Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How Mitzvot and the Universe Teach us About God - Professor Don Seeman's article and my thoughts on it.

Over Rosh Hashanah I read an excellent paper in the current issue of JQR (Volume 3 number 3 Summer 2013) by Professor Don Seeman which opened for me a whole new avenue of thought and was very much at the forefront of my thinking during Yom Kippur (which by the way is my favorite day of the year). Rambam’s Ta’amei Hamitzvot, the last section of the Moreh, which comprises more than half of part 3, has raised the hackles of thinkers since it was published in the 12th century. Ramban attacks it several times in his commentary on Chumash; the most famous attack is the one against Rambam’s explanation of Korbanot (animal offerings in the temple). The biggest criticism is that they seem very utilitarian and as the Rav writes in his Halachik Man as quoted by Seeman, the reasons of the guide “neither edify nor inspire the religious consciousness” and are “valueless for the religious interests we have most at heart”.  Many attempts have been made at dealing with this but Seeman shows how the criticism is a misreading of the Rambam and that Ta’amei Hamitzvot are indeed in line with his general philosophy of Judaism, an intense religious idea. What is really extraordinary is that Seeman proves this textually through a comment of the Rambam in MN and its connection to Sefer Hamitzvot,

In sefer Hamitzvot positive commandment 3 Rambam defines the Mitzvah of loving God as follows:
היא הציווי שנצטווינו על אהבתו יתעלה, והוא: שנתבונן ונסתכל במצוותיו וציווייו ופעולתיו, כדי שנשיגהו ונתענג בהשגתו תכלית התענוג - וזוהי האהבה המצווה [עלינו].
By this injunction we are commanded to love God that is to say to dwell upon and contemplate his commandments, his injunctions and his works so that we can obtain a conception of Him and in conceiving Him attain absolute joy. This constitutes the love of God and is obligatory.”

God is unknowable as He is a transcendental entity and unique. He is beyond the realm of human comprehension. However man can see God’s traces by contemplating his surroundings, the world he lives in, the universe it is part of, how they came into existence, in short God’s works. But what does Rambam mean when he says that we can obtain a conception of God by contemplating and dwelling on His injunctions and commandments? Students of Rambam have understood it to mean that by studying the Laws of the Torah in great detail and devotion one is indeed studying God’s words and thus reading the mind of God. That has been the classical explanation and to me it was always discordant. It sounded like sophistry. And as Seeman points out, commandment 11 deals with the mitzvah of Talmud torah, which is clearly learning the details of the Law, why duplicate it? Furthermore in 11 there is no mention of Talmud torah bringing about a conception of God.   

Here is where Seeman’s great insight sheds light connecting this commandment 3 with what seem almost an offhand Rambam comment and a digression in MN 3:49. Rambam is discussing the reason for the commandments and injunctions the Laws that deal with forbidden relations. As he discusses the laws of Yibum (levirate) he seems to digress and talk about the story of Yehuda and Tamar, how Yehuda was honest and just, and how the story teaches the descendants of Yaakov about how their forefathers dealt with others justly. Rambam then shows how equitable justice plays an important role in the Laws of the Torah.
“Thus are these bad habits cured when they are treated according to the divine Law; the ways of equity are never lost sight of; they are obvious and discernible in every precept of the Law by those who consider it well. See how, according to the Law, the slanderer of his wife, who only intended to withhold from her what he is bound to give her, is treated in the same manner as a thief who has stolen the property of his neighbor; and the false witness (Deut. xix. 16, seq.) who schemes to injure, although the injury was in reality not inflicted, is punished like those who have actually caused injury and wrong, viz., like the thief and the slanderer. The three kinds of sinners are tried and judged by one and the same law. Marvel exceedingly at the wisdom of His commandments, may He be exalted, just as you should marvel at the wisdom manifested in the things He has made. Scripture says: "The Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are judgment" (Deut. xxxii. 4. It says that just as the things made by Him are consummately perfect so are His commandments consummately just. However our mind is too limited to comprehend the perfection of all His works, or the equity of all His laws; and as we are able to comprehend some of His wonderful works in the organs of living beings and the motions of the spheres, so we understand also the equity of some of His laws; that which is unknown to us of both of them is far more than that which is known to us. I will now return to the theme of the present chapter.”

Besides knowing the Laws in detail, which is the mitzvah of Talmud torah, Rambam suggests that one should step back and contemplate the Laws in their entirety how perfect and just they are. By placing this contemplation together with contemplation of the universe, Rambam is telling us that both contemplations have the same purpose and result.  Just as contemplating the elegance of the universe points us to God so too the justice and equity of His Laws point us to Him. MN here is thus an expansion of what he said in Sefer Hamitzvot, a kind of Gemara to a Mishnah. Seeman explains that now we understand how the chapters about Ta’amei Hamitzvot are sandwiched between the chapters that talk about Providence and the last chapters which talk about devotional worship. It is the Ta’amei Hamitzvot that when the Mitzvot are contemplated from their perspective lead to that devotional worship. It also explains the seemingly mundane reasons for the commandments, it is the contemplation of these reasons that lead us to be aware through the Mitzvot God’s wisdom in promulgating these Laws and we gain a conception of Him. It is the latter idea that I would like to expand a little upon and that has been central to my thinking in the short time since I read the article.

The Law changes the individual and society by inculcating good habits and beliefs thus changing the way people act with each other, individuals as well as nations, by being more equitable and just. These habits and beliefs indeed changed the course of human history. Judaism has influenced the trajectory of western civilization and by extension the rest of humanity. Contemplating how these Laws started at Sinai with Moshe Rabbeinu, have changed the course of human history, one apprehends the wisdom of God the Giver of these Laws, and we develop a conception of His Being.  So when Rambam defines the third commandment to love God as contemplating His commandments and his works, he is talking about this type of contemplation not the details of the Law. When Rambam explains that Korbanot are a concession to human frailty, he is telling us that they are there to help us in the process of abandoning idolatry, the bane of humanity, the great barrier to scientific understanding of the universe. (See my article in Hakirah on the subject here
) When justice is done equitably society is impacted and consequently the trajectory of that society is affected as are those impacted by that society. Sometimes the Law be not work for an individual, but the Law is still valid because it is good for the great majority of people and impacts society favorably (see MN 3:34). This contemplation is the underlying purpose of the need to know the Ta’amei Hamitzvot. This idea also dovetails with Rambam’s concept of providence – Hashgacha as I explained Providence in my article here. All actions have consequences and if one calibrates his action to conform with God’s will and plan, one is acting within the parameters of providence otherwise ones actions are purely chance. The Mitzvot have propelled mankind along the path of divine Providence. Contemplation of that confirms and illuminates how one understands God’s will and wisdom, pointing to His existence and a conception of how He acts.

Professor Seeman has contributed greatly with his article to a better understanding of the thinking of the Great Eagle and has completely answered all criticism of his Ta’amei Hamitzvot. Understanding the Ta’amei Hamitzvot in this context has made what seemed a mundane and historical explanation of many Mitzvot into an intense religious experience.

This short post does not do justice to Professor Seeman’s article which should be read in its entirety, but it triggered some thoughts which I wanted to put down on paper.
(See also Ibn Ezra on Tehillim 19:8 and Redak on the same verse who probably got it from Ibn Ezra which could be read in a similar vein.)

Chag Sameach.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Interesting Comment of a Medieval Provencal Scholar on the Ra'avad/Ramban - Rambam disagreement on Olam Haba.

Ramban towards the end of the Sha’ar Hagemul section of his work on Aveilus- Torat HaAdam – summarizes his opinion regarding what occurs after death.  

עכשיו ביארנו כונתנו בשכרי המצות וענשן, ונחזור בקצרה: כי שכר הנפשות וקיומם בעולם הנשמות נקרא לרבותינו זיכרונם לברכה "גן עדן", ופעמים קורין אותו "עליה", ו"ישיבה שלמעלה". ואחרי כן יבא המשיח והוא מכלל חיי העולם הזה, ובסופה יהיה יום הדין ותחיית המתים, שהוא השכר הכולל הגוף והנפש, והוא העיקר הגדול שהוא תקות כל מקוה להקדוש ברוך הוא, והוא העולם הבא, שבו ישוב הגוף כמו נפש, והנפש תדבק בדעת עליון כהדבקה בגן עדן עולם הנשמות, ותתעלה בהשגה גדולה ממנה, ויהיה קיום הכל לעדי עד ולנצח נצחים

The reward of the souls in the world of the spirits is referred to by the Rabbis as “Gan Eden”, at times they refer to it as “going up” or “sitting in elevation”. After this period [Gan Eden], the mashiach will come – he being part of this world and at the end of that period will be the Day of Judgment and the Revival of the Dead, a reward that encompasses both the physical and the spiritual. That is the important matter that all that yearn for HKBH, yearn for it, the Olam Haba, where the physical becomes spiritual, the soul cleaving in the higher knowledge just as it did in Gan Eden in the spirit world, elevating to a High apprehension and everything will become eternal”. (Translation is a little difficult and loses the flavor of the original)

Ramban based on his reading of various sources in Chazal understands that once a person dies his soul an immanent entity that has a ghostlike substance, enters either Gehinom- hell or Gan Eden – paradise – for a transitional period until Techyat Hametim – the revival of the dead. In between Mashiach comes and physical life continues for a while with structural and societal changes which I will not go into here until towards the end of that period, when the dead come back to eternal life and the physical becomes cleaved with the spiritual. That is Olam Haba where the physical body is sustained by its spiritual component. In the schema the order of things after one dies are; Gan Eden, Mashiach, Techyat Hametim and Olam Haba.
Ramban’s source for this thinking is the Ra’avad in Hilchot Teshuvah 8:2. Rambam is discussing Olam Haba and explains that there is no physical existence in that state. To Rambam Olam Haba is what one experiences immediately after death and is permanent. Mashiach and the revival of the dead have no connection with this and are separate future occurrences. In Rambam’s order Olam Haba is first as it comes immediately after death followed by Yemot Hamashiach and eventually some kind of Techyat Hametim for some elite.  

On Rambam’s statement:

  ג  [ב] העולם הבא--אין בו גוף וגווייה, אלא נפשות הצדיקים בלבד, בלא גוף כמלאכי השרת

Ra’avad comments quoting various Talmudic statements that, according to him, unequivocally show the rabbis believed that the participant in Olam Haba does have a physical body. As to the Rabbis statement that in Olam Haba there is no food etc… he suggests that the bodies that come back from the dead are as strong as those of Eliyahu the prophet turned angel … Ramban in Sha’ar Hagemul does not quote him but clearly expands on it and explains more details.
In Daat 74-75 I was reading an article by Dr. Aviram Ravitzky about a manuscript of a book titled Mezukak Shiv’atayim authored by Rabbi Joseph ben Shaul Kimhi, a 14th century scholar in Provence.  As anyone who read Bein Torah Lachochma by Professor Moshe Halbertal, especially towards the end, knows that the Maimonidean controversies in Provence during the late 13th and early 14th century created a rift between those scholars and the Spanish scholars of the Ramban and his followers the Rashba etc… school.  The rabbis of Spain rarely quote the Provencal rabbis in their works and as the Jewish community was destroyed in Provence at the end of the century, their works fell into oblivion. It is only now that slowly scholars are discovering a few manuscripts in national libraries and are starting to decipher them and bring them back to the world. A revival of the dead indeed! Mezukak Shiv’atayim is one of those books. It is an encyclopedic work that includes Halacha and theology. Aviram Ravitzky quotes a short excerpt which caught my attention and addresses the above matter.
“And I the student wonder at the Ra’avad comment for this is not Olam Haba but Techyat Hametim for Olam Haba is after death. That is why the Members of the Great Gathering (Anshei Knesset Hagedola) wrote in the yotzer of Shabbat: Olam Haze, Olam Haba, Mashiach and Techyat Hametim in that precise order….”
Rav Yosef is referring to the Shabbat Yotzer Or Bracha at the morning Shema and Tefillah “Hakol Yoducha”. At the end we say Ein aroch lecha baolam hazeh, ve’ein Zulatecha lechayei Olam Haba, efes biltecha leyemot hamashiach vein dome lecha litchyat Hametim. The order is clearly not the Ra’avad order but rather Rambam’s.

What also caught my eye is that Rabbi Yosef traces the Hakol Yoducha prayer to the Anshei Knesset Hagedola. We know that it does not exist in Rambam’s siddur at the end of Sefer Ahavah. I have also checked Siddur Resag and it does not have it either. I cannot imagine that a Minhag in place from the Anshei Knesset Hagedola would be ignored by these Rishonim.  

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Does A Non Philosophically Minded Person Partake In Olam Haba?

Shabbat, I came across by chance on an interesting Teshuvat haRashba (1:423) that opened an interesting train of thought and explained a difficult concept in Rambam. It is a lengthy Teshuvah that deals with certain aspects of Davening. Towards the end Rashba comments as follows: (my translation)

Regarding prayers where you stated that without Kavannah (mindfulness) it has no meaning for a worshiper  the truth is that mindfulness is the basis for everything. However the kind of mindfulness (in other words what one thinks about) vary and are divided into different levels, one deeper than the other, depending on the depth of the knowledge and apprehension of the worshiper from the simplest person to Moshe rabbeinu AH, according to each one’s apprehension [the prayer] will satisfy.
The first level of Kavanot upon which all Jews rely upon, is that all know and admit that there is a God, a non-contingent entity that created the world from nothingness with His will as He wished to do so, that He gave the Torah at Sinai, a true Torah with just laws and edicts. It is to Him we belong and worship, He commanded us to offer ourselves as we declare His name [teach His existence DG]. It is Him we thank, to Him we pray, for everything emanates from Him and He watches our deeds to punish or reward. It is with this Kavannah that all Jews pray even women and ignoramuses and are rewarded for their worship. Even those who don’t understand the words, does not pronounce them well, are rewarded for their worship when having this general Kavannah…. One should not stop one who cannot attain the higher levels of Kavannah from praying God forbid nor should one demoralize them. For if you suggest this then children, women and ignoramuses would not be able to pray or do Mitzvot, not only them but the majority of the Jews except for one or two individuals [who have a higher apprehension] and the Rabbis already told us all Jews have a part in Olan Haba.”

What caught my attention are the last few sentences in this part of the Teshuvah. Rashba argues that it cannot be that higher levels of apprehension are necessary because the Mishnah in Sanhedrin says that Kol Israel yesh Lahem Chelek Leolam Haba. In other words, once a Jew does the Mitzvot while subscribing to the basic theology outlined above, he  partakes in Olam Haba. The rest of the Mishnah then reads “and these [people] do not partake in Olam Haba, one who denies Techyat Hametim, denies the divinity of the torah etc…” The Mishnah is thus telling us that one that keeps Mitzvot but has an erroneous theology as defined further does not partake in Olam Haba. The act of the Mitzvah does not suffice unless it is done with a basic mindfulness that an erroneous theology does not permit.   

I believe that Rambam read this Mishnah the same way. Some scholars have argued that the way Rambam explains the ultimate goal of Mitzvot, which is to make us into perfect individuals who apprehend God and that achievement is Olam Haba, a kind of unification of the mind with knowledge of God, then unless one is perfected one cannot have Olam Haba. They therefore wonder how Rambam would deal with the Mishnah that suggests that ALL Jews have Olam Haba. The basic theology that Rashba has outlined allows for an apprehension of God that already gives the person a glimpse of Olam Haba albeit of a lower level. A person doing a Mitzvah with that apprehension partakes in Olam Haba.

See also Rabbi Buchman’s article in Hakirah on this subject

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Some Reflections on Rambam's and Ramban's Approaches to Metaphysics.

In the 10th Perek of Sanhedrin (11th in our Mishnayot and Gemarot), Perek Chelek , Mishnah 3 there is an argument between Rabbi Nehemiah and others whether the Dor Hamabul, those who drowned in the flood for being a depraved generation, are eventually going to be judged even though they do not merit Olam Haba. Rambam in his commentary notes that “we have mentioned several times that all arguments amongst the sages that has no practical application whatsoever and which simply establish an opinion there is no place to say that the Halacha is according to one of them”. Rambam repeats this in his writings several more times.  In the context of this Mishnah it appears that he personally agrees with Rabbi Nehemiah and understands him to say that there is no post death reward or punishment for the wicked of the caliber of the Dor Hamabul or the inhabitants of Sodom.  They simply cease to exist while the righteous do have Olam Haba which is the ultimate reward which of course he also tells us at the end of Hilchot Teshuvah that no one really knows what that entails. This is further strengthened by his comment earlier on the first Mishnah regarding Gan Eden and Gehinom where he implies that they are something physical in this world. I understand him to say that Gan Eden is on earth where with time humanity will eventually develop it to produce life enhancing and extending products while Gehinom is either external or internal torture that prevails for the wicked during their lifetime. He is quite cryptic though and does not make it easy to know what he is getting at. But again notwithstanding his extensive treatment of metaphysics in his writings, it is exactly in this Mishnah where he sets down the rule about not being able to rule according to one of the opinions of the Rabbis on matters of theology without practical implications. Quite telling!

Ramban in his Sha’ar Hagemul, the theological section of his Torat HaAdam, his compendium on the laws of mourning has a lengthy discussion rejecting how Rambam understands Olam Haba and in general what happens after death basing his position on statements of chazal and Midrashim which he reads literally. He addresses Rambam’s statement about Gehinom and feels compelled to forcefully read Rambam’s statement as one who also believes in Gehinom as an after death punishment for the wicked. As you read him carefully you can discern between the lines that he really did not believe Rambam was saying what he tries to force into him but he felt he had to do this because he could not accept Rambam would hold such a heretical position from his point of view.
אבל יש לו לרב זכרונו לברכה במקום אחר דברים משבשים הדעות. חזר ושנה זה העניין בפירוש המשנה בפרק חלק, ואמר כי העונש הגדול הוא שתפסק הנפש ותאבד ושלא תשאר. והוא מה שנזכר בתורה בעניין כרת, כמו שנאמר "הכרת תכרת הנפש ההיא" ואמרו זיכרונם לברכה "הכרת", בעולם הזה, "תכרת", לעולם הבא. ואמר הכתוב "והיתה נפש אדוני צרורה בצרור החיים".
וכל מי שיהיה נמשך אל התענוגים הגשמיים, וישליך האמת אחרי גוו, ויגביר השקר על האמת - יכרת ויאבד מן המעלה ההיא, וישאר גוף אובד בלבד.

ואולם גיהנם הוא כינוי על עונש הרשעים, ולא התבאר בתלמוד איך יהיה זה העונש. אבל מקצתם אומרים כי השמש תקרב אל הרשעים ותשרפם, ויביאו ראיה מן הפסוק "הנה יום בא בוער כתנור" וגו', ומקצתם אומרים כי חמימות נפלא תבער בגופם ותשרפם, כדכתיב "רוחכם אש תאכלכם".
אלו דבריו זכרונו לברכה, ואינם דברים נוחים לדעתנו. מפני שדברי רבותינו זיכרונם לברכה במחלוקת שהזכיר, אינם על דיני גיהנם המצוי תמיד, שהוא לדברי הכל מקום דין באש נפלאה דקה, בראה האלהים לעונש ולאבד רחקיו ולהצמית כל זונה ממנו
And a little further
והדברים כמו שביארנו. ועם כל זה, גלה לנו הרב זכרונו לברכה דעתו, שהוא מאמין בעונש דין וצער, יהיה באי זה זמן שיהיה אחרי המות, אלא שלא התבאר לדעתו בתלמוד, ולא הסתפק ממנו אלא איכות הדין והצער הזה.
וזה התנצלות לרב, ולימוד זכות לחכם גדול וחסיד כמותו זכרונו לברכה, ופירוש למימרא שלרבי שמעון בן לקיש, שלא תשבש דעת קצת התלמידים, או שלא יתלו בה החיצונים שהטינה בלבם

I believe there is a fundamental difference between Rambam and Ramban’s understanding of metaphysics. Rambam holds that metaphysical understanding is a human endeavor. As a person perfects himself by developing his knowledge of the world while at the same time improving his personal traits controlling his urges and putting them under the domination of his intellectual faculty, he begins to find answer to the existential questions that go beyond the physical and the knowable. His intuition and imaginary faculties are triggered under the influence of his rational faculty. These answers are not certainties but a good attempt at finding the truth. Rambam describes this very poignantly in his introduction to MN.
Do not imagine that these most difficult problems can be thoroughly understood by any one of us. This is not the case. At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night. On some the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day. This was the degree of prophetic excellence attained by (Moses) the greatest of prophets, to whom God said, "But as for thee, stand thou here by Me" (Deut. v. 31), and of whom it is written "the skin of his face shone," etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 29). [Some perceive the prophetic flash at long intervals; this is the degree of most prophets.] By others only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived. This is the case with those of whom we are informed, "They prophesied, and did not prophesy again" (Num. xi. 25). There are some to whom the flashes of lightning appear with varying intervals; others are in the condition of men, whose darkness is illumined not by lightning, but by some kind of crystal or similar stone, or other substances that possess the property of shining during the night; and to them even this small amount of light is not continuous, but now it shines and now it vanishes, as if it were "the flame of the rotating sword."”
After reading this we can very well understand why there cannot be a definite ruling in these matters. In fact we cannot even convey to each other the whole understanding one is able to achieve because it is personal and individual. That is why Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 2:12 based on the Gemara in the second Perek of Chagigah describes the transmission of metaphysical truths as
[ציוו חכמים הראשונים שלא לדרוש בדברים אלו אלא לאיש אחד בלבד, והוא שיהיה חכם ומבין מדעתו.  ואחר כך מוסרין לו ראשי הפרקים, ומודיעין אותו שמץ מן הדבר; והוא מבין מדעתו, ויודע סוף הדבר ועומקו
We can transmit to another only the “headings of chapters”, a kind of conceptual summary, but ultimately the understanding is personal and individual.
Ramban on the other hand makes it clear in all his writings that the metaphysics he knows is one that was transmitted from mouth to ear through the generations. These matters are secrets that only the few can understand but there is a definite set of information that one must adhere to and it is knowable. It is not based on human knowledge but is something that it is received from God by Moshe at Sinai and transmitted to us. He is so sure that this is all transmissions that he cannot accept even that the rabbis would argue about these matters and he ends the Sha’ar Hagemul saying:
ומכאן יבין כל בעל שכל, שאין מחלוקת בין רבותינו זיכרונם לברכה בעיקר מכל עיקרי הדין הללו העתידין להיות, וכל דבריהם עולים בסגנון אחד
There cannot be any doubt in these matters because these are mystical truths received at Sinai.
The implications of these two opposing positions carry far. According to Ramban Torah and Mitzvot are part of the mystical system that maintains the world, not only the human world we know but the whole universe. Rambam sees Torah and Mitzvot as tools to develop ourselves in a way that we can speculate about metaphysics without personal bias, so that we can come as close to the truth as a human being can. However not one human being has achieved total knowledge, not even Moshe Rabbeinu. These two approaches impact how each of these two great Rishonim understand prophecy. Rambam sees it as a result of human perfection; it is the ultimate badge of a perfected human being. An imperfect person cannot prophesize. Ramban does not have a problem with prophecy of an ignoramus if God so wishes. (See however Ramban on Bamidbar 22:23 and 24 where he seems to waiver a little).
Personally I find Rambam’s approach inspiring and uplifting. It puts a much bigger onus on the individual demanding perfection but to me it has a ring of truth and is compatible with the human condition as we know it. Ramban’s approach does not speak to me and I find it depressing. But that is me. Others love the idea of Kabbalah and mysticism and it gives them strength.  As Rambam says we do not passken in these matters that have no practical outcome.


Sunday, June 02, 2013

And I will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land - Ramban addresses Rambam.

As I learned Ramban on Sefer Vaykra, it was revealing the way he develops his understanding of Hashgacha and in general his view of the world. He already laid the foundations for his thought in the first two books, Breishit and Shemot but here he applies it to the committed Jew in his day to day practice, namely the Mitzvot. Again we can observe the undertones of a dialog where Ramban addresses Rambam’s understanding almost at every turn though he only does so overtly on occasion. While to Rambam Mitzvot are tools for self-improvement to Ramban they are intrinsically important for the functioning of the universe – they have a deep mystical impact on the well being of the universe and its population.

On Vaykra 26:6
ו  וְנָתַתִּי שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ, וּשְׁכַבְתֶּם וְאֵין מַחֲרִיד; וְהִשְׁבַּתִּי חַיָּה רָעָה, מִן-הָאָרֶץ, וְחֶרֶב, לֹא-תַעֲבֹר בְּאַרְצְכֶם.             

6 And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land.

He discusses the meaning of וְהִשְׁבַּתִּי חַיָּה רָעָה, מִן-הָאָרֶץ – I will cause evil beasts to cease from the land. Moshe Rabbeinu is telling the people that if they follow God’s commandments he will bring peace to the land and eliminate wild beasts from it. He refers to a discussion of the subject in Torat Kohanim (Behukotai 2:1) between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon.

והשבתי חיה רעה מן הארץ -
ר' יהודה אומר
מעבירם מן העולם.
ר' שמעון אומר:
משביתן שלא יזוקו.
אמר ר' שמעון:
אימתי הוא שבחו של מקום, בזמן שאין מזיקים, או בזמן שיש מזיקים ואין מזיקים?
אמור בזמן שיש מזיקים ואין מזיקין.
וכן הוא אומר: מזמור שיר ליום השבת, למשבית מזיקים מן העולם, משביתן שלא יזיקו
(ב) וכן הוא אומר: וגר זאב עם כבש ונמר עם גדי ירבץ ועגל וכפיר ומריא יחדיו ונער קטן נוהג בם. ופרה ודוב תרעינה יחדיו ירבצו ילדיהם ואריה כבקר יאכל תבן. ושעשע יונק חור פתן ועל מאורת צפעוני גמול ידו הדה.
מלמד שתינוק מישראל עתיד להושיט את ידו לתוך גלגל עינו של צפעוני ומוציא מרה מתוך פיו.
וכן הוא אומר: גמול ידו הדה, זו חיה ההורגת את הבריות

Rabbi Yehuda says I will remove them. Rabbi Shimon says I will restrain them so that don’t harm. Argued Rabbi Shimon, what would enhance God more, when they disappear or when they are here but don’t harm? So too it says: A song for the day of Shabbat, to the One who restrains the harmers, restrains them from harming.  (This is a play on the word Shabbat which also means refraining / restraining – God refrained from creation on the Shabbat)….

Ramban comments that rabbi Yehuda understands the sentence literally (Kepshuto!) that as the land prospers with plentiful food and health; its cities will become populated. Wild animals do not frequent populated areas, confining themselves to the forests and thus creating a safe environment. But Rabbi Shimon holds that it is a miraculous event. If we follow the Mitzvot even the wild animals that roam amongst us will not harm us. Ramban explains that the land will return to its original state before the sin of Adam where no animal killed humans or each other. Before Adam’s sin all animals were vegetarian as they had no permission to kill or eat living things. Once man sinned and animals were allowed to attack humans, they developed a taste for meat and now started devouring each other too. He reads the verses in Yeshayahu 11:6-8 quoted in the Midrash literally; a child will stick his hand into a snake pit and be unscathed; lions will be vegetarian.  In the days of Mashiach, all animals will return to their original pre-sin state and lose their appetite for meat. Ramban comments that Rabbi Shimon’s position is the correct one.

Here again Ramban is arguing with Rambam and in passing shows us some interesting insights into his thinking. First here is Rambam’s comment on the verses on Yeshayahu: (Hilchot Melachim 12:1)

אל יעלה על הלב שבימות המשיח, ייבטל דבר ממנהגו של עולם, או יהיה שם חידוש במעשה בראשית; אלא עולם כמנהגו הולך.  וזה שנאמר בישעיה "וגר זאב עם כבש, ונמר עם גדי ירבץ" (ישעיהו יא,ו), משל וחידה.  עניין הדבר--שיהיו ישראל יושבין לבטח עם רשעי העולם, המשולים בזאב ונמר:  שנאמר "זאב ערבות ישודדם--נמר שוקד על עריהם" (ירמיהו ה,ו).  ויחזרו כולם לדת האמת, ולא יגזולו ולא ישחיתו, אלא יאכלו דבר המותר בנחת כישראל, שנאמר "ואריה, כבקר יאכל תבן" (ישעיהו יא,ז; ישעיהו סה,כה).

Of course Ramban cannot agree with this for to him Yemot Hamashiach are going to be miraculous times; nothing will be as it is now. But again we see how he dialogs with Rambam all the time even when he does not mention his name. The fascinating thing is that he ties his own disagreement with Rambam into an ancient argument amongst the Tanaim. That in fact legitimizes Rambam’s position. Unlike some of his contemporaries who attacked Rambam vociferously to the point of burning his writings, Ramban makes sure we know that they both have legitimate positions supported by the rabbis of the Mishnah. What also caught my attention is how he explains the changeover of carnivores from vegetarians in a natural way. Once man became available to the beasts they developed taste for meat! Nothing changed except a more evolved palate! He in fact, many times in his commentary, reaffirms that miracles have to have a reason and a purpose, generally to make people aware that there is a divine presence in the world. But that is a subject for another post.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Thoughts on Ramban, Aharon, The Golden Calf, Azazel and Rambam.

As one learns Ramban on Chumash it becomes clear that as he declared in his introduction, he is having a dialogue with his predecessors. He discloses in that introduction the names of two of them: Rashi and Ibn Ezra. But a person familiar with Rambam’s thought will detect a constant underlying dialogue with Rambam especially when the subject deals with theological matters even when he does not explicitly tell us so. An example of such a subtle dialogue can be detected in this week’s Parsha (Shemini) Vaykra 9:7-8.

ז  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, קְרַב אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וַעֲשֵׂה אֶת-חַטָּאתְךָ וְאֶת-עֹלָתֶךָ, וְכַפֵּר בַּעַדְךָ, וּבְעַד הָעָם; וַעֲשֵׂה אֶת-קָרְבַּן הָעָם, וְכַפֵּר בַּעֲדָם, כַּאֲשֶׁר, צִוָּה יְהוָה.    
And Moses said unto Aaron: 'Draw near unto the altar, and offer thy sin-offering, and thy burnt-offering, and make atonement for thyself, and for the people; and present the offering of the people, and make atonement for them; as the LORD commanded.'
ח  וַיִּקְרַב אַהֲרֹן, אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ; וַיִּשְׁחַט אֶת-עֵגֶל הַחַטָּאת, אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ.           
 So Aaron drew near unto the altar, and slew the calf of the sin-offering, which was for himself.

The obvious question that comes to mind is what was the purpose of this dialogue? Didn’t Aharon know that it was his job as Cohen to go up to the altar to do the Avodah? Chazal detect reluctance on his part and comment on it. Rashi abbreviates their comment and just points out that Aharon was shy and reluctant. One gets the impression that it was possibly a lack of self-confidence or humility, Aharon feeling that he was not worthy.  Ramban is not content with leaving that impression. After offering a somewhat strained Peshuto Shel Mikra explanation he quotes the Midrash (Mechilta DeMiluim 7, Sifra ad locum) verbatim.

 “But in Torat Kohanim [our Rabbis] commented on this matter by offering a parable. This is comparable to a king who married a woman who was ashamed [to be intimate] with him. She came to her sister who told her – isn’t it for this purpose that you married him? Be bold and come serve the king. So too Moshe told Aharon, brother weren’t you chosen to be Cohen Gadol to serve God? Be bold and do your work. Some say, that to Aharon the altar took the shape of an ox (Ketavnit Shor) and Aharon feared him, Moshe came to him and told him not to let his fears take over, be bold and go closer. That is why it says קְרַב אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ and  וַיִּקְרַב אַהֲרֹן, אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ;”

When one reads that Midrash second explanation one can interpret it that Aharon was feeling guilty about having been instrumental in the Egel episode. A more sophisticated read, and probably that is how Rambam would read it, is that he was trying to understand how is the concept of bringing offerings to an idol different than burnt offerings on the altar in the Mishkan. Why when he created the Egel which was ultimately directed to God, he was so harshly censured, isn’t this similar?  Isn’t the idea of bringing an offering a sort of bribe exchanging it for goodwill? Aren’t we attempting to bribe God here too? Moshe’s response was that despite the questions he must do as ordered because it is God’s wish to allow the people to indulge a little in their superstitious illusion and thereby slowly lead them to a more advanced understanding of worship. This is a very directed and regulated worship while the Egel was an unregulated spontaneous outburst of superstition and even worse, to an intermediary, a representation of God.

Ramban however, at the beginning of Vaykra (1:9) has already voiced his vehement disagreement with Rambam’s understanding that Korbanot are a concession to human frailty. He does believe that offerings impact God if brought with the proper intention. The Egel was to an intermediary which is prohibited while Korbanot are directed to the Hallowed Name of Hashem. He now worries that this Midrash will be interpreted support Rambam’s position.

“The meaning of this Midrash is because Aharon who was a holy person and only had sinned once at the Egel, that sin stood out in his mind, … and he saw the form of the calf, namely that it was preventing him from successfully getting forgiveness.  Moshe tells him not worry as he is already forgiven for that misstep. Others say that the Satan was showing him the calf, as the Rabbis say there, Aharon my brother, even though God forgave you, you still have to offer something to the Satan to stop him from interfering when you come into the Holy places…”

Ramban interprets the Midrash as saying that Aharon was worried about his having sinned and that will stand in the way of his worship. He makes that point lest we interpret that the Korbanot themselves were problematic. Ramban does not see a problem with offerings as long as they are directed to God. The second explanation offered by the Rabbis he interprets as the Satan appearing to Aharon demanding a bribe for himself.  There are circumstances where even the Torah sanctions bringing offerings other than to God. Satan at times may have to be placated just like the Azazel offering on Yom Kippur see Ramban and Ibn Ezra on Vayikra 16:8.

Rambam in MN 3:46 explains that the Azazel offering does not imply that one can transfer one’s sins onto another entity (reminds us of Kaparot and I would not be surprised that was in his mind as the custom goes back to Geonim) but rather to symbolically awaken in us the thought that we have left our past behind and we are starting afresh with the undertaking of not repeating past mistakes. This offering represents the most abhorrent sins of the whole people which are so bad that they cannot be bought into the sanctuary in front of God. I also believe that at the end of the whole charged Avodah of the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the last offering does not come onto the altar as a symbol that the burning is not what a Korban is. God does not need it and to Him it is all the same whether offered to him as a burnt offering or whether it is gratuitously destroyed. It is all to get us thinking about our actions and improving them. We have here a classic redirection of a habit that cannot be stopped.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

"Why Does The World Exist?" - Towards a Jewish Answer - Part 2.- Emulating God.

In the previous post I explained that Rambam sees the God of Judaism as an entity that we know exists but is so outside any category that we know that even the words “God exists” has no meaning in our understanding of “existence”. It just means that there “is” such an entity and that we hopelessly cannot ever even conceptualize His essence. The question is then what relevance does such an entity have to us? How can we relate to Him? What does worship, prophecy and knowledge mean as it relates to God? How do we ever propose to connect with Him? Paradoxically, the Halacha does demand of us that we get to know God, that we worship Him and that we love Him. How are we supposed to love an unknowable and incomprehensible entity? Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvot establishes that the first Mitzvah is to know God and he restates it in the short count at the beginning of Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah
הלכות יסודי התורה
יש בכללן עשר מצוות--שש מצוות עשה, וארבע מצוות לא תעשה; וזה הוא פרטן:  (א) לידע שיש שם אלוה

How are we supposed to know the unknowable? And to complicate matters further we are required to love Him too –
ב) שלא יעלה במחשבה שיש שם אלוה זולתי ה'; (ג) לייחדו; (ד) לאוהבו

How can we to do that? Hassidim report that this question was posed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe and Ba’al Hatanya by the child grandson of Rabbi Dovber of Mezritch. He asked; after having said the first verse of Shema where we declare the ultimate uniqueness and thus transcendence and unknowability of God by saying   ה' אלוהינו, ה' אחד, how can we immediately proceed and say
ואהבת, את ה' אלוהיך, בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך, ובכל מאודך

This question is addressed by the Ba’al Hatanya in his Sha’ar Hayichud Veha’emunah where he deals with the issue in great depth. A discussion of this great essay is beyond the scope of this post; the question however is very important and I will attempt to address it as I understand it.

Although we were taught by Moshe rabbeinu that God can only be known in the negative, what He is not, we still needed Avraham Avinu’s question to arrive at that by understanding what caused existence and who or what is behind it. If the answer to that question is that there must be an entity responsible for existence, it leads to the next one - what is the essence of that entity that is behind that existence? Rambam in MN 1:54 puts it as follows:

דע כי אדון החכמים, משה רבנו עליו השלום, ביקש שתי בקשות ובאה לו תשובה על שתי הבקשות. הבקשה האחת היא שביקש ממנו יתעלה שיודיענו את עצמוּתו ואת אמיתת מהותו. הבקשה השנייה - והיא זו אשר ביקשה ראשונה - היא שיודיענו את תאריו. וענה לו יתעלה בכך שהבטיח להודיעו את תאריו כולם ושהם מעשׂיו. כן הודיעו, כי אין להשׂיג את עצמוּתו כפי שהיא. אך הוא העיר לו על מקום עיון שממנו ישיג את מרב מה שיכול אדם להשׂיגו. מה שהוא, עליו השלום, השׂיג, לא השׂיגו אף אחד לפניו ולא אחריו.

THE wisest man, our Teacher Moses, asked two things of God, and received a reply respecting both. The one thing he asked was that God should let him know His true essence: the other, which in fact he asked first, that God should let him know His attributes. In answer to both these petitions God promised that He would let him know all His attributes, and that these were nothing but His actions. He also told him that His true essence could not be perceived, and pointed out a method by which he could obtain the utmost knowledge of God possible for man to acquire. The knowledge obtained by Moses has not been possessed by any human being before him or after him.”

Rambam describes Moshe’s thinking process. He begins with the question triggered by existence which we see as God’s actions – “His attributes, and that these were nothing but His actions” – or to put it in a simpler context – we know that there is an entity we call God because something or someone must be responsible for existence[1]. In this process, the path to God is through contemplating His actions which is existence. As we contemplate God’s actions we also develop a sense of how the world we live in is being run by Him. We are amazed by the complexity and at the same time the simplicity of the whole system, how each part is necessary for the existence of the whole, our environment how everything is interdependent and how finely tuned all the components of our universe are. As we are filled with wonder, we are humbled by our insignificance in the scheme of things and at the same time we want to get to know better this entity that is responsible for all this.

  והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו, ויראתו:  בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו הנפלאים הגדולים, ויראה מהם חכמתו שאין לה ערך ולא קץ--מיד הוא אוהב ומשבח ומפאר ומתאווה תאווה גדולה לידע השם הגדול, כמו שאמר דויד "צמאה נפשי, לאלוהים--לאל חי".
ב  וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן, מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו, ויירא ויפחד ויידע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה, עומד בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות, כמו שאמר דויד "כי אראה שמיך . . . מה אנוש, כי תזכרנו".

What is the path to love and fear Him?  As a person contemplates His wondrous actions and His great creations, seeing in them His immeasurable and unending wisdom, at once he is filled with love, praising and lauding [Him] as he is filled with a great longing to get to know the great name as David said “my soul thirsts for God – the living God”.  When one contemplates these matters he at once steps back as he is filled with fear and dread realizing that he is an insignificant small creature, low and somber, who stands with minimal intellect in front of the perfect intellect as David said “when I see your heavens …. What is humankind that you should notice it”?

Rambam depicts contradictory feelings that the seeker confronts. On the one hand there is a great urge and need to get to know God and to express one’s love for Him and at the same time he is humbled  as he realizes how insignificant and unimportant he is in the scheme of things and he is overcome with trepidation and wants to step back.  The urge to love gets translated into action as the person now wants to emulate the beloved by contemplating the beloved’s actions. He wants to partake in those actions and play a role in them. The humbling feeling on the other hand fills him with uncertainty and doubt, forcing him to question his understanding of God and His actions - עומד בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות. This constant tension between wanting to know and to emulate God and the deep knowledge that this is an impossible task, the uncertainty that this fosters is the impetus for self-improvement. It is only by striving for perfection that one can feel a little comfort in this attempt to emulate God. It also fills one with humility forcing the person to question his decisions on how to act, making sure that he is really trying to emulate God and not just act out of personal biases and natural inclinations. I always find it upsetting when people act with certainty criticizing and condemning others, stepping all over them and bulldozing through them as if they had all the answers. We never have all the answers and we never will; we just are trying our best to know how to act correctly and that does not give us the right to judge or step on others.

We started by asking what is the relevance of searching for the unknowable God and the relevance of this knowledge to our daily life. The answer is that the search is a goal in itself. It is through the search that one becomes acutely aware of our environment and how it works giving us a basis rooted in reality, not an imaginary mystical “spiritual” concept, for emulating that perfect entity responsible for existence. The urge to find God and the humbling knowledge of the impossibility of the task, the unknowability of God, see to it that our emulating Him is judicious and well thought out, done with the proper caution and realness.  

[1] I have to emphasize that it does not mean there must be a Creator but rather an entity that is not contingent and that has a hierarchal precedence to all existence (see my article in Hakirah). 

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

"Why Does The World Exist?" - Towards a Jewish Answer - Part 1.- Divine "Existence".

In his book “Why Does the World Exist?”(Which I highly recommend to all those who think about existential issues), Jim Holt interviews a series of philosophers, physicists and writers. He poses to them the question “why is there a world rather than nothing at all?” and reports their answers.  The answers can be divided into three camps listed by the author as; “optimists” who hold that there has to be a reason for the world to exist; the “pessimists” who believe there might be a reason for the world to exist but we will never know for sure; the “rejectionists” who believe there cannot be a reason for the world to exist and the question itself is meaningless.  The fact that thinkers in each group grapple with the question, while even the rejectionists work hard to explain why the question is meaningless, proves that the question is important and begs for an answer.  With the Big Bang, the currently accepted theory of how the world began, the question is; what triggered the singular event? How did the Big Bang come about? The answers given by the different interviewees vary from, it just happened; to it was started by some quantum induced or other possible scientifically explained event; to God as the Creator being behind the event. Each of these answers leaves us with a mystery as the question still remains; who made God, who or what established the scientific law that triggered the event or what was behind the “just happened” event. The book’s point is that the question still begs for a definite answer and will continue to do so for a long time if not forever.

The same question is posed by Rambam in Hilchot Avodah Zara 1:3 –
ט  [ג] כיון שנגמל איתן זה, התחיל לשוטט בדעתו והוא קטן, ולחשוב ביום ובלילה, והיה תמיה:  היאך אפשר שיהיה הגלגל הזה נוהג תמיד, ולא יהיה לו מנהיג; ומי יסבב אותו, לפי שאי אפשר שיסבב את עצמו.  ולא היה לו לא מלמד ולא מודיע דבר, אלא מושקע באור כשדים בין עובדי עבודה זרה הטיפשים

As this solid individual (Avraham Avinu) matured, while still a youth, his mind began to wander and think day and night pondering; how is it possible for this sphere to always circle without it having a driver? Who is making it circle? After all it cannot do so by itself. He had no teacher or someone who could inform him for he was ensconced in Ur of the Chaldeans amongst the stupid idol worshipers.

Rambam presents the question in context of the Aristotelian physics of his time putting it into Avraham Avinu’s mouth. The movement of the spheres was seen as the force that made earthly existence possible; the movement caused the elements to mix together creating the endless combinations of matter that make up the world. The outer sphere, הגלגל הזה, causes all the other spheres to move. The question is what is behind that moving force just as contemporary thinkers ask what is behind the Big Bang. That question has not changed with our more advanced understanding of how things work and there is no outlook that it will change with further advances in our understanding of our environment and universe. The answer that Avraham arrives at according to Rambam is

וליבו משוטט ומבין, עד שהשיג דרך האמת, והבין קו הצדק, מדעתו הנכונה; וידע שיש שם אלוה אחד, והוא מנהיג הגלגל, והוא ברא הכול, ואין בכל הנמצא אלוה חוץ ממנו.

As his mind wanders and contemplates, he arrives at the true path, and thanks to his straight thinking he develops the correct line of thought; he knows that there is out there one God who directs the sphere, who created all and no other God exists besides Him.

Avraham’s God is the Creator and His existence is a deduction that Avraham arrives at through questioning the provenance of the natural environment he lived in. He deduces that there is a Creator, a unique God that is also the continuous force that is responsible for all physical existence. The exact definition of “unique” had not yet been developed completely and therefore he had not answered the ultimate question; how did God himself come into being? That question remained even with Avraham’s understanding of God’s uniqueness. It is only when Moshe comes onto the scene that the question is finally answered with his introduction of a more advanced concept of God that addresses the question.
For all men, with few exceptions, were ignorant of the existence of God; their highest thoughts did not extend beyond the heavenly sphere, its forms or its influences. They could not yet emancipate themselves from sensation, and had not yet attained to any intellectual perfection. Then God taught Moses how to teach them, and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself, namely, by saying Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of "existing," for the verb hayah denotes "to be," and in Hebrew no difference is made between the verbs "to be" and "to exist."… This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is "the existing Being which is the existing Being," that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute. The proof which he was to give consisted in demonstrating that there is a Being of absolute existence, that has never been and never will be without existence.” (MN 1:63)

Moshe introduces the concept of negative knowledge when dealing with God’s existence leaving us with the only possible expression, “the existent Being which is the existent Being”. When we say that God exists we mean that His existence is absolute. He does not exist in the way we understand and use the word existence which is qualitative. Existence is not a quality of God but His essence meaning that God by definition cannot NOT exist. This concept cannot be grasped by the human mind because our senses attach existence to things. In our experience all things we know are brought into existence by another thing, by an event or another type of cause. We live in a world of cause and effect and that is what we can understand. The only way we can get a sense of God’s existence is by understanding that whatever we understand existence to be it does not apply to God just as the concept of cause and effect does not apply either. The great understanding of Moshe Rabbeinu was that any concept of God we arrive at, that concept cannot be God. God is inconceivable; He is the Great Mystery and also the ultimate Truth. (For a fuller treatment of Rambam’s understanding see my article in Hakirah.) This concept was taught to us as a nation at Sinai where the Torah continuously repeats that God appeared in darkness and clouds on the one hand and fire and sound on the other, a metaphor for this tension between knowing that there is an Entity responsible for existence while at the same time, that Entity is unknowable to the point that even “existence” is equivocal when used in this context. It is only once this new concept of God has been accepted that we can move to the next step and say that this Existent is the Creator. We are thus saying that there is a singular incomprehensible Entity which we call God, an Entity that has a singular existence that is responsible for all that exists.

This understanding of God makes the question “who created God?” incomprehensible. Time, space and therefore location have no meaning when thinking about such an “existent”. He “is” but not in the sense we understand “is” to be. Creation is needed for the common existent who therefore has to have been caused but the kind of “existent” we think of when talking about God is not in the same category. To summarize; we sense that there must be something out there that is responsible for this existence but this something is completely incomprehensible to us to the point we cannot even imagine anything about His essence nor ask questions about His existence which cannot be what “existence” is to us. The closer a person can come to internalizing these opposing ideas, the closer he is to God. At Moshe’s first encounter with God (Shemot 3:6) he immediately hid his face and refrained from looking. He had internalized that God is incomprehensible. The Rabbis tell us metaphorically (TB Brachot 7a) that as a reward for this it is said about Moshe (Bamidbar 12:8) that he saw God’s image. In other words the true apprehension of God is the “not” apprehension, the deep acceptance that whatever one thinks is God, it is not. No wonder Moshe was the humblest of men.  (See Rav Adin Steinsaltz edition of Sha’ar Hayichud Veha’emunah of the Ba’al Hatanya page 98 in his wonderful comments).

This is how Judaism according to Rambam explains existence and how it came to be caused by the incomprehensible God. Had it stopped here we would have a nice abstract explanation of an existential question.  But Judaism goes a step further. This Entity that we sense its "existence" and is responsible for ours whom we find incomprehensible, can however be traced via that same existence. Our own existence results from His existence. We are therefore one of the results of His “actions” and so is everything that surrounds us. By looking at all that objectively and very carefully we can develop a sense of where He wants to take this whole enterprise namely existence. That is the focus Judaism puts on this speculation and redirects it to the practical; how do we emulate God’s actions? In next post(s) I will attempt to address this and how it affects our question “why does the world exist?”    

Sunday, September 16, 2012

"But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion" - Love and Fear in Judaism.

העובד מאהבה, עוסק בתורה ובמצוות והולך בנתיבות החכמה--לא מפני דבר בעולם, לא מפני יראת הרעה, ולא כדי לירש הטובה:  אלא עושה האמת, מפני שהוא אמת; וסוף הטובה לבוא בכלל.

“One who worships out of love, is occupied with Torah and walks in the paths of knowledge, for no other reason in the world, neither for fear of bad consequences nor hoping for good outcomes, but acts the truth because it is true and eventually good will follow on the whole[1]”. (Hilchot Teshuvah 10:2)

This is one of the most important statements that we can find anywhere in the Jewish literature and it truly defines our religion as it really is – The Quest for Truth - the ultimate Truth. What triggered this post is a quote from Steven Weinberg (Nobel Prize Physicist), in Jim Holt’s excellent book – Why Does the World Exist? – which I am now reading. Weinberg reportedly stated, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”.  My reaction is that he is 100% right and that is because most people do not understand what real religion is all about. I don’t know enough about other religions but I know enough about our religion, Judaism to know that based on the way it is practiced nowadays and understood by the general Jewish religious community, Weinberg is correct. It is only by accepting Rambam’s definition of religion and understanding deeply what he is teaching that Judaism can become what it is supposed to be – to move humanity towards seeking Truth and not a tool for control and manipulation. 

The general rather simplistic and popular concept of Judaism today is that it is good for you. God knows all and watches all human actions and sits in judgment; good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. As man does not know what is right or wrong, a set of laws has been given – the Torah and Mitzvot – and doing good means following the Mitzvot, bad is ignoring or flouting them. Punishment is when bad things happen and reward is when good things happen. How to define good things and bad things? If a person’s wishes are fulfilled it is good and if they are thwarted it is bad. As human life is short there is an additional bonus, Olam Haba, life after death where if one was good one will bask in perpetual bliss, an undefined concept but said to be something that one cannot grasp while alive. The evil person, the one who flouted the Mitzvot while alive will burn in hell, suffering untold pain eternally. Then there are full panoplies of intermediary systems where one gets reward in this world for the good deeds so that he can be punished eternally for the bad and vice versa.  Interestingly some more “advanced thinkers” will suggest that there are “spiritual” benefits that result from following this path. If you try to delve deeper and ask what they mean by "spiritual" the answer is less anxiety, Bitachon, feeling good about yourself and other such “feel good” experiences. The common denominator is that the rewards are “good things” happening to the individual.  All one has to do is pick up a contemporary Mussar sefer or “theological” sefer to get a picture of this simple and easy to grasp system of reward and punishment. The ultimate goal of this type of religion is to adhere strictly to the Mitzvot and to reap the rewards that God bestows on those that follow rituals strictly.

At first blush, the sources fit very nicely with this understanding of Judaism. However this approach cannot satisfy a thinking person. It is a narcissistic and selfish perspective on life where everything one does is to satisfy personal wishes and needs. It is no better than capitalism, socialism or any other “ism” out there. Egoism and selfishness eventually lead to evil and it is in the name of these “isms” that much of the evil witnessed by humankind has been perpetrated. If there is nothing more to religion, then religion is truly the cause of evil. If religion is there only to better our material life then it will inevitably lead to evil. That is the idea behind Avodah Zara – idolatry - which is the ultimate falsehood and is the underlying theme of all that the Torah teaches away from. So how do we explain the prevalence of this way of thinking in our community? Human beings are endowed with the urge for self-preservation. That urge is common to all living things and is there to perpetuate themselves and their kind or genus.  That urge is narcissistic and selfish and is part of us just like appetite and all our other urges. This type of religious thinking caters to that urge and is attractive to the animalistic instinct, it “feels” good. It is also a misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the sources, a distortion of what they teach us as we will see further.

In addition to the survival instinct human beings have another innate capability - consciousness. That capability allows us to see ourselves, ourselves in relation to the other and in relation to our environment and our universe. It gives us the ability to see beyond our natural urges and our immediate needs, to see the other and develop moral and ethical codes that take into account the other and our environment. Moral and ethical societies do not necessarily require religion to function and indeed many societies work well without religion. Thus the first part of Weinberg’s statement is correct, good people will do good and bad people evil without religion. Consciousness and the ability to think abstractly and self-awareness that comes with it bring with them an even more advanced and sophisticated urge; it triggers in us the need to understand our existence why we are here, what is the goal of us being here and all the existential questions that humanity has struggled with for millennia. Judaism is meant to help people address these questions. Rambam counts as the eighth positive commandment
המצווה השמינית
הציווי שנצטווינו להדמות לו ית' כפי יכלתנו, והוא אמרו:
"והלכת בדרכיו" (דברים כח, ט). 
The existential question of how and why we exist and the search for the answer has a practical side to it – to find God so that we can emulate Him. The problem is that to know God, to know how to emulate Him is not easy. God is the Truth but also the Great Mystery and the search to discover Him and interpret His actions correctly is a lifelong task that takes over all aspects of a human being’s day. The greatest challenge is to overcome subjectivity, self-serving bias so that we can see things objectively. It is here that Torah and Mitzvot, the practical side of Judaism come into play. They are the tool that perfects our minds and our emotions so that we think objectively and thus know how to act constructively. Torah and Mitzvot are not the goal and end all of religious life but the most important gift we received from HKBH as tools to perfect us and help us reach our ultimate goal which is finding God and His ways and emulating Him. When religion is focused to help us realize these goals it is a very personal experience and does not lead to control and manipulation that is the source of evil. On the contrary it imbues us with respect to fellow seekers and compels us to enlist others into this quest through example and promotes love for our fellow human beings.

Returning to the question we asked earlier, why is our community so invested in the idea of following the Law for the sake of physical reward and to avoid punishment?  The question is even sharper when we read the strong admonishments and warnings in the last few Parshyot – Ki Tavo and Nitzavim. They all seem to focus on the physical good and bad. As I said earlier it is an attractive approach to the undeveloped person and therefore entices him to grab on to this misinterpretation of the sources. In Hilchot Teshuvah Chapter 9 Rambam addresses these sources  and explains how they are meant to be read. As this is a quite lengthy discussion I will leave it for another post.  Here is a summary of how Rambam understands this –
ו  נמצא פירוש כל אותן הברכות והקללות, על דרך זו:  כלומר אם עבדתם את ה' בשמחה, ושמרתם דרכו--משפיע לכם הברכות האלו ומרחיק הקללות, עד שתהיו פנויים להתחכם בתורה ולעסוק בה, כדי שתזכו לחיי העולם הבא, וייטב לך לעולם שכולו טוב ותאריך ימים לעולם שכולו ארוך.  ונמצאתם זוכין לשני העולמות, לחיים טובים בעולם הזה המביאין לחיי העולם הבא:  שאם לא יקנה הנה חכמה ומעשים טובים--אין לו במה יזכה, שנאמר "כי אין מעשה וחשבון, ודעת וחכמה, בשאול . . ." (קוהלת ט,י).

ז  ואם עזבתם את ה' ושגיתם במאכל ומשקה וזנות ודומה להם--מביא עליכם כל הקללות האלו ומסיר כל הברכות, עד שייכלו ימיכם בבהלה ופחד, ולא יהיה לכם לב פנוי ולא גוף שלם לעשות המצוות, כדי שתאבדו מחיי העולם הבא.  ונמצא שאיבדתם שני עולמות:  שבזמן שאדם טרוד בעולם הזה בחולי ובמלחמה ורעבון, אינו מתעסק לא בחכמה ולא במצוה שבהן זוכין לחיי העולם הבא.

It should be noted that at the end of all the admonishments and warnings where the Torah describes all the physical destruction and punishment that will result from our transgressions, the Torah describes what will happen at the end when we realize our mistake. It promises improvements in our physical wellbeing but ultimately the goal is – (Devarim 30:6)
ו  וּמָל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְאֶת-לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ:  לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ--לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ.
6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live.
The ultimate goal is to worship God out of love and not out of fear. Love comes with knowledge. We love someone we know; we do not love strangers. It is the search for the answers to our existential questions that leads us to the transcendental God, the mysterious and unknown Entity that we can only know through negating any physical attribute to, that we only perceive the results of His will and which we try to emulate. The understanding that this is the goal of Mitzvot and not just physical wellbeing will go a long way to keep us from falling into the trap Professor Weinberg so eloquently describes – “But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”.

In another post I would like to expand more on this last fundamental issue – what exactly to we mean when we talk about God? When we say we are searching for God, what exactly are we looking for? Because the answer to that sharpens further why Professor Weinstein’s comment and indeed many of the anti-religion arguments of other atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens do not talk to me when I think about real Judaism, the one Rambam teaches.

As this post was inspired by Steven Weinberg, who claims to be an atheist, I would like to share another statement of his regarding the boycotting of Israel by some humanistic/religious groups -

"Given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicated a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than anti-Semitism."

Spoken like a Jew!

I wish all a Ketiva Vechatima Tova and a Shana Tova. Chag Sameach.  

[1] “On the whole” indicates the possibility of a rocky road with a good outcome. The immediate result of “acting the Truth” may not be necessarily rosy but in the larger context it will lead to good. This falls into Rambam’s discussion of providence – Hashgacha.