Scriptural Antinomies – Va-ethanan 5779

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) posited four antinomies or contradictions that he believed follow necessarily from attempts to conceive the nature of transcendent reality. Part of his project in his Critique of Pure Reason is to resolve them. While the Torah is not a philosophical tract, it, too, presents a number of antinomies that must be resolved. For instance, the Book of Deuteronomy (8:3) proclaims that the spiritual is just as necessary a component of human existence as is the material when it states that a person does not live on bread alone. Yet a mere six verses later the same text promises material rewards including bread that will be easily obtained upon entry into the land of Israel.


Even more perplexing are the scriptural references to the sense of sight. On the one hand, the eyes can lead one astray. Thus the Israelites are cautioned against being deceived by appearances (Number 15:39). Yet on the other hand, Moses reminds the people Israel that they should believe what their own eyes beheld when God punished the followers of Ba’al Pe’or (Deuteronomy 4:3). Visual data is, at the same time, deceptive and conclusive: a clear contradiction.


The Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 1:5) suggests a way to resolve the contradiction. It is true that one can be deceived by what one sees but only if the heart allows it. A person must interpret the visual data. When a person reflects on what the eyes sees, processes the information, and makes a prudent judgment, the likelihood of deception is diminished. It is only when visual data is unfiltered that the concern of the Torah begins. As Brandon Stanton said: “The eye doesn’t see. The brain sees. The eye just transmits. So what we see isn’t only determined by what comes through the eyes.” Unevaluated visual information is indeed deceptive. But once our minds assess what the eye sees, the deception is exposed.


The Torah explains that the mind that concludes that idolatry is foolish is the mind that confirms that the sights observed at Ba’al Pe’or were punishment for idolaters. But the mind that accepts the possibility that idolatry is valid will see the attraction in it.








Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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