This is a monumental and critical Parsha, in terms of the essential theology and context of the story of Abraham and the subsequent formation of the nation of Israel.
The dialogue between Abraham and his creator and the other personalities in these chapters such as Sarah, Lot, and Avi-Melech is fascinating; and we are presented with an immediate question; which of these dialogues and experiences of divine happen within the context of a dream or vision and which are happening in a physical sense? –
This question underpins much of the theological argument and discussion over millennia and is perhaps the contributing factor in terms of the difference between Rationalist, Literalist, and Mystical styles of Orthodox Judaism that appear on this to be equally divided.
That question is the quest to determine which verses are enigmatic or metaphorical and which are to be taken entirely literally – and regardless of ones bias towards rationalism or mysticism the question nonetheless remains on many Pasukim – There exists a framework for rules of exegesis which when properly understood still allows for great divergence and philosophical consideration whilst providing ground rules that allow for a unified Monotheistic theology.
The Rambam in his essential work the Mishnah Torah spells out the essential take on the mechanism of interpretation in the Foundations of Torah Chapter One 9-12:
If so, what is the meaning of the expressions employed by the Torah: “Below His feet” [Exodus 24:10], “Written by the finger of God” [ibid. 31:18], “God’s hand” [ibid. 9:3], “God’s eyes” [Genesis 38:7], “God’s ears” [Numbers 11:1], and the like?
All these [expressions were used] to relate to human thought processes which know only corporeal imagery, for the Torah speaks in the language of man. They are only descriptive terms, as [apparent from Deuteronomy 32:41]: “I will whet My lightning sword.” Does He have a sword? Does He need a sword to kill? Rather, this is metaphoric imagery. [Similarly,] all [such expressions] are metaphoric imagery.
A proof of this concept: One prophet says that he saw the Holy One, blessed be He, “clothed in snow-white” [Daniel 7:9], and another envisioned Him [coming] “with crimson garments from Batzra” [Isaiah 63:1]. Moses, our teacher, himself envisioned Him at the [Red] Sea as a mighty man, waging war, and, at Mount Sinai, [saw Him] as the leader of a congregation, wrapped [in a tallit].
This shows that He has no image or form. All these are merely expressions of prophetic vision and imagery and the truth of this concept cannot be grasped or comprehended by human thought. This is what the verse [Job 11:7] states: “Can you find the comprehension of God? Can you find the ultimate bounds of the Almighty?”
אִם כֵּן מַהוּ זֶה שֶׁכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה “וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו”. (שמות לא יח) “כְּתוּבִים בְּאֶצְבַּע אֱלֹהִים”. “יַד ה'”. “עֵינֵי ה'”. “אָזְנֵי ה'”. וְכַיּוֹצֵא בִּדְבָרִים הָאֵלּוּ. הַכּל לְפִי דַּעְתָּן שֶׁל בְּנֵי אָדָם הוּא שֶׁאֵינָן מַכִּירִין אֶלָּא (הַנּוֹפוֹת) [הַגּוּפוֹת] וְדִבְּרָה תּוֹרָה כִּלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם. וְהַכּל כִּנּוּיִים הֵן. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים לב מא) “אִם שַׁנּוֹתִי בְּרַק חַרְבִּי”. וְכִי חֶרֶב יֵשׁ לוֹ וּבְחֶרֶב הוּא הוֹרֵג אֶלָּא מָשָׁל וְהַכּל מָשָׁל. רְאָיָה לַדָּבָר שֶׁנָּבִיא אֶחָד אוֹמֵר שֶׁרָאָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא (דניאל ז ט) “לְבוּשֵׁיִהּ כִּתְלַג חִוֵּר”. וְאֶחָד רָאָהוּ (ישעיה סג א) “חֲמוּץ בְּגָדִים מִבָּצְרָה”. משֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ עַצְמוֹ רָאָהוּ עַל הַיָּם כְּגִבּוֹר עוֹשֶׂה מִלְחָמָה. וּבְסִינַי כִּשְׁלִיחַ צִבּוּר עָטוּף. לוֹמַר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ דְּמוּת וְצוּרָה אֶלָּא הַכּל בְּמַרְאֵה הַנְּבוּאָה וּבְמַחֲזֶה. וַאֲמִתַּת הַדָּבָר אֵין דַּעְתּוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם מֵבִין וְלֹא יְכוֹלָה לְהַשִּׂיגוֹ וּלְחָקְרוֹ. וְזֶה שֶׁאָמַר הַכָּתוּב (איוב יא ז) “הַחֵקֶר אֱלוֹהַּ תִּמְצָא אִם עַד תַּכְלִית שַׁדַּי תִּמְצָא”:
[If so,] what did Moses, our teacher, want to comprehend when he requested: “Please show me Your glory” [Exodus 33:18]?
He asked to know the truth of the existence of the Holy One, blessed be He, to the extent that it could be internalized within his mind, as one knows a particular person whose face he saw and whose image has been engraved within one’s heart. Thus, this person’s [identity] is distinguished within one’s mind from [that of] other men. Similarly, Moses, our teacher, asked that the existence of the Holy One, blessed be He, be distinguished in his mind from the existence of other entities to the extent that he would know the truth of His existence as it is [in its own right].
He, blessed be He, replied to him that it is not within the potential of a living man, [a creature of] body and soul, to comprehend this matter in its entirety. [Nevertheless,] He, blessed be He, revealed to [Moses] matters which no other man had known before him – nor would ever know afterward – until he was able to comprehend [enough] from the truth of His existence, for the Holy One, blessed be He, to be distinguished in his mind from other entities, as a person is distinguished from other men when one sees his back and knows the structure of his body and [the manner in which] he is clothed.
This is alluded to by the verse [Exodus 33:23]: “You shall see My back, but you shall not see My face.”
מַהוּ זֶה שֶׁבִּקֵּשׁ משֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ לְהַשִּׂיג כְּשֶׁאָמַר (שמות לג יח) “הַרְאֵנִי נָא אֶת כְּבֹדֶךָ”. בִּקֵּשׁ לֵידַע אֲמִתַּת הִמָּצְאוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַד שֶׁיִּהְיֶה יָדוּעַ בְּלִבּוֹ כְּמוֹ יְדִיעַת אֶחָד מִן הָאֲנָשִׁים שֶׁרָאָה פָּנָיו וְנֶחְקְקָה צוּרָתוֹ בְּלִבּוֹ שֶׁנִּמְצָא אוֹתוֹ הָאִישׁ נִפְרָד בְּדַעְתּוֹ מִשְּׁאָר הָאֲנָשִׁים. כָּךְ בִּקֵּשׁ משֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ לִהְיוֹת מְצִיאוּת הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא נִפְרֶדֶת בְּלִבּוֹ מִשְּׁאָר הַנִּמְצָאִים עַד שֶׁיֵּדַע אֲמִתַּת הִמָּצְאוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר הִיא. וֶהֱשִׁיבוֹ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶׁאֵין כֹּחַ בְּדַעַת הָאָדָם הַחַי שֶׁהוּא מְחֻבָּר מִגּוּף וְנֶפֶשׁ לְהַשִּׂיג אֲמִתַּת דָּבָר זֶה עַל בֻּרְיוֹ. וְהוֹדִיעוֹ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַה שֶּׁלֹּא יָדַע אָדָם לְפָנָיו וְלֹא יֵדַע לְאַחֲרָיו. עַד שֶׁהִשִּׂיג מֵאֲמִתַּת הִמָּצְאוֹ דָּבָר שֶׁנִּפְרָד הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּדַעְתּוֹ מִשְּׁאָר הַנִּמְצָאִים. כְּמוֹ שֶׁיִּפָּרֵד אֶחָד מִן הָאֲנָשִׁים שֶׁרָאָה אֲחוֹרָיו וְהִשִּׂיג כָּל גּוּפוֹ וּמַלְבּוּשׁוֹ בְּדַעְתּוֹ מִשְּׁאָר גּוּפֵי הָאֲנָשִׁים. וְעַל דָּבָר זֶה רָמַז הַכָּתוּב וְאָמַר (שמות לג כג) “וְרָאִיתָ אֶת אֲחֹרָי וּפָנַי לֹא יֵרָאוּ”:
Since it has been clarified that He does not have a body or corporeal form, it is also clear that none of the functions of the body are appropriate to Him: neither connection nor separation, neither place nor measure, neither ascent nor descent, neither right nor left, neither front nor back, neither standing nor sitting.
He is not found within time so that He would possess a beginning, an end, or age. He does not change, for there is nothing that can cause Him to change.
[The concept of] death is not applicable to Him, nor is [that of] life within the context of physical life. [The concept of] foolishness is not applicable to Him, nor is [that of] wisdom in terms of human wisdom.
Neither sleep nor waking, neither anger nor laughter, neither joy nor sadness, neither silence nor speech in the human understanding of speech [are appropriate terms with which to describe Him]. Our Sages declared: “Above, there is no sitting or standing, separation or connection.”
וְכֵיוָן שֶׁנִּתְבָּרֵר שֶׁאֵינוֹ גּוּף וּגְוִיָּה יִתְבָּרֵר שֶׁלֹּא יֶאֱרַע לוֹ אֶחָד מִמְּאֹרְעוֹת הַגּוּפוֹת. לֹא חִבּוּר וְלֹא פֵּרוּד. לֹא מָקוֹם וְלֹא מִדָּה. לֹא עֲלִיָּה וְלֹא יְרִידָה. וְלֹא יָמִין וְלֹא שְׂמֹאל. וְלֹא פָּנִים וְלֹא אָחוֹר. וְלֹא יְשִׁיבָה וְלֹא עֲמִידָה. וְאֵינוֹ מָצוּי בִּזְמַן עַד שֶׁיִּהְיֶה לוֹ רֵאשִׁית וְאַחֲרִית וּמִנְיַן שָׁנִים. וְאֵינוֹ מִשְׁתַּנֶּה שֶׁאֵין לוֹ דָּבָר שֶׁיִּגְרֹם לוֹ שִׁנּוּי. וְאֵין לוֹ לֹא מָוֶת וְלֹא חַיִּים כְּחַיֵּי הַגּוּף הַחַי. וְלֹא סִכְלוּת וְלֹא חָכְמָה כְּחָכְמַת הָאִישׁ הֶחָכָם. לֹא שֵׁנָה וְלֹא הֲקִיצָה. וְלֹא כַּעַס וְלֹא שְׂחוֹק וְלֹא שִׂמְחָה וְלֹא עַצְבוּת. וְלֹא שְׁתִיקָה וְלֹא דִּבּוּר כְּדִבּוּר בְּנֵי אָדָם. וְכָךְ אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים אֵין לְמַעְלָה לֹא יְשִׁיבָה וְלֹא עֲמִידָה וְלֹא עֹרֶף וְלֹא עִפּוּי:
Since this is so, all such [descriptions] and the like which are related in the Torah and the words of the Prophets – all these are metaphors and imagery. [For example,] “He who sits in the heavens shall laugh” [Psalms 2:4], “They angered Me with their emptiness” [Deuteronomy 32:21], and “As God rejoiced” [ibid. 28:63]. With regard to all such statements, our Sages said: “The Torah speaks in the language of man.”
This is [borne out by the rhetorical question (Jeremiah 7:19):] “Are they enraging Me?” Behold, [Malachi 3:6] states: “I, God, have not changed.” Now were He to at times be enraged and at times be happy, He would change. Rather, all these matters are found only with regard to the dark and low bodies, those who dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is dust. In contrast, He, blessed be He, is elevated and exalted above all this.
וְהוֹאִיל וְהַדָּבָר כֵּן הוּא. כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הַלָּלוּ וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן שֶׁנֶּאֶמְרוּ בַּתּוֹרָה וּבְדִבְרֵי נְבִיאִים הַכּל מָשָׁל וּמְלִיצָה הֵן. כְּמוֹ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהילים ב ד) “יוֹשֵׁב בַּשָּׁמַיִם יִשְׂחָק”. (דברים לב כא) “כִּעֲסוּנִי בְּהַבְלֵיהֶם”. (דברים כח סג) “כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׂשׂ ה'” וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן. עַל הַכּל אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים דִּבְּרָה תּוֹרָה כִּלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם. וְכֵן הוּא אוֹמֵר (ירמיה ז יט) “הַאֹתִי הֵם מַכְעִסִים”. הֲרֵי הוּא אוֹמֵר (מלאכי ג ו) “אֲנִי ה’ לֹא שָׁנִיתִי”. וְאִלּוּ הָיָה פְּעָמִים כּוֹעֵס וּפְעָמִים שָׂמֵחַ הָיָה מִשְׁתַּנֶּה. וְכָל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלּוּ אֵינָן מְצוּיִין אֶלָּא לַגּוּפִים הָאֲפֵלִים הַשְּׁפָלִים שׁוֹכְנֵי בָּתֵּי חֹמֶר אֲשֶׁר בֶּעָפָר יְסוֹדָם אֲבָל הוּא בָּרוּךְ הוּא יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִתְרוֹמַם עַל כָּל זֶה:
These laws do not limit the scope of personal meaning, nor do they prevent ingenuity in terms of interpretation, they do however prevent the assertion of other religions at various times that in our Tanach that Hashem is somehow embodied in human form at times.
The concept of Avatars is fairly common within the context of Hinduism, that is God/or God’s descent into human/magical form in order to interact with humanity. In Christianity the idea of Divine Incarnate, an idea voted on at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) that would forever differentiate the theology of Christianity from the other Abrahamic religions of Islam and Judaism, many scholars today such as Dr. Martin Gilbert and others recognize the effect of Hellenism on the early theology of the church and its writings.
More recently the communities have been beset by accusations by those who claim that their interpretation of the Torah which favors metaphorical or allegorical truths rather than factual or literal descriptions are somehow teaching an “un-Kosher” version of the Torah.
This great rift between some kind of Zohar inspired hyper-literalism and progressive rationalist schools dominated much of my time as an early student in Torah and it was many years before I realized the profound vanity of either approach and accepted that I needed guidance in the fundamentals before exposure to era-specific-metaphysics.
Some of the most inventive Torah concepts have occurred between the ratification of these opposing approaches towards Torah interpretation and a deeper Truth stands instead: The Jews almost always differ in terms of interpretation and preference of commentators, however, they are united in terms of the expectance of the Halacha and the essential monotheistic Theology.
Our Talmud and tradition is replete with differing opinions, famously Abyaeh and Rava, Hillel and Shammai and other sets of Chavutas found deep disagreements regarding Halachic matters and even debated as to whether the creation of mankind was positive or negative:
For two-and-a-half years, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel debated. These said, “It is better for man (mankind) not to have been created than to have been created”; and these said, “It is better for man to have been created than not to have been created.
(Talmud, Eruvin 13b)
They even argued on the order of creation:
The School of Shammai says that first the heavens were created, then the earth… The School of Hillel says that first the earth was created, and then the heavens (Talmud, Chaggigah 12a).
The later Chassidic commentators learn from this debate that the discussion centered around whether the essential first stage was spiritual or physical, the Kabbalists also discuss this dichotomy in depth. The ability to depart from the simple meaning of the verse into Halachic ramifications, Midrashic parables, and Metaphorical Secrets is the mainstay of all Rabbinical Judaism.
What defines the Torah approach to this dichotomy is that whilst great difference in approach to verses, styles of interpretation, and custom exist, the main approach to the actual implementation of Halachic Judaism remains essentially the same:
We have had the great pleasure to visit many communities around the world and have experienced both the subtle differences and in general, normative keeping of Shabbat and Kashrut (according to standards existing within the reasonable scope of the Rishonim – (if not more often a stricter approach)).
From India to Africa and Europe we have visited a variety of Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities and enjoyed their unique flavors, songs, and customs that have persevered their identities and culture through persecution and changes in the surrounding populations.
What is most apparent from arguments based on the interpretation of verses is that as one’s exposure to the Tanach and to the rules of exegesis increases a clear unity between the Halacha and source can become discernable. Conversely, those with bias in their interpretation not to keep the Mitzvot and draw close to Hashem see only dissonance and fracture:
R. Bena’ah would often say: Anyone who is deeply involved in Torah “lishmah” (for the sake of heaven) – his Torah becomes an elixir of life for him, as Scripture says “She is a tree of life for those who grasp her” (Proverbs 3:18).
But anyone who is deeply involved in Torah not “lishmah” – it becomes an elixir of death for him.
(Talmud, Taanit 7a)
Rabbi Jonathan Goldschmidt ©
(Translation of the Mishneh Torah by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger is courtesy of Chabad.org)