Tuesday 12 January 2016

068) Outspoken Rabbinical Views Claiming That The Torah Recorded Superstitions Of Its Day:

I don’t know anyone who has the monopoly on truth, but I will listen to everyone who has an aversion to untruths. For me one such person I will always take note of is Rabbi Professor Marc Shapiro. His research into, knowledge of, and love for, Torah texts is infectious. 

In this article I shall share and elaborate on one of his essays, where he shows that many of our rabbis held the view that the Torah often referred to superstitious belief systems that it was prepared to record but not endorse.[1]  According to this view, the Torah granted certain ‘concessions’ to a generation that was just emerging from a golden age of idolatry and superstition while grappling with the notion of untainted monotheism.


Most notably, Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi stands out as a great flag bearer for this hypothesis. Rabbi Professor Isadore Twersky[3] summarises the philosophy of Ibn Caspi as follows:

“...not every Scriptural statement is true in the absolute sense...
Many Scriptural statements...are seen as errors, superstitions, popular conceptions, local mores, folk beliefs, and customs (minhag bene adam)...rather than an abstract truth.
The Torah expressed things as they were believed or perceived or practiced by the multitudes and not as they were in actuality.
(The principle of) Leshon bene adam (where the rabbis said that the ‘Torah speaks in the language of men’) is...a wholesale adoption of mass views and local customs...The Torah did not endorse or validate these views; it merely recorded them...”[4]

In other words, according to Caspian thought, the Torah recorded many mistaken beliefs of the masses but never intended to authenticate them.

Marc Shapiro gives two examples of mistaken beliefs that are recorded in the Torah. The first is the story of Rachel and Leah’s conviction that mandrakes (or dudaim) could help with conception.[5] And the second is the famous instruction, during the Exodus narrative, to place blood on the doorposts. According to Ibn Caspi this was a result of an ancient superstition that blood had supernatural qualities.[6]

Accordingly, although the Torah recorded these and many similar false notions, it never necessarily sought to endorse them.

I found a number of other references to Ibn Caspi who steadfastly held the view that most people, particularly in ancient times, were naturally superstitious:

“...a religious community is essentially divided into two classes; the ‘common people’ (hamon am) and the ‘selected individuals’ (yechidei segulah). Whereas the first group is constituted of the masses who are incapable of philosophical reflection, the second is comprised of the few who think freely and are independent of superstition.”[7]

“The command of sacrifice (of Isaac) involves a strong echo of ancient Near Eastern traditions of child sacrifice. That’s why the name Elokim is used (predominantly) in the narrative. The usage of the name Ad-ny is also inserted to hint to the true meaning of the story (that Judaism prohibits human sacrifice).”[8]

In one of his most astounding writings on Vayikra (Leviticus), Ibn Caspi says that he will not comment on the Torah portions dealing with sacrifices, because “ is well known that Moshe Rabbenu was coerced into writing them since G-d doesn’t really want sacrifices. They were only meant to accommodate that generation...and there is no harm in not mastering those the commentary of Rashi is sufficient.”


Ibn Caspi may have been influenced by the earlier writings of Rambam[9], who, as a general rule held that the anthropomorphic descriptions of G-d (i.e. G-d possessing human characteristics such as anger etc) were originally meant to be taken literally by the masses. This was what is known as emunot hechrechiyot velo amitiyot or ‘necessary but untrue beliefs’ which, although the leaders of Israel themselves did not adopt, the people did, until such time as they were ready for a more figurative, purer and deeper comprehension of G-d.[10] [11]

According to Shem Tov[12], this meant that the Torah originally intended for the populace to adopt an untruth until such time as they could be weaned off their previous and less sophisticated belief systems.

This is what Shem Tov says;

“The Torah required the people to believe in some of these ‘necessary beliefs’ although they were not true. These were directed towards the simple people. The wise, however, would understand that ‘the Torah spoke in the language of men.’”

I shall now paraphrase a fascinating Rambam:

“It is impossible to suddenly go from the extreme of idolatry to the extreme of pure monotheism - since it is impossible to abruptly change the theology with which one has been raised. Therefore some elements of idolatrous worship were incorporated into the service of the early Israelites, including sacrifice and incense.

Were this concession not allowed for, it would have been tantamount, hypothetically, to a modern day prophet suddenly commanding us to desist from prayer as we know it, to abandon our fasts, reject all our ritual – and only worship G-d with our minds.

This is why G-d allowed us to mimic our preconception of what religion was, by building a Temple, erect an altar, elect priests, offer sacrifices and burn incense.”

The Rambam, as if reading our minds, adds; “I know that initially you will reject these views, and find them strange, but in reality it is contrary to man’s nature to suddenly abandon the perceptions on which one was raised.”[13]


For the sake of completion and intellectual honesty, I would have to point out that many did not agree with this view of Rambam and his followers. One such example is the Raavad[14] who famously supports a more literal and rigid interpretation of the Torah.  He vehemently challenges Rambam by writing; “Why does Rambam call someone (who adopts a literal perception of G-d by believing that He can get angry, or has some form of corporeality) a heretic? - Many men, even greater and better than Rambam believed it due to what they saw in the verses[15].”

The Raavad is saying that since every word of the Torah emanates from G-d, no one should have the audacity to claim they can reinterpret its words. He challenges the very notion that the Torah, as it stands, is not ‘good enough’ for an intelligent and developed people.


In the book Kadmoniyot HaHalacha by Rabbi Samuel Moshe Rubenstein, however, a similar idea to that of the Rambam is also put forward. He speaks about what we would call ‘monolatry’ (from the words monotheism and idolatry), where the populace acknowledged the existence of many gods but only served One G-d.

This view, explains Rabbi Shapiro, was predominant among Bnei Yisrael during the biblical period. This means that when they worshipped other gods they were not necessarily rejecting the G-d of Israel, but including Him in their conglomeration of other deities.

He cites from Kadmoniyot HaHalacha (translation of original text is the writers):

“In numerous places in the Torah we find reference to statements like; ‘a great and mighty G-d’ (as opposed to the others gods who were not so mighty) – ‘the G-d of gods’ – ‘the merciful G-d’ (as opposed, again to the other gods, who were not so merciful).
But we need to understand clearly that this was only according to the view of the masses. And the leaders (of Israel) had to speak according to the understanding of the populace. They themselves, however, did not espouse of such views.”[16]

So, again, here we have a similar notion that the Torah recorded concepts that may not have been what it considered to be absolute truths, and instead ‘spoke in the language of men’.


The following is an extract from Rabbi Shimshon Rephael Hirsch, who takes a similar approach:

“Jewish scholarship has never regarded the Bible as a textbook for physical or even abstract doctrines...the Bible does not describe things in terms of objective truths known only to God, but in terms of human understanding...The Bible (for example) uses human language when it speaks of the ‘rising and setting of the sun’ and not the rotation of the earth...”[17]


I was always taught that for pragmatic reasons, the Torah had to address itself to the ‘lowest common denominator’, otherwise it would have spoken above the heads of the very people who were charged with the task of transmitting it to the next generation.

However, I am very aware that some of these interpretations will not sit well with other people, who may counter that the views presented here (including Ibn Caspi, Rambam, Rabbi Hirsch and Rabbi Twersky) are from what they would call the ‘periphery’ of Jewish thought. (For them, I included the view of the Raavad.)

But one needs to remember, though, that depending on one’s current standpoint, peripheries are often interchangeable. So much of our Judaism today has developed out of concepts that were very peripheral to classical Judaism.[18]

In the final analysis, I strongly believe that everything and anything that is Torah source based, merits not necessarily our blind acceptance but at least our attention.

Perhaps this is the reason for Moshe’s ‘stutter’ as he contemplated what he could, as opposed to what he knew he should, say.

[2] RABBI JOSEPH  IBN CASPI  (1279-1340):
The philosophy of Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi is as intriguing as the man himself. He was born in Largentiére, Southern France, a place famous for its silver mines. Hence his name ‘Caspi’ (of kesef or silver). It’s interesting to note that if you look up the village of Largentiére, the only famous personality Wikipedia records as a product of that village, happens to be Ibn Caspi, whose real name was En Bonafoux de L’Argentiére.

Starting at the age of seventeen he authored twenty nine books, most of them ending with the word Kesef (such as Adnei Kesef). He was a great traveller and one of his journeys took him to Egypt, where he hoped to study under the tutorage of the descendants of Rambam who had passed way some seventy five years earlier.
To his great disappointment, though, he found the family members to be ‘more pious than learned’.

Rabbi Twersky (1930-1997) was a Harvard professor for thirty years and also succeeded his father as the Talner Rebbe (a branch of the Chernobyl Chassidim) for the last twenty years of his life. He was a son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick.
He never underwent a formal yeshiva training, but attended a prestigious public school and was taught privately by a melamed hired by his father.
He is credited with creating an environment, within Harvard University, that was conducive and accommodating to orthodox students. And is said to have achieved this by using ‘honey’ instead of ‘vinegar’.
The irony of his rational Harvard career (and his interest in the rationalism of the Rishonim) juxtaposed against his mystical Chassidic background has fascinatingly been described as a means of seeing the spiritual within the rational.  He was affectionately known as Rebbe Professor Twersky.

[4] ‘Joseph Ibn Kaspi: Portrait of a Medieval Jewish Intellectual’, in Twersky, ed. Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature (Cambridge. 1979) pp.239-241.
[5] See Ber. 30, 14-17
[6] See Matzref Kesef, p. 137
[7] See The Binding of Isaac – A Religious Model of Disobedience, by Omri Boehm, p. 59
[8] ibid. P. 64

[9] I originally inferred this as an assumption, until a Rosh Yeshiva friend, Rabbi C Finkelstein pointed out that Rambam’s works must have been well known in France at the time of Ibn Caspi. He cited the fact that in 1242, twenty four cartloads of Talmud were publically burned in the streets of Paris. This was seen by some (notably Rabbi Hillel of Verona) as a ‘retribution’ for the burning of Rambam’s books, a mere eight years before, in 1234 by Jews opposed his philosophy, who handed the books over Dominican monks. Rambam passed away in 1204, and Ibn Caspi was born seventy five years later in Southern France, in 1279. This proves that the books of Rambam were already in France before Ibn Caspi was born.

[10] See Limits of Orthodox Theology pp. 68-69, by Rabbi Marc Shapiro.
[11] Guide 3,28

[12] Shem Tov ben Yosef ibn Falkira (1225-1290) was one of the first commentators on Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed (despite the fact that in the Guide, Rambam urged people to read it without the inevitable commentaries.) Shem Tov wanted to encourage observant Jews to study philosophy and not see it as a contradiction to religious thinking. He was one of the first Rishonim to try disseminate the rationalist view common at that time to a more general audience instead of just the intellectually elite.

[13] Loose translation and paraphrase of the Guide, Part 3, ch.32.  I thank Rabbi Finkelstein for pointing this source out to me.
[14] Rabbi Avraham ben David, known as Raavad (1125-1198).
[15] i.e. verses like “The hand of G-d” etc.

Rambam and Raavad also argued about the nature of the Resurrection of the Dead concept: Rambam rejected a physical resurrection but believed in a spiritual and intellectual one. Raavad wrote; “The words of this man seem close to one who says that there is no bodily resurrection of the dead, but only of the soul. -By my life, this is not the view of the sages.” (On Yad, Teshuvah 8,2)

There is amazing piece from Rav Kook who sides with the Raavad on this issue and says; “As long as the one (who views G-d physically) does not actually create a statue or picture...he remains within the spiritual camp (and is not a heretic). Shmoneh Ketzavim 1,31

Surprisingly, (according to Hakirah, the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, Was Rashi a Corporealist? By Rabbi Natan Slifkin, p.82) there were many Talmudists and Rishonim who believed that G-d incorporated some form of corporeality, including the majority of Torah scholars in Northern France.

[16] Kadmoniyot HaHalacha, Kovno, 1926 pp. 44-45 (Translation is the writer’s).
[17] See Collected Writings, vol. 7, p. 57

[18] See KOTZKBLOG 54) where the Yarmulka, which has today become sacrosanct, had almost no relevance in Talmudic times.
See KOTZK BLOG 67) where paying for Torah, which is today quite common, was regarded as an anathema in classical times.
See KOTZK BLOG 61) where the modern full-time Kollel system has no real template in our earlier history.


  1. "Were this concession not allowed for, it would have been tantamount, hypothetically, to a modern day prophet suddenly commanding us to desist from prayer as we know it, to abandon our fasts, reject all our ritual – and only worship G-d with our minds." This seems oddly specific ;-)