Playing with fire?

The story of the two sons of Aaron, who played with fire, but followed their own mode of worship is one of the best-known tragedies.

Recently, I chanced upon a piece by Shneur Zalman Reti Waks, current Rabbi of the Ark Centre, here in Melbourne. Reti Waks has also been outspoken about conversions outside the aegis of the Melbourne Beth Din and for strange practices as part of services at the Ark Centre. He wrote:

He wrote in regards the well-known view of the Ibn Ezra on the verses describing the death of Moshe:

The ‘secret of the twelve’ is a reference to his opinion that the last twelve verses of the Torah were not written by Moshe but by Joshua, because they speak about Moshe’s death and the mourning of the Israelites. What we can understand from Ibn Ezra here is that the last twelve verses of the Torah are an example of a broader phenomenon of later editorial comments in the Torah.

I’ve often referred to certain Eureka moments I experienced along the way during different aspects of my education. Well, this Ibn Ezra is a Eureka as good as any other.

Let me explain why this is so. Growing up I was taught, consistent with ultra-orthodox philosophy, that that every word, every syllable, and every letter in the Torah is the word of God, verbatim, as dictated to Moshe.

What we can understand the Ibn Ezra to be is saying is that there is another view. The belief that the Torah is from God, a basic tenet of Judaism, is not at all at odds with the idea that the Torah as we have it contains many passages which were only recorded much after the death of Moshe.

This is perhaps very unsettling to some which is precisely why the Ibn Ezra speaks about it in the most coded fashion.

I believe this teaching to be truly liberating and magnificent. Liberating, because it allows us to divest ourselves of the intellectual straight-jacket imposed by some of the more narrow views of the divine authorship. And magnificent because it has the potential to answer so many seeming inconsistencies in the Torah which hitherto have often been answered inadequately. This idea of a third-party narrator has the promise to explain so much of that away, and it predates modern biblical scholarship, which arrives at a similar conclusion, by 800 years or so!

The Ibn Ezra is most certainly not “another view” which questions “that the Torah is from God”. חס ושלום! To say I was flabbergasted reading Reti Waks’s “discovery” is an understatement. This transcends the Ibn Ezra! It is an open Gemara in Baba Basra (15b) where two Tannaim argue concerning who wrote the verses describing Moshe’s death, as dictated by God Almighty!

It seems Reti Waks, through the Ibn Ezra, has discovered the view of Rabbi Yehuda in the Talmud. This opinion is part and parcel of every “ultra orthodox” curriculum! I am not sure where Reti Waks discovered the “intellectual straight jacket” that he describes, and why it is an affliction.

It would be remiss of me, in context, if I didn’t mention that the Ibn Ezra’s view is not universally held. That is part and parcel of almost every verse in the Torah vis a vis the different views of Rishonim. It would also be remiss of me to fail to note that Reti Waks’s later statements are not those of the Ibn Ezra, or indeed any Orthodox commentator that I can find. When Reti Waks describes a third-party narrator akin to the later “modern biblical scholarship” and attempts to line this up with R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra, Reti Waks is not describing an Orthodox view held by either opponents of Ibn Ezra or the Ibn Ezra himself. Indeed, it could also be considered insulting to the so-called “modern biblical scholars!” Does Reti Waks imagine that these (mostly heretical) scholars were ignorant of the discussions in the Talmud and various commentators?  [ Eight of the twelve verses are also the subject of a disagreement between the Rambam and the Raavad about whether they require a minyan (see Menachos 30). ]

What is clear, however, is that Reti Waks is treading along the exact path which the Or HaChaim Hakadosh warned us against, in the precise context of the Or HaChaim’s comments on these verses and the Ohr HaChaim’s own disagreement with the Ibn Ezra. The Ohr Hachaim states

It is not appropriate to write these thoughts (i.e the view of the Ibn Ezra) because I (the Ohr HaChaim) have heard people discussing these verses and becoming entangled in them, to the extent that they end up expressing views which can only be described as heresy.

Rabbinic scholars wondered why the Ohr HaChaim used such strong language. After all, it is the view of Rabbi Yehuda in Baba Basra (ibid). Having read the piece from Reti Waks, I see (once more) that the Ohr HaChaim certainly deserves the honoured prophetic appellation of “HaKadosh”.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

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