Paradigm Shifts in Jewish thought
Paradigm Shifts in Jewish thought: It is not in heaven: The radical revolution of Rabbi Yehoshua
This class begins with the dispute between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer, which culminates in Rabbi Yehoshua’s famous statement, “It is not in Heaven.” From this time forth, prophets, dreamers and visionaries had no more say in the halakhic decision making process than the sages. Halakha was decided by the majority, not by the Divine. This is codified by Maimonides.
Yet, it contradicts a fundamental principle that the halakha is like Beit Hillel, because that statement was uttered by a Divine Voice.
We will also look at several examples of halakha that did come from Heaven, including the Ra’avad, Beit Yosef and Responsa from Heaven.
Paradigm Shifts in Jewish thought: The Divine body: Changing views on Anthropomorphism
There are hundreds of verses throughout the Bible that imply a Divine body.
This simple interpretation gradually shifted to become metaphoric.
Many commentaries, including Philo, Onkelos and Rav Sa’adia Gaon interpret those verses metaphorically.
Rambam (Maimonides) goes further and states that anyone who believes G-d has a body is a heretic.
Ra’avad, Ramban and Ohr Zarua defend those who believe G-d has a body, claiming that although the belief is mistaken, it is not heretical.
However, there certainly were rabbis, particularly in medieval France, who believed it was heretical to deny that G-d could have a body. The most explicit proponent of this view was Rav Moshe Taku, though it is implicit in several of Rashi’s commentaries.
As we all know, Rambam won. All Jews believe in the incorporeality of G-d.
However, a parallel paradigm shift began in the 13th century, where kabbalists used terminology of a Divine Body to explain their spiritual ideas. These physical descriptions of G-d are also part of modern Judaism, from Uncle Moishe to Anim Zemirot.
Paradigm Shifts in Jewish thought: Aggada: Are the stories of the rabbis literally true?
The Talmud differentiates between “halakha” (law) and “aggada” (legend, story, history, parable). It is clear that halakha is binding. But it is not so clear how we are supposed to understand aggada.
In this class we will look at the differing views among the rabbis of the Talmud themselves as to whether or not aggada must be understood literally.
We will see the opinions of the Geonim and of the Rishonim. Some seem to consider aggada to be only meaningful if it makes sense. Others say it contains deep spiritual truths. Others hold that it must (almost always) be understood literally.
Paradigm Shifts in Jewish thought: Immutability of the Torah: Rambam’s Eighth Principle
Many siddurim list the Rambam’s Eighth Principle as a belief that the Torah we have today is the same as the one that Moses received at Sinai.
In this class we will see that not only is that definitely not the case, but Rambam himself didn’t even believe it to be true. Nor did he say it was one of the 13 Principles.
We will end with an explanation of what the Eighth Principle does require of us, and the extremes to which that may lead.
Paradigm Shifts in Jewish thought: To the Four Corners of the Earth: The shape of the universe
In this class we look at the views of the rabbis as to whether the earth is square, round or spherical. Then we look briefly at the dispute between the rabbis of the Talmud and the Greek sages as to the movement of the sun at night. And then how that gradually shifted as modern science demonstrated the nature of the earth, solar system and universe. Yet we still have several halakhot based on the ancient view of the universe.
Rabbi David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and six children. He was born and raised in New Zealand before making Aliya in 1992. He left Israel temporarily (for eight years) to serve as a communal Rabbi in Scotland and England and returned to Israel in 2004. He has translated Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary on Pirkei Avos and is the co-author of Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement Through Counting the Omer (both Judaica Press). Over the years Rabbi Sedley has worked as a journalist, a translator, a video director and in online reputation management. He also writes a weekly Torah blog on the Times of Israel.