Thursday, April 17, 2014

Does God Speak?

Starting in section 80 of the Kuzari the Chaveir offers the interesting thesis that God-given religions appear suddenly, like the event of creation itself.  This leads into a recounting of the startling tale of the exodus.  To this the Kuzari responds:

זֶהוּ הָעִנְיָן הָאֱלהִי בֶאֱמֶת, וּמַה שֶּׁנִּתְלָה בּו מִן הַמִּצְות רָאוּי לְקַבְּלו כִּי אֵין נִכְנָס בַּלֵּב מֵחֲמָתו סָפֵק לא מִכְּשָׁפִים וְלא מִתַּחְבּוּלָה וְלא מִדִּמְיון, וְאִלּוּ נִדְמָה לָהֶם הִבָּקַע הַיָּם וְעָבְרָם בְּתוכו, יְדֻמֶּה לָהֶם הַצָּלָתָם מִן הָעַבְדוּת וּמות מַעֲבִידֵיהֶם וְקַחְתָּם שְׁלָלָם וְהִשָּׁאֵר מָמונָם אֶצְלָם, וְזֶה עִקְּשׁוּת מֵאֶפִּיקוּרְסִים

This is, in truth, divine power, and the commandments connected with it must be accepted. No one could imagine for a moment that this was the result of necromancy, calculation, or phantasy. For had it been possible to procure belief in any imaginary dividing of the waters, and the crossing of the same, it would also have been possible to gain credence for a similar imposition concerning their delivery from bondage, the death of their tormentors, and the capture of their goods and chattels. This would be even worse than denying the existence of God. (trans. Hartwig Hirschfeld)

The Kuzari sees these events as being beyond doubt.  The Chaveir does not disagree.  However, he does believe that one very significant doubt would remain for Bnei Yisrael even after all the wonders and miracles of the exodus: does God truly speak with flesh and blood?  Here is the Chaveir’s formulation of the people’s doubt:

הָעָם, עִם מַה שֶּׁהֶאֱמִינוּ בְמַה שֶּׁבָּא בּו משֶׁה אַחַר הַמּופְתִים הָאֵלֶּה, נִשְׁאַר בְּנַפְשׁותָם סָפֵק, אֵיךְ יְדַבֵּר הָאֱלהִים עִם הָאָדָם. כְּדֵי שֶׁלּא תִהְיֶה הַתְחָלַת הַתּורָה מֵעֵצָה וּמַחֲשָׁבָה מִחֲמַת אָדָם וְאַחַר יְחַבְּרֵהוּ עֵזֶר וְאמֶץ מֵאֵת הָאֲלהִים, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָיָה רָחוק הַדִּבּוּר בְּעֵינֵיהֶם מִזּוּלַת אָדָם, בַּעֲבוּר שֶׁהַדִּבּוּר גַּשְׁמִי. 

Although the people believed in the message of Moses, they retained, even after the performance of the miracles, some doubt as to whether God really spake to mortals, and whether the Law was not of human origin, and only later on supported by divine inspiration. They could not associate speech with a divine being, since it is something tangible. 

This formulation of the people’s doubt is highly intriguing.  Why would the people be ready to believe that Moshe received divine inspiration after thinking about the ideas himself?  Why couldn’t they believe after everything that they experienced that God spoke to Moshe?

I believe that Yehuda HaLevi is hitting on a fundamental issue.  People, especially after experiencing wondrous events, are ready to accept Divine intervention in the human sphere.  We are ready to admit that God can influence and even subvert the natural order.  We are ready to believe that God is like a silent conductor gently and from time-to-time quite forcefully guiding events.  However, as strange as it might seem, we have a harder time believing that God can do what we consider to be most uniquely human: produce speech or writing (Just conduct the following thought experiment. Is it easier to believe that God caused an earthquake or that God wrote a book?).  The basic implication of this is that, in our heart of hearts, we believe that the human capacity for speech is more wondrous than all of the plagues, more wondrous than the splitting of the sea, more wondrous than the falling of the manna, even more wondrous than the very act of creation.  It is easier for us to believe that Moshe was a brilliant sage and God, in His mysterious ways, gave him inspiration.  After all, inspiration is mysterious—it works like the wind, or a rushing stream, or the shining sun (all often cited—if we are to believe the poets—as sources of inspiration).


The revelation at Sinai was designed to breakthrough this distortion.  God created man, just like He created everything else.  Man’s capacity for speech is not beyond nature (which, as the Chaveir already explained in sections 70-77, is just a stand-in word for Goda term which enables man to obfuscate and deny God as the ultimate Cause of Being) and God is not merely a benevolent “natural” force.  God can manifest Himself as Speaker.  God can manifest Himself as Writer.  The word is not man’s alone.  

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