Parshas Noach 5759 - '98

Outline Vol. 3, # 2

by Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein

This issue has been anonymously dedicated to Shmuel Nathan Sheps on

the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah


Last week, we mentioned an article published in Light, 5737 (’77), concerning Chacham Dovid Nieto. The article describes an accusation of heresy, and the ensuing controversy, that surrounded the sage.

After being appointed head of the Sephardic community of London in 5461 (1701), the Chacham gave a speech in which he equated Hashem with "Nature." This appeared to certain members of the community to be similar to the view of Spinoza, who had been excommunicated for his defiance of traditional Jewish ideology in 5416 (1656).

However, the Chacham defended his words, maintaining that the idea was fundamental to the Judaism. To see Hashem as divorced from nature, would be antithetical to Torah.

When the debate was presented to the Chacham Tzvi (Rav Tzvi Ashkenazi of Altona), one of the generation’s leaders, he praised Chacham Nieto for his words, and the matter came to an end.

Hashem and Nature

The Ramban wrote: "There is no such thing as ’nature.’ " In pervious issues, we have examined these words in the light of statements from the Baal Shem Tov, the Alter of Kelm, and Rav Yerucham Levovitz.

Rav Nieto showed that the Hebrew word for nature, teva -- had been introduced only in modern times. It is not to be found in the words of the ancient sages. "We may infer that Hashem does all that the moderns ascribe to nature. Thus it may be said that there is no nature but that which is Providence ("Hashgacha Pratis") which people call teva, nature; and that is why I said that Hashem and nature, nature and Hashem, are all the same thing..."

Actually, these words are unlike the ideas that Spinoza had circulated. Following the direction of Descartes, Spinoza adhered to a system in which spiritual entities belonged to one realm, and nature to another.

Judaism insists the reverse: The Shema dictates that Hashem is solely in charge of all.

"Ohr Hatzafon" -- The Hidden Light

The Alter of Slobodka (Rav Noson Tzvi Finkel) described our perception: We think that there are two separate realms -- the spiritual, heavenly order, and the physical, earthly one. So, too, regarding actions -- there are physical actions, and there are the spiritual expressions of the heart and mind.

All of this is mistaken, explained the Alter. The heaven and the earth are not two separate realms, but just as Hashem created the heavens as the essence of the spiritual, so the earth was created fundamentally spiritual. As for Man -- the verse states clearly that he was formed "b’tzelem Elokim" -- in the image of Hashem -- for a supremely spiritual purpose. (Ohr Hatzafon, section 1, part 2.)

The same spiritual, heavenly, unfathomable force, hidden and concealed, that forms and unites all the physical parts until they become one body and one form -- that same force maintains and sustains all entities. (Ibid., part 1.)

After the mistake of eating the forbidden fruit, man and his environment became encrusted in the physical. Yet, this was only in appearance; the reality was that man and the world still remain essentially spiritual.

In the same way as the universe is fundamentally spiritual, but appears to be purely physical, so too, with the mitzvos. Even though they are spiritual, they are clothed in physical form: the basic commandments were written in stone, and all the mitzvos are to be performed specifically through the outward limbs. (Ibid., part 2.)

Regarding the Avos (Patriarchs), all their deed were performed entirely with the inner spirit. Yaakov wrestled with the angel of Hashem, and was victorious. This certainly could not be construed to be any kind of physical battle whatsoever -- rather, a spiritual, intellectual struggle... (Ibid., part 1.)

This is everyone’s obligation: to lift one’s self -- and all creation -- to its true essence... (Ibid., part 2.)

We can now understand Chacham Nieto’s stance. The scientific revolution was taking hold of people’s lives, and swaying them away from the classical faith -- without their cognizance. The people needed a reminder that Hashem created the world, and there is nothing that remains beyond his dominion.