Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ibn Caspi and the magic trumpets

Summary: Does Ibn Caspi have an expansive definition of the term dibra Torah kilshon benei Adam which includes falsehood in line with common  misperception? I consider one possible example.

Post: Blowing on silver trumpets will cause Hashem to remember us, and save us from our enemies. That is what the pasuk says, in Behaaloscha:

9. If you go to war in your land against an adversary that oppresses you, you shall blow a teruah with the trumpets and be remembered before the Lord your God, and thus be saved from your enemies.ט. וְכִי תָבֹאוּ מִלְחָמָה בְּאַרְצְכֶם עַל הַצַּר הַצֹּרֵר אֶתְכֶם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶם בַּחֲצֹצְרוֹת וְנִזְכַּרְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּם מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶם:

This seems strange on two counts. Firstly, why specifically trumpets as a mechanism for Divine salvation. But secondly, does God need a reminder? Would Hashem really forget, that He needs this prompting?

The answer, to my mind, is perhaps. What do we really know of theology outside of what the Torah tells us, and what Chazal tell us? Even if it does not work with our conception of an Almighty God, perhaps Hashem is limited or limits Himself in this way. Or perhaps He will let derech hateva operate in its way unless we invoke this calling card He explicitly gives us, which focuses His Divine attention. Perhaps this is an established form of national tefillah; sine Hashem says He will respond to this, our doing it is a form of beseeching. Or perhaps it is a means of arguing our case in the Heavenly court, like invoking zechus avos, or the kohen wearing or not wearing specific begadim.

So it is not absurd on its face, and we could understand is most literally (as a reminder to Hashem who would otherwise forget), or less literally (in the other ways mentioned in the last paragraph).

Ibn Ezra is bothered by it, though. He writes:

[י, ט]
ונזכרתם -
כי עשיתם מה שצוה לכם השם הנכבד, גם התרועה זכר לנפשות לצעוק לשם.

I admit I am not certain how to translate the word כי in Ibn Ezra's words. Ki could mean "when" or "because". I would lean towards "because". It is a remembrance not in and of itself, because chas veShalom Hashem would need a reminder, but rather this is doing what Hashem commanded them, and so that is to their merit; or that Hashem set this up as a mechanism of invoking His aid, and so we do it.

Also, the terua of these silver trumpets are a reminder to the souls -- that is, the Israelites in dire straights -- to cry out to Hashem.

In this second explanation -- which perhaps works alongside the first -- it is not the magic of the trumpets, but rather their psychological and emotional effect on the Israelites, who will then turn to Hashem in prayer, and then Hashem will respond. (I would add: perhaps we can then read this as that they would blow the trumpets, and then -- unmentioned explicitly -- the Israelites would pray as a consequence; and then, they will be remembered, because of their tefillot. Maybe this is what Ibn Ezra is suggesting.)

Ibn Caspi also addresses this troublesome pasuk, and labels it yet another instance of dibra Torah kilshon benei Adam.

He writes:

ש(ט) ונזכרתם לפני י״י אלהיכם . גם זה דברה כלשון ב״א,
ודעינן כי במעשה הזה יעורו לבותינו ונשובה אל השם :

"and be remembered before the Lord your God: This as well is the Torah speaking in the language of mankind. And we know that with this act {of blowing the trumpets} our hearts will be awakened and we will return to Hashem."

My understanding of this is that Ibn Caspi is also bothered with the idea of Divine forgetfulness. This can arguably be two separate statements, with dibra Torah... as one explanation and veda'inan as an entirely separate explanation. Just like by Ibn Ezra.

But I get the sense that it is, rather, a single comment. This is dibra Torah. How so? Because we know that  the way it works is by its emotional impact on the Israelites, whose hearts will be awakened and who will return to Hashem.

How in the world is this dibra Torah kilshon benei Adam, though?! What sort of idiom is this?

To answer, I will point to the discussion over at Rationalist Judaism (see here and here and the earliest, here), about Ibn Caspi's unique definition of dibra Torah kilshon benei Adam. Basically, the assertion, developed from various evidence, is that Ibn Caspi defines this term expansively as that the Torah will say something that is false, because it is in line with the contemporary Israelite beliefs. Thus, to cite from the earliest post, which cites from Isadore Twersky's article on Ibn Caspi:

Kaspi frequently operates with the following exegetical premise: not every Scriptural statement is rue in the absolute sense. A statement may be purposely erroneous, reflecting an erroneous view of the masses. We are not dealing merely with an unsophisticated or unrationalized view, but an intentionally, patently false view espoused by the masses and enshrined in Scripture. The view or statement need not be allegorized, merely recognized for what it is. Where did such a radical hermeneutic originate? How could Kaspi validate such an unusual methodological construct?...
Now, Kaspi rather boldly takes a third step and more or less systematically extends the parameters of this philological principle to include issues and problems totally unrelated to anthropomorphism. In so doing, he converts it from a pedagogic principle which provides a license for allegorical interpretation to an hermeneutical principle which provides a lesson in what we would call historicism. Many scriptural statements, covered by this plastic rubric, are seen as errors, superstitions, popular conceptions, local mores, folk beliefs, and customs (minhag bene ‘adam), statements which reflect the assumptions or projections or behavioral patterns of the people involved rather than an abstract truth. In its Kaspian adaptation, the rabbinic dictum may then be paraphrased as follows: “The Torah expressed things as they were believed or perceived or practiced by the multitude and not as they were in actuality.” 
This explanation, local to Behaaloscha, appears to be such an instance. It is not that the Torah is saying an untruth, by claiming that Hashem will come to our aid when in fact He will not. Of course Hashem will come to our aid. However, the mechanism mentioned in the pasuk is one of Divine remembrance, with the implication that otherwise Hashem won't recall this. And that aspect works in line with false beliefs of the time, as to the limitations and practices of God. But that was a limitation of the time. In fact, Hashem does not have this limitation. There still is need for the trumpets, but that is to turn the hearts of the Israelites, and via their changed attitude and practice, they will merit Divine assistance and salvation.

When Ibn Caspi, a Rishon, actually holds this was being debated there. But I believe that this is one choice quote from Ibn Caspi that does strongly suggest that he maintains this. (Of course this is just one bit of evidence, and the theory or fact does not live or die on this alone.)

Why should we care that Ibn Caspi holds this? What do the rationalists get from this? What do the anti-rationalists get from opposing this? Well, there is a neat explanation of several difficult passages in Torah, which seem to, or are in fact counter to reality. Namely, that while Hashem of course knows the truth, the Torah was geared towards an ancient Israelite audience, and will not correct misperceptions and will instead work with them. (For example, the hare does not really chew its cud, but the Torah will write that it does and work with this idea, because that was the contemporary widespread (scientific belief).) Some would reject this as an inappropriate modern innovative approach. If a Rishon, such as Ibn Caspi, propounds this, then the rationalists are standing on firmer ground. But then, to my mind, something could be true even if Chazal or the Rishonim never said it, or had cause to say it.

No comments:


Blog Widget by LinkWithin