God’s Will or Human Reasoning? Which is More Important?

A fascinating discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 6,2) illustrates the tension in rabbinic thought between human creativity and divine power. The discussion concerns the blessings that are to be made over food. Generally, when eating something that grows on a tree, a blessing is made to God who creates the ‘fruit of the tree’. If it grows in the soil the blessing is for the ‘fruit of the soil’. But some foods, notably bread and wine have their own specific blessing. The question is, why? What makes these foods different, and who said that they are?

Rabbi Yehuda’s view is that if one makes a blessing which does not reflect the food’s natural state, for example calling, a cucumber a fruit of the tree, then they have made the wrong blessing. Rabbi Yosé says that if the blessing does not reflect the opinion of the sages, for example, not giving bread its own blessing, then it is invalid. In other words, Rabbi Yehuda attributes the power to define the essence of a substance to nature, and by extension to God. Rabbi Yosé attributes this power to humans.

The whole idea of the Talmud is built around the tension between our own reasoning, and what we assume to be God’s will. The dilemma reaches its climax in the famous Babylonian Talmud story about Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua (Baba Metzia 59a-b). The two rabbis are arguing over an obscure piece of law. Rabbi Eliezer calls on heaven to support his view. He manages to get all sorts of miracles to occur, to prove his point. But Rabbi Joshua is not impressed. He rejects all the miracles. Quoting Deuteronomy he proclaims that the law ‘is not in heaven’. People have been imbued with the power of reason, and it is upon reason that we have to rely when making decisions.

What makes the Talmud so fascinating is that, although it is a religious text, it unashamedly elevates human reason in earthly matters to the same level as the divine will. The Talmud is not just a way of explaining the divinely revealed Torah to people. It places the Torah firmly on earth.

This is why there is no contradiction between science and Torah. There is no need to try to prove, as some do, that the creation account in Genesis has to be taken literally. God did not put the fossils there to fool us. What would be the point of that? Life is a partnership between human reason and the unknowable Will. The Talmud itself is the proof of that.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books