David Lemler

David Lemler studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure (Paris).
He is at present a doctoral studient at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Paris). His work is dedicated to the question of the Creation of the World in Medieval Jewish philosophy, in a conceptual and exegitical perspective. He is in charge of a teaching on Medieval Jewish philosophy at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and wrote several articles on this field.

“A great matter, the description of the Chariot ; a small matter, the disputes of Abbaye and Rava.” Norms, Narrations and the Toraic Concept of Truth.

A long tradition within Jewish philosophy has seen the distinction between two modes of divine communication to man, law and narrative or non-juridic teachings, as hierarchically or teleologically ordained. In the medieval philosophical Jewish tradition, there is a general leaning towards seeing the juridical aspects of the Torah as subjugated to “the secrets of the Torah”, given in the form of narratives, which are to be deciphered by the philosopher/interpreter. In that respect, Ma’aseh Bere’shit, the account of Creation, and Ma’aseh Merkavah, the description of the divine Chariot, or more literally the “deeds” of Creation and the “deeds” of the divine Chariot, have played a special role. They are held to represent the summum of possible human knowledge, the ultimate objects of human speculative activities. Maimonides famously identified them respectively with Aristotle’s physics and metaphysics. His Guide for the perplexed is meant at accessing an understaanding of these fields. It is filled with hints at the subordinate stand of the halakhic under the theoretic, i.e. the speculative elucidation of the prophets’ and ‘Hazal’s narratives. Mitzwot appear to be only a way towards, a preparation to speculation. One of the object of this presentation is to offer an alternative to this standard classical interpretation of the Guide, arguing that the practical aspect of Torah remains essential in the access and the existence of the Guide’s perfect sage. Nevertheless, on the basis of the Guide the depreciation of the halakhic was amplified in the Averroist trend among post-Maimonidean philosophers. This was one of the major critics addressed to Jewish philosophers by their opponents: depreciating a central, if not the central instance of the Torah, that of divine law.

The philosophers can, nevertheless, be credited to have found a basis of their hierarchic classification of the halakhic and non-halakhic parts of the Torah, in traditional sources. The very category of “secrets of the Torah” is already thematized in the Talmud, as designating fundamental contents of the revelation, that have to be transmitted esoterically. We find moreover, in TB Sukkah, 28a, the depiction of Ma’aseh Merkava, as “a great thing”, whereas the “disputes of Abbaye and Rava” are said to be “a small thing”. This contradicts the idea, popular among orthodox Jews, that the observance of the law is what counts. Indeed, the “disputes of Abbaye and Rava” seems to designates the technical discussions opposing the amoraim on the details of the practical application of Mitzwot. Here the dimensions of a sukkah; the identity of the species within the lulab; the effective nature of forbidden works on shabbat; all of them central matters of the Talmud, are said to be unimportant as compared to Ma’aseh Merkava. Given that the phrase “disputes of Abbaye and Rava” seems to be a metonymy of the halakhah as a whole, “Ma’aseh Merkava” could be seen as a metonymy of the non-halakhic, the tanakhic narratives and the rabbinic aggadot. Aggada would thus appear to be what matters, while halakhah could be seen as dispensatory.

Of course, this interpretation is far from being self evident. The very distinction between halakha and aggada has to be questioned, because these two categories of discourse are so obviously intertwined within the Torah. The ‘Humash merges together narrative and legal teachings. The aggadic passages intervene constantly in the course of halakhic discussions in the Babli and far more so in the Yerushami Talmud, while the Masters of halakha are the very same as those of aggada. We can take one step further in arguing that the two types of teachings are not only compiled together, but are in fact reciprocally inclusive. Legal parts of the ‘Humash as well as halakhic rabbinic teachings are always narrated, located in time and space and introduced by formulas such as “And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying…” or “Rav said…”. It has reciprocally been held that the adhesion to Torah, thus understood as a narrative block, is founded on a halakhic obligation. The Ran (Nissim Gerondi) thus famously argued that the obligation to believe that God created the world stems from nothing more than the general obligation to believe that every part of the Torah (starting from the account of creation) was revealed.

The distinction between “a great thing” and “a small thing” still has to be understood on that basis.

This is what will be at stake in this presentation. It might be argued that the phrase “a great thing” as opposed to “a small thing” is an elaboration on the discourse of Yetro to Moses:

וְהָיָה כָּל-הַדָּבָר הַגָּדֹל יָבִיאוּ אֵלֶיךָ, וְכָל-הַדָּבָר הַקָּטֹן יִשְׁפְּטוּ-הֵם,

“every great thing, they’ll bring to you, and every small thing [the appointees] will judge themselves” (Shemot 18, 22).

On the eve of revelation, Yetro advises to Moses to establish a distinction between the great and the small, hear the summum of speculative human knowledge, or truth, and the ruling of everyday life, or law. Otherwise, he and the people would be doomed to “wither”. But this distinction doesn’t mean that the two categories are to be understood as mutually exclusive. On the contrary, great and small are relative notions. Great can only appear within the small. It is a point of exception to it, that in return illuminates the small revealing its full significance. They thus are to be given together: Moses is both the depositary of the great and the giver of the small. This is what matan Torah is about: providing existence and consistency to the great things by their implementation through small things. This distinction had to be inaugurated by Yetro, the fresh convert, the instance of reason, as an hint at the fundamentally rational aim of Torah. That the revelation of truth has to assume the form of a Torah (law and teaching) means that truth is only attested if it has existential implications: that’s why it has to be both narrative and normative.

The presentation will consist in a study of Biblical, rabbinic and philosophic materials.