Metempsychosis (Gilgul), Academic Study of Bible and the Meaning of Truth
Sa’adia Gaon rejected the idea of of gilgul (=metempsychosis or reincarnation) in the strongest terms. Nevertheless, many kabbalists declare opponents of the idea to be verging on heresy. Once a kabbalist was asked in my presence how a dogmatic insistence on metempsychosis might be reconciled with its explicit repudiation by a gaon of Sa’adia’s stature. By way of reply he offered one of the stock-in-trade formulas for explaining away the numerous contradictions between kabbalistic and venerable pre-kabbalistic sources.
The explanation he offered, if I remember correctly, goes like this: As long as the Zohar lay hidden in its cave, those who denied gilgul spoke out of blameless ignorance. However, once the day arrived for the Zohar – with its mysteries of gilgul – to emerge from its millenial concealment, nobody could continue to doubt it unless enticed by perverse or heretical inclinations. Recently, this kabbalist’s construction has become ‘reincarnated’ for me in another body – or, if you prefer, in another context: biblical studies.
Academic Biblical Studies
Once upon a time contradictions within Scripture were reconciled through the claim that these are apparent contradictions; this was accomplished through interpretive strategies that often strike today’s reader as forced. Nevertheless, even when unable in good conscience to accept some of the strained harmonizations of the past, we would never dream of sitting in judgment on the harmonizers—the great pre-modern sages. On the contrary, we admire their valiant efforts to fathom the intricacies of the sacred texts without the benefit of resources and tools available today. Even as recently as a hundred years ago, there was neither a Ugaritic nor an Ebla library to compare with ancient Hebrew, no Dead Sea Scrolls, and no Arad Ostraca; the study of Akkadian, the language of Mesopotamia was in its infancy, and there was little idea of the history and evolution of the Hebrew language and even less exposure to the skills of literary criticism.
Let us learn from the Kabbalists who harbor no hard feelings towards the gilgul-deniers of yore in the conviction that ever vigilant Providence chose to expose later generations to insights withheld from the ancients.
While we share the Kabbalists’ belief that Providence ‘neither sleeps nor slumbers,’ some among us are uncertain how to view biblical scholarship’s methodology. Ought it to be viewed as a boon, insofar as it involves a close reading of the sacred texts? Alternatively, should it be ascribed to the arch Seducer? Or if, as a good Jew, one denies the Seducer’s autonomy, then should it be classified with fossils and dinosaur bones that some believe piety adjures us to view as a test of our tenacity to resist innovation?
But if the findings of biblical scholarship—and paleontology for that matter—are a test, why not lump modern medicine in with them? The latter unabashedly contradicts rabbinic medicine and anatomy across the board. Furthermore, why stop there? According to the Haver in R. David Nieto’s Matteh Dan(4:132; also known as The Second Kuzari), Copernican astronomy must be rejected because in denying the sun’s motion it precludes the miracle of the sun standing still, for the only time, at Gibeon (Jos 10:12-14). Was Copernicus too being tested?
For better or worse, then, the ‘test hypothesis’ has proved a hard sell. That is not entirely surprising, because once empiricism is undermined, all empirically acquired knowledge must be treated as equally suspect – not merely the inconvenient bits. However, its proponents often seem reluctant to push the ‘test hypothesis’ to its logical conclusion. Even more problematic for the hypothesis are its theological implications. The idea of Our Merciful Father acting as an agent provocateur or planting misinformation without warning (unlike idolatry, against whose signs and marvels the Torah warns; Deut 13: 2-4) strikes Torah-loyal Jews in general not merely as unlikely but as preposterous if not sacrilegious.
If the hypothesis was intended to shield the scientific reputation of past generations, then yatsa sekharo be-hefsedo, the loss countervails the gain. Surely the Kabbalist’s paradigm serves the purpose better. That paradigm, as we saw, acknowledges the stupendous achievements of past generations upon whose shoulders we stand and who, equipped with their available resources, approached Torah in a spirit of truth and integrity.
The Meaning of Truth
Having invoked the word ‘truth’ we ought perhaps to state exactly how we understand it. Philosophers wrangle over formal definitions of truth; but however defined, the Torah lets its readers know that they possess the faculty to recognize emet (truth, true) and to distinguish it from sheker (falsehood, false). This is attested by numerous scriptures.
- Without any preliminary explanation of sheker, the Torah declares ‘You shall not bear false (sheker) testimony against your fellow’ (Exod. 20:13).
- Capital cases rely on witnesses who report to the court of law what they saw with their eyes. To be sure, the stringent cross-examination of witnesses mandated by Torah acknowledges human fallibility, forgetfulness and, sadly, also the human temptation to tell fibs. Yet at the end of their investigations a court can, in the Torah’s reckoning, discover the emet and thereby reach a just verdict (see Deut. 13:15, 17:4 etc.).
- To distinguish a true prophet from a false one the Torah provides a check. If the prognostication made by a claimant to prophecy fails to materialize, that claimant is presumed to be a false prophet (see Deut. 18:22, cf. Deut. 13). Again, certain caveats apply. As Rashbam (d. 1174) and other commentators point out, the non-fulfillment of a prediction of doom could be a consequence of repentance. That is why Isaiah and Jonah are true prophets although Hezekiah lived on for another fifteen years after Isaiah had prophesied that king’s imminent demise (2 Kings 20:1). Jonah announced to the inhabitants of Nineveh, ‘Forty days hence Nineveh shall be overthrown’ (Jonah 3:4). Nevertheless, after they abandoned their wicked ways, ‘God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them’ (Jonah 3:10). With these citations Rashbam reminds us how difficult a task it is to ascertain the status of a prophet using the Torah’s prescribed criteria. But at the end of the day, the Torah credits human beings with the ability to surmount the difficulties, and hence holds us responsible for getting at the facts.
The Rabbis adhered to the same epistemology:
- The Mishnah’s list of false oaths includes “a sworn statement that contradicts the reality as known to mankind such as asseverating that a particular stone column is made of gold or that a man is a woman or a woman is a man. Also an oath that affirms the impossible such as ‘I saw a camel flying in the sky’ or ‘I saw a snake the size of the beam of an oil-press’…”(Shev. 3:8).
- When R. Haninah declared that nobody could survive the bite of a white mule, he was challenged by people who claimed to have seen such survivors (ve-ha ka-hazeinan de-haye; Hul. 7b).
- Human sight is similarly validated in the aggadah describing the death of Aaron. The aggadah in question portrays the Israelites as doubting the report of his death even though it was reported by two illustrious witnesses, namely Moses and Eleazar. So Moses prayed that the people might be shown Aaron’s body and his prayer was answered. Only after they saw the corpse did they believe (Rashi to Num 21:29 based on Bemidbar Rabbah 19:11).
Denying Empirical Truth
Seeing that Torah, both written and oral, affirm humanity’s capacity to know truth, it comes as a shock to discover the contemporary denigration of empirical knowledge on the part of authors purporting to represent Torah. Yet people continue to impugn empiricism, directly and indirectly, and with it the very faculties of human beings. One recent example of this genre apprizes its readers already in the introduction that,
The words of Chazal are profound and wondrous; all true and transmitted. They are more real to us even than the world we see with our eyes.
How can this book arrive at its conclusion that ‘Chazal’s words are all true’ if human judgment of what is true is unreliable? How can the author be sure that he is not being deluded by prejudices analogous to those that allegedly bamboozle pitiful scientists into miscalculating the age of the world or rejecting spontaneous generation?
On the other hand, in moments of panic and despondency even a psalmist could lament: “All of humanity is false” (Psalms 116:11); and perhaps these latter-day assaults on empirical knowledge are reactions born of panic. Perchance they serve as a defense mechanism against the threat such knowledge is perceived to pose for the blissfully credulous. Of course, such solicitude presupposes that blissful credulity is a treasure worthy of ‘protected species status.’
Certainly one cannot fault an author who takes it for granted that credulity is Torah’s friend. At the same time one must spare a thought for the reader of such books who takes away the idea that Torah can only survive at the expense of empirical truth. Some of us, for our sins, wonder whether this dichotomous idea of Torah versus empiricism might not be driven by fear of the unknown.
A Torah of Fear
And who knows what drives the penning of these lines? Perhaps it is also fear; the fear of that insidious paralysis of the creative spirit that afflicts so many – not least in faith communities around the globe. We Jews are not immune. To put it bluntly, precious Jewish youth is made to feel guilty if they ask obvious questions such as, How could Abraham perch a teenage lout on Hagar’s shoulder (Gen 21:14)? If Seth was actually named by both parents, why does it not say Adam and Eve named him instead of dividing his naming into two separate reports (Gen 4:25; 5:3)? Why are the references to Levitical cities at Lev. 25: 32-34 presented as part of the Sinaitic legislation that starts at Lev 25:1, when Numbers 35:1ff locates their introduction some 38 years later in the Plains of Moab? And much else.
All too often do we witness the short shrift meted out to individuals raising these types of questions that derive from meticulous study of the Torah text and a strong desire to understand what the Torah is really saying. Even sadder, such questions are occasionally met with hostility, as though the questioner had crossed a red line by daring to study the text so attentively – attentive reading being associated with forbidden scholarly reading. It is not a new remedy to discourage all but superficial study of Scripture. In that scenario, the Torah itself is cast in the ogre’s role inasmuch as it has the potential to upset the status quo.
In this light, I see two choices. The believing Jews can keep the Torah at arm’s length, so they do not encounter the ‘demons’ who allegedly emerge from the text when it is closely scrutinized. Alternatively all branches of Torah should be studied, along with the risk of the demons. But what if they appear? In fact, as with most real inquiries, the student of Torah may be reasonably certain that he or she will come upon problems and insights that are unexpected. What then? Again, I see two choices. Either the interested student of Torah can approach the enterprise in humility and reliance on God’s guidance, dealing honestly (yes, we trust honesty is attainable!) with the findings, or he or she can assume a priori that no problems or deviations from the expected can possibly occur.
Following this latter direction—which I have been critiquing throughout the essay—if, inadvertently, linguistic heterogeneity within the texts is noticed, the impression is to be banished. Should it stubbornly persist, the reader must ponder the tricks a defective mind is liable to play, and the inferiority of a soul that strays so readily. In any case, the straying soul is expected to dissemble about her/his errant findings.
In other words, once the mind and senses are mistrusted as valid means to discover truth about the created world, then the word ‘truth’ and the very concept of truth are rendered meaningless. Needless to say, under the rubric ‘created world’ we include all matter, animate and inanimate, all human components, mind, body and soul, and aye, Torah too, which, in Judaism, is also a creation of the only and uniquely Uncreated One, baruch hu.
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December 4, 2013
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Dr. Hacham Isaac S. D. Sassoon is a rabbi and educator and a founding member of the ITJ. He studied under his father, Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, Hacham Yosef Doury, Gateshead Yeshivah and received his semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lisbon. He is the author of The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (Cambridge University Press 2011), a commentary on chumash called Destination Torah (Ktav 2001), and most recently the co-editor with Rabbi Steven H. Golden of the Siddur 'Alats Libbi (Ktav 2020).
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