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Home >> Essays >> Studies by Rabbi Lopes Cardozo >> Studies >> Hearing and Seeing

Hearing and Seeing
Written by : Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Added : 14/12/2006, Viewed : 367

In memory of my dear friend

Ha-Tzadik, Michael Moshe Ha-Cohen Klein z.l.




Introduction [2]


In Pirkei Avot (3:9) we encounter a most unusual and puzzling statement by the sage Rabbi Yaakov:


“If a person is taking a walk while he is learning (Torah) and interrupts his studies and says: How beautiful is this tree, or how beautiful is this field, it is as if he is liable of a mortal sin.”


This Mishna seems to contradict a fundamental concept within Judaism. The need to be amazed by our surroundings, to be impressed by the beauty of nature, is a vital condition for genuine religious life. King David makes this most clear when he says: “The heavens declare the glory of God. The skies proclaim the work of His hands.” (Tehilim 19:2)


Jewish law requires that we make a bracha whenever we enjoy food, drink or a pleasant aroma. Indeed, there is a special bracha to be made at the sight of new fruit trees, in the month of Nissan. Expressing a sense of amazement at God’s world, a bracha is in many ways a protest against taking that world for granted.


Why is it, then, that when a person interrupts Torah study to fulfill precisely this halachic requirement - praising God for a beautiful tree or field - he or she “is liable of a mortal sin”?


Rabbi Yaakov


A second question needs to be raised: Who was Rabbi Yaakov, the author of this Mishna? After all, it is not for nothing that the sages who made important aggadic or halachic statements are mentioned by name. Each statement, such a practice seems to suggest, reflects a particular belief or experience central to the life of its author. “Hu (haya) omer” means “He constantly said”. So why was Rabbi Yaakov constantly saying that a person is liable of a mortal sin when he extols the beauty of a tree or field?


Commentators identify Rabbi Yaakov as the grandson of one of the most disturbing - yet equally fascinating - figures in Talmudic history: Elisha ben Abuyah (c. 140 CE). Notorious for his heretical views and refusal to live in accordance to halacha, Elisha became known as Acher, “the other one”, so called for his betrayal of the Jewish tradition. In many ways he is the forerunner of all later Jewish heretics, from Spinoza in 17th century Amsterdam to our very day.  Having renounced his Jewish heritage, Elisha turned to Greek culture and spent the rest of his life in a gentile environment. The question we must ask ourselves is whether this apostasy has any connection with the subsequent observation of his grandson, Rabbi Yaakov.


The Two Mountains


To complete the picture, we must address a third and final question. As is well known, there are two mountains which play a crucial role in Jewish history. One is the Temple Mount, where the Temple used to stand and where - hundreds of years earlier - Avraham very nearly sacrificed his son Yitzchak. The other mountain is Mount Sinai, where God revealed His will to the entire Jewish nation, giving them the Ten Commandments and all of the (oral) Torah.


The Halachic difference between these two mountains is extraordinary. As far as the Temple Mount is concerned, there is a long list of laws pertaining to its holiness. Many authorities believe it is altogether forbidden to cross the threshold of the mountain, even after the destruction of the Temple, because of its immense kedusha; there are even opinions which hold that one should not touch the Wailing Wall, for the same reason. These, along with several other prohibitions, distinguish the Temple Mount and fortify its position as the holiest place in Judaism.


The halachic status of Mount Sinai could not be more different. Not only do we not know where this mountain is found but, even if we did know, the site would not possess any halachic significance whatsoever. One would be permitted to ascend Mount Sinai with absolutely no prohibition. One could even conduct one’s day-to-day affairs on the very spot where, incredibly, Moses received the tablets! This is most astonishing; we would have expected that this mountain, which saw the finest hour of the Jewish people, would carry so much kedusha that any ascent to its top would be a sacrilege of unprecedented proportions. How can it be that the Temple Mount - where nothing of the magnitude of the Sinai revelation took place - is considered to be a place of immense kedusha, while this mountain plays no lasting role in the Judaism?


Torah and Homer


Two radically different thinkers have attempted to answer the abovementioned questions: Rabbi David Cohen z.l. (1887-1972), otherwise known as the “Nazir” (the beloved student of the venerable Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook), in his book Kol HaNevua;     and German literary theorist Professor Erich Auerbach (1892-1957) in Odysseus' Scar[3][1]. Both scholars posit a fundamental difference between early Greek prose and the biblical narrative, comparing the prose of Homer (by far the greatest Greek poet, author of the Iliad and Odyssey) with the Bible. In Homer's epic poems there is an emphasis on detailed descriptions, on the “delight in physical existence”, on the external beauty of human beings - their garb, weapons and surroundings. There is an excess of “fully externalized description”, with never “a form left fragmentary…. never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depth.”[4] The battles, passions and achievements of the Greek hero are described in dazzling detail; Homer leaves nothing half illuminated.


Reading the Torah, one finds a very different world. The text provides little to no information about what people looked like or how they were dressed. Events, at times, are related in fragmentary form. Indeed, it seems as if, unless warranted by a moral-religious need, externalized narrative is left out of the Torah altogether. Instead, there is an emphasis on man’s existential condition, his moral struggles, his challenging encounter with an invisible God; Homer's heroes of the battlefield are replaced in the Torah by heroes of godliness and righteousness. It is this visual obscurity which opens the biblical narrative to a myriad of diverse interpretations, allowing for the consequent development of the oral tradition (of which Auerbach does not seem to be aware.)


This textual distinction has far-reaching cultural implications. The Greek world of Homer, the forerunner of Western Civilization, is primarily a visual world. It is the world in which art, architecture, sculpture, theatre and other visual arts are deeply rooted. It is the world of artistic brilliance, of sensual splendor. How different to the world of the Torah, which is nearly entirely devoid of all graphic imagery.


Writing about the Akedat Yitzchak, Professor Auerbach claims the following:


We now turn to the other person in the dialogue, to Avraham. Where is he? We do not know. He says indeed: “Here I am” but the Hebrew words means only like “behold me” and in any case it is not meant to indicate the actual place where Avraham is, but a moral position in respect to God… Where he actually is, whether in Beer Sheva or elsewhere, whether indoors or in the open air, is not stated, it does not interest the Narrator.  And what Avraham was doing when God called him is left in the same obscurity.

To realize the difference, consider Hermes’ visit to Calypso for example, where command, journey, arrival and reception of the visitor, situation and occupation of the person visited, are set forth in many verses.

Here however God appears without bodily form, yet He appears, coming from some unspecified place, we only hear His voice… And of Avraham too nothing is made perceptible, except the words in which he answers God – Hineni. A most touching gesture expressive of obedience and readiness is suggested, but it is left to the reader to visualize it.[5]


Later Auerbach adds: “All of the stories are fraught with background.


Herein lies the essential difference between the Greek world, represented in Homer's prose, and the Hebrew world, embodied in the Torah; while seeing and visualization stand at the heart of Greek culture, it is hearing which plays a central role in the Torah. 


This division found its way into the respective languages of the Greeks and the Jews. Most western languages are rooted in the Greek tradition. Take the English language, for example. When speaking about understanding we often say insight. We use words like foresight, hindsight, observation, people of vision. All these expression, which have nothing to do with actual seeing, convey a certain mentality, a view of the world, implying the predominance of sight. The same is true of words like idea and video.


Conversely, when we examine Hebrew, we encounter a world view based on audibility. If Greek uses the idiom “I see” to signify understanding, classical Hebrew has coined the phrase “Ani Shomea”, I hear; the Talmudic expression introducing a new concept or law is “Tah Shema”, Come and hear; when one draws a conclusion, one uses the word “Mashma” or “Shema Mineh”; and when one cannot agree, one says “Lo Shemia Leh”. In fact, the entire oral tradition is referred to as “Mepi Ha-Shemuah”, from the Mouth which is heard (i.e. - the Revelation at Sinai).


To summarize: the Greek world (and, by extension, Western civilization) is a world in which matters are grasped in an external, superficial way. The Torah, in contrast, maintains that real life takes place on a hidden, more profound level - that the deeper meaning and purpose of life must be heard, not seen. This is also the difference between idol worship and monotheism. For the pagan the medium of the eye is crucial. He must see his god represented in nature. The Jew, on the other hand, perceives his God as being outside nature - above and prior to it. The Divine manifests Itself through the medium of the ear. At Sinai one hears God, one does not see Him. The pagan beholds his god, while the Jew hears his God and apprehends His will.


Elisha ben Abuyah


We may now begin to understand the earlier quoted Mishna and its deeply personal connection to Rabbi Yaakov.  When a person interrupts his Torah study to exclaim “How beautiful is this tree, or how beautiful is this field”, he does something most radical. Such a person is liable of a mortal sin because, symbolically, he abandons the world of hearing in favor of the world of sight. The whole of the Oral Torah, of which the Mishna is itself a part, is to be learnt through hearing, not through sight. Indeed, in the earlier days it was not to be seen at all (there was an explicit prohibition against writing down the oral tradition), but could only be heard from one’s teacher.


It is in this distinction between the Greek culture of sight and the Jewish tradition of hearing (represented, as we have seen, in Homer's prose and the Torah, respectively) that the story of Rabbi Yaakov’s grandfather becomes most telling. Elisha ben Abuyah replaced the world of hearing with the world of sight. He was no longer prepared to heed the words of the Torah, turning to the Greek world - the world of the eye - instead.


Having witnessed the catastrophic consequences of his grandfather's tragic choice, Rabbi Yaakov warns us against making the same mistake; in a world of the supremacy of the eye, there cannot be any real morality. There can only be an inadequate, superficial understanding of the meaning of life. 


This is not to say that Rabbi Yaakov forbids paying any sort of attention to the visual world. The Jewish tradition, no doubt, appreciates the perceptible beauty of this world - allocating, as we have seen, special blessings for different pleasant sights. However, when one is learning Torah, i.e. - involved in the act of hearing the Divine Voice, then turning to the beauty of this world becomes a liability. In Judaism, what is observed by the eye must always be subordinated to the inner ear of man. 


The Mountains


Let us return to the question of Mount Sinai and the Temple Mount. Why is Sinai divested of any kind of kedusha while the Temple Mount is considered to be the apex of holiness?


A careful reading of the Sinai narrative reveals a remarkable fact:“And all the people saw the sounds and the flames and the tone of the shofar and the mountain smoking. And the people saw and they trembled and stood from far.” (Exodus 20:15)


How extraordinary!  It was the faculty of sight which stood out at the time of the Divine Revelation! Smoke, thunder, lightening - the Sinai phenomena seems to be primarily visual. Even the tone of the shofar was seen, not heard! Hearing was only in the background, a secondary experience. And when the Divine Voice was actually heard, the frightened People of Israel turned to Moshe and said: “You speak to us and we shall hear, let God not speak to us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:16). Clearly, the Israelites were not yet capable of hearing God’s voice a-priori (the definitive form of hearing). Their lives, in many ways, were still rooted in the world of the eye and they could not fathom the experience of hearing. It is thus understandable that after the Sinai revelation they erected the golden calf. That they could at least see and touch. The statue represented a world which they could grasp and feel comfortable with.


It is for this reason that Moshe decided to break the original tablets. After the incident of the golden calf, he was obviously afraid the Israelites would come to worship the tablets themselves. Tangible and perceptible as the tablets were, the people would not listen to their message, but would treat them as an object of idol worship, merely observing their shape and beauty.


The Sinai experience, anchored in the superficial faculty of sight, could not function as a permanent source of inspiration. Unable to persist, even for a short while, within the minds of the people, it quickly waned (note the immediacy in which the people fell into sin). Hence, Mount Sinai could not become a place of lasting kedusha. As a place of sight, it lacked the internal, profound experience which only hearing can offer.      


The Temple Mount, in contrast, is a place of hearing. When God appeared to Avraham at its peak, there were no spectacular visual effects, no smoke or lightening. There was only a voice. When Avraham was asked to sacrifice his son Yitzchak, it was above all an act of hearing to which he responded. There was little to see. Avraham understood the faculty of hearing as few have ever done. He was the man who had completely broken with the world of idol worship, the world of sheer visuality. As such, he was the man to whom God could speak in terms of untainted Judaism.     


Sinai Premature?


We are now confronted with another major problem. Why Did God choose to give the Torah under less than optimal conditions? After all, it is clear that the Israelites were not yet ready to receive the Torah. Unversed as they were in the art of hearing, they were unable to reach the level of pure monotheism (since, as we have mentioned, the monotheistic God is outside of nature and cannot be seen).


No doubt this was the result of the many years of slavery in Egypt. The idolatrous Egypt was in many ways the forerunner of ancient Greece, the world of the eye. With the Israelites still under the influence of their 400-year-sojourn in Egypt, in which they had all but descended to the lowest level of spirituality, it was virtually impossible to make them reach the highest levels of kedusha within so short a period as seven weeks (from Pesach to Shavuot). It would take a much longer time before that extent holiness could be attained. Why then was the Torah given at such an early, one may even say premature, stage? Why not wait until the Israelites would be duly prepared to receive the Torah in all its glory?


Shem and Japhet


An insight made by Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the great spokesman of Judaism in the 19th century, may be of great help here. Discussing the relationship between the three children of Noach after the flood, Rabbi Hirsch quotes the blessing which Noach bestowed upon two of his three sons, Shem and Japhet: “God will open the mind of Japhet but it will dwell in the tents of Shem.” (Bereshith 9:27)


His commentary on this unusual verse reads as follows:


When we look around in historical facts, we can say: The stem of Japheth reached its fullest blossoming in Yavan, the Greeks Ever; that of Shem, the Hebrew, Israel, who bore and bear the Shem Hashem of  God, through the world of the nations.

Right to the present day, it is only these two races, the descendents of Japhet and Shem, the Greeks and the Jews, who have become the real educators and teachers of humanity. For all the spiritual treasures, which the world has required, these two have to be thanked, and everything, which, even today, works at the culture and education of mankind connects up with that which that which Japhet (the predecessor of the  Greeks)  and Shem (the predecessor of Jews) brought to the world.

The spiritual gifts of the Romans too, was only a gift of the Hellenes. Japhet has ennobled the world aesthetically. Shem has enlightened it spiritually and morally, Hellenism and Judaism have become the great active forces in the educational work on mankind, and the rest of the world has been merely the passive material on which they worked.[6]


But what is the future and the purpose of Japhet?


For Rabbi Hirsch, Japhet is the bridge between Shem, the carrier of the Hebrew tradition, and Cham. Noach’s third son, who took advantage of his father's intoxication and uncovered his naked body, represents sensuality and raw materialism. It is Japhet, the aesthetic world of the Greeks, which needs to bring about the transformation from the hedonistic world of Cham to the spiritual world of Shem.


But he (Noach) sees that this goal (of bringing the world of Cham to the one of Shem) will not be achieved at once. Between Cham and Shem there is Japhet. A Cham is not immediately responsive to the teaching of the God of Shem. Out of the raw, a cultured man has first to be made. The demand which the God of Shem makes is not a small one. A person must first acquire “the taste” of something higher than he is in his raw, even if this something higher is at first also something that appeals to the senses…. The culture of the beauty and grace of Japhet’s schooling is a precursor of the Semitic mission, a preparatory school for teaching the people the loftier concept, the still greater beauty which lies in a harmonious joining all the aspects of life under the single idea of the  devotion to God. [7]


Sinai as a Preparatory School towards “Hearing”


Herein lies the secret of Sinai. Just as there is a need for the world of Japhet before there is a realistic possibility to achieve the exalted level of Shem, so the Sinai visual experience had to precede the more profound acceptance - the "hearing" - of the Torah. The Divine Revelation had to first involve the eye. This may not have been the optimal mode of revelation, yet it was absolutely necessary. Only once the Israelites experienced the word of God through the medium of sight, through the overwhelming thunder and lightening and smoke, did it become possible to gradually hear its inner meaning. Without the help of the eye, the hearing could have never been accomplished. And, as Jewish history would subsequently show, the eye continued to play a role throughout the many upheavals of the Jewish people, although that role became increasingly subjugated. Step by step, the faculty of sight made room for the art of hearing - diminishing, yet never disappearing entirely. Only in messianic times, once the Jews will have reached the level of their ancestor Avraham, will their dependence on sight become completely abolished.


The Jews, the People of the Ear


Still, we must always remember that the Torah - ideally - should be taught by hearing, not by sight. Although the Jewish people are often referred to as "the people of the book", they are not. They are the people of the ear. They heard the Divine Word at Sinai. The original Torah was spoken, not written.  It was only later, and out of pure necessity, that it became unfortunately frozen in writing. And even then, God established a great tradition of oral interpretation - to ensure the constant "defrosting" of the written text. 


Western Civilization and the State of Israel


Modern Western Civilization is to this day engrossed by the faculty of seeing. “Seeing is believing” is still the prevalent attitude amongst most people of the West. People are still incapable of hearing. What, after all, are the main concerns of Western Civilization? The visual sciences - physics, biology, technology and economy. While we teach all these disciplines in our universities, we have yet to develop a discipline of hearing.


It is not that Judaism rejects the visual sciences. On the contrary, it has a lot to say about them. A vast portion of halachic literature is dedicated to these fields. At the same time, though, the Jewish tradition tells us that - if we want to build a better world - the art of hearing must take precedence over the visual sciences.


This lesson is particularly pertinent to the State of Israel today. Many of the state's contemporary problems are a direct result of its pervasive use of Greek concepts, its inability to practice the art of hearing. The campaign to open shopping centers on Shabbat, for example, is most worrisome. It is not so much the people's desire to buy, but their desire to see, which is motivating the campaign. This is far more than just a religious problem. It is, above all, a psychological one. Many people are not at peace with themselves; beset by unconfessed feelings of boredom and frustration, they escape their inner selves, desperately seeking diversions in the external world. They can no longer spend quality time with their families, sharing meaningful conversation with their children or spouses. Nor can they concentrate on books or any other form of intellectual stimulation. Hence the desire to open shopping centers on Shabbat. It is a reflection of the inner poverty in which a large part of Israeli society finds itself. We have created a culture of denial, of visual diversions, of hiding places in the form of cheap entertainment - all of which prevent us from acknowledging our tragic loss of the art of hearing. We no longer search for a deeper, more refined meaning of life, so necessary for our inner happiness. We strive for joy yet we settle for pleasure instead, not realizing that joy can only be found in man’s passage from a lesser to a greater form of perfection.





Seeing the Shechina


Let us now return to the sugya of Elisha ben Abuyah. The Talmud in Chagiga describes the origin of Elisha's moral corruption: a mystical voyage in which he, together with three other great sages (Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Rabbi Akiva), entered the Pardes - the esoteric world.


There were four who entered the Pardes… Before they entered Rabbi Akiva said to them: When you reach near the pure marble stones (which resemble the Divine Presence) do not say: there is water here, there is water here (do not look, for your eyes will trick you into thinking they are like pure water) but just continue. Still Ben Azzai looked and consequently died. Ben Zoma glanced and became mentally unstable. Acher (after watching) chopped down the saplings (his misperception inspired him with a perverted notion of Judaism which led him, and many others, astray). Only Rabbi Akiva (who did not look) came out in peace. (Chagiga 14b)   


Here, again, we have the tragic consequences of the misleading faculty of sight. It was the attempt to see the Divine Presence which brought about the downfall of the three sages. Only Rabbi Akiva, who did not look, came out in peace - realizing, as his friends did not, that the eye can grasp no more than a deceptive appearance, an external shell which has nothing to do with the true essence of things. God’s shechina, Rabbi Akiva understood, cannot be observed, it can only be listened to. In this sense, it is extremely telling that Elisha, whose ruin was instigated by his desire to see, eventually became part of the Greek world, the world of the eye.


Halacha and Aggadah


Judaism is not immune to Greek influences. After all, it is in many ways a religion of external acts. But a deeper look into its weltanschauung reveals, as Franz Rosenzweig so correctly argued, that Judaism possesses a profound understanding of the human condition, of our need to hear in the deed. Through the external observance of a mitzvah we may begin to grasp its exalted meaning, to hear its inner voice. Contemplation about the mitzvot without actually fulfilling them makes one deed-deaf. The profound meaning of a mitzvah may only be understood by experiencing it.


Nevertheless, one should never content oneself with the technical observance of the mitzvot. The hearing of a mitzvah's inner voice does not come automatically. It is for this reason that the study of aggadah, the non-legal part of Judaism, is of such critical importance. Halacha may instruct a man how to act in a given situation, but it does not provide insight into the quality of a given act, the spiritual elevation which it achieves. For that, one needs the aggadah. Aggadah, in fact, has been Judaism's answer to all those who have accused it of behaviorism. In the words of Yeshayahu, speaking in the name of God: “The people draw near with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, while their heart are far from Me and their fear of Me is a commandment of men learned by rote.” (Yeshayahu 29:13)


Unfortunately, the prophet's condemnation resonates strongly in today's Jewish world. In many religious communities outward compliance with the mechanics of the law has taken the place of authentic engagement with the living God. Observance has been reduced to superficial conduct. Contemporary Jewish education provides the student with an incomplete halachic understanding, since the description of an action is divorced from its ultimate intention. We often perceive the mitzvot through the eye of the Greeks, seeing only their external form. David Hartman calls this "the Akeda Consciousness" - an act which becomes totally unintelligible once it is divorced from its Divine meaning. While this may have been necessary in the case of Avraham sacrificing his son, it is definitely not what the Halacha is all about. Divine meaning is an integral part of halachic observance. And, while it may be true that the final word of the Shulchan Aruch was sufficient for our forefathers, whose deep religious feeling enabled them to hear the elevated music behind the text, it is no longer the case today. Today, we must have aggadah in order to hear. The current proliferation of halachic works, listing the intricate technicalities of the halachot without ever making us hear their meaning, is in fact a very Greek way of approaching Jewish law. It turns the word of God into little more than a mechanical act.




For Essays on Chanukah: See : Essays: Jewish Holidays      



[1] With thanks to Gila Fine for her editorial help.

[2] In many ways this essay is a commentary on Chanukah. Especially relevant is : “And we are not permitted  to use them (the Chanukah  lights) but only to look to them so as to give thanks to You for Your miracles, Your salvation and Your wonders.”  

[3] Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, chapter 1.

[4] Ibid

[5] P. 13

[6][4] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch, Bereshit, trans. Isaac Levy, The Judaica Press Inc., NY, 1971, ad loc. Isaac Levy’s translation is highly problematic.

[7][5] Ibid

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