Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Man Passage

The Meshekh Chokhmah (Ex. 12:21) has a long excursus in his commentary to last week's Torah reading in which he shows his rational, philosophical worldview. The Jewish people are praised for their devoted faith, that they are "ma'aminim benei ma'aminim - believers the children of believers". But, asks the Meshekh Chokhmah, why is this a specifically Jewish trait? Don't Gentiles also cling to their ancestral religions (cf. Jer. 2:11; Ta'anis 5b)?

He answers that there are two distinct realms, that of intellect and that of feelings. Jewish beliefs are based on the intellect. Even when people cannot reach the high levels of scholarship needed to attain this knowledge they still believe in the religion of intellect that they received from their ancestors. Other religions, however, are based on feelings and glorifying the physical. They believe in feelings while we believe in intellect. We still utilize our feelings, but in interpersonal commandments that were given to us to ensure that our feelings are kept out of the realm of beliefs.

Click here to read moreThis complete distinction between intellect and feelings is certainly a modern (as opposed to post-modern) view. As Prof. Yishayahu Leibowitz said about this Meshekh Chokhmah (Seven Years of Discourses on the Weekly Torah Reading, p. 268), the remarkable thing about it is that it is sufficiently philosophically profound that we are able to find problematic aspects of it. (He proceeds to list the three Torah giants of the early to mid twentieth century whom he considered to be deep thinkers [hogei dei'os] -- R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook and R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik.)

I find telling the contrast between this approach of the Meshekh Chokhmah and that implicit in all the e-mails I've received stating that reciting the passage of the man today is a segulah (omen) for making a living (link). Aside from it having no traditional source, this is not the attitude towards God and the Torah that I see in the Meshekh Chokhmah. There is no rational value in reciting the passage, not even the value of following the King of kings' command because this has not been commanded. Maybe it will strengthen people's faith in God, like reciting Ashrei every day, but the once-a-year-on-a-special-day element to this practice is hard to square with that fundamental value. Reciting it every day or once a week seems much more appropriate.

From where I'm sitting, this practice seems to lower the important of heartfelt prayer by implying that God answers people who follow certain almost magical formulas rather than pouring out their heart in prayer and following the commands that God has set before them. What is there to lose by saying the passage? Your bearing and your belief system.

I am perfectly willing to say "eilu va-eilu" and leave this segulah as a different approach to Judaism. But I highly doubt that the Meshekh Chokhmah would approve of this segulah.

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