said: “I am the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:2, Deut 5:7). (Yesodei ha-Torah, 1: 1-5)

Judah Halevi (c. 1080-c.1145) disagreed. The greatest of medieval Hebrew poets, Halevi also wrote one of Judaism’s philosophical masterpieces, The Kuzari. It is framed as a dialogue between a rabbi and the King of the Khazars. Historically, the Khazars were a Turkish people who, between the seventh and eleventh centuries, ruled a considerable area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, including southern Russia, northern Caucasus, eastern Ukraine, Western Kazakhstan, and northwestern Uzbekistan.

Many Jewish traders and refugees lived there, and in 838 the Khazar King Bulan converted to Judaism, after supposedly holding a debate between representatives of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths. The Arabic writer Dimashqi writes that the Khazars, having encountered the Jewish faith, “found it better than their own and accepted it”. Khazaria thus became, spiritually as well as geographically, an independent third force between the Muslim Caliphate and the Christian Byzantine Empire. After their conversion, the Khazar people used Jewish personal names, spoke and wrote in Hebrew, were circumcised, had synagogues and rabbis, studied the Torah and Talmud, and observed the Jewish festivals.

The Kuzari is Judah Halevi’s philosophy of Judaism, cast in the form of the imagined conversation between the King and a rabbi that led to the King’s conversion. In it, Halevi draws a portrait that is diametrically opposed to what would later become Maimonides’ account. Judaism, for Halevi, is not Aristotelian but counter-Aristotelian. The God of the prophets, says Halevi, is not the God of the philosophers. The key difference is that whereas the philosophers found God in metaphysics, the prophets found God in history.

This is how Halevi’s rabbi states his faith:

I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles; who fed them in the desert and gave them the land, after having brought them through the sea and the Jordan in a miraculous way . . . (Kuzari I:11)

He goes on to emphasise that God’s opening words in the revelation at Mount Sinai were not, “I am the Lord your God, creator of heaven and earth” but “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Kuzari I: 25).

Halevi lived before Maimonides. Nachmanides (R. Mosheh ben Nachman, 1194-1270) lived after, but he too disagreed with Maimonides’ interpretation of the opening verse of the Ten Commandments. His objection is based on a passage in the Mekhilta:

“You shall have no other gods besides me.” Why is this said? Because it says, “I am the Lord your God.” To give a parable: A king of flesh and blood entered a province. His servants said to him, “Issue decrees for the people.” He, however, told them, “No. When they accept my sovereignty, I will issue decrees. For if they do not accept my sovereignty, how will they carry out my decrees?”

According to Nachmanides the verse, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” is not a command, but a preliminary to the commands. It explains why the Israelites should be bound by the will of God. He had rescued them, liberated them, and brought them to safety. The first verse of the Decalogue is not a law but a statement of fact, a reason why the Israelites should accept God’s sovereignty.

Thanks to a series of archeological discoveries in the twentieth century, we now know that Nahmanides was right. The biblical covenant has the same literary structure as ancient near eastern political treaties, of which the oldest known are the “Stele of the Vultures” (before 2500 BCE), recording the victory of Eannatum, king of Lagash, over the people of Umma, both in southern Mesopotamia, and the treaty of Naram-Sin, king of Kish and Akkad, with the people of Elam (c. 2280 BCE). Other, later treaties have also been discovered, involving Hittites, Arameans and Assyrians. One details a pact between the Hittite king Hattusilis III and the Pharaoh Rameses II, regarded by some scholars as the Pharaoh of the exodus.

These treaties usually follow a six-part pattern, of which the first three elements were [1] the preamble, identifying the initiator of the treaty, [2] a historical review, summarizing the past relationship between the parties, and [3] the stipulations, namely the terms and conditions of the covenant. The first verse of the Ten Commandments is a highly abridged form of [1] and [2]. “I am the Lord your God” is the preamble. “Who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” is the historical review. The verses that follow are the stipulations, or as we would call them, the commands. Nachmanides and the Midrash are therefore correct in seeing the verse as an introduction, not a command.

What is at stake in this difference of opinion between Maimonides on the one hand, and Judah Halevi and Nachmanides on the other? At the heart of Judaism is a twofold understanding of the nature of God and His relationship to the universe. God is creator of the universe and the maker of the human person “in His image”. This aspect of God is universal. It is accessible to anyone, Jew or gentile. Aristotle arrived at it through logic and metaphysics. For him, God was the “prime mover” who set the universe into motion. Today, many people reach the same conclusion through science: the universe is too finely tuned for the emergence of life to have come into being through chance (this is sometimes called the anthropic principle). Some arrive at it not through logic or science but through a simple sense of awe and wonder (“Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystical” said Wittgenstein). This aspect of God is called by the Torah, Elokim.

There is, however, a quite different aspect of God, which predominates throughout most of Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. This is God as He is involved in the fate of one family, one nation: the children of Israel. He intervenes in their history. He makes a highly specific covenant with them at Sinai – not at all like the general one He made with Noah and all humanity after the Flood. The Noahide covenant is simple and basic. The sages said it involved a mere seven commands. The Sinai covenant, by contrast, is highly articulated, covering almost every conceivable aspect of life. This aspect of God is signaled by the use of the four-letter name for which we traditionally substitute (since the word itself is holy and could only be pronounced by the High Priest) the word Hashem (on the two aspects and names, see Kuzari IV: 1-3; and Ramban to Exodus 3: 13).

Maimonides, the philosopher, emphasized the universal, metaphysical aspect of Judaism and the eternal, unchanging existence of God. Judah Halevi and Nachmanides, the one a poet, the other a mystic, were more sensitive to the particularistic and prophetic dimension of Judaism: the role of God in the historical drama of the covenant. Both are true and valid, but in this case, Halevi and Nachmanides are closer to the meaning of the biblical text.

To read more writings and teachings from the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, please visit www.chiefrabbi.org.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Features Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    JNS.org – The entrance to Jerusalem’s Sacher Park was transformed from April 25-27 by a fire-breathing robotic dragon, which flailed its arms and attempted to take flight. The robot, a signature feature at Jerusalem’s first-ever “Geek Picnic,” was one of more than 150 scientific amusements available for the public to experience. This particular dragon was designed by students from Moscow’s Art Industrial Institute in conjunction with the Flacon design factory, said Anatasia Shaminer, a student who helped facilitate the display. Children […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love. CreateSpace, 2015. The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love, is a very interesting novel. Equally a political and romantic thriller, at times a real page-turner, it gets you intimately involved in the dire situation in today’s Syria, as well as in the romantic entanglements of its mostly New York-based characters — whose entanglements just might determine the fate of that dire situation in Syria. Along the way it introduces a really important idea that somehow […]

    Read more →
  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    JNS.org – Alan Gross used to be nothing more to me than a tragic headline. When I started my position at this news service in July 2011, Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 for what that country called “crimes against the state.” Gross, a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development, went to Cuba to help the Jewish community there access the Internet. After his arrest, he received a trial he describes as a “B movie,” […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Features New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    JNS.org – When I saw the recent Academy Award-winning film “The Big Short,” I was struck by the sheer genius of the financiers who devised the schemes and packaged the loans for resale, but it left me with unanswered questions about how the properties these loans represented were moved. “The Big Short” was largely about paper transactions, big money, and wealthy investors, and it mildly touched on the way the actual end-users — the home buyers and brokers — played into this […]

    Read more →