Torah and the Tzaddikim


Torah and the Tzaddikim


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Torah and the Tzaddikim

by Yechezkel Gold

"The reason the nation of Israel believed in Moses, our Rabbi, was not because of the miracles he performed. For he who believes in miracles still has doubt in his heart, for the miracle may be performed through a charm or sorcery. Rather, all the wonders that Moses performed in the desert were performed according to need, not to provide evidence for prophecy. He needed to drown the Egyptians so he split the sea and submerged them in it. We needed nourishment so he brought down the manna. They were thirsty so he split the boulder. Korach's group denied his authority so the land swallowed them up. The same applies to all of the miracles. So how did they come to believe in him? Through the revelation at Mount Sinai. We, and not strangers, saw with our very eyes and heard with our own ears, not vicariously, the flame and the resonances and the torches. And he (Moses) approached the billowing fog with the voice speaking to him while we were hearing: "Moses, Moses, go and tell them such and such" And so it says: "God spoke to you face-to-face." And it says: "Not with your forefathers did God establish this covenant but rather with you, (directly)."

And from where do we know that the revelation at Sinai alone is the evidence that his prophecy is true without a doubt? Because it says: "behold I am coming to you in the density of the cloud so that the nation will hear as I speak with you and also believe in you forever." From this we may infer that previously they did not have firm, everlasting faith but rather faith about which there can be doubt and second thoughts.

Those to whom he was sent are the witnesses of his prophecy that it is true and he need not make any other miracle. For they and him are like two witnesses who saw the same thing together, that each one can testify for his fellow that he is speaking truth and neither needs to bring evidence for his fellow. In the same manner, all of Israel are witnesses for our Rabbi Moses after the revelation at Mount Sinai and he need not bring them any miracles as proof. ... "for I am giving you a sign that they should know that I truly sent you from the beginning and no doubt will remain in their hearts." And this is what the text states: " And this is the sign that I sent you. When you take the people out of Egypt you will serve God on this mountain."

Thus, we do not believe in a prophet who appears after our Rabbi Moses because of a sign alone, as if to say that because he performs a miracle we will heed all that he tells us, but rather because of the commandment that Moses gave us in the Torah saying that if he performs a miracle we should heed him. ... Therefore, if some prophet should appear and perform wonders and great miracles and seek to deny Moses our Rabbi's prophecy, one does not listen to them and we know explicitly that these wonders were performed with a charm or sorcery. For Moses our Rabbi's prophesy was not based on miracles so that we could compare one miracle to another. Rather, we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears just as he did." (Maimonides, Yesodai HaTorah 8).

According to Maimonides, then, the Torah we received at Mount Sinai, transmitted from God to Moses, is the ultimate authority. This includes both the written and oral law. Subsequent religious leaders derived their authority from the Torah. Until the conclusion of the Babylonian Talmud 40 generations later, the ceremony of smicha in the land of Israel formally invested this power in each successive leader. Afterwards, this formal investiture passed out of existence and the Rabbis since that time are considered no more than agents of the earlier leaders. Their authority is somewhat diminished and the unity, or at least consensus of opinion achieved in the Talmud (cf. Maimonides, Introduction to Yad HaChazaka) was lost.

Although consensus of opinion has been lost somewhat, this by no means implies that present day Rabbis may invent their own religion. They must rely on the earlier authorities who consequently have greater stature and power. Nevertheless, there have been important innovators in Jewish religious history. This has been so even in the realm of Halacha and the revealed Torah where some important thinkers have introduced a new way of looking at the material, thereby provoking controversy. Thus, for example, the appearance of Maimonides' Yad HaChazaka aroused rather bitter opposition from Raavad. Nevertheless, Maimonides' work went on to become one of the great classics of Halachic literature. In more modern times, the glosses of Rabbi Haim Soloveitchik on Maimonides' work and, more generally, the Brisker Yeshiva approach to Talmudic learning of which he was the principal exponent aroused the Chazon Ish's criticism.

In matters which we may broadly label Jewish philosophy, too, there have been important innovators. Maimonides in his "Guide to the Perplexed", Rabbi Isaac Luria, and the Baal Shem Tov are prominent examples of this. These new approaches have tended to spark more controversy than have Halachic innovations, perhaps because they affect the entire intellectual underpinnings and mindset of the people. (It is not our purpose here to deal with the conservative and reform movements, which from the perspective of Orthodox Judaism have departed rather entirely from Halacha rather than inaugurating new Halachic and philosophic approaches.)

Maimonides' philosophical work was controversial in imbuing Jewish philosophy, formerly founded more squarely on the prophetic and mystical traditions, with a profound rationalist flavor. Rationalist Jewish philosophy did exist earlier but Maimonides' tremendous thoroughness and towering prestige and influence sparked rather more controversy than did earlier rationalist Jewish works.

While Maimonides' rationalist approach appealed to intellectuals who could logically verify something of its veracity and inner consistency, the mystical innovations of Rabbi Isaac Luria and the Baal Shem Tov attracted people with the deep experiential insights they proffered and the charismatic, holy men who developed within these systems. These exceptional individuals not only emitted an aura of sanctity; they were remarkable for their wisdom, sage counsel, and not infrequently, miraculous powers. These individuals' supernatural abilities often conferred upon them a particularly high degree of authority in the minds of the people.

Our focus here is on those individuals who, perhaps analogous to Moses, performed miracles. We wish to understand - within our own obvious limitations - from where their powers derive and contemplate how Torah and Judaism regard these manifestations of mystical forces, particularly where the religious figure's charismatic personage seems to have an appeal and prominence out of proportion to that of other religious leaders. Obviously, this appeal is closely related to people's perception of that leader's sanctity.

More broadly, we wish to understand how Judaism regards its great religious leaders. In contrast to many other religions, Judaism does not deify anybody. Moses' position within Judaism can not be compared to that of - lehavdil - that of the founders of the religions of Europe and India. We learn in the Torah that Moses erred and thus was unmistakably human, for example in the episode of smiting the boulder to bring forth water in the desert.

Nevertheless, after Moses extended his staff and the Red Sea split, and the children of Israel had crossed through the parted waters, the Torah states that "they believed in God and in Moses His servant". While belief in our religious leaders certainly applies to Moses himself to a far greater extent than any other personage in Judaism, nevertheless his successors through the generations, too, have led the people by virtue of their prestige and official or unofficial authority. We believe in our religious leaders.

In fact, our whole religion really is based on the Rabbis. True, our tradition is transmitted through families in every generation, but it is the Rabbis who preserve and interpret it. In fact, in Mishnaic times, the Torah was in danger of being lost. Rabbi Akiva was the sole sage who retained the entirety of Torah, all the myriad opinions and perspectives including those that differ from his own, and this he transmitted to his students. Our religion since then relies on what Rabbi Akiva taught.

Maimonides writes in the introduction to his Mishna Torah that we received the oral Torah simultaneously with the written one. It is the sages in each generation who teach us the oral tradition, the meaning of the written Torah. The Talmud relates that a potential convert approached Hillel the Elder saying when he would like to convert but follow only the written Torah. Hillel agreed to teach him. On the first day, Hillel instructed this man about the form, sound and name of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. On the second day, Hillel taught him different names and sounds for the same written letters. When the man remonstrated that yesterday he had learned differently, Hillel replied: You see that you are unable to decipher the written Torah with out the oral tradition!

Our religion, then, is authentically a religion of the Rabbis. Since our great Rabbis have been individuals of awesome wisdom, erudition and profound insight, it is normal that people rely on their leadership and judgment, since they themselves are essentially unable to attain the level of understanding and judgment needed to verify the truth of these great leaders' directives. We have faith, almost blind faith, in our religious leaders. The Torah's directive not to stray from the teachings of the Priests, Levites and judge either to the right or left, is interpreted in the Talmud to mean: "even if they tell you that right is left".

The Torah's enjoins us to believe the prophets' prophecies. Thus, we believe in the as yet unfulfilled prophecies in the Bible, such as in the coming of Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and the joyous marvels we will experience at the end of days.

When Elijah the prophet set out to discredit the false prophets of the idol Baal, he built an altar on Mount Carmel and sacrificed an ox there. The Talmud points out that after the First Temple was built sacrifice was forbidden any place but there. Elijah's altar would normally have been forbidden, then. However, as the sages taught, if we know someone to be a prophet of impeccable sanctity and piety, that person even may suspend one of the Torah's laws temporarily (except the one forbidding idol worship) for the purpose of sanctifying God's name.

Until someone has achieved an extraordinarily high standard of erudition (and, to a great extent, also afterwards) he is expected to follow the leadership of another Rabbi. Nor may one pick and choose among the different opinions to find a ruling that suits one. The Mishna in Avos (1, 6) directs: "Set up a single mentor for yourself." Indeed, the Talmud enjoins us to follow a consistent line in our Divine service. Thus, those who inconsistently follow the stricter rulings of both the Houses of Hillel and Shammai are called "the fool wanders in the darkness" and those who follow both Houses' lenient rulings are dubbed "evildoers".

Accordingly, our prophets and religious leaders receive their knowledge, approach and authority from the Torah, mainly as transmitted through their own teachers. However, it is we, collectively and guided by our Rabbis, who decide who is a prophet based on the individual's level of sanctity and erudition, as well as a further condition that he did indeed foretell the future successfully. In other words, deciding who is a prophet, or for that matter a fitting Rabbi and religious leader, has a vital human component. It is not that the Torah has enumerated the prophets and the Rabbis for all generations.

When someone introduces significant innovations they are carefully scrutinized by other authorities to make sure that these innovations do not depart from the letter or spirit of Torah. Because consensus no longer exists among them, controversy often ensues.

Generations of sages carefully scrutinize the work of our authoritative writers and recognized leaders. Their works must contain significant truths and Jewish authenticity to become religious classics. They must somehow achieve the difficult integration of creativity with orthodoxy. Performing miracles is not the standard for considering someone a great Rabbi. However, stories of their wonders abound. Our great leaders are truly holy men, and through them we encounter the Divine in a way we would be unable by ourselves. Performing miracles is the way to attract many people. When someone's wonders attract a great following but his ideas are not considered to be faithful to Torah, considerable disagreement may follow.

This was particularly pronounced about the leadership and approach of the Baal Shem Tov. The innovative Chassidic movement, though it attracted great Torah scholars, gained tremendous momentum despite vigorous opposition by some prominent Rabbis because of its broad popular appeal. Although by now it has been widely accepted, Chassidism's early history was marked by many more traditional Rabbis' antagonism. The relative weight of orthodoxy versus popular attraction to an innovative tzaddik came into question.

This is by no means a simple question. Studying the Torah works of our great sages is definitely the way for the individual to reveal truth. This is an unending process, because God's wisdom is infinite. Simultaneously, it is a process which brings increasing insight into and conviction about Torah's veracity. Our great religious leaders were without exception remarkable scholars.

Although Torah study is the way for the individual to come personally closer to God, Talmud tells us that serving a sage accomplishes more than study. Some writings emphasize that to really connect to the sage, one must study his works carefully. Nevertheless, seeing and serving a human being who has attained such a high level of sanctity brings still more. The Talmud relates that Rabbi Judah the Prince, compiler of the Mishna, said: "I have achieved a higher level than my contemporaries because I saw Rabbi Meir from behind. And if I had seen his face, I would have obtained much more."

The Talmud considers direct contact with Rabbis essential for authentic connection with God. Regarding the Torah verse, '... and you shall adhere to Him', Talmud explains: "is it possible to adhere to Him about whom it is written 'for the Lord your God is a consuming fire' ? Rather, cling to Torah sages and it is considered as if you adhered to God." Paralleling this, the Mishna in Avos tells us to honor our mentor as we honor heaven.

We have a very delicate balance here. On the one hand, our religion is based on Orthodox adherence to the Torah which we received on Mount Sinai. From this perspective, the Jew connects individually to God through Torah study, prayer and performing the Commandments. Indeed, the Torah warns us not to place our faith in intermediaries. Thus, Maimonides writes that idolatry began with the notion that one must honor God's agents, such as the sun and moon. If a human being set himself up as a god, as Nebuchadnezar did, we must refuse to bow down to him. Judaism mistrusts demagoguery.

On the other hand , although the Torah connects us to God, we realize that it is the Rabbis who transmit the Torah to us and, significantly, their interpretations render it comprehensible and meaningful. They are veritable authorities. In the Torah itself we find both the expression "God's Torah" and "Moses' Torah". We are meant to believe in our great religious leaders. A third component of this delicate balance is a subjective, individual attraction to particular charismatic leaders. Chassidic doctrine refers to this aspect of the balance as the "root of the individual soul" connected to a particular tzaddik. Besides the contribution of family tradition to the individual's allegiance to a particular tzaddik and group, individual preferences and sensitivities play a crucial role.

Rather than regarding this delicate balance as a counterbalance of ideas, let us attempt to integrate them. We can commence by focusing on a puzzling benediction in the weekday Amida prayer. The 11th benediction goes: "Return our judges like at first and our advisors like at the beginning and remove grief and sighing from us and reign over us You, O God alone ..." If our religious leaders are to be instruments in this process, why does the benediction described it as God reigning over us alone?

Clearly, the intent is that our religious leaders ideally should bring us to relate to God alone through their example and teachings. Through clinging to the tzaddik, his wisdom, his interpretation of Torah, his exemplary qualities and behavior, we see God's greatness in the fulfillment of His Torah and the sublime level attainable by man whom He created. Adhering to the tzaddik should inspire us and bring us to connect individually, directly and exclusively to God through our own Torah study, mitzvohs and prayer.

One of the great men of our generation expressed this idea by saying that connection to the tzaddik is not to an intermediary which separates man from God but rather connects him. We may compare this to a pair of eyeglasses whose function is not to assume a prominence in their own right but rather to bring the entirety into focus. Through connection to the Torah sages we are able to adhere to the holy consuming fire.

It is important to notice that this connection to God is not through merely charismatic leaders, but specifically through Torah sages. The Torah which these great men labored to master formed their brilliant, charismatic personalities which emanate sanctity, enthusiastic kindness, goodness and wisdom. It is more than reasonable to suppose that the miraculous deeds we associate with many of them also draw from their Torah erudition. Indeed, many of the Chassidic tzaddikim downplayed their own contribution to these wonders by finding some explicit or implicit Torah source to which to attribute these remarkable occurrences.

Thus, a story is told of concerned parents who brought their blind son to some Chassidic tzaddik and ask for his blessing that the boy be healed. The tzaddik sent the boy on some errand and as soon as he embarked upon it the child recovered. The amazed parents showered the tzaddik with profuse thanks but the tzaddik pooh-poohed their attributing special powers to him. Instead, he found the source for this occurrence in a verse. In the passage about the first day the tabernacle was built, Moses was investigating why a particular sacrifice was burned rather than eaten. When his brother Aaron explained the matter in a way Moses had not thought of, the verse states: "and Moses heard and it was good in his eyes". In his homiletic interpretation of this verse, the tzaddik found a Torah source for this miracle: just as Moses' eyes became good when he heard, so the boy's eyes became good when he listened.

Each Torah sage has his own, individual grasp of God's Torah through which he has purified and sanctified each of his traits, faculties and limbs. This is like what the Rabbis told us that each one of the Jewish souls, future as well as present, received the Torah from God at Sinai. Through his labor in Torah study, the Torah sage penetrates to that level of his being. Each tzaddik is special, living and viewing life in an ideal manner. Detailed insight into the Torah reveals what the ideal manner to live is. In fact, we are all capable of elucidating and connecting with our ideal selves. It is the "image of God" in which man was created. If we explore this ideal profoundly and personally through immersion in Torah, this ideal becomes the basis for our lives, transforming our very being. Analogously, the Torah sage presents the living ideal to our awareness, inspiring us and thereby becoming the basis for our ideals and behavior. Thus, the verse states: "and the tzaddik is the foundation of the world". (Proverbs 10, 25)

From what the Talmud tells us that to adhere to God we must cling to Torah sages, we infer that those Torah sages to whom we can adhere in turn attached to other Torah sages and through the Torah adhere to God. This means that the tzaddik is somehow different, more connected than the rest of us. We should not think that this somehow excludes us ordinary Jews from the Torah system and adhering to God, though. The Torah sage himself is more aware that all power comes from God through Torah than we are. This brings him to great humility. He views himself as a mere vehicle for revealing God's will. Moses himself was the humblest of all men. Moreover, the sage is most anxious for all of us to connect with God through Torah study and performing the mitzvohs.

The archetype of the tzaddik in the Torah was Joseph, a son of our forefather Jacob. Joseph was Jacob's favorite and seemed marked to be his successor, as Jacob, chosen by God rather than his brother Esau, had been his father Isaac's successor. Isaac, in turn, had been chosen by God over his brother Yishmael and succeeded his father, Abraham. Joseph's brothers, unlike Jacob's and Isaac's brothers, were righteous and anxious to be included in the family and ensuing nation who would undertake to fulfil the mission God originally gave to Abraham. They were very jealous of Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt. Joseph became viceroy of Egypt and later had his brothers in his full power. His brothers did not know that the viceroy was Joseph. He could have eliminated his brothers, thereby guaranteeing his sole succession to his father's position as head of this great spiritual movement. Joseph again had this prerogative after Jacobs' death.

In both cases, Joseph chose to include his brothers. Unlike the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, each of whom had been a solitary figure working for God, Joseph chose to be a leader of a people all joined together for this holy work. As the sage and tzaddik among them, Joseph's role was to inspire and teach them. But he saw their communal work as more important than what he could accomplish individually. Indeed, the mystical sources commonly refer to him as Joseph the Tzaddik.


from the June 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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