Editor’s Thoughts: A Philosophical Approach

As a result of its gruesome explication in the liturgies of Yom Kippur and Tish’ah be-Av, the death of R. Hanina ben Teradyon, one of the Ten Martyrs, is a widely known story. A version of this aggadah, recorded in the Sifrei Devarim,[i] describes that when it was decreed that R. Hanina ben Teradyon would be burned with his sefer Torah, his wife executed, and his daughter forced into hard labor, each family member recited a different scriptural verse of tsiduk ha-din, justification of the Divine decree.[ii] Immediately after the execution, a surprising character makes an appearance: the philosopher. He stands up before the Roman officials and declares, “Do not be brazen enough to think that you have burned the Torah, for it has returned to the place from which it came, to the house of its Father.” This is an odd remark for a philosopher—it hardly addresses any looming metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical issue.[iii] Rather, it is a claim to bolster religious confidence, much the type of claim we would expect from a rabbinic figure.[iv] Moreover, it is the rabbinic figure (and his family) who pronounces the most philosophically attuned statement of the Midrash, the one that addresses the moral perfection of God in affirming Divine justice. What, then, is the role of the philosopher if not to, well, philosophize?

One approach to answering this question would be to deny the premise; perhaps the philosopher really is making a profound statement, and it is up to the reader to decode the message. Chaya Halberstam, for example, looks to the end of the aggadah, where the Romans announce the execution of the philosopher for his statement defending the Torah. The philosopher declares that these are good tidings, for his share will be in the World to Come along with the martyred rabbi. Halberstam understands the philosopher as making a statement about God’s power and justice—“God…appears to have lost control of the wickedness of his human creation, but he compensates for it by effecting true justice in the heavens.[v]  The philosopher, then, is countering the tsiduk ha-din of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon by claiming God did not act righteously and could only make up for it after the fact.

A second approach is to acknowledge the oddity and then explain the literary brilliance behind it. Perhaps the Midrash wants to convey that the rabbis had a greater understanding of God’s ways than that of a Roman. Or maybe we would expect that the Romans would be more likely to listen to one of their own sages than to a Jew, and the Midrash is emphasizing that the expression of the idea of an amaranthine Torah is foul enough to these heathens that they would even kill one of their own. The possibilities under this approach are many.

As a third approach, the reader, unable to craft a response, would simply catalogue the question and move on. After all, alternate versions of this aggadah in Avodah Zarah 18a and Semahot 8:13 omit the philosopher entirely.

A final approach would insist that we are misunderstanding the character in our aggadah. The previous approaches were predicated on the expectation that the philosopher’s job is to philosophize. What if the term “philosopher” has other connotations? In Shabbat 116a, Rashi understands that this character is a min, or infidel.[vi] Inserting this understanding into the Sifre, the story then highlights the conversion of this infidel to the belief system that will gain him access to the World to Come.[vii]

Using artistic license, I would like to suggest that each of these approaches to explaining the odd comment of this specific philosopher sheds light on the identity and reception of a philosopher in general. According to the first approach, a philosopher is one who speaks mundane words, though closer inspection shows that his message is instead profound. The second, broader approach might lead us to conclude that a philosopher is not the ultimate disseminator of knowledge. The third explanation indicates that the philosopher may have what to add to a conversation, but no one else is interested in understanding, and the masses will instead seek less sophisticated answers to their questions. Finally, a philosopher can be a dangerous heretic, overturning the very values of a particular people, refusing to relinquish his views until the day of his death.

This is not an exhaustive content-of-character list for every philosopher. Rather, it shows that a philosopher’s job is varied, and the results of his or her labor are inconclusive. This year’s first issue of Kol Hamevaser explores works of philosophers, influences of their philosophies, and the authors’ own philosophizing on novel questions posed by the twenty-first century student. Read Miriam Pearl Klahr’s article about Ahad Ha’am’s impact on contemporary Israeli culture. Examine Aryeh Sklar’s novel approach to reconciling contradictions in Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim. Learn about Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s approach to tragedy as explained by Avraham Wein. All the articles published here are thought provoking, well-researched, and represent the hard work of the authors.

Lastly, I would like to welcome everybody to a new year of Kol Hamevaser. Welcome to this year’s new editors: Daniel Shlian (editor in chief), Sima Grossman (associate editor), Matt Lubin (associate editor), and Elianne Neuman (assistant editor). Publishing a magazine of this caliber is not easy, and they have put in many hours to make it a success. Welcome to our writers and staff, many new recruits to Kol Hamevaser among them, who have already started to engage our campuses in high-level discussion. And welcome to you, our readers. Join the discussion, get involved with our events, and let us know how we can make Kol Hamevaser even better.

Eleorah Sandman is the Editor in Chief of Kol Hamevaser. She is a senior at Stern College and a first year student at GPATS.


[i] Ha’azinu 307

[ii] It is the Midrash itself that refers to these verses as tsiduk ha-din. See Avodah Zarah 18a for another version of the story. There, exact reasons are given for the Divine decree.

[iii] See Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p.666, Oxford, 1995.

[iv] In the version in Avodah Zarah, and in a third version in Semahot 8:13, it is R. Hanina ben Teradyon himself who similarly remarks that while the parchment was burning, the letters were instead flying away.

[v] Law and Truth in Rabbinic Literature, p.142, Indiana, 2010.

[vi] Tosafot there cite Rashi’s explanation and also note the literal translation from the Greek, “lover of wisdom.”

[vii] Compare to the version in Avodah Zarah where the executioner hastens Rabbi Hanina’s painful death in order to gain access to Olam Habbah.

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