We closed last time with the idea of both Creation and Torah as the ways for people to learn about Hashem. To speak of Torah as how people find their way to their fullest purpose runs the risk of treating it as a tool, subordinate to man, which contradicts other traditions about Torah.
The Superior Sometimes Serves the Subordinate
Tradition thinks the Torah was written long prior to Creation, and consists of names of Hashem, when read properly. Those names reveal all the secrets of the world, physical and metaphysical, to those who can understand them. To clinch the implication of Torah as foundational, R. Arama quotes Avodah Zarah 3a, which portrays Hashem as pinning the continued existence of the world on the Jewish people’s observance of the Torah.
Which is it, then: Torah is here to serve people or is the foundation of the world?
R. Arama says the problem starts with the word Torah, which has two different meanings or versions. There is a Torah that is an intellectual/spiritual entity, written before Hashem (as the midrash has it) as black fire on white fire and, according to Bereishit Rabbah, two thousand years before Creation. Mishlei 8:22 means that sense of Torah when it says, “Hashem kanani reishit darko, Hashem possessed me at the beginning of His way.”
Torah also exists in a physical form, written on parchment with ink. That Torah comes to serve the Jewish people, to show them how to achieve their purpose.
Once we think about it, we can find other examples of a person or being of higher level and broader purpose sometimes still acting to serve or help lesser beings. Hashem created the whole world and yet deigned to take the Jews out of Egypt Himself (as it were) and to engage the revelation on Sinai on behalf of the Jewish people, to let us have the Torah. In the human realm, shepherds are a higher life form than sheep, yet spend much of their days acting on behalf of the sheep. And prophets—for a pungent example, since he is assuming the prophet is more important than the people as a group—sometimes serve the nation.
The superior sometimes serves the lesser.
How Torah Shows the Way
As we saw last time, the physical Torah served as a ladder to help our climb in Hashem’s service, our advance toward the most direct possible relationship with Hashem. He knows of people who think philosophical books help better in this regard (as, sadly, I do today, although more often they’ll speak of “scientific” or “academic” books). The philosophical books discuss the topics more fully, where Torah addresses them briefly and only allusively.
R. Arama thinks they’ve missed an element of which serves as the better source. Torah does not expand on each rung of the ladder of ascent to Hashem because it is busy with more significant matters. Books of philosophy make an end point of what should have been the start. Torah inculcates proper ideas about Hashem, prophecy, how the world works, and the purpose of humanity.
Someone who focuses on Torah, then, might not be as involved (or as expert) at other wisdoms, much as (the analogy is R. Arama’s) a priest will not necessarily know all the crafts of those who provide the upkeep for the Beit Hamikdash. To hint at the idea, Hashem told the Jews they were going to be a mamlechet kohanim (a nation of priests, right after Hashem said we would be a Chosen People).
What Kinds of Knowledge We Should Cultivate
R. Arama is making two arguments that come up today as well. First, philosophy [and science, today] cannot get at ultimate questions, since it does not address Hashem; it takes interesting and important first steps on the way to ultimate truth, but Torah takes the rest [science, for a time, knew this distinction, knew it addressed only what it could see, measure and describe, could not pretend to comment on more ultimate questions].
Second, as opposed to the unreachable ideal of a Renaissance Man, R. Arama thinks the challenges of the higher forms of learning mean people studying those issues will likely or necessarily leave the building blocks to others.
A person of Torah who spends all his time on the natural sciences, or philosophers’ ideas about God (and especially if he accepts their modes of logic in studying the issue) will be like a priest who decides to become a spicemaker or perfumer, rather than work in the Mikdash, to understand the incense better.
Once others know what is preparatory to the more important matters, there’s no need for us to train ourselves in all of them. So, too, Torah does not spend a great deal of time or make a focus of the basic issues philosophy spends its time masticating.
[He raises another generally relevant question: what knowledge should an educated Jew feel s/he needs to have? Should a Jew know how to farm, fix a car, build a house, remove an appendix? He sees the search for higher wisdom as so consuming, any time spent on lesser knowledge takes away from it. What and how much to learn of “lower” disciplines is a question I think worth consideration].
The Fear of Heaven That Should Be Universal
We also saw last time R. Arama’s link between the belief in Creation from absolute nothingness and fear of Hashem. An eternally existing world, with rigid laws of Nature, gives no reason to fear Hashem. Only when we are told Hashem created the world from absolute nothingness, with the corollary possibility of destroying it at any moment, do we see why all of us, Jew and non-Jew, need to know to fear Hashem.
The Torah blames the generation of the Flood for their evil, which cannot refer to mitzvot, since we cannot blame someone for a failure to uphold what they were never told. Rather, R. Arama thinks the fact of Creation obligates an awareness of our dependence on Hashem for each moment of existence. The awe this should inspire is, as Tehillim 111:10 and Mishlei 1:7 agree, the beginning of knowledge and wisdom. For all humanity.
The Torah Rules and Reveals Nature
A Torah that shows people how to live must also rule over nature, since everything in nature was made to serve man’s needs. Among other sources, R. Arama notes Bereishit Rabbah, which reads the first word of the Torah, Bereishit, to mean the world was created for reishit, a word used about the Jewish people and about Torah. If the world was created to serve the Jews, it certainly serves the master who guides the Jews on their way.
[Part of how R. Arama convinced me to undertake the lengthy project of studying and summarizing his book was the questions he poses that continue to challenge each of us. Here, he has just said statements of the Torah can pre-empt how nature works. Do we believe that today? Why or why not?]
By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.