P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 168
3rd January 2012
I. 'Michelangelo: The Creation of Adam -- Aesthetics of the
Renaissance' by Marco Cirillo
II. 'The Heart Symbol in Russian Philosophical Tradition' by Vera
III. 'Rashbi's Return; Shadows and Echoes of Plato's Cave in
Rabbinic/ Talmudic Lore' by Mark Goldfeder
The first issue of Philosophy Pathways for the new year kicks off
with three fascinating explorations in the history of ideas, which in
different ways serve as a valuable counterpoint to standard
expositions of the history of Western philosophy. Although religion
and theology play a strong part in each of these accounts, I would
argue that the deeper message is about the place of human beings in
relation to the ultimate -- whatever we conceive the ultimate to be.
This is the subject matter of metaphysics.
Marco Cirillo looks at Michaelangelo's 'Creation of Adam', from the
great fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. To the informed
observer, the most striking thing about the image is the elevated
place of Adam, representing humanity, as compared with the view of
mortal existence in the Ancient world. Human beings acquire a
newfound freedom to create their own destiny. What is less obvious,
argues Cirillo, is the political challenge which this new vision
presented to the established hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Vera Babina looks at a current of thought in the Russian
philosophical tradition which she argues runs strongly counter to the
ideas of the Enlightenment and Western philosophy, a view of the human
being which resists the elevation of the intellect, and emphasizes by
contrast the ultimate unity of the human mind, heart and soul. This
current of thought made a strong impact on the literary work of such
figures as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Mark Goldfeder, in his fascinating exposition of Talmudic lore, sees
a strong contrast between the tradition of philosophy represented by
the famous story of the Cave in Plato's 'Republic', and the role of
the Rabbi who returns to society after philosophical study, not to
rule as Plato's 'philosopher king', but rather to serve others, and
through service attain personal enlightenment and the realization of
the importance of every human being in God's eyes.
I. 'MICHELANGELO: THE CREATION OF ADAM -- AESTHETICS OF THE
RENAISSANCE' BY MARCO CIRILLO
Everyone knows the Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo.
Michelangelo painted nine episodes from Genesis. There are
representations of the stages of creation, Adam and Eve's temptation
and fall, and Noah and the Deluge.
The Creation of Adam is probably the most famous section of the
Chapel. This essay doesn't want to talk about Art, it wants to talk
about the philosophical message of this fresco.
The Creation of Adam represents the Renaissance Philosophy and the
new conception of the human being. During the period of Renaissance,
the philosophers develop a new theory about the role of the human
being in the Cosmos created by God.
It is true that the Renaissance resumes many models of the Ancient
Philosophy, but that is a new theory about the human being and it is
very far from the ancient philosophers: it is not a reprise of a
Greek or Roman vision and it is not similar to the medieval theories.
It is obvious, there are many visions and interpretations of
Philosophy about the relationship 'human being-God'; however, we can
define one constant for Ancient Philosophy and one constant for
For Ancient Philosophy we could say that exist three 'forces' that
try to find equilibrium, and the 'forces' are gods, man and Nature.
Each of them is forced to respect the laws that govern the Cosmos.
The gods appear stronger than the man but the Myth of Prometheus
remind us that the human being can beat god; furthermore, the gods
will hinder each other as we remember Homer's Iliad so they lose
their force and the Nature is always an unpredictable force.
For Medieval Philosophy we find a hierarchy in which God is the
dominant force, the human being is subjected to God, even though he
knows he can dominate Nature (I refer to the alchemical theories),
but Nature is still a force able to reap its victims (drought,
plague...). For Renaissance Philosophy God is still the dominant
force but, giving the free will to the human being, he gives a new
freedom for the human race. When the man understands what it means to
have free will he becomes the centre of the Cosmos. God doesn't
disappear, God becomes the father who looks at his creature, man.
In the De hominis dignitate (1486), Pico Della Mirandola explains the
new theory of Renaissance, the Oratio de hominis dignitate/ Oration on
the dignity of man could be seen as the Manifesto of Renaissance. The
ultimate creation of God is man, a creature able to understand and to
appreciate his work. But not all people can understand the work of
God, only those who exercise their intellect, and this ability
belongs to philosophers. Man seems to be an angel when he uses his
Now, if we look at 'The Creation of Adam' we see this theory.
The first consideration is that The creation of Adam is the central
section of the ceiling. When we look at the ceiling, we see this
section in the centre. Man is the centre of the Cosmos. He dominates
the scene. Is it true that 'The creation of Adam' is in the centre of
the ceiling? There are nine sections and the fifth section is 'The
creation of Eve', but we must look at the floor to understand because
we say that 'The creation of Adam' and not 'The creation of Eve' is
the centre of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
The Sistine Chapel is first and foremost a place of worship. The
floor represents 'the functional organization of liturgical spaces
ensuring ordered positions and movements of the participants'. The
floor design has an important meaning. The mosaic technique is the
'Cosmati work' and the pattern beneath Michelangelo's Creation of
Adam represents the macrocosm. 'Microcosm and macrocosm' have always
been a subject studied by Philosophy. During the Renaissance the new
role of the human being, conscious of his free will, transforms the
relationship between man and Nature. 'Man has within himself Nature.
He has all his strength but he adds another one: consciousness'.
Eugenio Garin finds already this new point of view in Coluccio
Salutati (1331-1406), which celebrates Hercules as the man who
dominates Nature and creates his reign: the Regnum Hominis. Other
authors celebrate the supremacy of man over Nature. Garin recalls
Campanella, Poggio Bracciolini, Alberti. Awareness that characterizes
the men of culture of the Renaissance is given precisely by the
knowledge that God has given us the intellect. Pico Della Mirandola
in the Oratio de hominis dignitate/ Oration on the dignity of man
explains this concept:
I placed thee in the middle of the world, that thence thou
mightest see more easily all that is in the world. We made
thee neither a heavenly being nor an earthly being, neither
mortal nor immortal,in order that thou, as the free and
sovereign artificer of thyself, mightest mould and
sculpture thyself in the form which thou shouldest prefer.
Thou wilt be able to degenerate to (the level of) the lower
things, the brutes; thou wilt be able, according to thy
will, to be reborn into the (level of) the higher things,
Adam represents man. Man during Renaissance, represents the
microcosm; the Creation of Adam above the pattern of the floor
represents the man/ microcosm who dominates the Cosmos/ macrocosm.
Michelangelo knows this way of thinking so when he paints the
Creation of Adam he shows the new Renaissance philosophical point of
view. Michelangelo's man is strong, young, muscular, perfect as a
greek athlete. Adam is not aligned with God, he is slightly lower,
but God is surrounded by angels and some angels are slightly lower
than Adam. This fresco shows us Pico della Mirandola's theory in
which man is elevated to the status of angels.
This fresco is also the philosophical view of Platonic Academy of
Florence, in particular of Marsilio Ficino. 'In the Theologia
platonica the universe is depicted according to the neo-Platonic
spirit as a harmonious and beautiful system, consisting of degrees of
being which extend from corporeal things up to God, the absolute Unity
or One'. The degrees are body, soul, angel and God. Michelangelo
paints Adam (body), the fingers are almost touching -- God gives life
to Adam (soul), angels and God in the same section.
The position of the fresco above the pattern of the floor that
represents the macrocosm and the position of Adam in the fresco shows
us that man is the center of the Cosmos, but there is another clue
that allows us to understand and see new vision of human being in
The second consideration regards the intellect. Frank Lynn Meshberger
in 1990 notes the similarity between the human brain and the drape
that contains the group of angels with God. Meshberger writes: 'He
(Michelangelo) believed that the 'divine part' we 'receive' from God
is the 'intellect''. Michelangelo was very familiar with the
anatomy of the body, he dissected corpses, as many sculptors of the
Renaissance. Meshberger's interpretation demonstrates clearly the
Renaissance philosophical vision, the fresco represents God /logos
who gives the intellect to Adam.
This essay concludes with a question: are these messages esoteric?
I think Michelangelo knew very well the Renaissance Philosophy. His
biography talks to us about a man who lived with the most important
intellectuals of Italy. The work of the Sistine Chapel, was probably
discussed with theologians and philosophers. I think that the
messages of his frescoes were known by many people. It is often
believed that Renaissance led to a break with the Middle Ages and
represents a continuity with the Ancient World, but this way of
thinking is very simplified. We can affirm that Art evolved, Art was
inspired by the Ancient models. During the Renaissance, Art creates
new models, studies and techniques. The image of God in The creation
of Adam recalls Zeus, Michelangelo paints God, but who inspires him?
In Christianity God is rarely painted by artists, the representative
icon of this religion is Jesus. Yet, in the Sistine Chapel, someone
else has already painted God. Botticelli painted God in the scenes of
Moses. The God of Botticelli seems to be an old man; instead, the God
of Michelangelo seems to be vigorous, strong, very similar to the
ancient gods. God is beauty, God is not an old man. Marsilio Ficino
believed that God emanated his beauty to the world.
Renaissance Philosophy doesn't break with Medieval Philosophy, it
tries to find a new way, it changes the position of the human being
in the Cosmos, but the new way of thinking clashed with the old
system. It was very different. The idea of free will and the
centrality of man in the Cosmos wasn't liked by the clergy.
Philosophers such as Pico della Mirandola were accused of heresy. The
16th century was a century of change for the church. But what is the
real problem of the Renaissance Philosophy? The Creation of Adam
represents arguments already known to Christian theology. Man as
privileged creature of God and free will aren't new theories, so what
is the problem?
It is a political problem. The Church has an hierarchical
organization in which the Pope is the supreme representative of
Christianity. When Renaissance Philosophy shifts the focus from God
to man, creating a new equilibrium, in which man is no longer
subservient to religion as in the Middle Ages but is free to be a
man, Philosophy expresses a new concept of freedom. This is a new
kind of freedom that the Church, in its old medieval system cannot
accept. Renaissance Art has broken with the Middle Ages. Philosophy,
however, sought a new theology that wanted to combine the knowledge
of the Ancient (Platonic and Neoplatonic) with knowledge of the
Middle Ages. Marsilio Ficino wrote the Platonic Theology.
I suppose that, in the early years, the philosophical consequences as
a political point of view probably weren't the real intention of the
Academy of Florence. Reading Marsilio Ficino or Pico della Mirandola,
one can see a new Philosophy that wanted to understand the position of
the human being in the Cosmos. The Church has slowly accepted the new
interpretation of the human being in a theological key, the Sistine
Chapel ceiling was painted between 1508 and 1512; Ficino and Pico
della Mirandola were dead before 1500. The Church can accept man as
the center of the Cosmos, this position didn't break with the
medieval past. But the Church can't accept the political consequences
of this theory.
The Creation of Adam does not immediately seem to be a reflection on
the political society of the Renaissance, it is rather a
representation of theological Renaissance thought. By this point of
view, an esoteric message has to be excluded. On the contrary, the
fresco can easily be seen to explain Renaissance Theology. The role
of the Sistine Chapel has always been to explain to the faithful of
yesterday, today and tomorrow, in the simplest way possible the
Christian Philosophy. That is the role of the frescoes, and every
painter knew it.
AA.VV., I Musei Vaticani conoscere la storia le opera le collezioni,
Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2010
CASSIRER ERNST, Individuo e Cosmo nella filosofia del Rinascimento,
La Nuova Italia Editrice, Firenze 1935
COPLESTON FREDERICK, A History of Philosophy, Image Book, New York
FICINO MARSILIO, Teologia Platonica, Bompiani Editore, Milano 2011
GARIN EUGENIO, Il Rinascimento Italiano, Istituto per gli studi di
politica internazionale, Milano 1941
PICO DELLA MIRANDOLA GIOVANNI, Discorso sulla dignita dell'uomo,
Guanda Editore, Milano 2007
VASARI GIORGIO, Le vite dei piu eccellenti pittori, scultori e
architetti, Newton & Compton Editore, Roma 2003.
WITT RONALD, Sulle tracce degli antichi, Donzelli Editore, Roma 2005
(in the Footsteps of the Ancients)
1. AA.VV., I Musei Vaticani conoscere la storia le opera le
collezioni, Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2010 pg. 148
3. CASSIRER ERNST, Individuo e Cosmo nella filosofia del
Rinascimento, La Nuova Italia Editrice, Firenze 1935 pg. 175
4. GARIN EUGENIO, Il Rinascimento Italiano, Istituto per gli studi di
politica internazionale, Milano 1941 pg. 101
5. PICO DELLA MIRANDOLA JOHN, Oratio de hominis dignitate,
translation from COPLESTON FREDERICK, A History of Philosophy, Image
Book, New York 1963, Vol. III pg.214
6. COPLESTON FREDERICK, A History of Philosophy, Image Book, New York
1963, Vol. III pg. 212
7. MESHBERGER FRANK LYNN, An Interpretation of Michelangelo's
Creation of Adam based on Neuroanatomy in JAMA the Journal of the
American Medical Association, Vol. 264 n 14, October 10, 1990.
(c) Marco Cirillo 2012
II. 'THE HEART SYMBOL IN RUSSIAN PHILOSOPHICAL TRADITION' BY VERA
Historically, philosophy itself was not considered as a separate
science in Russia. It was a way to achieve an intrinsic meaning of
life through thinking of God, human substance, good and evil, etc.
The Russian philosopher S.L. Frank noted that the deepest and most
valuable thoughts and ideas in Russia were published not as
systematic scientific works but as literary works. The main form of
Russian philosophical works is the freely written article, which is
usually not devoted to any specific philosophical issue. In most
cases the article considers some new historical, political or
literary problem and deals with deep and important world view issues.
The rationalistic approach was not widely adopted in Russian
philosophy. Moreover, many philosophers denied it absolutely as a
false form of philosophical thinking that did not lead to the
realization of being essence.
Reading works of medieval Russian thinkers, it can be observed that
'if we would remove from Russian philosophy its high moral tone,
emotional excitation, its yearning to pass all problems of being
through the personal experience crucible then we will likely lose the
most significant part of it' (Gromov, p.25). And the definitive centre
of that inner moral human life is the Heart. The Heart unites all
aspects of sacral, emotional and spiritual human development. The
phrase 'to realise by whole one's heart' means to realise and to feel
something entirely, deeply and personally. And here is why Russian
philosophy speculates about the human heart so often. The Heart is
considered as a battlefield where good and evil fight in their
There are many interesting terms in medieval Russian philosophy
associated with the heart. For example, 'tyazhkoserdie' -- painfully
hearted, 'tyomnye serdzem' -- dark hearted, 'vysokomudrye serdzem' --
wise hearted, etc. God talks to a human being through the Heart. Thus,
truths passed through the Heart became indisputable. If people would
realise themselves in their hearts then they will realise the whole
world and as the result they will be able to change the world. The
world can be changed by heart movements of a single person and the
whole human race.
Medieval Russian philosophy was certainly built upon contemplation of
the heart and was mostly an existential type of philosophical thinking
which strived to reach existence -- personal human being. However,
heart contemplation is impossible without 'love force' and 'love
will' because the main virtue of Heart is Love. Many Russian thinkers
were inspired by the following words of Joann Zlatoust (John
... love cleanses the heart and soul from every defilement,
sin and vice better than anything else. Love makes us pure,
blocks entering of every sin ... And definitely there is no
sin that couldn't be annihilated by the love force. It is
more likely that brushwood would resist fire than sinful
nature would resist love force. (Zlatoust, p.107)
... we must watch the doors of our heart and guard it from
every defilement that deprives us from God's fellowship.
Our main sorrow is namely concerned with randomness,
homelessness and neglect of the Heart. (Zlatoust, p.112)
Until the middle of 17th Century Russian philosophical thought was
developing almost completely in a theological context. The situation
changed significantly only after Peter the Great came to the throne.
The changes were associated with strong cultural secularisation and
its liberation from church authority. It was a very important point
for Russian philosophy because it made philosophical thought free
from dogmatic theology.
One of the first Russian thinkers who began philosophising in the
strict sense of the word was G. S. Skovoroda (1722-1794). He was
considering many eternal problems such as life, death, happiness and
fate. Ideas of rational life and moral purity were analysed by
Skovoroda in his works. His 'true life' concept is closely connected
with 'pure conscience' and 'pure heart' because he thought that the
value of human being is determined by honesty. The human having a
'pure heart' doesn't fear for death. Skovoroda's first significant
philosophical dialogs were devoted to finding out the 'true human'
The idea of the Heart was one of the basic concepts considered by
Skovoroda. And it definitely relates to the human inner world.
According to Skovoroda, the Heart is a cognitive instrument. Mind
creates some abstract schemes. However it is impossible to comprehend
how being is linked with its hidden matter just through building the
schemes. Self-awareness reveals two levels of the human being by
revealing the universal dualism of being. The Heart also determines
the ability to see and hear the truth. And mind resides in the Heart.
In this statement Skovoroda follows the traditional concept of the
Heart as the human cognitive centre.
The Heart is the true human or spiritual human. It is the main point
and it is the god-man portrait and it can transform into God's will.
It is directed to God and it contains God; moreover, the whole human
is God itself. In the Heart the human accepts faith and embraces the
Skovoroda names the true heart as eternal, deep, higher, fearless,
white, patient, sagacious, peaceful and faithful. When humans ruin
the Heart, it becomes empty, mundane, slavish, ungrateful, violent,
hungry, angry, jealous, sad, old, hardened, earthly, coarse and ashy.
The outer (material) heart makes a human being tend towards the
physical world, to a spontaneous 'dark' world. If a human listens to
the voice of that 'dark' side of the Heart then the evil forces will
control that human. The inner heart talks to God and makes humans
hear that godlike dialog.
However those two hearts are not completely divorced and therefore
they are able to transform unexpectedly. And even the 'light' heart
can turn into a 'dark' heart and become ruined. The Heart duality
appears not just in its tendency to good and evil, the Heart can also
see the Light. In other words, it can comprehend truth, good, and
fairness. However the ability to see does not necessarily mean the
ability to use. Also the Heart can be blind.
Skovoroda became the creator of a new original heart-centric
philosophy which considered the human being as a 'microcosm' and
divided the human into 'inner' and 'outer' parts. The 'inner', 'true'
human is associated with the Heart. It was not done accidentally; on
the contrary, it was a deeply considered system of philosophical
views. The Heart is the point, the centre of the human soul. It does
not exist anywhere in physical space but at the same time it is
everywhere in human substance. According to Skovoroda, the Heart is
one of the symbols designating the root of the human substance and
the source of knowledge. Using an original symbolic philosophical
style of thinking, Skovoroda founded the basis of symbolic
anthropocentric 'philosophy of the Heart'.
It can be clearly seen that later Russian philosophical thoughts had
a close spiritual relationship to Skovoroda's works.
The main feature of Russian philosophy in the 19th Century is its
struggle against classical abstract thought, against so-called
'abstract bases'. This issue was claimed by a talented Russian
philosopher, I.V. Kirievsky. Russian philosophers opposed to western
philosophical style were called Slavophiles.
All theological, philosophical and political ideas of Slavophiles
deliberately conformed to two main principles: the principle of
spiritual integrity and the principle of affinity. Kirievsky was
greatly inspired by the first principle and A.S. Khomyakov adhered to
the second style.
In 19th Century Europe education reached its highest level of
development. But according to Slavophiles European education led to
everybody's frustration and disappointed hopes. Analysing the
European situation of that time Slavophiles pointed out that the
triumph of the European mind-set revealed its scarcity. A vast number
of discoveries made in many areas produced only negative value to the
inner human conscience.
Slavophiles thought that the doctrine of the Fathers of the Eastern
Church (arrived to Russia from Byzantium) affected Russian culture
very much. The native Russian mind-set was formed by that doctrine.
Russia was always united in its beliefs based on faith, unity and
religious laws. This was the case even when Russian land was
scattered into small princedoms. Slavophiles described a set of basic
qualities of the Old Russian life style. There were no impassable
boundaries between various communities. People had an inner truth
along with outer law. Family strength was very important.
These qualities integrated with speculations of the Fathers of the
Church founded the basic principles of Russian scholarship. These
conclusions allowed Slavophiles to put forward an idea of liberation
from the pressure of European rationalism.
I think that German philosophy including its latest
development made by Schelling might become the most useful
cognitive framework for us. It could lead us to a
self-reliant philosophical system, which would unify the
dualistic western scholarship with the principles of
integral religious consciousness. So the consciousness
would be ever seeking the inner root of understanding
within the soul where all separate forces join together in
a single bright mental vision. (Kirievsky, p.274)
Kirievsky developed ideas of human integrity and clarity. He wrote,
Western thinkers assume that the absolute truth can be
comprehended even by a scattered mind. One part of such a
mind comprehends moral aspects, another part enjoys fine
arts, next part perceives useful things, and the absolute
truth they are trying to understand by an abstract part of
their mind. Thus, none of the parts of the mind knows what
other parts are doing at the same time. (Kirievsky, p.274)
In order to explain why it is hard to find the really whole-hearted
humans Kirievsky makes a distinction between 'inner' human and
'outer' human (actually developing Skovoroda's idea). Everybody's
goal is to find the true 'inner' human within, to find that sphere
where the absolute unity of all spiritual qualities is retained. And
the most important thing is the junction of mind and real world.
Cognition should be not a theoretical mental action but an action of
the whole live personality. And the result of cognition should
synthesise an abstract rational, ethical and religious human
relationship to the world.
The central point of Khomyakov's theological philosophical concept is
an organic spiritual unity of people in Church which is called
'sobornost' or conciliarity. Khomyakov stresses that there is no
impassable chasm between the real world and God. Also he emphasises
the importance of religious faith and religious life for
comprehension of the Absolute, understanding the human unity with God
which should result in formation and development of human being
enlightened by gospel truth. Khomyakov introduces a new term
'zhivoznanie' (knowledge-life) which means the junction of human
consciousness and divine reality.
Both Kirievsky and Khomyakov rejected the European scholarship of
rationalism. They proposed an alternative approach to the
subject-object relationship cognition which opposed the abstract
logical way of cognition in the European tradition.
Slavophiles consider the nature of cognitive subject in the following
way. The primary role here is played by the intuitive, integral
cognition by the heart not by the abstract mind. According to
Kirievsky and Khomyakov, the process of real world cognition made in
an intellectual, logical way cannot be separated from moral personal
self-determination. And that is the main reason for their rejection
of western scholarship. They disagree with the western bifurcation of
the mind, thoughts, sciences, state, family rights and duties, morals
and heart status.
Slavophiles proclaimed that it is necessary to build a new way of
cognition that would be closely connected with cognition by heart and
with synthesis of 'mind' and 'heart'. It should be noted that further
development of Russian classical philosophy in the second half of the
19th Century was significantly affected by that concept.
'Gnosis' became a spiritual and moral cognitive process that was
closely linked with human will. Following this concept Slavophiles
inevitably had to use some source, some centre of all spiritual human
forces, which is represented by the heart.
In Kirievsky's opinion the heart is the basis of human spirituality,
moral views and ideals and what is the most important it is the basis
of faith. 'Faith is heart's sight to God'. The whole powers of human
mind, its argumentative cogency, spiritual motives of human behaviour
are all rooted from the heart. Kirievsky wrote, 'It is impossible to
get true faith, consciousness and love from the abstract mind. It
would be quite strange if something dead could give birth to
Abstract reasoning estranged from 'heart desire' is just a kind of
entertainment. The power of such mind is just a 'clever cunningness'.
Its owner loses the 'integrity of the primordial personality' and
becomes self-scattered into separate forces, abilities and functions.
Thus, the 'inner human' sacrifices to 'outer human', spirituality, to
material being; higher goals, to comfort of life; moral views, to
benefits' heart faith, to outer worship. Kirievsky thought that this
kind degradation of spiritual life was inherent for the West due to
its technological progress, scholarship and legislative system.
Khomyakov criticised western rationalism in philosophy, theology,
faith, culture and everyday life. He considered the heart as a
life-giving source of faith, hope and love. He thought the highest
gnosis was impossible without that source. Khomyakov mercilessly
criticised western European religion (especially Catholicism) for its
'Christ Church betrayal' that appeared in a cold-minded and
utilitarian type of faith. The thinker stresses that there is no
faith without love and full-hearted devotion to God. Khomyakov turned
his attention to the East and wrote about the spiritual affinity of
Russian and Old Indian culture of heart in his 'Notes on world
Both the philosophers Kirievsky and Khomyakov avoided the use of the
heart as a cognitive element in their conceptual framework. They use
the term 'heart' only as a symbol. Undoubtedly both of them do
connect heart with the substance of the cognitive subject where the
separate aspects (mind, senses and will) join into a single bright
mental vision. Only the religious thinker can reach the absolute
... while he still believes in the heart, it is safe to
speculate logically. As long as there is no speculation
estranged from memory about the integrity of the inner mind
and about that concentrated self-consciousness where there
is a place for the absolute truth, but there is no place
for the abstract mind. (Kirievsky, p.274)
Thus, it can be stated that Slavophiles consistently continued
Skovoroda's Russian cognitive tradition based on the spiritual
heritage of the Eastern Church presented in Hesychasts' works,
specifically in 'clever doing' and 'mind-to-heart descent' doctrines.
Slavophiles strived to create their own religious national philosophy.
Further, their works became a solid basis for the development of the
'heart cognition' problem in literary works of such famous Russian
writers as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Gromov M.N. The Typology of the Russian Philosophy. History of the
Philosophy Ed. by Motroshilova N.V. Moscow, 2001.
Prelate Joann Zlatoust. Selected Works. V.2 Sretensky monastery, 2008.
Kirievsky I.V. Criticism and aesthetics. Moscow. 'Iskusstvo', 1979.
(c) Vera Babina 2012
Doctor of Philosophy at the Penza State University
III. 'RASHBI'S RETURN; SHADOWS AND ECHOES OF PLATO'S CAVE IN
RABBINIC/ TALMUDIC LORE' BY MARK GOLDFEDER
1) Socrates [said]: Imagine this: People live under the
earth in a cave-like dwelling. Stretching a long way up
toward the daylight is its entrance, toward which the
entire cave is gathered. The people have been in this
dwelling since childhood, shackled by the legs and neck.
Thus they stay in the same place so that there is only one
thing for them to look at: whatever they encounter in front
of their faces. But because they are shackled, they are
unable to turn their heads around... 
2) Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Simeon [bar Yohai]
were sitting. And Judah ben Gerim was sitting near them.
Rabbi Judah began and said, 'How great are the deeds of
this [Roman] nation! They made markets; they made
bathhouses; they made bridges.' Rabbi Yose was silent.
Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai answered and said, 'What they made,
they made for themselves. They made markets so they could
set prostitutes there, bathhouses so they could enjoy
themselves, bridges to collect a toll.'
Judah ben Gerim went and repeated their words, which were
heard by authorities. [The authorities] said, 'Judah who
elevated will be elevated, Yose who was silent will be
exiled to Sepphoris, and Simeon who disgraced will be
killed.' He [Rabbi Simeon] and his son went and hid in the
house of study. Every day his wife brought him bread and a
jug of water, and they ate. When the decree was harshened,
he said to his son, 'Women have a weak constitution;
perhaps they will torture her and she will reveal us.' They
went and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred and a carob tree
and a well of water were created for them. They used to
remove [their clothing] and sit up to their necks in sand.
All day they used to commit traditions to memory, and at
the time of prayer they dressed, covered and prayed. And
then they took off their clothes so that they would not
wear out. They lived in the cave for twelve years.
Elijah came and stood at the opening of the cave. He said,
'Who will tell the son of Yohai that Caesar is dead and his
decree was canceled?' They went out. They saw people plowing
and planting. He [Rabbi Simeon] said, 'They are forsaking
eternal life and occupying themselves with temporal life.'
Every place they cast their eyes was immediately burned. A
heavenly voice came out and said, 'Did you come out to
destroy my world? Return to your cave!' They returned and
lived in the cave for twelve months. They said, 'The
sentence of the wicked in Gehinom is twelve months.' A
heavenly voice came forth [and said,] 'Get out of your
cave.' They went out. Everything that Rabbi Eliezer
destroyed, Rabbi Simeon repaired. Rabbi Simeon said, 'My
son, I and you are enough for the world!'
When the Sabbath was about to start they saw an old man
carrying two bundles of myrtle, running at twilight. They
said to him, 'Why do you need these?' [He said to them,]
'In honor of the Sabbath.' They said to him, 'And isn't one
enough for you?' He said to them, 'One is for 'remember'
(Ex. 20:8), and one is for 'keep'' (Deut. 5:12). He said
[to his son], 'See how the commandments are beloved by
Israel!' Their minds were at ease. His son-in-law, Rabbi
Pinhas ben Yair, heard and went out to meet him. He took
him into a bathhouse. When he was treating his flesh, he
saw that there were cracks in his skin. He started crying
and his tears flowed and caused him pain. He said to him,
'Woe to me that I saw you thus!' He said to him, 'Blessed
are you that you saw me thus, because had you not seen me
thus, you would not have found me thus [learned]. In the
beginning, when Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai asked one question,
Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair would give twelve answers. In the
end, when Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair would ask a question, Rabbi
Simeon bar Yohai would give twenty-four answers.'
[Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai] said, 'Since a miracle occurred,
let me go repair something.' As it says: '...and Jacob
arrived whole [to the city of Shechem]' (Gen. 33:18). Rav
says, 'Whole in his body, whole in his money, and whole in
his Torah.' '...and he found favor in the city.' Rav says,
'he established coins for them.' And Samuel says, 'he
established markets for them.' Rabbi Yohanan says, 'He
established bathhouses for them.' He said, 'Is there
something that needs repair?' They said to him, 'There is a
plot of land where there is a question of uncleanliness and
it disturbs the priests to go around it.' He said, 'Is
there a person who knows that there is pure [land] there?'
A certain old man said to him, 'Here ben Zakkai pulled out
lupines for the priestly portion.' He also did as he did:
wherever [the ground] was hard, he declared it pure,
wherever it was loose, he marked it...
[paragraph breaks added -- Ed.]
To even a casual observer there is a striking similarity between the
story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (henceforth 'Rashbi,' his acronym)
and Plato's Allegory of the Cave. But its not just the cave motif
that creates the interesting parallelism; indeed both Greek and
Rabbinic mythic literatures have their own rich cave traditions.
More fundamentally, both stories deal with the tense relationship of
the philosopher or sage with the civic life and the polis, between
pure intellectual pursuit on the one hand and the obligation to the
public on the other. Both stories struggle with the enlightened
ones return, and the moment of crisis/ resolution that it engenders.
And both stories, at the end of the day, need to justify and explain
that return, both from the perspective of the one who left and the
ones who never will.
While it is impossible to know for sure whether the Talmudic sages
were in some way or another aware of the Platonic text, or even used
it as a template of sorts (as they do not overtly cite it) recently
scholars have argued for the permeability of the borders between the
Roman and the Sassanian empires. This literature would suggest a
strong possibility that the Babylonian rabbinic sages had some, if
not plenty of opportunities to engage Plato's political philosophy at
least by his reflection through neo-Platonism. If this historical
possibility is plausible, and the Rashbi story is indeed to be read
as a commentary on Plato's cave story, then perhaps the inversions
and differences are critical in nature, distancing Rashbi and his
colleagues from the Platonic philosopher-king model. I would argue
that perhaps then, in Rashbi's return to society, we can glimpse an
understanding of what, in the rabbinic opinion, Plato's own return
and vision of an ideal society was lacking.
First let's take a look at the structure of the two narratives. While
there is the obvious spatial inversion of the sage's journey in the
Rashbi legend, in both stories there are distinct and even
diametrically opposed spheres designated for the act of contemplation
and education on the one hand and the public life on the other. In
both, the philosopher/ sage leaves one realm and crosses into the
next (leaving everyone else behind); they find in their respective
solitudes enlightenment, and then, for some reason, they return.
While Plato's philosopher contemplates the Forms and the 'spectacle
of truth,' Rashbi (and in some versions, his son as well), engages in
the Talmudic version of speculative philosophy, the practice of Limmud
Torah Lishma, 'the study of Torah for its own sake,' i.e. study as a
practice of devotion. The Talmud often (and in fact, in the
continuation of this very narrative) equates such study with
'eternal' as opposed to temporal life; when Rashbi and his son leave
the cave for the first time and return to the regular world, they
observe a group of agricultural laborers and are astounded at how
they 'waste their time.' 'Why do they these people forsake eternal
life, and busy themselves instead with temporal life?' they wonder.
The very question, in fact, that Plato's philosopher confronts as he
shakes his head wistfully and squints back down at the lost ones in
Let us focus in now on that moment of rapprochement. In the Platonic
text, one can definitely feel the reluctance of the philosopher upon
reentry; as Socrates tells Glaucon:
'Then our job as founders,' I said, 'is to compel the best
natures to go to the study which we were saying before is
the greatest, to see the good and to go up that ascent;
and, when they have gone up and seen sufficiently, not to
permit them what is now permitted.'
'To remain there,' I said, 'and not be willing to go down
again among those prisoners or share their labors and
honors, whether they be slighter or more serious.'
In the Talmudic tale, the hesitation to return is even more striking;
actual divine intervention (in the form of Elijah the prophet) is
needed to coax Rashbi from the cave.
They dwelled in a cave for thirteen years. Elijah came to
the opening of the cave. He said, 'Who will inform Bar
Yohai that the emperor died and the decree is annulled?'
They went out.
Both stories recognize the danger inherent in the attempt to
readjust; Plato dramatically underlines the aggression of the cave
dwellers toward the philosopher upon his return, to the point that
they might actually kill him, while in the talmudic tale the fatal
dynamics of the return are equally as dangerous but
role-reversed: Rashbi (and his son) actually do kill:
They [Rashbi and his son] went out and they saw men plowing
and sowing. They said: 'They forsake eternal life and busy
themselves with temporal life!' Everywhere they turned
their eyes was immediately burned.
While in Plato's world the philosopher fears that he will be made to
suffer for his newfound different point of view, in the Talmud it is
the others who pay the price for the scholar's otherworldly
(In light of Plato's allegory, the emphasis on the element of sight
is interesting, and perhaps noteworthy. While the motif of the
lethal 'super' gaze is not at all uncommon in the Talmud, it is
not unreasonable to say that it takes on new meaning as a reflection
of Plato. The incongruities between the philosopher and the
essentially blind civic community are depicted throughout the
allegory in terms of what they can and cannot see. In that dramatic
moment of return, Socrates asks us,
'And consider this also, if such a one should go down again
and take his old place would he not get his eyes full of
darkness, thus suddenly coming out of the sunlight... Now
if he should be required to contend with these perpetual
prisoners in 'evaluating' these shadows while his vision
was still dim and before his eyes were accustomed to the
dark... would he not provoke laughter, and would it not be
said of him that he had returned from his journey aloft with
his eyes ruined and that it was not worth while even to
attempt the ascent?'
In both the Platonic and rabbinic sagas the sages newfound power of
sight puts him at odds with the populace and in fact his own former
It is interesting to note that Plato's philosopher is confronted with
two unyielding options, and must therefore embrace a weakness
whichever path he chooses; when contemplating the Forms in the world
above, he cannot see the world below, which now appears dark. And yet
when he pursues practical and political activities back in the cave,
the Forms begin to fade back into shadow. 'Since the eye of the soul
'is destroyed and blinded by [nontheoretical] pursuits' (527e), the
philosopher will have to keep renewing and increasing his knowledge
via philosophical discussion and contemplation.'
Once again, back in the Talmud, the dynamics are the same but still
different. Rashbi's acquisition of knowledge (eternal life) endows
him with powers of seeing that are incongruous with the ways of the
world outside his cave, and this proves to be potentially
destructive. Rashbi is at this point in his career a Platonic
philosopher, 'beholden to the quasi-metaphysical realm of pure
knowledge, of 'theoretical Torah,' as it were.' But whereas
Plato's philosopher struggles in his effort not to submit to the
powers of the this-worldly reality of the polis, and over time to
transform reality in light of what he has seen in the light, Rashbi
takes a shortcut to the same conclusion; whatever he looked at, and
disapproved of, was immediately incinerated. He who did not conform
was burned, as per the will of the philosopher-king.
And so we arrive at the crucial point of departure in the narratives.
The Plato story ends here; the ideal is subjugation and control for
the general welfare and good. The philosopher-king returns to rule,
not for his own selfish sake (for obviously they would rather stay
far away and above in their ivory towers) but because it is healthy
for the city. As Socrates explains;
'... it's not the concern of law that any one class in the
city fare exceptionally well, but it contrives to bring
this about in the city as a whole, harmonizing the citizens
by persuasion and compulsion, making them share with one
another the benefit that each is able to bring to the
common-wealth. And it produces such men in the city not in
order to let them turn whichever way each wants, but in
order that it may use them in binding the city
Au contraire, says the Talmudic tradition. That attitude is
destructive, running counter to the Divine plan. God himself sends
Rashbi back into the cave, to do a little more introspective
thinking. And one year later, Rashbi reemerges, a new man.
A heavenly voice came forth [and said,] 'Get out of your
cave.' They went out. Everything that Rabbi Eliezer
destroyed, Rabbi Simeon repaired. Rabbi Simeon said, 'My
son, I and you are enough for the world!' When the Sabbath
was about to start they saw an old man carrying two bundles
of myrtle, running at twilight. They said to him, 'Why do
you need these?'[He said to them,] 'In honor of the
Sabbath.' They said to him, ''And isn't one enough for
you?' He said to them, 'One is for 'remember' (Ex. 20:8),
and one is for 'keep'' (Deut. 5:12). He said [to his son],
'See how the commandments are beloved by Israel!' Their
minds were at ease.
What did Rashbi learn in his additional year in the cave, what
insight did he gain that the philosopher-king never did?
The fundamental difference in the Socratic and rabbinic conceptions
of reality, and the way that the philosopher could and should relate
to it, lies in this second emergence. Rashbi finally sees what the
philosopher-king never will; that there is an inherent worth hidden
in the shadows and echoes that both informs and enriches his own
intellectual pursuits. The reality of the community in the Talmudic
inversion of Plato is not a mere shadow of the metaphysical realm,
one that is perpetually left in the dark and that the philosopher is
forced to learn to deal with. Torah, the rabbinic form of knowledge,
lives in the world, not above it or secluded from it. Torah,
embodied knowledge as enactment of a divine plan, pervades the very
fabric of reality; true fulfillment and indeed philosophical
perfection comes only from the weaving of the upper and the lower
realms, the transformation of the mundane into the holy. From a
religious perspective, if God is perfect, one can only attain
perfection if they engage in the imitatio Dei behavior of building
the world, with Torah as the blueprint. The return of the philosopher
should not be seen as a necessary evil but as something to be
embraced, a necessary for attainment of the idealized Good.
This insight is particularly striking in light of another narrative
passage that appears in the very same tractate of the Babylonian
Talmud, on BT Shabbat 88b. According to the Jewish tradition, before
the Torah was given to Israel it was safeguarded in Heaven by
ministering angels, perfect beings who knew nothing of worldly
temptations or of less than ideals. When Moses went up to bring the
Torah down to this world, he was challenged by these Platonic beings,
who threatened to incinerate him, much like the Rashbi of the first
emergence did to those who were not perfect. Instead though, Moses
teaches them a lesson about life:
Rabbi Joshua b. Levi said, 'When Moses ascended on high,
the ministering angels spoke before the Blessed Holy One,
'Sovereign of the Universe! What business has one born of
woman among us? ''He has come to receive the Torah,'
answered God to them. They said to Him, 'That secret
treasure, which You have concealed for nine hundred and
seventy-four generations before the world was created. You
desire to give it to flesh and blood! What is man, that You
art mindful of him, and the son of man, that You visit him?
O' Lord our God, How excellent is Your Name in all the
earth! Who has set Your glory [the Torah] upon the
Heavens!' (Ps. 8:1-2).The Holy One said to Moses, 'Return
them an answer.'' Sovereign of the Universe' replied Moses,
'I fear, lest they consume me with the [fiery] breath of
their mouths.'' Hold on to the Throne of Glory,' said God
to Moses, 'and return them an answer. ' Moses [then] spoke
before God, 'Sovereign of the Universe! The Torah which You
give me, what is written in it -- I am the Lord Your God,
who brought you out of the Land of Egypt. 'Said Moses to
the angels, 'Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved to
Pharaoh? Why then should the Torah be yours?''
'Again, what is written in it? You shall have none other
god. Do you dwell among peoples that engage in idol
worship? Again, what is written in it? Remember the
Sabbath day -- to keep it holy. Do you then perform work,
that you need to rest? Again, what is written in it? You
shall not take [tissa] [the name ... in vain]. Is there any
business [massa] dealings among you? Again, what is
written in it? Honor your father and your mother. Have you
fathers and mothers? Again, what is written in it? You
shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall
not steal. Is there jealousy between you; is the Adversary
[working] between you?' Immediately the angels conceded to
the Holy One, for it is said, [Ps. 8:10, after it meditates
on the significance if humanity] 'O' Eternal, our Eternal
[God], How excellent is Your Name throughout the land,
[but] 'Who has set Your glory upon the heavens is not
repeated.' Immediately each angel saw Moses as
Moses (who is known in Jewish tradition as Moses, Our Teacher, and
also as the first quasi-king) presents a very different
definition of perfection for the philosopher to aspire to. Perfection
lies not in a state of ascetic purity, as Plato and the angels would
believe, but in the very act of redemption, in embracing the nuances
of humanity, the spectrum of experiences, the challenges of weakness,
hope, failure, and eventually triumph. And so Rashbi and his son
emerge from the cave once again, but this time it is not to rule, nor
to subjugate the world to their theoretical knowledge. Nor is it a
completely selfless act of charity or civic goodwill that causes
Rashbi to re-immerse himself in the polis. Drawing on a lesson from
the patriarch Jacob, described as someone who had attained
'perfection' (or wholeness), Rashbi seeks to become an enabler for
his own self-fulfillment and growth.
[Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai] said, 'Since a miracle occurred,
let me go repair something.' As it says: '...and Jacob
arrived whole [to the city of Shechem]' (Gen. 33:18). Rav
says, 'Whole in his body, whole in his money, and whole in
his Torah.' '...and he found favor in the city.' Rav says,
'he established coins for them.' And Samuel says, 'he
established markets for them.' Rabbi Yohanan says, 'He
established bathhouses for them.' He [Rashbi] said, 'Is
there something that needs repair?' They said to him,
'There is a plot of land where there is a question of
uncleanliness and it disturbs the priests to go around
it.' He said, 'Is there a person who knows that there is
pure [land] there?' A certain old man said to him, 'Here
ben Zakkai pulled out lupines for the priestly portion.' He
also did as he did: wherever [the ground] was hard, he
declared it pure, wherever it was loose, he marked it...
Jacob had used his considerable knowledge to make the world a better
place for others, to build an infrastructure for society. In
becoming an enabler, Rashbi seeks to attain the level of
perfection that Moses described and Jacob practiced, not to rule from
above but to bring the Torah down to Earth. He therefore comes and
seeks, literally, to purify that which is defiled, to make accessible
that which was blocked off.
Whereas Plato's philosopher king was faced with a sacrificial
acceptance of a less than ideal existence, Rashbi's rabbinic enabler
is granted the ability to improve his own existence by improving the
existence of others, to live in this world, and yet above it, to
come closer to God, and philosophical perfection, through
service. Rashbi's education then would be the story of the
Platonic philosopher turned into a talmudic sage; far from being
slowly blinded by the darkness, Rashbi's vision is sharpened by his
dealings with the populace; his gaze is transformed once again from a
destructive force to one that heals, purifies, and makes better.
The rabbinic critique of Plato is that it creates a disjunctive
world, a world of tension without harmony. The city itself is taken
care of, while the individual and his personal happiness/ fulfillment
do not matter. In the rabbinic tradition of Bishvili Nivra Ha'Olam
(lit. 'for my sake the world was created' the idea that every mean and
woman should see themselves as individually important and worthwhile
in God's eyes), this idea is unacceptable. While Plato's machinated
Republic does work, the Rabbis felt that if everyone enables and
ennobles those around them, not only will there be a more
balanced and satisfied constituency, but the city itself will, as
Koffka so eloquently put it, be greater than just the sum of its
parts. According to the Talmud in BT Gittin 67a, Rashbi's
greatest teacher was Rabbi Akiva, who famously said that the
commandment to love one's friend like oneself is the greatest rule in
all the Torah. It stands to reason then that by loving and improving a
fellow one gains a deeper appreciation of Torah values, i.e. one
improves oneself as well.
Having pointed out the similarities and differences between the caves
of Plato and Rashbi, we can clearly see where exactly the worldviews
of Socrates and the Rabbis of the Talmud diverge. Whether or not it
was originally intended as a foil to the Republic, Rashbi's legend
clearly rejects the notion of a philosopher king, with its focus on
individual power instead of collective empowerment, and collective
fulfillment instead of individual growth. Areas for future study
may include looking at the historical realities in which the
different viewpoints were shaped; the Rabbis, for instance, lived in
an imperial context where they were outsiders, and no sage could ever
hope to actually attain any power. Plato's descriptions, on the other
hand, evoke a hegemonic relationship between philosophy and the
polis; because the philosopher is to begin with a regular member and
citizen, he can at least dream of gaining more influential sway.
Regardless of whether the confluence of stories was intentional,
subconscious, or entirely coincidental, once we have them both in
front of us, the echoes and reflections of Plato's cave in Rashbi's
are eye opening in their own right, important both for what they say
and what they implicitly reject about both philosophy and
1. Plato Republic 514a; Translation by Allan Bloom, available online
2. BT Shabbat 33b. While for the purposes of this paper I will assume
that the reader has at least a passing familiarity with Plato's
Allegory of the Cave, I felt the need to include the Rashbi legend in
full. The story appears elsewhere in slightly different forms in
rabbinic literature, but this is the most famous retelling.
3. See (BT Bava Metzia 84b-85a, 85b; BT Bava Kamma 117a; BT Moed
Katan 17a; BT Bava Basra 58a; JT 3:10, 66d. See also the Greek
philosophical myth of Epimenides (sixth century BCE) and his
purification of Athens (at the end of the Rashbi story, not quoted
above he purifies the city of Tiberias from the defilement of
corpses). The similarities to Epimenides have already been noted by
scholars; see . Levine, Lee, 'R. Simeon b. Yohai and the Purification
of Tiberias: History and Tradition,' Hebrew Union College Annual 49
4. See Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert (2007). "Plato in Rabbi Shimeon
bar Yohai's Cave (B. Shabbat 33b-34a): The Talmudic Inversion of
Plato's Politics of Philosophy." AJS Review, 31 , p. 279
doi:10.1017/S0364009407000529. I would like to take this opportunity
to note that this piece draws heavily from her article. While I agree
very much with Fonrobert's analysis of the similarities and
differences, and indeed quote her often, I disagree with the
interpretation, and that is where, in the second half of this paper,
our ideas diverge. While Fonrobert sees the Talmudic story as mostly
political, a way in which the Talmud ultimately "triangulates Roman
power, the founding power of the biblical patriarch, and the sage's
imitation of the latter," (p. 293), with the ideal of the sage as
ruler remaining in place, I see the narrative as philosophically
religious in nature, rejecting the sage as ruler paradigm entirely.
The sage is meant to be the bridge between two worlds, in full
control of neither, and always weighing the relative benefits of one
against the other.
5. The flight of the last generation of (neo-) Platonic philosophers
under Damascius from the school of Athens to the Sassanian court
plays a central role in this discussion; neo-Platonism would have
made its inroads at least into the Sassanian royal world in
Ctesiphon, a city which, in turn, had a strong presence of rabbinic
sages. See Walker, Joel T., "The Limits of Late Antiquity: Philosophy
between Rome and Iran," Ancient World 33, no. 1 (2002): 45-69, quoted
in Fonrobert, 295.
8. Id, at 287.
10. Plato 519b
11. See Fonrobert, 289
12. Id., and 290
14. See Rubesntein, Jeffrey. "Torah and the Mundane Life: The
Education of R. Shimon bar Yohai (Shabbat 33b-34a)" in his Talmudic
Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1999), 105-39, quoted in Fonrobert, id.
15. Nightingale, Andrea. "Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek
Philosophy: Theoria in its Cultural Context" (Cambridge/New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 104. Cited in Fonrobert, 290.
17. Id. at 285
18. Plato, 520a
19. Fonrobert, 291.
20. Fonrobert, 291.
21. It is in the understanding of nature of the ultimate good being
sought that both the Talmud and Plato, and in the end Fonrobert and
22. See Zohar, Teruma 161a. See also Toldos Aharaon to Vayakhel,
commenting on Psalms 8:3; 'You who have given the heavens your
23. See Midrah to Proverbs, 21:22. "One wise man gained ascendancy
over a city of warriors; 'A city of warriors refers to heaven, which
is the city of the angels. One wise man gained ascendancy- this
refers to Moses, who went up to heaven, and brought down its mighty
24. BT Shabbat 88b. Translation by Dennis, G.W.; The Encyclopedia of
Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, St. Paul: Llewellyn Worldwide,
25. See Deuteronomy 33:5 and Ibn Ezra ad loc.
26. Note that it is the elderly man who actually presents Rashbi and
his son with a practical Talmudic interpretation of a verse; he, a
relatively simple man, in effect becomes the teacher.
27. And not, as some have argued, to be another type of rule. The
analogy to Jacob is not meant to draw upon the story of Jacob's
power, but rather focuses on Jacob's level of attainment in personal
completion; by reaching out and helping others, he was made whole,
i.e. more perfect.
28. Note though that the Jacob who effects these changes is referred
to in fact as a 'simple man, dwelling in tents,' not a king. See
29. See Fonrobert, 282.
30. Again, as Moses had done.
31. He engages, as it were, in the Jewish ethic of 'tikkun olam,'
fixing and making the world a better place.
32. For an example of how this plays into rabbinic as opposed to
Platonic ideals, see the Mishna in Avot 4:5, describing the
importance of being involved in the world and not cloistered off from
it; "Rabbi Ishmael the son of Rabbi Yossei would say: One who learns
Torah in order to teach, is given the opportunity to learn and teach.
One who learns in order to do, is given the opportunity to learn,
teach, observe and do. Rabbi Tzaddok would say: Do not separate
yourself from the community..."
33. This is in fact the very essence of the Mishnaic teaching in Avot
1:17; 'the main thing is not studying, but putting it into practice.'
34. Fonrobert, 295.
35. The Talmud is full of stories of sages whose edifying presence,
as teachers, and tole models, brought merit to their entire
generation. See, for example, BT Eruvin 54b.
36. Sanhedrin 37b
37. especially those who have more knowledge than others, see
discussions of 'areivut; in Roth, Sol. The Jewish Idea of Ethics and
Morality: a covenantal perspective. KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2007.
38. One of the sources for this mode of thinking is the rabbinic
concept of 'areivut,' mutual or collective responsibility. See BT
39. Kedoshim 19:18, Toras Kohanim, ibid. See also Talmud Yerushalmi,
Nedarim 9:4; Bereishis Rabbah 24:7.
40. Indeed of the 48 ways for one to acquire Torah greatness listed
in the Mishna, several of them include helping others to improve as a
way to improve oneself. These include, amongst others, having
companionship with one's contemporaries, debating with one's
students, sharing in the burden with one's friend, judging him
favorably, helping him see the truth, helping him peacfully resolve
his issues, etc. See Avot, 6:6 for a complete listing.
41. Rashbi and his son don't rule not because, as Fonrobert assumes,
they cannot- on the contrary their potentially deadly gaze could kill
anyone, and would make ruling easy- but rather because that is not how
they are best served in personal achievement either. In another
interesting parallel to Jacob, the commentators to Genesis 28:10
(explaining why the verse has to repeat the fact that Jacob left Beer
Sheva) note that the righteous influence their surrounding, not
through their power or authority, but by demonstrating and modeling,
though their actions, the concepts of beauty and glory. See Rashi
42. Fonrobert, at 281, delves into this issue.
43. Indeed it is fair to say that much as in my reading the Rabbis
reject Plato's understanding of the ultimate good, both for society
and the sage as an individual, Plato would likely also reject theirs.
See Rankin, David. Plato and the Individual (RLE: Plato). Routledge,
2012, p. 12.
(c) Mark Goldfeder 2012
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