Thursday, November 23rd, 2017

The Angel’s Oath: The Relationship of Hazal to the Platonic Doctrine of Recollection by David Flatto

December 21, 2009 by  
Filed under New Posts, Philosophy, Talmud

The Angel’s Oath:  The Relationship of Hazal to the Platonic Doctrine of Recollection

by David C. Flatto

Whereas balei mussar and machshava dramatize the great clash between Judaism and Hellenism (which serves as the background to the holiday of Hanukka), Jewish historians go to great lengths to demonstrate the degree to which Second Temple Judaism was influenced by Hellenism (including the Hasmonean dynasty).  Both of these perspectives contain elements of truth.  A study of the respective attitudes, creeds, and ideologies of Jews and Greeks reveals clear disparities and striking similarities.  A third kind of relationship between Jewish and Greek ideas also exists: where their respective approaches seem to overlap, but, upon closer scrutiny, diverge in significant ways.  Here the encounter between Judaism and Hellenism is especially important for appreciating the Torah’s values, as the foil of Hellenism helps deepen one’s understanding of what is distinctive about Jewish thought. 

*  *  *

Let me try to demonstrate this by revisiting a legendary Talmudic passage describing the fetus studying Torah: Bavli Niddah 30b.[1]  The passage begins with R. Simlai’s teaching depicting the fetus positioned in the mother’s womb:

R. Simlai delivered the following discourse: What does an embryo resemble when it is in the bowels of its mother? A folded writing tablet.  Its hands rest on its two temples respectively… A light burns above its head and it looks and sees from one end of the world to the other, as it is said, “Then his lamp shined above my head, and by His light I walked through darkness (Job 29).”  … And there is no time in which a man enjoys greater happiness than in those days, for it is said, “O that I were as the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me (Job 29)”…

After initially comparing the fetus’ posture to a writing tablet, the Talmud proceeds to employ fantastic language to describe the extraordinary illumination and bliss of the period of gestation.  In the continuation, the passage cites the famous legend about the fetus studying Torah from the angel:

It is also taught all the Torah from beginning to end, for it is said, “And he taught me, and said unto me: Let thy heart hold fast my words, keep my commandments and live (Proverbs 14),” and it is also said, “When the converse of God was upon my tent (Job 29)”…

Just as light exposes the fetus to a world-spanning view (“from one end of the world to the other”), so an angel elucidates the entire Torah to the fetus (“from beginning to end”).  Ensconced within a hallowed chamber, the fetus achieves a perfect apprehension of the Torah. 

The utopian existence which the fetus enjoys while in the womb is shattered when it is expelled from inside.  Abruptly, the epiphanies of gestation are lost in the trauma accompanying childbirth:

As soon as it sees the light, an angel approaches, slaps it on its mouth and causes it to forget all the Torah completely, as it is said, “Sin coucheth at the door (Gen. 4)”… 

Once having mastered the entire Torah, the newborn loses all knowledge, and now has to begin the process of “retrieval’ of prior wisdom.  In a beautiful account of this process, Rabbi Soloveitchik helps characterizes the nature of this learning:[2] 

R. Simlai wanted to tell us that when a Jew studies Torah he is confronted with something which is not foreign and extraneous, but rather intimate and already familiar, because he has already studied it, and the knowledge was stored up in the recesses of his memory and became part of him.  He studies, in effect, his own stuff.  Learning is the recollection of something familiar.

 The formulation in the last sentence evokes the classical Platonic doctrine of recollection, as Rabbi Soloveitchik notes in the proximate footnote:

One is reminded, by sheer terminological association, of the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis.

My only quibble with this formulation is that the similarity here is far greater than a terminological coincidence, and cuts to the essence of the underlying idea.  Both Plato and Hazal assume that in a pre-natal state a person had a perfect conception of the truth (or the forms), which was severely eroded at the moment of birth.[3]  Therefore, learning consists in a lifetime attempt to restore this prior knowledge.  Indeed, other Jewish studies scholars dating back to the nineteenth century have noted this profound parallel between Hellenistic and Rabbinic thought.  In Ephraim Urbach’s words:[4] 

In the motif of the unborn child’s knowledge of the Torah and his forgetting it upon being born, scholars, since Jellinek, have discerned the άναμνησις of the Platonic myth… 

In all, Athens and Jerusalem share an essential view of pre-natal life,[5] the idealization of pre-natal knowledge, and especially the characterization of study as retrieval.[6]

*  *  *

Yet despite these profound resemblances, the core conceptions of Greek and Rabbinic thought are actually dramatically different—a point which only becomes apparent by focusing more carefully on this same foundational myth.

To appreciate this distinction, it is worth briefly pondering the Platonic doctrine of recollection.  The essence of this Platonic idea is relatively straightforward:[7] Plato posits that the psyche or soul has pure apprehensions of the ideal forms.  Once the soul is imprisoned within a physical frame, this perception is severely impaired.  A human being can only perceive a shadow of the ideal forms, and must utilize his rational faculties to try to transcend these limits, and acquire a greater understanding of the truth.  This process is repeated in successive incarnations until man succeeds in permanently acquiring a lasting apprehension of the truth.  Thus, the process of recollection aims to comprehend the truth by rising beyond the limits of temporal life, and escaping the trappings of the human existential condition.[8]

At first blush, Hazal would seem to echo this idea by describing the fetus’s tenure in idyllic terms that surpass a person’s life experience, “And there is no time in which a man enjoys greater happiness than in those days…”  Having previously mastered the entirety of Torah, a human will tirelessly strive to approximate his prior wisdom, evidently aiming to heal the rupture of entering a human form.  Moreover, the biblical verses from Job which are a subtext to this Talmudic passage seem to reflect precisely this sentiment.  Of course earlier in this biblical book (chapter 3) Job bluntly curses the day of his birth, and according to Hazal’s daring reading of Job 29,[9] he again expresses a similar yearning to return to a pre-natal existence (not just the days of youthful innocence, which is the simple sense of the verses). 

But the Talmud’s invocation of verses from Job—voicing a cry of tragic suffering—surely is grounds to pause.  For Job’s desperate mindset can hardly be thought of as representing a paradigmatic attitude.  Likewise, a closer reading of this passage points away from Job’s sentiments, and its Platonic resonances.   

A seeming inconsistency in the Talmudic description of the fetus provides an important hint along these lines.  While the thrust of the passage underscores the all-inclusive knowledge of the fetus, the initial characterization of the fetus in the passage suggests otherwise.  The opening lines compare the fetus to a folded writing tablet, or ledger (unlike, e.g., Mishnah Avot 3:16 which refers to an open writing tablet),[10] a tabula rasa which has yet to be opened for inscription.[11]  Within the womb, the fetus is a fresh ledger with no content.  Considered alongside the continuation of the passage, with its depiction of the fetus mastering Torah and wisdom, this portrayal makes little sense.  Why is the ledger folded and blank, rather than open and thoroughly scrawled with Torah content?  On closer inspection, these two images are reconcilable, and revealing.  For the notion of a ledger is used in rabbinic literature to describe the record of a human being’s deeds.[12]  Since the fetus in utero lies in a pre-natal state, this is necessarily empty.  In contrast, the child’s wisdom bank is full to capacity.[13]

The dichotomy between knowledge and action is crucial for perceiving the deeper message of this Talmudic account of the fetus.  It affords the key to understanding the decisive, concluding lines of this passage, describing the final interaction between the angel and the fetus immediately prior to birth:

It (=the fetus) does not emerge from there before it is made to take an oath… What is the nature of the oath that it is made to take? Be righteous, and never be wicked…

Administered at the culmination of the angel’s tutelage, the oath presumably epitomizes the main charge to the emergent newborn.  Nevertheless, the oath’s curious formulation is far from obvious.  Against the backdrop of the angel’s intensive Torah instruction which has just been erased, one would imagine an oath to adjure the newborn to resume his Torah study.  Something along the lines of, ‘Be wise, and never be foolish.’  Instead, the baby is charged to be righteous, not wicked.  In a deliberate shift, as the baby prepares to enter the world, the angel emphasizes a distinctive goal.  The ultimate lesson of the angel focuses on acting righteously, rather than on mastering Torah knowledge, as this constitutes the newborn’s supreme task.[14]

Moreover, this cardinal assignment is only possible outside of the womb.  Notwithstanding the utopian image of life in the womb—where illumination, wisdom and happiness are achieved—the purpose of life cannot be accomplished in the womb.[15]  For one thing that one cannot be inside the womb is righteous; or wicked for that matter, either.  These latter epithets are only assigned based upon how one lives—one’s concrete actions, in the face of moral choices—after exiting the womb.  As the Talmudic passage underscores by citing Genesis 4:7 (“as it is said, sin coucheth at the door…”), weighty moral hazards await the fetus outside the womb.  But only when navigating in such a landscape, can a person prevail and achieve righteousness or wickedness.  After immersing the purified soul in the well of Torah, the newborn is properly oriented to successfully engage in a world full of challenges, and adhere to his oath of righteousness.

Thus, the focus of the rabbinic legend of the fetus is not to highlight perfection within the womb, but the challenging call that beckons beyond it.  For human beings were essentially created for the precious, if formidable, mission that only begins after departing the womb.  Unlike the Platonic ideal of escaping the prison of the body in order to achieve transcendent contemplation, the Rabbinic ideal anticipates an inspired, but pulsating, human being, leading a righteous life of worldly actions.


[1] There are parallel versions of this passage in rabbinic literature.  See the notes cited in Ephraim E. Urbach, The Sages (p.246).

[2] Rabbi Soloveitchik— “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah” (Tradition 17:2,  p.69).

[3] For the Platonic doctrine, see Meno 80-86, Phaedo 66-76, Phaedrus 247-250 and the Republic, Books 5, 7 and 10.

[4] Ephraim E. Urbach, The Sages (p.246).

[5] For other conceptions of pre-natal life, see the recent collection of essays in Vanessa R. Sasson and Jane Marie Law, eds., Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture (brought to my attention by Menachem Butler).

[6] Afterwards Urbach notes the position of Yitzhak Baer, who likewise recognizes the Platonic notion, but questions the physicality of the Talmudic description.  See also Urbach’s subsequent analysis on pp.246-48 which notes certain important differences between the Greek and Jewish images of pre-natal life.    

[7] Obviously I am simplifying a topic that has received much examination in classical scholarship (a useful volume that summarizes much scholarship is Richard Kraut (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato).  Still, as a general statement, I hope that my characterization is sufficiently accurate and helpful. 

[8] The Romantic poets spoke of the “eclipsing curse of birth.”  See Simon Blackburn, Plato’s Republic: A Biography (p.109).

[9]  “1Job again took up his discourse and said: 2‘O that I were as in the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me; 3when his lamp shone over my head, and by his light I walked through darkness; 4when I was in my prime, when the friendship of God was upon my tent; 5when the Almighty was still with me, when my children were around me…”

[10] On the nature of the pinkas or pinax, see Menahem Haran, “The Codex, the Pinax and the Wooden Slates,” in Tarbiz 57 (pp.151-164), and Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (pp.127-130).

[11] See Aristotle’s De Anima, Book 3, Chapter 4.  In a sense, then, the Talmudic passage collapses two Greek ideas that are irreconcilable as epistemological ideas, but can be harmonized along other lines.  See below.

[12] See, e.g., Mishnah Avot 3:16, Bereshit Rabbah 81:1 and tShabbat 1:13.

[13] This reading seems preferable to two less attractive alternatives: the first being that the folded writing tablet connotes a tablet that has been completely inscribed and folded; the second being that, while the folded writing tablet does connote a blank tablet, this merely reflects the initial state of the fetus, before learning Torah from the angel. 

[14]Study is greater, for it leads to action.  See Bavli Kiddushin 40b.

[15] This understanding of the Talmudic passage allows the rabbinic conception to better accord with the biological reality wherein fetal life is preparatory for human life outside of the womb.

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