Born to Return

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Alex S. Ozar

According to rabbinic doctrine, however much Torah we learn in our lifetimes, however ravenous our gobbling of Torah-knowledge between first-breath and the grave, the sum-total is but a murmuring echo of eruditional glories past. For it is taught by Rabbi Simlai that each and every fetus is taught the entirety of the Torah while in the womb—a gift of marvelous beneficence marred only by its violently coerced, comprehensive retraction upon birth (Niddah 30b):

And they teach him the entire Torah … As he enters the world, an angel comes and strikes him upon his mouth, causing him to forget the entirety of the Torah.

Learning is essentially a matter not of acquisition but of reclamation, restoring what was once ours. Learning is recollection.

Now, mention any of this in the right crowds and before you can say “Zeitgeist,” you’ll have your ears flooded with enthused clamorings about Plato and the famed doctrine of anamnesis—that since the soul has “seen all things … what we call learning is recollection.”[1] According to Yitzhak Baer, the rabbinic teaching here is indeed “patently Platonic.”[2] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik agrees  that at the least, the comparison is unavoidable: “One is reminded, by sheer terminological association, of the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis.”

Piqued by Soloveitchik’s words but wanting more, David Flatto writes: “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.”

Plato and Rabbi Simlai really do seem to be saying something very much alike, and that cannot be without significance. But sometimes superficial resemblance obscures a more fundamental divergence, and I will argue that the points of contact here serve precisely to accent the essential differences of worldview and value separating the rabbinic and Athenian minds. What emerges from the spiral of similarity and difference is a powerful portrait of the distinctive intellectual and spiritual character of Talmud Torah [Torah learning].  

The “Baer” Truth

It will be helpful to have the relevant parts of the talmudic text in front of us:

Rabbi Simlai taught: To what can a fetus in its mother’s innards be compared? To a writing-tablet folded over: its hands on its temples, its elbows on its knees, its heels on its buttocks, its head resting between its thighs, its mouth closed and its navel open, eating from what its mother eats and drinking from what she drinks … A candle burns above its head, and it looks and gazes from one end of the world to the other…And they teach to it the entire Torah…As it enters the world, an angel comes and strikes it upon its mouth, causing it to forget the entire Torah.

Now Yitzhak Baer, he who says the rabbinic teaching is “patently Platonic,” goes on to clarify that this only becomes fully clear “if we extrude the references to the child’s stay in its mother’s womb, a feature that was interpolated by peculiar and late copyists.”[3] The issue is that for Plato the soul’s access to universal knowledge decisively depends on its fundamental distinctness and at least part-time holistic apartness from the realm of matter and flesh: “If we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body,” declares Socrates.[4]

Compare that to Rabbi Simlai’s richly graphic, decidedly non-spiritual picture of the “fetus in its mother’s innards” and so forth. It is in this context that we read of the incipient child’s enlightenment. In this rabbinic view, comprehensive knowledge is acquired not by an incorporeal soul on a supernal cosmic flight but by a fleshy fetus curled up deep in its mother’s innards, the darkness pierced by but a solitary flame. For Baer, since the doctrine is Platonic, and since the context of corporeal grit would be inexplicable in Platonic terms, that context must be an alien excrescence upon an original Greek core.

But as Ephraim Urbach argues, this is precisely the wrong conclusion to draw.[5] If the rabbinic picture appears strikingly disconsonant with the Platonic, that is because the rabbinic picture is strikingly disconsonant with the Platonic. The dissonance stands for an affirmative argument: to the rabbinic mind, it is basic that the omniscience of trans-world vision is achieved not by a soul apart but by a person in the flesh.

From Plato to Flatto

David Flatto argues that despite the eminent convergences, closer examination of the talmudic passage shows that “the core conceptions of Greek and Rabbinic thought are actually dramatically different.” For Plato, prior to (and after) each incarnation the pure soul enjoys unalloyed cognitive access to the universal forms. And since souls are imperishable and hence eternal, any given soul at given time t1 should already have acquired all the knowledge there is to know.[6] But Flatto points to the very first image offered in Rabbi Simlai’s fetal description: “To what is a fetus comparable? To a folded tablet.” Assuming that the figured tablet is of the proverbial blank variety, it would seem that R. Simlai is depicting the fetus as wholly without knowledge at some point t1 in time. But that cannot be on the Greek conception. Whatever knowledge you have, you’ve always had.

Of course, it is likewise unclear how this could be on the rabbinic view—isn’t the child in the womb said to know the world from end to end and the Torah in and out? Whence, then, the tabula rasa? On the strength of these considerations, Flatto argues that the blank tablet image is best interpreted as referring to a registry not of the child’s fetal knowledge but of the person-to-be’s deeds in their upcoming terrestrial lifetime. After all, “the notion of a ledger is used in rabbinic literature to describe the record of a human being’s deeds.”

What shifts in the rabbinic version is not the nature but the purpose of the fetal educational experience: the pursuit of lived ethical rectitude rather than the enjoyment of intellectual-contemplative bliss.

In the talmudic passage, the utopian idyll of omni-enlightenment in the womb is overtaken by and subordinated to the struggle to do right out in the world. In the end, “What is the oath with which they forswear him? Be a righteous man, and do not be a wicked man” (Niddah 30b). And so for Flatto it is precisely through first strongly depicting the convergence of its own doctrine with the Platonic that the Talmud asserts its ultimate independence from it, transcending the Athenian commitment to purely contemplative existence in rendering such existence preparatory to a life of righteousness in action. 

Knowing, or Learning?

Without discounting Flatto’s analysis, I would argue that the break occurs earlier on, and that the rabbinic account not only supplements but fundamentally transforms the Platonic doctrine at its core.

For how is it that an individual soul comes to know all things, in Plato’s view? As noted, it is an inevitable, simple byproduct of the soul’s imperishability: “As the soul is immortal, has been born often, and has seen all things here and in the underworld, there is nothing which it has not learned.”[7] The soul has simply seen it all, and seen it with its own eyes. This is important, because Plato holds that teaching—the gift of knowledge from one person to another—is fundamentally impossible. Why?

Suppose you aim to teach me, a moderately bright and eager but wholly untutored pupil, the art of geometry, and you begin by impressing upon me the Pythagorean Theorem. Having seen the formula on the board and heard it from your lips, do I now know the Pythagorean Theorem? Not yet, Plato argues, as how am I to know that it’s true? You are fallible, after all, and so to recognize what you present to me as true I must be able to give an account, to generate through my own reason an understanding, of why A2 + B2 = C2.

But suppose I can do that, and hence can verify your lesson as true. For what, then, do I need you? If I can produce the answer on my own, it turns out that all that’s left for you to do is to prompt me to bring to mind, to recall, what I essentially already know and have always known. In so doing you serve not as a teacher but simply as an incidental occasion—it could have been anyone—for my own achievement. Teaching is impossible.[8] 

Kierkegaard, for his part, was quite exercised by this thinking, as it seemed to undermine a basic premise of biblical religion: that God appeared and gave the Truth to humanity at a historical moment in time. On the Platonic view this must be doubly wrong: what is known has been known from eternity, and the identity of any occasion—the someone providing the prompts—for recollection can have no essential significance. “The fact that I have learned from Socrates or from Prodicus or from a maidservant can concern me only historically.”[9]

Knowing is a fundamentally lonely, even solipsistic affair where everyone is self-sufficient unto themselves. “In the Socratic view, every human being is himself the midpoint, and the whole world focuses only on him because his self-knowledge is God-knowledge.”[10] The possibility of real relationship, where the identities of the parties matter essentially and the intercourse between them can generate something truly, dynamically new, is foreclosed. It is, necessarily, everyone for themselves.

What this all highlights, for Kierkegaard, is just how wondrous the miracle of divine revelation really is. The almighty God, out of nothing but love for humankind, reaches across the infinite chasm to embrace us, and in that moment we gain the knowledge that we are loved by God, knowledge we could have learned from no other teacher and in no other way. The first radical claim of biblical religion is that teaching really is possible.

Returning to the talmudic passage, it is noteworthy that the initial mention of fetal omniscience really does seem to be of the Platonic, internally self-sufficient kind: “And above its head a candle is lit, and it gazes and looks from one end of the world to the other.” This is a depiction of supernal enlightenment, with the soul transcending the narrow confines of any worldly here-and-now, enjoying an instantaneous view of the whole not from a finite somewhere but from the infinite everywhere. But now we notice that this is emphatically not how the incipient child comes by their Torah knowledge. Unlike the world, the Torah is not simply swallowed in a flash of enlightenment. Rather, “And they teach to it the whole entirety of the Torah.”

In the context of Platonic philosophy, then, the point made by the text is that direct contrast to worldly wisdom, knowledge of Torah is not merely known or recalled but taught and learned. And so, in Kierkegaard’s terms, it follows that learning Torah involves a relationship between teacher and disciple, a relationship for which the unique identities of the teacher and the student and the intercourse between them make all the difference. It is not an impersonal, objective exercise, but rather a relationship between personal subjects.

From Relationship to Fellowship

There is more than one way for such a relationship to go, however. For Kierkegaard, it is vital that the teacher in question is not just anyone, but exclusively God himself, and this comes along with several unfortunate consequences: Revelation on Kierkegaard’s view occurs at a single, wholly unique, capital ‘M’ Moment to a solitary individual (a “flight of the alone unto the alone”), a moment in which the specifics of time, place, and personality are of no meaning, and what is revealed has no content other than its violent offense to human reason as the paradox, the humiliating confrontation of the mind with the perfectly unknowable.

Kierkegaard counters Plato’s picture of perfect intellectual self-sufficiency by simply inverting it to one of perfect dependence; anything less, he says, is so much “slipshod thought” and “idle chatter.” It remains a zero-sum, one-sided affair, all give and no take. In Jewish terms, we might say that while Kierkegaard gives us a teacher and student, he stops short of giving us learning.

Is it possible to move beyond the dichotomy of pure intellectual autonomy (Plato) or pure dependence (Kierkegaard)? Can we be active, creative in our reception of God’s teaching, can it matter for my learning that I am who I am and you are who you are, can we finite humans truly teach and learn from each other and generate new ideas together? The rabbinic answer, crystallized in Rabbi Simlai’s teaching, is emphatically affirmative to all of the above. To the rabbinic mind, Rabbi Akiva’s Torah is not Rabbi Yishmael’s is not Reb Hayyim’s is not Rabbi Shimon Shkop’s, and it goes to the heart of the matter that your rebbe is your rebbe and your student is your student. And whereas Socrates could never quite manage a steady havruta, with Torah it is fundamental that partnership and community beckon clarity, passion, and dynamic divine fire far surpassing the lonely powers of any solitary mind.

Is the rabbinic position true? Is genuinely collaborative, generative learning really possible? I have no knock-down argument, but then a merely rational demonstration would of course hardly be adequate to the reality in question—one would expect that the possibility of truly relational teaching, should it be real, would not be autonomously proven but relationally taught.

So I will say this: if you have been privileged to know the walls of the beit midrash from the inside, you know that the fruits of your labor there are forever marked by the unique personalities of your teachers, your relationships with your peers, the fellowship of learners there and everywhere, and the sheer fact of your Jewish identity indelibly linking you to the whole of the Jewish past, present, and future. And whether that awareness has faded, or is a reality one has in their lifetime never known, Rabbi Simlai teaches us that it is a home to which we can all, always and forever, return.

[1] Five Dialogues of Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing House, 2002), 71.

[2] Quoted in Ephraim Urbach, The Sages (Jerusalem: Magnes University Press, 1979), 246.

[3] Urbach, The Sages, 246.

[4] Plato, Five Dialogues, 103.

[5] Urbach, The Sages, 246. “The very need to declare, without giving any reason, that the basic subject-matter of the source was a feature ‘that was interpolated by peculiar and late copyists’ shows the weakness of the argument.”    

[6] Or, in Socrates’ more mythical formulation, “As the soul is immortal, has been born often, and has seen all things here and in the underworld, there is nothing which it has not learned” (Plato, Five Dialogues, 71).

[7] Plato, Meno, 71.

[8] Based on Plato, Meno, 70-78.

[9] Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 12.

[10] Ibid, 11.

Rabbi Alex S. Ozar serves as a rabbi with OU-JLIC and the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University, where he is also pursuing a PhD in philosophy and religious studies.