Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Black Fire on White Fire

R. Chaim Eisen, "Mosheh Rabbeinu and Rabbi Akiva: Two Dimensions of Torah" in Jewish Thought vol. 1 no. 2 pp. 72-74:

While the Torah is repeatedly portrayed as the blueprint of the universe, predating Creation itself, it is noteworthy that this primeval Torah is pictured as “inscribed upon white fire in black fire” (Tan. BeReshith:1, Mid. Tehillim 90:12, Rashi on Devarim 33:2). The metaphor of fire is significant; G-d Himself is similarly described in the Torah: “For G-d your L-rd is [like] a consuming fire” (Devarim 4:24 and 9:3). The symbolism appears related to fire’s capacity to consume. Terrestrial fire cannot be grasped, and the mere attempt to grasp it would consume the tools with which we physically grasp (our hands). Only from a distance can we be safely warmed. In likening G-d to a consuming fire, the Torah emphasizes that G-d cannot be grasped -- intellectually -- and the mere attempt to comprehend G-d would consume the tool with which we intellectually grasp (our mind). Similarly, while the Torah that is given to this world is tangibly inscribed upon white parchment in black ink, a Torah “inscribed upon white fire in black fire” is one that, in human terms, cannot be grasped.

Indeed, the Midrash assumes such a distinction between the primeval, transcendent Torah (upon which the world’s existence is predicated) and the material Torah (which is imparted to us as the basis for our lives in this world and thus implicitly presupposes the world’s existence):
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No man knows [wisdom’s] value” (Iyyov 28:13) – Said R. Elazar: The sections of Torah were not given in order, for had they been given in order, anyone who would read them would be able to resurrect the dead and do miracles (alt. v.: immediately would be able to create a world). Therefore the order of Torah was concealed. But it is revealed before the Holy One Blessed be He, as it is said, “And who like Me can read and recount it and set it in order for Me” (Yeshayahu 44:7).

In its references to “order,” were the Midrash alluding merely to questions of chronology, reading the unmodified version obviously not enable “anyone... to resurrect the dead and do miracles,” much less “immediately... be able to create a world.” Evidently, the unmodified version relates to an ontologically different domain – the realm of the divine – in which the realities of this world (which normally exclude acts of resurrection, miracles, and creation) do not apply. This level of Torah, emphasizes the Midrash, was concealed from man, who by his very nature functions on a distinct, earthly level...

Apropos of the Talmud’s qualification of Mosheh’s ascent (Sukkah 5a, quoted above), Maharal comments on this Gemara that even “Mosheh did not receive all of the Torah... but only received what it is possible to receive” (Derech HaChayyim on Avoth 1:1, ד"ה משה קבל תורה מסיני)...

It should be emphasized that the implication of two distinct levels of Torah is not two different texts. Ramban cites a tradition that aptly characterizes our Torah:
We are in possession of a true tradition that the entire Torah is names of the Holy One Blessed be He, the words subdividing into names on a different level... And it appears that the Torah that was inscribed in black fire upon white fire was in the manner that we have mentioned: that the writing was continuous, without separation into words, and it was possible to interpret it in the manner of the names or in the manner of our reading...

R. Me’ir b. Gabbai amplifies Ramban’s description of the Torah as names of G-d, and concludes, “This is the primeval Torah that predated the world” (Avodath HaKodesh, “Chelekh HaYichud,” ch. 21). While in principle it is also our Torah, it is clearly not the Torah as we perceive it... [T]he level at which Torah is revealed to this world is specifically on physical parchment in material ink: palpable media presenting palpable instruction to earthly man on how to live in this world. From this world, the heavenly, fiery Torah of names – through which G-d created this world – cannot be grasped.

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