The significance of contradictions in the Hebrew Bible and Talmudic literature

There are many contradictions within the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), the Hebrew Bible and the Talmudic literature. In the continuation, I will give only one example of contradiction – of what in my mind is the most fundamental contradiction in the Hebrew Bible and Talmudic tradition. My focus here is not upon delineating contradictions but rather upon the significance of contradictions, and what contradictions within the Torah, Hebrew Bible and Talmudic literature reveal about the ancient Jewish tradition based upon the Hebrew Bible and Talmudic tradition – especially in distinction to Christianity.

Before explaining the significance of contradictions in the Torah, Bible and Talmudic literature, I want to give some background about traditional Judaism (based upon the Bible and Talmudic literature) as a religion.

Traditional Judaism is a religion in a very different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in an orthodox (correct belief) and theological sense of a faith commitment not just in God but in Jesus as the messiah – and, in principle, there can be no such thing as a secular non-believing Christian (who does not believe in Jesus as the messiah). By contrast, Judaism is a religion in an orthoprax (correct deeds) and pragmatic sense of a way of life of the Jewish people – and a way of life is a culture. There are Jews who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular.

What defines one as a Jew is not a faith commitment or a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice but (according to traditional Jewish law) being born of a Jewish mother or having converted. What unites Jews is not a faith commitment or a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice but belonging to a people with a shared history, common language of the Jewish people (Hebrew), a national homeland (Israel) and a shared culture and heritage. Judaism as a way of life and culture does not necessarily presuppose belief in the existence of God.

This difference between traditional Judaism and Christianity regarding the nature of religion is also reflected in the meaning of the term faith (or belief). Christianity emerged as a religion in the Hellenistic period with the spread of the ancient Greek culture, in which systematic philosophy originated, throughout the near eastern world. As an influence of the ancient Greek culture faith (belief) already in early Christianity was conceived in a philosophic and theological sense – faith (belief) that God exists and faith (belief) that Jesus is the messiah.

By contrast, although the beginnings of the Talmudic tradition were in the Hellenistic period, the Talmudic rabbis faithful to the Hebrew Bible did not incorporate systematic philosophy and systematic theology into Judaism. The Biblical literature is completely absent of systematic philosophy – there is no demand in the Hebrew Bible to believe that God exists or to believe in the truth of any philosophic proposition, and there is no philosophic analysis or argument in the Bible. The Biblical authors living prior to the Hellenistic period (and the spread of the Greek culture throughout the near east) were completely unfamiliar with the ancient Greek culture and unfamiliar with systematic philosophy.

The Talmudic rabbis in the early Talmudic period were living in a Hellenistic culture and were then familiar with ancient Greek culture – however, the Talmudic rabbis did not incorporate systematic philosophy into Judaism. The incorporation of systematic philosophy within the Jewish tradition began with Rabbi Sa’adya Gaon several hundred years after the Talmudic period.

There are, though, three fundamental and very significant things that were borrowed by the Talmudic rabbis from the Greek culture. First, the Talmudic rabbis incorporated democratic principles (the will of the majority of rabbis in order to resolve legal debates) and values (of pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance). Second, they incorporated principles of logic by which Scripture was interpreted midrashically (midrash was a method of interpretation in which Biblical texts were elaborated upon beyond their plain, simple meaning). Third, they incorporated the Socratic method of argument and debate as the method of study in yeshivot (rabbinical academies).

There is a Talmudic debate as to which is greater study (and, in the Talmudic tradition study is rigorous intellectual study based upon logic and reason) and deeds – and, the rabbis in the source interpret the opinion of Rabbi Akiva that study is greater as meaning that study is greater only in the paradoxical sense of a means to the greater goal of good deeds. In my view, the rabbis are very faithful to Rabbi Akiva’s intent, as Rabbi Akiva holds that the essence of Judaism is the Biblical verse “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19, 18) – and, notice that in Rabbi Akiva’s anti-theological conception of the essence of Judaism as moral decency he even omits God from his formulation in not quoting the continuation of the verse “I am the Lord”.

These three things (democratic principles and values, principles of logic, and Socratic method of debate), which were borrowed by the Talmudic rabbis from the ancient Greek culture and became an integral part of the Talmudic tradition, are all compatible with the pragmatic conception of the Talmudic rabbis in conceiving of Judaism as a way of life in which the essence of religion is not intellectual truth but good deeds (“love your neighbor as yourself”). Systematic philosophy was not incorporated into the Talmudic tradition by the Talmudic rabbis who were very faithful to the Hebrew Bible, which is absent of systematic philosophy.

If we return now to the concept of faith (belief), the Talmudic rabbis faithful to the Hebrew Bible did not adopt a philosophic and theological conception of faith (belief) – as was adopted as influence of the ancient Greek culture by early Christianity. The Biblical and Hebrew term emunah, which is inadequately translated as faith or belief comes from the same root as the Hebrew term art – and, the Biblical term emunah is a matter of the heart (like art), and not a matter of the rational mind (like science or philosophy). The Biblical term emunah does not appear one time in the Bible in the form of an explicit command to believe that God exists – nor is there any explicit command to believe any other theological or philosophic proposition, nor any philosophic argument attempting to prove the existence of God or any other theological or philosophic proposition. The term emunah is not used in the command form. The term emunah throughout the Hebrew Bible is used in a psychological sense of loyalty or devotion to God that expresses itself in proper behavior (or in an optimistic attitude of hope, thankfulness and appreciation). The Biblical concept of emunah (faith or belief) is a psychological (and not theological) concept of the heart.

The implications here are enormous concerning the essence of religion. Faith conceived in an orthodox and theological sense such as belief that God exists is abstract and divorced from behavior. One can believe that God exists and yet live a completely immoral life; conversely, one can be a moral atheist denying the existence of God and yet live a moral life. By contrast, Biblical faith (as reflected in the meaning of the term emunah) is orthoprax and pragmatic in nature necessarily expressing itself in moral behavior. One who truly believes in God in the Biblical conception, which is a matter of the heart (loyalty and devotion to God who in the Biblical conception demands morality), will necessarily live a moral life. Moral character and behavior in the Biblical conception is testimony demonstrating loyalty and devotion to God in the heart (constituting emunah, faith) even though such a moral person may deny the existence of God theologically; conversely, immoral behavior is testimony demonstrating a lack of loyalty and devotion to God in the heart (a lack of emunah, faith) even though such an immoral person may declare that he or she believes in God. Biblical faith (emunah) of the heart is revealed not in philosophic declarations but in behavior.

With this background, we can now address the issue of contradictions in the Torah, Bible and Talmudic literature. I will give as an example of contradiction what in my mind is perhaps the most fundamental contradiction of the Hebrew Bible and Talmudic tradition – the contradictory conceptions reflected in the two main Biblical terms for God, YHVH (the great unpronounceable name of God) and Elohim.

The distinction between the two terms YHVH (usually translated as the Lord) and Elohim (usually translated as God) is a fundamental distinction of the Bible and a key to understanding the Bible and Jewish tradition. The differing terms are reflected in the two opening accounts of creation in the Torah. In the opening account of the creation of the entire universe (Genesis 1, 1 – 2, 3), Elohim is depicted as the transcendent God of power who has created the universe, as reflected in the opening verse of the story (Genesis 1, 1) – “In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth”.In the following account of the creation of the primordial human being (Adam) and the eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2, 4 – 3, 24) YHVH is depicted as a source of morality, in which the terms for God are joined YHVH Elohim, as reflected in the opening verse of the second story (Genesis 2, 4) – “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day the Lord God (YHVH Elohim) made the earth and the heavens”.

The term YHVH represents the very name of God. The essence of the name YHVH is that YHVH demands morality, as expressed in Psalm 23 – “the Lord (YHVH) is my shepherd…He restores my soul, He leads me in paths of righteousness for the sake of His name” (Psalm 23, 1-3). This is the essence of the revelation to Moses at the burning bush (that YHVH demands morality) where God first reveals God’s nature as a God of history and redemption as opposed to a power of nature – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (Yahweh) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-18). YHVH, in the verse here, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution. The primary characteristic, above all else, which represents the essential nature of YHVH as a God, is that YHVH demands morality (in distinction to Elohim who is primarily a God of power).

Thus, Elohim is conceived as the transcendent and universal God of nature and power who has created the entire universe. The term Elohim is associated with judgment or law), and the Hebrew term is sometimes understood as justice – but, it is better translated as judgment or law as it is a function of God’s power (implied in the terms judgment and law) rather than God’s morality (implied in the term justice). The image of Elohim, as Creator and Ruler of the world, is that of a judge who issues judgments. A judge in issuing judgments establishes justice. But, justice is imposed by the judge as a function of his or her power and authority. One may disagree with a ruling of a judge, and consider it to be immoral. The verdict, though, must be accepted (in respecting the power and authority of the judge), unless there is an option of appeal to a higher judicial authority. In the case of God, no such option exists. The term judgment, as characteristic of Elohim, the God of power should be understood in a legal rather than moral sense, as a function of God’s power and authority.

By contrast, YHVH is conceived as the God who acts in the world (within history) as a God of revelation and redemption (redeeming the people Israel from slavery and giving them commandments on Sinai to guide them), and most importantly demands morality. The name YHVH is associated with compassion and love, and the image of YHVH is that of a parent whose compassion and love for his or her child is unconditional. A judge may be willing to be lenient and understanding in imposing a sentence in a trial. However, such leniency and compassion is conditional, depending upon circumstances of the case, and signs of remorse and change on the part of the accused. A parent’s love for his or her child is unconditional, regardless of the behavior of the child. Incidentally, the Hebrew word for compassion contains within it the word womb. The image of YHVH is that of a parent who loves his or her children unconditionally like the mother’s love for the child of her own womb. YHVH, the parent, redeems God’s children, the people Israel, from slavery not because they are deserving of such redemption (as according to the Jewish tradition our ancestors, the children of Israel, were idolaters), but due to God’s unconditional love and compassion for God’s children.

We are obviously not dealing in the Hebrew Bible with two separate and distinct gods. One of the most important phrases that occurs throughout the Hebrew Bible is that “YHVH is God (Elohim)”. The idea expressed here, which is also expressed in the second story of creation (Genesis 2, 4) in the joining of the terms for God, YHVH Elohim (the Lord God), is that the true God (Elohim) who has created (and has dominion over) nature and the entire universe is a moral God (YHVH), who demands morality. This is an experiential and orthoprax (correct deeds) expression of moral commitment to live a moral way of life that God (YHVH demands, rather than a philosophic and orthodox (correct belief) affirmation; and, comes in response to an experiential question as to who is truly God in the Biblical world, and deserving of loyalty and worship among the many gods demanding loyalty and worship. The worship of other gods, of forces of nature in the ancient pagan cultures expressed itself in the form of fertility cults. The question of who is to be served and worshipped – YHVH, the God of Israel, or Ba’al, the Canaanite god – is a moral and experiential (rather than an abstract philosophic) question expressing itself in the choosing of a certain way of life. That is, the question of who is to be worshipped, YHVH or Ba’al, is ultimately a pragmatic question of whether one will live a life of morality in accordance with the moral demands of YHVH, or a life of crass materialism, sensuality and sexual orgy as part of a fertility cult of Ba’al.

The conceptions reflected in these two Biblical terms for God, YHVH and Elohim, are contradictory. Elohim is a transcendent God outside of creation, YHVH is God of revelation and redemption who is revealed within history as a God of redemption and morality. Elohim is a God of judgment and YHVH a God of compassion.

The obvious question here is – how can one God be characterized by contradictory aspects? Either God is characterized by judgment or compassion, transcendence or immanence. This seeming paradox as to how contradictory aspects can each represent complementary aspects of one God is a product of a certain way of thinking.

The outlook reflected in seeing a paradox here is what is called a western mentality – a highly rationalistic and analytical outlook that is an influence of the ancient Greek culture in which systematic philosophy originated. In western thinking there is a tendency to see a contradiction (either this or that) regarding two contrasting things (either front or back). This does not mean that everyone in the western world has such an outlook but that such a mentality is characteristic of western cultures that are based upon systematic philosophy, science and technology.

By contrast, an eastern mentality, which is characteristic of eastern cultures, is not rationalistic and analytical (based upon analysis and fragmentation), but is intuitive and integrative (based upon synthesis and integration). In eastern thinking there is a tendency to see a reciprocal relationship (no this without that) regarding two contrasting things in spite of the contradictions between them (as front and back are complementary and inseparable aspects of an object, and there can be no front without the back and no back without the front).

The Hebrew Bible being entirely absent of systematic philosophy reflects in a consistent way an eastern mentality. The contradictory and complementary aspects of one God implied in the different terms for God reflect such an eastern mentality. There are also many Talmudic sources, which reflect an eastern mentality faithful to the Bible, and see the contradictory aspects of the differing conceptions implied in the terms for God as complementary, and as constituting reciprocal relations. Rashi (the great commentator of the 11th century), following Talmudic midrash (commentary), comments on the opening verse of the Torah, regarding the different terms for God in the two stories of creation (Genesis 1, 1):

It does not state “The Lord (YHVH) created” because at first God intended to create it (the world) according to the attribute of strict judgment, and thus it is written “God (Elohim) created” (Genesis 1, 1); but, He realized that the world could not survive. Therefore, He gave precedence to the attribute of compassion and joined it to the attribute of judgment, and this is what is written, “In the day the Lord God made the earth and heavens” (Genesis 2, 4).

According to Rashi here, God intended to create the world on the basis of strict judgment alone – as the term God (Elohim) alone appears in the opening verse of the story of the creation (and throughout the story), “In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1, 1). But, God realized that the world could not thus survive. We can understand that if the world operated according to strict judgment, with no love and compassion, the world would be too harsh to survive. Implied in Rashi’s comment, is that the converse is also unacceptable – were God to have created the world on the basis of compassion alone, without judgment, then there would be anarchy, and the world likewise could not survive. Therefore, God joined the attribute of compassion to that of judgment, and gave precedence to the attribute of compassion, in the joining of the terms for God in the opening verse of the story of Adam and Eve (and throughout the story) – “the Lord (YHVH) God (Elohim) made the earth and heavens” (Genesis 2, 4)

I want to point out two things here. First, this source constitutes a further piece of evidence, among the many that could be brought, which refutes the Christian polemic that portrays Judaism as a religion of justice and law (judgment), in distinction to Christianity, the religion of love and compassion. Such a polemic is simply a misconception with regard to both the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition. Judgment and compassion are the two pillar values of the Bible and the Jewish tradition, based upon the differing conceptions implied in the two terms for God, Elohim and YHVH. Reflected in Rashi’s comment is the view, which is characteristic of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, that compassion is the highest value above that of judgment, and preceding judgment in importance. Second, the eastern outlook reflected in this source is apparent. Rather than emphasizing the contradiction between the attributes of judgment and compassion (if there is strict judgment there is no compassion, and if there is compassion, there can be no strict judgment), the reciprocal relationship between them is emphasized (there can be no true judgment without compassion, and no true compassion without judgment).

I am the author of the internet site Orthoprax Judaism (http://www.orthopraxjudaism.com/) and the author of a book Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham on the nature of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical theology, Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham. There is information on the book on my home page of my internet site.

About the Author
Jeffrey Radon is a teacher of Jewish studies and the author of the internet site - www.orthopraxjudaism.com - a site devoted to Jewish studies in a democratic spirit. He studied over 10 years in yeshivot in Israel. He has a teaching degree as a teacher of Jewish studies from Achva (brotherhood) College, a small secular teachers' college in Israel, and a master's degree in Jewish philosophy (from Bar Illan University in Israel). He also has a master's degree in educational psychology (from the Israeli branch of Northeastern University in the United States), as well as certification as a marriage counselor and mediator.
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