Ketzos Hachoshen “Truth and Torah in Human Hands”
A theologically audacious interpretation of Torat emet was offered by R. Aryeh Leib HaKohen Heller (c. 1745 – 1812). His explication of the phrase is offered in the forward to his most celebrated work, the Ketzos HaChoshen (from whence derives his sobriquet, the Ketzos):
אך לא נתנה התורה למלאכי השרת ואל האדם נתנה אשר לו שכל האנושי ונתן לנו הקדוש ברוך הוא התורה ברוב רחמיו וחסדיו כפי הכרעת שכל האנושי גם כי אינו אמת בערך השכלים הנבדלים.
The Torah was not given to ministering angels, but rather it was given to humans, who possess human intelligence. The Holy One, blessed be He, in His great kindness and mercy, gave us the Torah to be determined according to the discernment of the human mind even though [that determination] does not reflect Ultimate Truth.
With these words, and in the paragraphs that follow, the Ketzos expounds upon the distinction between the Divine realm and the human world.
Truth in the Divine Realm and in the Human World
The Divine realm is the abode of God and angels; it is there that Ultimate Truth resides. The earthy realm is the domain of humans, who do not possesses or have access to this higher Truth, living instead by human understanding and reason. The Divine realm can be characterized as the world of Truth with a capital-T, and the human realm the world of truth with a small-t.
The Ketzos provides examples that demonstrate that Chazal (the classical rabbis) recognized the existence of these two realms and two truths. Among his prooftexts is the account of the Achnai oven (Tanuro shel Achnai), in which the rabbis determine that a given type of oven is subject to impurity even though God explicitly backs Rabbi Eliezer who says it is not. This story serves as the flagship example of how normative Jewish law—the halachic truth—can be inconsistent with Divine Truth.
Aligning the Two Truths with the Two Torahs
The Ketzos demonstrates how these two truths align with Judaism’s two Torahs: The Oral and the Written Torah. The Oral Torah is halachic truth, legal norms based on human/rabbinic interpretation and determination; it is the Torah as it exists on earth and, functionally, it is the Torah that determines human practice. The Written Torah, originating with God, reflects the Divine realm and, in some fashion, Divine Truth.
Remarkably, the Ketzos argues that the expression Torat emet in the benediction after the Torah reading refers not narrowly to the Written Torah, but to the Oral Torah, and the human enterprise of establishing truth:
זו היא ברכת התורה אשר נתן לנו תורת אמת שיהיה האמת אתנו...
…[And this is the meaning of] the blessing on the Torah, “…Who has given us the Torah of truth…,” namely that the truth is ours.
By proclaiming that God has vouchsafed us Torat emet we affirm that the Almighty has granted us the authority to determine truth in the human realm. Poignantly, this declaration is made after reading from the Written Torah—precisely the moment at which we would expect to invoke the authority and authenticity of the Divine Truth represented by the revealed Pentateuch.
The Place of Human Contribution in Torah
The insights of the Ketzos contain both practical and philosophical aspects. They point to the reality that the only Torah that can be realistically promulgated in the human domain is the Oral Torah, since the only truth that can exist in the human domain is small-t truth. The world of humanity is, de facto, populated and perpetuated by humans, and since humans do not behave or function like angels, they cannot be ruled directly by heavenly systems.
But the Ketzos goes further, and suggests that God actually desires humans to be active participants in the growth of Torah—not merely a concession to reality and our inability to grasp Ultimate Truth—but because of His kindness, His wish that humans not feel alienated from God and the Divine realm. He accomplished this by making the Written Torah, which reflects Divine Truth, a (much) smaller element of revelation, and allowing the Oral Torah, the Torah of humans, to be dominant:
ואמרו בש"ס תורה רובה בע"פ ומיעוט בכתב שנאמר אכתוב להם רובי תורתי כמו זר נחשבו והיינו דאם היה הכל בכתב מיד ד' עלינו השכיל אנחנו כמו זר נחשבו כי מה לשכל האנושי להבין בתורת ד' אבל בתורה שבע"פ משלנו הוא:
The Talmud relates (b. Gittin 60b): The greater portion of the Torah is the Oral [Torah], and the smaller portion is the Written [Torah] as it says (Hosea 8:12) “I wrote for them the majority of My Torah, and they were considered strangers.” That is to say, that if all [of the Torah] had been written and from God’s hand and up to us to understand, then “we would have been considered strangers” [to the text]. For how could the human mind comprehend God’s Torah? But the Oral Torah—that is ours.
A Torah of Kindness in Place of a Torah of Truth
The result of this system is a “Torah of kindness,” an earthly Torah that reflects Divine grace at the expense of Truth itself:
והיינו פירוש פתחה בחכמה ותורת חסד על לשונה ומשום דתורה שבע"פ ניתנה כפי הכרעת החכמים אעפ"י שאינו אמת ונקרא תורת חסד וכדאיתא בש"ס אם חסד אינו אמת.
Hence the interpretation (of the verse from Proverbs 31:26) “[Her mouth] opens with wisdom and the Torah of kindness is on her tongue,” meaning that the Oral Torah was given according to the determination of the Sages even though it is not Truth. This is why it is called “The Torah of kindness,” for as the Talmud [explains] “kindness—meaning, not truth.”
The distinction between truth and kindness, and their importance for understanding God’s revelation, is illustrated by a midrash from Bereshit Rabbah (8:5), quoted in part then explained by the Ketzos:
אמר ר' סימן בשעה שרצה הקדוש ברוך הוא לברוא את האדם נעשו מלאכי השרת כתות כתות מהם אומרים יברא ומהם אומרים כו' ...חסד אומר יברא שכולו מלא חסדים ואמת אומר לא יברא שכולו מלא שקרים כו' מה עשה הקדוש ברוך הוא נטל אמת והשליכה ארצה ... אמרו לפניו רבש"ע אתה מבזה תכשיט שלך אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא רצוני שתעלה אמת מן הארץ.
R. Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to create Man, the ministering angels formed into factions, some of them saying, “Let him be created” and others saying, [“Let him not be created”] …Kindness said, “Let him be created, because he embodies kindness”; Truth said, “Let him not be created, because he embodies falsehood”…What did the Holy One, blessed be He do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground. The ministering angels said to the Holy One, blessed be He, “Master of the Universe, why would you spurn your adornment?” The Holy One, blessed be He, responded, “It is my desire that truth should arise from the earth.”
The Ketzos explains that the Divine adornment to which the angels refer is the seal of Truth: since humans are incapable of grasping Ultimate Truth, by placing truth and Torah in human hands, God is undermining His own hallmark.
Human Understanding Shapes Torah which Shapes the World
The Ketzos understands the meaning of God’s response as follows:
זהו רצוני שתעלה אמת מן הארץ והאמת יהיה כפי הסכמת החכמים בשכל האנושי.
This is [precisely] My will: that truth should spring forth from the earth, namely that truth should be established according to the determination of the Sages using human understanding.
What emerges from this analysis is that the fate of the Torah in this world depends not upon its ultimate Divine origin but, rather, on the will and capacity of people—the Jewish people—to keep the Oral Torah alive. This is why, the Ketzos suggests, the prayer contains the words v’chayei olam nata b’tocheinu:
וחיי עולם נטע בתוכינו ומתוכינו יפרה וירבה חיי עולם
“…and He has planted the life of the world with us,” for from us the life of the world will come forth and increase.
To believe in Torat emet is to affirm that the fate and truth of Torah rests in our hands.
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September 7, 2015
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Rabbi Eric Grossman is Head of School at Akiva School in Montreal, Quebec. He is the author of numerous articles on Bible and Bible education, as well as a grammar of biblical Hebrew.
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