Sunday, December 24, 2006

Shabbat in Aminadav -

This shabbat we spent with our wonderful son Aryeh and lovely daughter-in-law Orly in Moshav Aminadav. It is a small Moshav outside Yerushalaym which was established in the 1950's by Yemmenite Olim. It is located on one of the mountains that surround Yerushalayim.

Shabbat we went to the beit haknesset and it was my first experience with Minhag Teiman prayer. Though long (over 3 hours in the morning) I was entranced by the word for word reading aloud of the Tefilah by one of the congregants and a little hypnotized by the monotonous niggun. The havara was also fascinating with the Cholam enunciated in a variation of the Litvisher "Ey" and the segol as "O", similar to a kametz by us. The Kryat hatorah was also interesting where some of the Olim Latorah chose to read their own segment and did it surprisingly well. Also I found interesting that they first took out one sefer together with a sefer Haftarot which they placed next to each other on the Bimah and only took out the sefer Maftir at the end just before reading in it. No hagba'ah was performed on the second sefer. Hallel was also interesting as everyone said it to themselves until Odecha. There the chazan said the Pessukim aloud until the end of hallel and the kahal repeated each passuk loud. In other words they did not repeat it, just said it passuk bepassuk. Rambam in Hilchot Chanukka 3:11 says that repeating the last pessukim is a minhag. It apparently has not taken hold in Teiman.
יא יש מקומות שנהגו לכפול מ"אודך, כי עניתני" (תהילים קיח,כא) עד סוף ההלל, כופלין כל
דבר ודבר שתי פעמים. ומקום שנהגו לכפול, יכפול; ומקום שנהגו שלא לכפול, אין כופלין

The most wonderful thing about Shabbat was to be with our loving children, seeing the love and warmth between them. It was a feast for all our senses, literally, emotionally and spiritually. No one makes a better Cholent, Morrocan Fish, artichoke, matbucha and babaganoush than Orly and Aryeh prepared. This and the beautiful setting with a gorgeous view of Yerushalayim on all sides made for a memorable experience.

ב יְרוּשָׁלִַם-- הָרִים, סָבִיב לָהּ:וַיהוָה, סָבִיב לְעַמּוֹ-- מֵעַתָּה, וְעַד-עוֹלָם.
2 As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, {N}so the LORD is round about His people, from this time forth and for ever

Friday, December 22, 2006

Yael and Shachar got married and I got inspired.

Wednesday night I attended the wedding of Yael and Shachar at Sdei Elyahu, a Dati Leumi Kibbutz near Beit She'an. Yael is the daughter of my wife's first cousin. That branch of my wife's mother's family moved to Israel after the war while another ended up in the USA. I was looking at the Israeli branch and had some interesting observations which I would like to share here as it has an impact on what I have been writing about Hashgacha.

First some impressions about the Kibbutz wedding. People dress simply, no fancy rags to say the least and the presentation of the food and the decoration of the hall is utilitarian. There were a lot of people - the whole Kibbutz practically plus the rest of the guests. Usually in such big crowds one would expect a certain distance. Here the warmth and happiness was palpable, everybody felt part of the simcha. Shachar is a career soldier and the underlying current was that here another family of dedicated Jews is being formed. Looking around at the crowd you saw a mixture of our bretherns from a few Chareidim to Dati Leumi types, white shirts with tzitzis hanging out, to chilonim and everybody was comfortable with each other partaking in the dancing and the emotional bonding. The dancing was intense and we all felt as one and equals. There was a feeling of belonging, where everybody practiced his religion according to his understanding, the common thread being that we are all servants of HKBH referring to Him within our individuality. The speeches all mentioned God and His relationship to us and our land. To me this is a small sample of what Avraham, Ytzchak and Yaacov followed by Moshe and the other early fathers of our nation set in motion thousands of years ago. A nation of people that are involved with God and acknowledge Him but also act and live a life dedicated to perpetuate this way of life in our own land. It is not just a philosophy but a way of acting creatively partaking in God's world.

Here we see the meaning of Hashgacha. The decisions made by an earlier generation, the first after the holocaust, has impacted the next few and we can see clearly how the underlying motive of those people affected their descendants. Those who looked beyond themeselves, those who wanted to partake in the enterprise of establishing our own nation with a land of our own, took the necessary risks and their reward is the fruition of a generation of independent, healthy and creative Jews.

Shabbat Shalom from Yerushalayim..

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Providence and Theodicy.

(Please read this post together with my three previous ones on Providence and Reward and Punishment – you can use the tags.)

The connection between Providence and Reward and Punishment is now obvious. Providence equals reward and its opposite Randomness equals punishment. At the same time we saw that Providence is result oriented and at times it is not always immediately clear what the result of an action will be. What we sometimes see as a bad outcome may be temporary and in the long term turn out to be good and meet the goal the person who acted has set for himself. That explains why we see people who act poorly seem to thrive at first. This brings us to the question of theodicy. It is one that has perplexed many and is the cause of much skepticism about God and His justice. Why do good people suffer and bad ones seem to flourish? Rambam in MN 3:19 addresses this as follows:

The Prophets have already stated the proof which ignorant persons offer for their belief that God does not know our actions: the fact that wicked people are living in prosperity and abundance. This fact leads also righteous and pious persons to think that it is of no use for them to aim at that which is good and to suffer for it through the opposition of other people. But the Prophets at the same time relate how their own thoughts were engaged on this question, and how they were at last convinced that in the instances to which these arguments refer, only the final outcome and not the beginning ought to be taken into account.”

Again we see the emphasis on the long term rather than the immediate. The underlying idea though in this whole issue of providence is that there is a rational Entity that set existence into motion, and that that Entity willed certain things and outcomes. Humans are expected to decipher that will and act in conformity with it. If they do that correctly they can only bring good which is the permanence of whatever their action affects. That explains the Torah’s insistence on the permanency of the Jewish people. The Torah is telling us that the actions of the founders of our religion the Avot, Moshe and the prophets who followed them understood God’s will and therefore their actions will result in the eternal existence of their progeny and followers.

Coming back to where we started with the question of the contradiction in Rambam . He first introduces man’s ability to think and that reward and punishment depend on it. He then explains the shipwreck and collapsing roof as follows:

It may be by mere chance that a ship goes down with all her contents, as in the above-mentioned instance, or the roof of a house falls upon those within; but it is not due to chance, according to our view, that in the one instance the men went into the ship, or remained in the house in the other instance: it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding.”

An observer of this calamity cannot know whether the long-term outcome of this event is good or bad thus, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding. The will of God here is that man has freedom of choice and is a thinking being. Here is Rambam’s definition of God’s will in this context: (MN 2:48)

It is clear that everything produced must have an immediate cause which produced it; that cause again a cause, and so on, until the First Cause of all things is reached, I mean God’s will and free choice… After having heard this remark, listen to what I will explain in this chapter; direct your special attention to it more than you have done to the other chapters of this part. It is this: As regards the immediate causes of things produced, it makes no difference whether these causes consist in substances, physical properties, freewill, or chance--by freewill I mean that of man--or even in the will of another living being besides man. The prophets ascribe the production directly to God and use such phrases as, God has done it, commanded it, or said it: in all such cases the verbs "to say," "to speak," "to command," "to call," and "to send" are employed. What I desired to state in this chapter is this: According to the hypothesis and theory accepted, it is God that gave will to dumb animals, freewill to the human being, and natural properties to everything.”

In other words the fact that God gave man freewill and the person that boarded the ship availed himself of that ability, it is seen as if he boarded at God’s will. This same ability however puts him under the regime of reward and punishment. If he acted properly his actions will eventually be meaningful otherwise his death was meaningless and that in itself is his punishment.

I now need to go to Hilchot Teshuvah and Shemona Perakim, Iggeret Teiman, letter to the Cachmei Marseilles and Ma’amar Techyat Hametim where Rambam also discusses his stand on Providence and see if this explanation is correct and fits. I will do that In January after I return from my vacation where I will not have Seforim at hand.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Providence - practical implications.

The practical implications of the understanding of Hashgacha / Providence I proposed in my last post is that man can take control of his life or chose not to. He can act to satisfy his instinctual urges and live for the moment or act in a more meaningful way playing a constructive role in God’s universe. This explains an aspect of the Adam and Chava metaphor. Man’s ideal goal is to partake in creation and play a positive role in the continuity of the universe.

טו וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.
15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to till it and to watch it.

Losing this focus is seen as being thrown out of the ideal place and left to random chance.

When, however, Scripture says of Adam, "He changed his face (panav) and thou sent him forth" (Job 14:20), it must be understood in the following way: On account of the change of his original aim he was sent away… our text suggests that Adam, as he altered his intention and directed his thoughts to the acquisition of what he was forbidden, he was banished from Paradise: this was his punishment; it was measure for measure. At first he had the privilege of tasting pleasure and happiness, and of enjoying repose and security; but as his appetites grew stronger, and he followed his desires and impulses, (as we have already stated above), and partook of the food he was forbidden to taste, he was deprived of everything, was doomed to subsist on the meanest kind of food, such as he never tasted before, and this even only after exertion and labor, as it is said, "Thorns and thistles shall grow up for thee" (Gen. iii. 18), "By the sweat of thy brow," etc., and in explanation of this the text continues, "And the Lord God drove him from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground whence he was taken." He was now with respect to food and many other requirements brought to the level of the lower animals: "You shall eat the grass of the field" (Gen. 3:18). Reflecting on his condition, the Psalmist says, "Adam unable to dwell in dignity was brought to the level of the dumb beast" (Ps. 69:13)." May the Almighty be praised, whose design and wisdom cannot be fathomed."”(MN1:2)

The banishment from Eden, ideal life, is because of man’s absorption in feeding his own personal physical needs, ignoring the bigger picture. The picture I get in my mind is that the universe was created by God as a self-perpetuating entity –

The book which enlightened the darkness of the world says therefore, "And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). Even the existence of this corporeal element, low as it in reality is, because it is the source of death and all evils, is likewise good for the permanence of the Universe and the continuation of the order of things, so that one thing departs and the other succeeds. Rabbi Meir therefore explains the words "and behold it was very good" (tov Me’od); that even death was good in accordance with what we have observed in this chapter.” (MN3:10)

Even death can be seen as good if it results in permanence of the Universe. The word “good” is synonymous with continuity. It is up to each man to figure out how he can contribute and he has the choice to join Creation and act constructively or be indifferent and lead a meaningless life. In religious parlance, that would mean choosing between Hashgacha, namely constancy, and Mikreh, randomness.

Those who approach Him are best protected, and "He will keep the feet of his saints"; but those who keep far away from Him are left exposed to what may befall them; there is nothing that could protect them from what might happen; they are like those who walk in darkness, and are certain to stumble.” (MN 3:18)

The only way man can approach Him is by knowing His ways as it is the most man can expect to know about Him.

The paradox is that the individual never knows for sure whether his conclusions are correct, whether the actions he undertakes based on those conclusions will be constructive in the long term. It is even more paradoxical because a contemporary observer cannot judge whether the actions of this individual were constructive. It is only much later that all the consequences of a particular action can be assessed and judged. The best that we can do is to constantly remind ourselves to evaluate all our actions with the long-term view in mind. Rambam in MN 3:51 -

Also the providence of God watching over them [the patriarchs and Moshe] and their posterity was great. When we therefore find them also, engaged in ruling others, in increasing their property, and endeavoring to obtain possession of wealth and honor, we see in this fact a proof that when they were occupied in these things, only their bodily limbs were at work, whilst their heart and mind never moved away from the name of God.”

It is when we look back at the accomplishment, “the providence of God watching over them”, of these four, the patriarchs and Moshe, that we have proof that all their actions were goal oriented and therefore under Divine Providence.

I think these four reached that high degree of perfection in their relation to God, and enjoyed the continual presence of Divine Providence, even in their endeavors to increase their property, feeding the flock, toiling in the field, or managing the house, only because in all these things their end and aim was to approach God as much as possible. It was the chief aim of their whole life to create a people that should know and worship God… The object of all their labors was to publish the Unity of God in the world and to induce people to love Him; and it was on this account that they succeeded in reaching that high degree; for even those [worldly] affairs were for them a perfect worship of God. But a person like me must not imagine that he is able to attain this degree of perfection.”

The last sentence is fascinating. Rambam reveals his own inner thoughts and self-image. Although looking back from our perspective, Rambam affected Judaism deeply for generations; he was full of doubt about his contribution. Apparently the patriarchs themselves had the same doubts about their actions and their long-term impact. That explains the repetitive assurances that we find in the prophetic visions of the Avot. They always reviewed their actions and questioned whether they were correct and effective in accomplishing their goal for generations to come. That is also the meaning of Zchut Avot starting in Egypt –

כד וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם; וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ, אֶת-אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹב.
24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.

and repeated many times over in the Torah and Neviim. Failure would reflect poorly on the patriarchs. It would raise questions about the meaning of their life’s work. The Torah is confirming and Moshe is joining them in their vision for the future of their progeny and ultimately humankind. When we say in our prayers every day “Vezocher Chasdei Avot” it means we are joining them in their vision to bring about a perfect world – “Umevi Go’el livnei vneihem” and all that as part of God’s creation – “Lema’an Shemo Be’ahavah”.

Much more to come on this subject of Hashgacha / Providence.
Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Naturei Karta or Biryoni ?

One cannot remain silent on the great Chilul Hashem these so called Naturei Karta hooligans have committed. We have to openly distance ourselves from them. It is a travesty that our leadership has chosen to take a public stand on the ElAl affair and remained silent when some who present themselves as religious Jews desecrate our Kedoshim. Velamalshinim al tehi Tikvah!

Hashiva Shofteinu Kevarishona! Leaders that know what to emphasize.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Providence - an acquired state.

In my earlier post I ended up with two components of providence; freedom of choice of a kind that is universal and extant in all living. We also saw that Reward and Punishment is a direct result of an action; it is the consequence of any act.

(If the reader wants to verify my understanding of Rambam, the following chapters in MN are pertinent and should be read carefully: 3:17-18-51.)

If Reward and Punishment is a consequence of an action it should theoretically apply to all things that act, all living things. Why then do we not find the idea of Reward and Punishment in the Torah for any living thing other than man? Why are we permitted to slaughter animals for food? What did the animal do wrong to deserve that? This question really supports the understanding of Aristotle that what we consider a consequence of Divine will is nothing more than pure randomness. There is no empirical impetus for differentiating between humans and animals. The sentience of man just increases the randomness of his actions, adding a component to man’s decision process. Animals are impelled by their natural instincts and suffer the consequences thereof while man is restrained or pushed by his ability to think, which makes it more difficult to predict how he will act.

Because there is no empirical evidence for his position, Rambam introduces his understanding of Hashgacha with a strong proviso:

My opinion on this principle of Divine Providence I will now explain to you. In the principle which I now proceed to expound I do not rely on demonstrative proof, but on my conception of the spirit of the Divine Law, and the writings of the Prophets. The principle which I accept is far less open to objections, and is more reasonable than the opinions mentioned before.”(MN3:17)

It is how Rambam understands the ontological point of view of the Torah and the prophets. The importance of this statement cannot be minimized. What it says is that all observe the same phenomena; we see things happening in exactly the same way, the interpretation of the event, the perspective from which we look at it, are different and fit with the total teachings of the Torah and prophets.

Before we go further we need to define exactly what the word Hashgacha, usually translated as Providence, really means. When discussing Aristotle’s position earlier in chapter 17, Rambam states:

In short, the opinion of Aristotle is this: Everything is the result of management which is constant, which does not come to an end and does not change any of its properties, as e.g., the heavenly beings, and everything which continues according to a certain rule, and deviates from it only rarely and exceptionally, as is the case in objects of Nature. All these are the result of management, i.e., in a close relation to Divine Providence.”

Divine Providence is constancy. When there is no randomness and things are predictive, it is considered to be under Divine Providence. The movements of the stars are predictable and therefore are considered under Divine Providence. Of course this assessment is based on Aristotelian physics. We now know that things are different and there is randomness there too especially over long periods of time. The idea though remains that Hashgacha / Providence refers to predictable events. Rambam in fact contrasts Hashgacha with randomness:

But that which is not constant, and does not follow a certain rule, as e.g., incidents in the existence of the individual beings in each species of plants or animals, whether rational or irrational, is due to chance and not to management; it is in no relation to Divine Providence. Aristotle holds that it is even impossible to ascribe to Providence the management of these things.”

We can summarize by saying Hashgacha / Providence is the opposite of randomness. Humans who have free will and choice are therefore the most random entities in the universe followed by animals and other living things according to Aristotle.

Rambam sees it quite differently. Once man is able to understand the universe created by God and extrapolate from that the direction it is headed, or in religious parlance, understand the will of God and wants to partake in that endeavor, his actions are no longer random. They are goal oriented and therefore predictable.

Divine Providence is connected with Divine intellectual influence, and the same beings which are benefited by the latter so as to become intellectual, and to comprehend things comprehensible to rational beings, are also under the control of Divine Providence, which examines all their deeds in order to reward or punish them.”

It is incumbent on man to develop his intellect to the point where he understands the will of God. At that point he no longer acts in a random fashion. Hashgacha which is the opposite of randomness takes over. He becomes predictable and as he achieves his goal, that achievement is his reward. However if man does not develop his potential, he is left to randomness just like all other living entities. That is his punishment. Intellect and its proper use leads to predictable goal oriented behavior and consequent outcome. That is Hashgacha / Providence which therefore affects only humans who use their intellect constructively. Other living things remain under the influence of randomness, their natural state.

The problem is that it is not a simple matter to know with certainty what the will of God is. It will sometimes take more than a lifetime, many lifetimes and generations, before we find out if the understanding and consequent actions of a particular individual were correct. Reward and Punishment is no longer just how an individual fares in his own physical well-being. It takes on a macro view. It is the impact that a life has that counts. I understand that to be the unknown that Rambam refers to; “and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding”. The good outcome of an individual’s action is the only evidence whether he acted correctly. That is why we find even our patriarchs like Yaakov full of doubt about their actions and goals as the Rabbis say it “Shema yigrom hacheit”. It is also why Rambam sees Moshe and the patriarchs as the paradigms of people who were blessed with Hashgacha. After all their actions are still felt thousands of years later by their descendants, their goal of building a nation that knows God still evolving.

All that is mentioned of the history of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a perfect proof that Divine Providence extends to every man individually.”

It therefore makes sense that Providence is a function of the correctness of a person’s understanding and consequent actions.

The relation of Divine Providence is therefore not the same to all men; the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence. This benefit is very great in the case of prophets, and varies according to the degree of their prophetic faculty: as it varies in the case of pious and good men according to their piety and uprightness. For it is the intensity of the Divine intellectual influence that has inspired the prophets, guided the good in their actions, and perfected the wisdom of the pious. In the same proportion as ignorant and disobedient persons are deficient in that Divine influence, their condition is inferior, and their rank equal to that of irrational beings: and they are "like unto the beasts."” (MN3:18)

And again Rambam sees Moshe and the patriarchs as the paradigm of perfect recipients of Divine Providence:

Consider how the action of Divine Providence is described in reference to every incident in the lives of the patriarchs, to their occupations, and even to their passions, and how God promised to direct His attention to them. Thus God said to Abraham, "I am thy shield" (Gen. 15:1); to Isaac, "I will be with thee, and I will bless thee" (ibid. 26:3); to Jacob, "I am with thee, and will keep thee" (ibid. 28:15); to [Moses] the chief of the Prophets, "Certainly I will be with thee, and this shall be a token unto thee" (Exod. 3:12); to Joshua, "As I was with Moses, so I shall be with thee" (Josh. 1:5). It is clear that in all these cases the action of Providence has been proportional to man's perfection.”

We can sum up that Hashgacha / Providence is a state a person acquires through his intellect and proper actions. It is only a posteriori, when the consequences of these actions are evaluated, that we know the correctness of the original act. However every human has the potential to emulate God and partake in acts that have long-term constructive goals – or under the umbrella of divine Hashgacha / Providence.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Reward and Punishment - Miraculous or natural?

Popular understanding of Reward and Punishment is that it has no direct cause and effect correlation to man’s action but is rather divine reward or punishment for his deeds. Man does his thing and if he is worthy God protects him. It assumes no causal relationship between a man’s action and the consequences of that action. If I keep the Mitzvot, wear a talit Katan that has a proper size, check my mezuzah periodically, put a filter on my tap, am extremely machmir on Kashrut and so on, I am protected and no harm will come to me. These good deeds accumulate points and God weighs them on His fine and mysterious scale and offsets them against all my other deeds and if they outweigh the bad deeds I am safe. In fact if I do all these things I am allowed to cheat a little, steal a little, never mind Goyim, Jews too as I have this great store of Mitzvot that will surely outweigh these little perversions of mine.

This thinking is the bane of our society and the root of many of the ills in our community. It is pure superstition and does not belong in Jewish thought. It is a reversion to idolatry or as I prefer to think of it a remnant of idolatry that has not yet been eradicated completely even after 3000 years. Bribing the deity is what Avodah Zara is all about. Just read the prophets starting with Hoshe’a and ending Malachi.

Rambam introduces Hashgacha as follows:

“I will show you [first] the view expressed on this subject in our prophetical books, and generally accepted by our Sages. I will then give the opinion of some later authors among us, and lastly, I will explain my own belief.” (MN 3:17)

Rambam tells us that here are three possible understandings of Hashgacha in Jewish thought; one found in the prophetical books also accepted by “most”[1] of our sages; another accepted by later scholars and thirdly his own opinion. This is intriguing already and apparently a subject not clearly defined by the Mesora. But as we will see there are several components that are unanimous in all versions diverging only in the details but as they say the devil is in the details.

Here is the common ground:

It is one of the fundamental principles of the Law of our Teacher Moses, and of those who follow the Law, that man has an absolute ability to act. According to this principle man does what is in his power to do, by his nature, his choice, and his will; and his action is not due to any newly created thing for his benefit. (Free will is not because of anything special in man such as his ability to think – DG[2]). All species of irrational animals likewise move by their own free will. This is the Will of God; that is to say, it is due to the eternal divine will that all living beings should move freely, and that man should have power to act according to his will or choice within the limits of his capacity. Against this principle we hear, thank God, no opposition on the part of our nation.”

What hits us at first is the universality of free will to all living species, man and animal. It would seem that a sentient being’s free will should operate differently than a non-sentient being. The answer is that there are two kinds of free will. The one generally discussed when we talk about Bechira, clearly not universal, is the choice between right and wrong which requires a higher level of thought and is therefore sentience dependent. The other one to which Rambam refers to here is choices that we have on a daily basis, crossing the street or not, eating this apple as opposed to the other and other such continuous decisions. This freedom of choice is common to all living things sentient and non-sentient. This understanding of this type of free will is unanimous “in our nation” and note Rambam’s sigh of relief about that! (Unfortunately nowadays Rambam’s relief is misplaced. The opposite view is very close to popular belief.)

The second view that is common ground:

Another fundamental principle taught by the Law of Moses is this: Wrong cannot be ascribed to God in any way whatever; all evils and afflictions as well as all kinds of happiness of man, whether they concern one individual person or a community, are distributed according to justice; they are the result of strict judgment that admits no wrong whatever. Even when a person suffers pain in consequence of a thorn having entered into his hand, although it is at once drawn out, it is a punishment, for some action of his, that has been inflicted on him, and the least pleasure he enjoys is a reward for some action; all this is meted out by strict justice; as is said in Scripture, "all his ways are judgment" (Deut. 32:4); we are only ignorant of the working of that judgment.”

If you assume that this reward or punishment is other then causal read on.

We, however, believe that all these human affairs are managed with justice; far be it from God to do wrong, to punish any one unless the punishment is necessary and merited. It is distinctly stated in the Law, that all is done in accordance with justice… Our Sages declare it wherever opportunity is given, that the idea of God necessarily implies justice; that He will reward the most pious for all their pure and upright actions, although no direct commandment was given them through a prophet; and that He will punish all the evil deeds of men, although they have not been prohibited by a prophet, if common sense warns against them, as e.g., injustice and violence.”

Pure and upright actions not commanded by a prophet and evil deeds that common sense warns against are things man does for his survival and the survival of the species, what we call natural law. Included are rules that society sets to protect one individual from another, to allow for peaceful coexistence among men. Breaking those rules wreaks havoc with a society, retaliation is to be expected and the consequences are inevitable. It may take a day, month, years and even several generations but eventually the consequence catches up with the wrongdoer or his progeny. It also includes self-control for health reasons, protecting the environment and pretty much every human act that is necessary for survival. The same consequence that Aristotle sees as random we see as Divine justice. The consequence does not change just the interpretation. Clearly Reward and Punishment is not some kind of Divine and supernatural concept. It is a purely natural one. God is seen as being the original cause of existence and in that role Reward and Punishment is ascribed to Him.

What have we so far? Man’s actions are left to him and his actions have consequences. We have not addressed Hashgacha as yet. Next post will bring this third component into play and Hashgacha will start to be fleshed out.

[1] As translated by R. Kafih. Schwartz notes that the Arabic word can be translated in different ways. Rambam seems to have been a little vague intentionally.
[2] I understand Rambam to mean this. R. Kafih understands it to refer to some Muslim thinkers that believed that every little change is specifically created for that action. ShemTov in his commentary seems to agree with R. Kafih.

In God's Image - Betzelem Elokim

Excellent article in commentary.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Of Visions, Angels and dislocated hips.

Rabbi Maroof post here brought to mind an interesting Rambam on the same verses at the end of last week’s Parsha and the one we will be reading this Shabbat.

Just before the story of Yaakov’s sending messengers to Eisav the Torah cryptically mentions the following:

ב וְיַעֲקֹב, הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ; וַיִּפְגְּעוּ-בוֹ, מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים.
2 And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.
ג וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָם, מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים זֶה; וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, מַחֲנָיִם. {פ}
3 And Jacob said when he saw them: 'This is God's camp.' And he called the name of that place Machanaim. {P}

Just before Yaakov meets his brother again an angel gets into the story:

כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר.
25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ.
26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
כז וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי.
27 And he said: 'Let me go, for the day breaks.' And he said: 'I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.'
כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב.
28 And he said unto him: 'What is thy name?' And he said: 'Jacob.'
כט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ--כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל.
29 And he said: 'Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.'
ל וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם.
30 And Jacob asked him, and said: 'Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.' And he said: 'Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?' And he blessed him there.
לא וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל: כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי.
31 And Jacob called the name of the place Pniel: 'for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.'

Rambam understands that this story is composed of two layers. The main story is that Yaakov met angels in a vision or dream. That vision came about while he was preparing himself for the meeting with Eisav which is the second story. His introspection about whether he was doing the right thing putting all these people, his family into danger, prompted this whole episode. When alone and tired after crossing the whole caravan across the river at Yabok, he had a vision where an angel reenacted the struggle with Eisav and though wounded, Yaakov prevailed.

Here is Rambam in MN 2:42:

The same, I hold, is the case when it is said in reference to Jacob, "And a man wrestled with him" (Gen. 22:25); this took place in a prophetic vision, since it is expressly stated in the end that it was an angel. The circumstances are here exactly the same as those in the vision of Abraham, where the general statement, "And the Lord appeared to him," etc., is followed by a detailed description. Similarly the account of the vision of Jacob begins, "And the angels of God met him" (Gen. 32:2); then follows a detailed description how it came to pass that they met him; namely, Jacob sent messengers, and after having prepared and done certain things, "he was left alone," etc., "and a man wrestled with him" By this term "man" [one of] the angels of God is meant, mentioned in the phrase, "And angels of God met him"; the wrestling and speaking was entirely a prophetic vision.”

If we were to retell the story according to this, we would begin with Yaakov’s preparation to meet Eisav and while resting he has a vision where a group of angels pass and one of them separated and struggled with Yaakov.

Abarbanel and Rabbeinu Avraham the son of Rambam have a problem with this interpretation. How can one call the same place Machanaim and Pniel at the same time and in the same vision? Rav Schwartz in his Yekev Ephraim explains that although in his vision when he first saw the angels he called the locale Machanaim, when he awoke he called it Pniel to reflect the central theme of the vision, God protecting him which is the meaning of seeing an angel face to face. Ramban takes the story a step further and explains that it is a metaphor for the almost total destructions of the Jews after the Romans put down the Bar Kochba revolt.

What is so interesting with the Ramban is the fact that he attacked Rambam’s understanding of the whole story being a vision. He is adamant that it happened in real life, how else can one explain Yaakov’s lameness, and at the same time he interprets the story as a metaphor.

Again Rav Schwartz in Yekev Ephraim has an interesting take on this. Yaakov dreamt about his fight with the angel and him being wounded on the hip. Next morning as he was moving on, he tripped and dislocated his hip. The dream was thus a foreboding of what happened next. He proves this because as he awoke he called the place Pniel, and only after leaving it did he become lame –
לב וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת-פְּנוּאֵל; וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ, עַל-יְרֵכוֹ.
32 And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Pniel, and he limped upon his thigh.

The fact that he had that foreboding signaled that there was some real significance in this happening. It was a metaphor that presaged some important event in his descendant’s lives. That also explains why the Gid Hanashe is forbidden to us. It is a reminder of that event and what it foretold.

When Ramban uses the Bar Kochba tragedy as the object of the metaphor, in my mind he is not talking about that specific tragedy. He sees that as the first tragedy during this current exile as a harbinger of all the future calamities that befell us starting then and culminating with the recent terrible holocaust of 1939- 1944.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Rambam on Providence: A contradiction?

I would like to pose a question and ask readers if they would be so kind and suggest an answer. Reading MN 3:17 would be very helpful as I am laying out a contradiction within the same chapter, and we know Rambam told us in his introduction that only a fool contradicts himself in his writings.

Having established that natural disasters or calamities, whether personal or universal, cannot be seen as evil, how do we address the suffering of the victim(s)?

Aristotle according to Rambam saw that too as a random natural event and nature has no ethics. Isn’t man just another component of the whole universe? If the earthquake is necessary for the maintenance of the planet, the fact that the inhabitants, whether vegetable, animal or human, that happen to be in its vicinity suffer, is irrelevant. As Rambam in MN 3:17 explains Aristotle’s position:

All other movements, however, which are made by the individual members of each species are due to accident; they are not, according to Aristotle, the result of rule and management; e.g.

when a storm or gale blows, it causes undoubtedly some leaves of a tree to drop, breaks off some branches of another tree, tears away a stone from a heap of stones, raises dust over herbs and spoils them, and stirs up the sea so that a ship goes down with the whole or part of her contents.

Aristotle sees no difference between

The falling of a leaf or a stone and the death of the good and noble people in the ship;

Nor does he distinguish between

the destruction of a multitude of ants caused by an ox depositing on them his excrement and the death of worshippers killed by the fall of the house when its foundations give way;

Nor does he discriminate between the case of a cat killing a mouse that happens to come in her way, or that of a spider catching a fly, and that of a hungry lion meeting a prophet and tearing him.”

Rambam on the other hand agrees that as far as non-sentient beings, defined as everything except humans, there is no providence (Hashgacha). However humans have freedom of choice. That quality is a result of man’s ability to think independently, his intellectual capacity. Man can therefore choose to act within the parameters of divine providence or not.

Divine Providence is connected with Divine intellectual influence, and the same beings which are benefited by the latter so as to become intellectual, and to comprehend things comprehensible to rational beings, are also accompanied by Divine Providence, which examines all their deeds from the point of view of reward and punishment.”

How do we explain the same events, the strong wind and its consequences, the spittle and the dung?

For I do not believe that it is through the interference of Divine Providence that a certain leaf drops [from a tree],

Nor do I hold that when a certain spider catches a certain fly, that this is the direct result of a special decree and will of God in that moment;

It is not by a particular Divine decree that the spittle of a certain person moved, fell on a certain gnat in a certain place, and killed it;

Nor is it by the direct will of God that a certain fish catches and swallows a certain worm on the surface of the water.

In all these cases the action is, according to my opinion, entirely due to chance, as taught by Aristotle.”

Now comes the tough part:

It may be by mere chance that a ship goes down with all her contents, as in the above-mentioned instance, or the roof of a house falls upon those within; but it is not due to chance, according to our view, that in the one instance the men went into the ship, or remained in the house in the other instance: it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding.”

If the method that God decides whether this is right or wrong is incomprehensible, what does it have to do with our intellect and freedom of choice? What exactly does the will of God mean in this context? Is the fact that he is in that collapsing building or sinking ship by his choice or God’s? To me this last statement is at first blush confusing.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Jacob's Ladder - God, Prophecy, Providence and History.

This post is going to be longer and more complicated than the usual ones I write. The subject is however very important to my mind and covers many aspects of Jewish thought; providence, prophecy and History. I therefore ask you to kindly bear with me.

This Shabbat we read Yaakov’s dream of the ladder and the angels. In his introduction to the Moreh Rambam uses it as an example of a prophesy that is given in a metaphor where every word has meaning. He compares it to another prophesy where the general message has meaning while the details are not necessarily important.

Here are the pertinent verses:

יב וַיַּחֲלֹם, וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה, וְרֹאשׁוֹ, מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה; וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ.
12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
יג וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה נִצָּב עָלָיו, וַיֹּאמַר, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ, וֵאלֹהֵי יִצְחָק; הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ--לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה, וּלְזַרְעֶךָ.
13 And, behold, the LORD stood beside him, and said: 'I am the LORD, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou lie, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed.
יד וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ, וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כָּל-מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה, וּבְזַרְעֶךָ.
14 And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
טו וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ, וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-תֵּלֵךְ, וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ, אֶל-הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת: כִּי, לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ, עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם-עָשִׂיתִי, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ.
15 And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever you go, and will bring thee back into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.'

Here are Rambam’s words in the introduction and I will append the explanation to each segment by connecting each with MN 1:15 where Rambam explains what he meant here.

“The word "ladder" refers to one idea: - In MN 1:15 “This ladder all may climb up who wish to do so, and they must ultimately attain to knowledge of Him who is above the summit of the ladder”. The ladder is a metaphor for the process a prophet uses to find God and learn His ways. Metaphorically this type of thinking presents as climbing.

"Set up on the earth" to another "and the top of it reached to heaven" to a third: - In MN 1:15 a cryptic few words: “the upper end of which reached to heaven, while the lower end touched the earth”. I understand that as a metaphor of the direction of thought needed in the search for God. The prophet starts with the earthly, the physical, the sciences – Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy etc… and in the process as he goes along the question of God and His role in all this takes shape.

"Angels of God" to a fourth: - There are two possible interpretation of the word Alav in the text; on him (Yaakov) or on it (the ladder). In MN 1:15 “It must be well understood that the term "upon it" is employed by me in harmony with this metaphor. “Angels of God" who were going up represent the prophets. That the term "angel" was applied to prophets may clearly be seen in the following passages: "He sent an angel" (Num. 20:16); "And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim" (Judges 2:1)."

"Ascending" to a fifth; "descending" to a sixth; - Again in MN 1:15: “How suggestive, too, is the expression "ascending and descending on it"! The ascent is mentioned before the descent, inasmuch as the "ascending" and arriving at a certain height of the ladder precedes the "descending," i.e., the application of the knowledge acquired in the ascent for the training and instruction of humankind. This application is termed "descent," in accordance with our explanation of the term Yarad”. The purpose of the prophet’s search for God is to learn from His ways how to lead and teach people. (See also MN 1:54 for a similar understanding in Moshe’s question to God וְעַתָּה אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ). The search for God is not just an empty intellectual quest but has the purpose to teach correct leadership and behavior.

To better understand the significance of the order of ascent followed by descent, we turn to MN 1:10 where Rambam discusses the terms Yarad and Alah when in that specific order: “When it pleased the Almighty to grant to a human being a certain degree of wisdom or prophetic inspiration, the divine communication thus made to the prophet and the entrance of the Divine Presence into a certain place is termed (yeridah), "descending," while the termination of the prophetic communication or the departure of the divine glory from a place is called ‘Aliyah, "ascending."Whenever "Alah" comes after "Yarad" it means that the prophet disconnected from God however when it is the reverse, "Alah" before "Yarad" it connotes the opposite, a connection to God. That is the meaning of his comment that here the ascent is before the descent. It depicts the climb towards and connecting with the Divine rather than the completion of the process.

"The Lord stood upon it" to a seventh: - MN 1:15 -“And, behold, the Lord stood upon it" (Gen. 18:13), i.e., God was stably and constantly "upon it," namely, upon the ladder”. The idea here is that God is unchanging and is not affected by anything or anyone.

So what do we have so far? A ladder that is a metaphor for the path one takes when speculating about God to learn from Him the way He runs the world and consequently emulates Him. We also know that this information is stable and unchanging.

Now let us look at the whole picture. Why are the angels plural if it is a metaphor for the mind of the prophet? Furthermore there are at least four as there is more than one going up (Olim) and more than one going down (Yordim). Midrashim quoted by Rambam confirm it and say that there are four angels. In addition in the vision at some point all four must have met at the same point, the ones going up and the ones going down. (The assumption based on the text is that each pair operates in tandem). What are these four angels? There are many interpretations of this Rambam and I like the one that sees the angels as the four composites of the earth; the inorganic, the vegetative, the animal and the human. Rambam quoting the Midrash which says each angel takes up a third of the world, while the four together make up the world plus a third, confirms that. When seen from a physical standpoint, humans are part of the animal kingdom. However humans also have the capacity to grasp abstract non-physical concepts, to understand and apprehend things outside the physical universe. When looking at what the world is composed of we therefore have the three physical entities, inorganic, vegetative and animal, which together comprise the physical world while the human capacity adds a third non physical component to it. Thus all together they make up world plus a third.

The prophet in his speculation about existence contemplates the components of his surrounding and as he ascends the ladder he finds the unchanging God who has willed everything. He learns from this how the world operates and deduces what his role in this whole is. He descends back to physical reality and applies this information, which includes both physical elements and non-physical ones, metaphysical and theological ones, in his interaction and leadership of people.
What did Yaakov apprehend as it applies specifically to himself?

[ג] הדברים שמודיעין לנביא במראה הנבואה--דרך משל מודיעין לו, ומיד ייחקק בליבו פתרון המשל במראה הנבואה, ויידע מה הוא: כמו הסולם שראה יעקוב אבינו, ומלאכים עולים ויורדים בו, והוא היה משל למלכייות, ושיעבודן

Rambam sees the dream as a metaphor for the subjugation of the Jewish people by the nations. Yaakov’s exile because of Eisav’s jealousy is a forerunner of the Jewish people’s fate among the nations of the world. Yaakov thus saw the tribulations and risks that Galut brings. The survival of his descendants as a nation will depend on their attachment to HKBH. It is there, among the nations where
, וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כָּל-מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה, וּבְזַרְעֶך that they will influence the civilizations they live with and bring to them the knowledge of the existence of a transcendental God.

Maintaining a focus on the objective of looking for the ultimate truth which is nothing other than God is the key to understanding providence. Providence is not something bestowed on a person; it is a quality that a person acquires if he has clear goals that go beyond his immediate physical sustenance. Yaakov’s goal was to create a nation that knew God and spread His knowledge through their search for Him.

Consider how the action of Divine Providence is described in reference to every incident in the lives of the patriarchs, to their occupations, and even to their passions, and how God promised to direct His attention to them. Thus God said … to Jacob, "I am with thee, and will keep thee"” (MN 3:18)

The Patriarchs likewise attained this degree of perfection; they approached God in such a manner that with them the name of God became known in the world… I think these four reached that high degree of perfection in their relation to God, and enjoyed the continual presence of Divine Providence, even in their endeavors to increase their property, feeding the flock, toiling in the field, or managing the house, only because in all these things their end and aim was to approach God as much as possible. It was the chief aim of their whole life to create a people that should know and worship God. "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him" (Gen. 18:19). The object of all their labors was to publish the Unity of God in the world and to induce people to love Him; and it was on this account that they succeeded in reaching that high degree; for even those [worldly] affairs were for them a perfect worship of God.” (MN 3:51)

The famous Jacob’s ladder is thus a metaphor for all the basic issues a Jew confronts daily, finding God, understanding Prophecy, Providence (Hashgacha), Galut, its purpose and ultimately the meaning of worshiping God. Rambam Hilchot Melachim 11:11-13 gives us an historical insight in how this process of being among the nations worked:

יא אבל מחשבות בורא עולם--אין כוח באדם להשיגם, כי לא דרכינו דרכיו ולא מחשבותינו מחשבותיו. וכל הדברים האלו של ישוע הנוצרי, ושל זה הישמעאלי שעמד אחריו--אינן אלא ליישר דרך למלך המשיח, ולתקן את העולם כולו לעבוד את ה' ביחד: שנאמר "כי אז אהפוך אל עמים, שפה ברורה, לקרוא כולם בשם ה', ולעובדו שכם אחד" (ראה צפניה ג,ט).
יב כיצד: כבר נתמלא העולם כולו מדברי המשיח, ומדברי התורה ומדברי המצוות, ופשטו דברים אלו באיים רחוקים, ובעמים רבים ערלי לב; והם נושאים ונותנים בדברים אלו, ובמצוות התורה--אלו אומרים מצוות אלו אמת היו, וכבר בטלו בזמן הזה, ולא היו נוהגות לדורות. ואלו אומרים דברים נסתרות יש בהם, ואינן כפשוטן, וכבר בא משיח, וגילה נסתריהם.
יג וכשיעמוד המלך המשיח באמת, ויצליח וירום ויינשא--מיד הם כולן חוזרין ויודעים ששקר נחלו אבותיהם, ושנביאיהם ואבותיהם הטעום

It is the conflict itself with Judaism, the clash of civilizations that brings about a dialogue though mostly confrontational, that keeps the question of God and what God means at the forefront. That dialogue will ultimately result in the whole world accepting the Unique God, the ultimate truth.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

What does a prophet and a great scientist have in common? Guest post by my son Alex.

Scientists/ mathematician always build on previous research or axioms in order to create or prove their own theories. Very rarely do you find a scientist that questions or tries to prove or disprove an existing axiom and then in the process creates his own theory. It is even rarer to find a scientist that will go back to the original building blocks of science and try to prove or disprove the axiom that everyone assumes is true. This is because it can take a life time of work to prove or disprove basic axioms of science and it is much easier to assume that enough critical analysis has been done in the previous generations and to build on what already exists by taking a small part of the existing axiom or an entire axiom and moving on from there. There are exceptions and these exceptions usually turn out to be the greatest scientists in a generation or even in history. These scientists/mathematicians question the original axioms either disproving or creating an entirely new axiom as result of studying the assumed axiom. These people usually create an impact that can change the way all future generations perceive their world around them, their existence and their quality of life. We see this with great scientists/mathematicians such as Plato, Aristotle, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Newton, Einstein etc.
In Judaism a similar process takes place. Most Jews take the previous generations axioms as a given and then build from there .We believe that there is a one G-D and we also believe in Torah Misinai, Torah Sheba’al peh Etc. It is very rare that someone questions or tries to prove the previous assumed axioms. It is ironic since the founder of our religion was one that questioned his generation’s axiom and came up with the belief in one G-D. When someone does try to prove the original axioms it is then that he reaches the level of prophecy. It is then, like the scientist that he is able to change the way people look at religion and change the quality of life not only for his generation but also for future generations.

The Rambam writes in his parable to describe the different levels of closeness to GD in Volume 3 Chapter 51 "Those who have plunged into speculation concerning the fundamental principles of religion have entered the antechambers. People there indubitably have different ranks. He, however, who has achieved demonstration, to the extent that this is possible, of everything that may be demonstrated; and who has ascertained in divine matters, to the extent that that is possible, everything that may be ascertained; and who has come close to certainty in those matters in which one can only come close to it-has come to be with the ruler in the inner part of the habitation.” He immediately writes right after this "If however, you have achieved perfection in the natural things and have understood divine science, you have entered in the ruler's place into the inner court and are with him in one habitation. This is the rank of men of science; they, however, are of different grades of perfection.

There is an interesting Meshech Chochma in this past week’s torah portion that I will be creative and build on using this concept. It says in Chapter 32 the end of verse 1 and the beginning of verse 2 that Lavan returned to his place and Yaakov went on his way. Lavan returned to his previous axioms and beliefs and therefore remained a wicked person. Yaakov went on his way constantly questioning previous axioms in his search for God. This is the way of the philosopher/prophet.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

God is good to all - is this a joke?

ט טוֹב-יְהוָה לַכֹּל; וְרַחֲמָיו, עַל-כָּל-מַעֲשָׂיו.
9 The LORD is good to all; and His tender mercies are over all His works.

Is David Hamelech joking? Are there not enough calamities out there? Will a victim of the holocaust, Tsunamis, earthquakes, pandemics not to mention personal illnesses, losses and other such catastrophes agree with this statement? How can David say that God is good to ALL? His tender mercies over ALL his works?

The answer to the above is at the crux of Theodicy and Providence. It is a complicated and lengthy discussion that will require more than one post. I will try to break down the issue into its components and address each one separately.

The question that one needs to ask first is whether any component of the universe is more important than another. If let us say everything exists so that humanity may come into being and thrive then anything that works towards that goal is good and anything that tries to thwart it is evil. If however every component of the universe is equally important, we can envision a conflict where an action that promotes one component threatens another and we can still consider it as good.

We have to distinguish between the most advanced organism, which is humankind, and seeing man as the goal of creation. Although it so happens that man has unique attributes that does not make him more important. In fact, as I have mentioned in an earlier post, he may be just a necessary component of the whole universe working in tandem with its other parts to maintain it and at its service.

If we see existence as a natural occurrence clearly there is no room for seeing even a possibility of a goal. Everything just exists and man is part of it. If we attribute existence to God, His will is the cause for everything. We cannot decipher what His wish is other than for everything to just exist. There is no reason to believe that the existence of man is the goal He wishes for more than the existence of any other component of the universe. Whichever of the two positions we chose, clearly good is anything that perpetuates existence and evil is whatever destroys it. That is of course from the perspective of existence and not from the individual component.

What we are left with is that events that are detrimental to humankind are good as long as they promote the perpetuation of the whole. Man’s tribulations are insignificant when seen in that context. With this in mind we now can try to understand and categorize what we consider as calamities and see if God’s role in them is good or evil.

The first category is composed of natural disasters. Starting from the personal and individual, illnesses caused by genetic defects are part of nature. It is a biological imperative for the survival of a species that genetic mutations occur. It is inherent in the system that some are not successful. Of course it does not mitigate the suffering of the individual that is smitten, nor his close ones, but it is unavoidable and is good in a macro sense. Rambam being a keen observer of diseases, although unaware of genetics puts it in remarkably modern words:

The first kind of evil is that which is caused to man by the circumstance that he is subject to genesis and destruction, or that he possesses a body. It is on account of the body that some persons happen to have great deformities or paralysis of some of the organs. This evil may be part of the natural constitution of these persons, or may have developed subsequently in consequence of changes in the elements, e.g., through bad air, or thunderstorms or landslips. We have already shown that, in accordance with the divine wisdom, genesis can only take place through destruction, and without the destruction of the individual members of the species the species themselves would not exist permanently. Thus the true kindness, and beneficence, and goodness of God is clear. He, who thinks that he can have flesh and bones without being subject to any external influence, or any of the accidents of matter, unconsciously wishes to reconcile two opposites, viz., to be at the same time subject and not subject to change. If man were never subject to change there could be no generation”. (MN 3:12)

(I am quoting just the pertinent segment. If one reads the whole piece it is clear that Rambam was basing this on Galen’s understanding of medicine not modern genetics.)

Of course the same argument applies to other natural events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, storms and so on. In a macro sense they are all necessary as part of a system that perpetuates the existence of the earth. I do not think I have to elaborate further.
Coming back to our opening question natural disasters can be seen as good. They may be destructive to their immediate surroundings and those caught up in them. They are however necessary and an integral part of the survival of the whole and therefore inherently good.

That leaves us with wars, holocausts and individual illnesses. I will address it in a future post.

(MN 3: 10 thru 14 is an interesting read on this issue).

Monday, November 27, 2006

Cancer drug, side effects and the antidote.

Bari at Mishmar has an interesting post
quoting the Seridei Eish about maintaining the balance between critical analysis and the consequent Hidushim that come from it and respect for the great Acharonim and Chachamim in general. (I could not find the reference in the Seridei Eish but the statement is true). This balance unfortunately is hard to find nowadays.

It reminded me of a conversation I was a participant in with Rav Simcha Wasserman Z”L and Yibodel Lechaym my Father La’arichut Yamim about a year or so before R. Simcha’s petirah. I do not remember how the conversation ended up on the subject of the strong separation in Klal Yisrael between the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements and R. Simcha commented that it is a great pity. He said that this is comparable to a cancer patient who is treated with strong chemotherapy to arrest the disease. The medicine causes side effects which need to be addressed as soon as the cancer is arrested or in remission. The Chatam Sofer in Hungary and others in other countries when confronted with the reform and Haskallah movements and their attraction on the religious community, reacted by creating a separation between the groups. In Hungary especially new Kehilot were formed that kept the Reformers outside the more orthodox communities. (An excellent book on the episode and its aftermath is “Hakera shelo Nita’acha” by Professor Jacob Katz in Hebrew). The medicine worked and as we can see these movements no longer have any appeal to the genuinely religious Jew. It is time to start prescribing the antidote. Unfortunately we have forgotten to do that.

As with many of Reb Simcha’s comments they are deep and have an impact on a broader area than their original application. It helps me understand many phenomena we see in our communities. For example the sitting and learning culture expected from every newly married whether he is up to it or not and the lack of secular education in Yeshivot both here and in Eretz Yisrael. The great builders of torah, Rav Aharon Kotler in the US and the Chazon Ish in EY, instituted them both after the holocaust. That was an Eit La’asot because there was a dire need to create Chachamim and leaders fast. It was not an ideal situation but there was no choice. The medicine worked and the Torah is again learned and growing within Klal Yisrael. The time has come where these practices have to be retuned and addressed. If we want to have leaders of the caliber of earlier times, we cannot have these restrictions imposed on them. The breadth of thinking and knowledge needed to lead us in our times cannot be developed under these circumstances. Nor can we continue having thousands of young men depending on handouts indefinitely. Worse they are wasting time and unproductive to society and themselves. But there is no one of stature with the vision or courage to do address the problem.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

God and First Cause: Is there a difference?

I have been confronted with critical comments about my position on proving the existence of God. R. Phil Goode has even gone so far (to my great satisfaction and gratitude for such a thorough reading of my blog) as to find a contradiction between a comment I made in February and later posts. You can find the exchange here .

First I have to make a disclaimer. So far on this blog I have focused on understanding Rambam’s views. I know that sometimes I come across too forcefully; I therefore want to make it clear that these opinions are my own interpretation of Rambam’s views. I do not purport to know whether I am correct in my understanding. Several commenters have taken me to task several times on my opinions and they were not always wrong. I also reserve the right to change my mind as I go along and relearn something. It is my hope to learn as much as possible from the discussions. I try, not always successfully, to keep my ego at bay my goal being to get as close to the truth as possible. I always try to keep Rambam’s

הוא שהנביא אומר "וה' אלוהים אמת" ירמיהו י,י--הוא לבדו האמת, ואין לאחר אמת כאמיתו

in front of my eyes. So far the experience of writing and learning has been exhilarating and I thank all readers for helping to make it so.

I have endorsed in the past the argument for the existence of a First Cause referred to as “from contingency”. The argument goes as follows: We see that everything is contingent on something else. Nothing exists on its own but is always caused by something else. If we follow the chain of cause and effect up the line there must be one entity that is not contingent on anything else which is the cause of everything. That entity we refer to as the First Cause. It is the first of several arguments Rambam uses to prove the existence of God (MN 2:1). This argument is not a Rambam original. Aristotle and other Greeks discuss it and arrive at the same conclusion that there must be a First Cause.

Although Rambam states that Aristotle believed in the existence of God, that is not exactly correct. He believed in a First Cause but that is not synonymous with the God of religion. It is a vague concept of an uncreated or self-created entity that causes everything. It is not tied into time thus eternal. Although a little simplistic I view that as the concept behind existence. It is an entity that we know must exist but we cannot really grasp or define – it is just there.

What can we prove about that entity? We can prove it is unlike anything else, that it is not time dependent, it does not change thus never in a state of potential and is not physical. This concept of First Cause is just an attempt at explaining how things exist. It does not give that entity freedom of will or any connection with its effects. It is just an inanimate entity that has a very distant connection with us. Religion makes that connection. It tells us what to do with that information. It tells us that although that entity that we now call God is unknowable, we have to seek ways of understanding Him through observing the results of His actions. It tells us to accept that God is not just an abstract concept, an inanimate entity, but a so to say (kevayachol) conscious entity that caused everything in a manner we, humans, would consider willingly.

In his Sefer Hamitzvot Rambam’s first Mitzvat Asseh reads as follows:

המצוה הראשונה היא הצווי אשר צוונו להאמין האלוהות והוא שנאמין שיש שם עלה וסבה הוא פועל לכל הנמצאות והוא אמרו ית' אנכי י"י אלהיך. ובסוף גמר מכות (כג ב, כד א) אמרו תרי"ג מצות נאמרו לו למשה בסיני מאי קראה תורה צוה לנו משה כלומר מנין תור"ה והקשו על זה ואמרו תורה בגימטריא הכי הואי שית מאה וחדסרי הואי והיתה התשובה אנכי ולא יהיה מפי הגבורה שמעום. הנה כבר התבאר לך כי אנכי י"י מכלל שש מאות ושלש עשרה מצות והוא צווי באמונה כמו שבארנו:

The first Mitzvah is Yediat Hashem[1] is to know intellectually that there is a First Cause. Note how he ties it with the Chazal that Anochi and Lo Y’heyeh are “MiPi Hagevurah” which we know he understands as Gevurat Hasechel or intellect, not revelation. In other words it is empirically provable. This is a distant and impersonal God and other than being an obligation to know and demonstrate this to oneself, this God is quite distant. It is only when we try to understand His attributes, what He is or is not, that we personalize Him. Some of these attributes can be proven empirically, such as His unity or as I prefer to say uniqueness and Rambam’s understanding of prophecy and how humans connect with it. (BTW the test of whether it is empirically provable is when Rambam, in Mishne Torah, uses the term Leidah as opposed to Leha’amin.) Others are things we accept because they make sense even though there is no way that we humans can definitely prove them. We can only show that it is an acceptable position to take that most plausibly fits with our way of thinking and other empirically proven positions. That God wills is one of those positions.

In short we can prove empirically the existence of a First Cause. To personalize that First Cause and turn Him into our God we have to employ different types of proofs, plausibility tests and acceptance of the yoke of heaven. It is only then that this belief in a distant God takes on practical connotations affecting our way of thinking and day-to-day life. It does not mean relying on beliefs as XGH always comments and posts. It means using every ounce of our rational capacity to make sense of our existence using the tools and information at our disposal.

[1] The Sefer Hamitzvot was written in Arabic. This translation reads Leha’amin which in English is to believe. Rav Kafih translates Leidah- to know. See note 1 in Rav Chaim Heller’s edition published by Mossad Harav Kook.

Thanksgiving Min Hatorah Minayin?

י וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ--וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ.
10 And thou shalt eat and be satisfied, and bless the LORD thy God for the good land which He hath given thee.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Why are we here?

Is there a purpose to existence? How do we answer the question why we are here? When we look at the biological systems that perpetuate life on earth we perceive a mechanism where waste is eliminated, the fittest survive and everything seems to be geared towards self-preservation and perpetuation. Laws of physics and chemistry also seem to operate with a precision that is elegant and awe-inspiring. The existence of humankind can very easily be seen in the same light as just another element in the self-perpetuation of the universe. Humans have freedom of will, mental and physical abilities to change their environment. Their role in the perpetuation of the universe can easily be understood. However the larger question still remains unanswered what is the purpose of the whole enterprise? Is there indeed such a thing as purpose?

Let us first assume that the universe is eternal in some form or other, for even if we accept the Big Bang theory, there still had to be something physical out there, a particularity from which everything started. That being the case there really is nothing that forces us to find a purpose for existence other than existence itself and its perpetuation. Everything just has been there in some form or other forever.

However if we assume that the universe was created in time ex - nihilo, there must then be a Creator and therefore, at first blush it would appear that there must be a purpose. An intelligent entity that willed existence must have done so for a reason and a purpose. As we observe our surroundings, focusing on the biological system we are part of, we notice that there seems to be a hierarchy where lesser animals are a source of food for more advanced ones. Man is ultimately the most powerful and everything seems to be serving his needs. To the question of why man the answer may be so that he serve God and get to know Him. But again the question is why? What purpose is there in doing that? Does God need our worship? Does it add anything to Him? The answer is of course not. We are therefore left with the answer that we are here because God wished it so. He willed the universe into existence because that is what will is, it wills. MN 3:13 –

Even if the Universe existed for man's sake and man existed for the purpose of serving God, as has been mentioned, the question remains, what is the end of serving God? He does not become more perfect if all His creatures serve Him and comprehend Him as far as possible; nor would He lose anything if nothing existed beside Him. It might perhaps be replied that the service of God is not intended for God's perfection; it is intended for our own perfection,--it is good for us, it makes us perfect. But then the question might be repeated, What is the object of our being perfect? We must in continuing the inquiry as to the purpose of the creation at last arrive at the answer, It was the Will of God, or His Wisdom decreed it; and this is the correct answer. The wise men in Israel have, therefore, introduced in our prayers (for Ne‘ilah of the Day of Atonement) the following passage:--"Thou hast distinguished man from the beginning, and chosen him to stand before Thee; who can say unto Thee, What dost Thou? And if he be righteous, what does he give Thee?" They have thus clearly stated that it was not a final cause that determined the existence of all things, but only His will.”

Will as it relates to God is a word we use to describe the idea of a cause for a resulting action. Those who believe in physical eternity see a mechanistic system where the First Cause, assuming they accept one, is just another natural component of that system. The same mechanism that produces gravity for example induces the First Cause to cause everything to exist. There is no wisdom just existence. On the other hand those who believe in creation in time have a choice. They can also see a mechanistic universe without wisdom or thought. They can see the Creator as another component of a natural system. They however can also accept that there is thought and therefore Will in that Creator.

There is no possibility of ever proving any of the three positions; it is a matter of accepting one or the other. Judaism, led by its prophets, chose to accept the concept that God willed the universe into existence. Mishlei 3:19 puts out the idea very succinctly:

יט יְהוָה--בְּחָכְמָה יָסַד-אָרֶץ; כּוֹנֵן שָׁמַיִם, בִּתְבוּנָה.
19 The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens.

God willed us into existence and we know only one thing; our existence fulfills His will. It is our responsibility to perpetuate our and the whole universe’s existence. We do good when we are creative; we do evil when we are destructive. Torah and Mitzvot are tools that we have to help us fulfill our responsibility. This idea is quite dialectic, it contains an internal tension, as it on the one hand sees man as just another cog in a wheel. On the other hand it gives him the power to change his environment and affect the whole universe and generations in the future. Ultimately however there is only one purpose; fulfill God’s will. “Vatelamdem chukei Chaim La’asot retzoncha belevav shalem”.

Are we deluding ourselves? Maybe. There is no certainty that we are right otherwise there would be no Bechira – freedom of choice.

טו רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע.
15 See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil,
יט הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ--הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ.
19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou may live, thou and thy seed;
(Devarim 30:15 and 19)

Life, creativity is good- death or destruction is evil; the choice is ours. We can see the choice of good as a self-serving goal which depends on whim or as an obligation that binds us with a higher authority. Some will call it belief. I prefer to see it as choice based on an intelligent analysis of alternatives. In his discussions regarding the creation of the universe Rambam discusses different types of proofs and how they are applied. Here is an excerpt of some of his statements:

I will not deceive myself, and consider dialectical methods as proofs; and the fact that a certain proposition has been proved by a dialectical argument will never induce me to accept that proposition, but, on the contrary, will weaken my faith in it, and cause me to doubt it. For when we understand the fallacy of a proof, our faith in the proposition itself is shaken… When I have established the admissibility of our theory, I will, by philosophical reasoning, show that our theory of the Creation is more acceptable than that of the Eternity of the Universe; and although our theory includes points open to criticism, I will show that there are much stronger reasons for the rejection of the theory of our opponents.” (MN 2:16)

Certain things are just not provable. All one can do is see if either one of the different theories is admissible. Having established that they are, one has to then look at the different things that will help to decide which to choose. If the system that we received from the prophets and that we live by cannot be proven inadmissible, we may chose it.

IN comparing the objections raised against one theory with those raised against the opposite theory, in order to decide in favor of the least objectionable, we must not consider the number of the objections, but the degree of improbability and of deviation from real facts [pointed out by the objections]; for one objection may sometimes have more weight than a thousand others… for a person might some day, by some objection which he raises, shake your belief in the theory of the Creation, and then easily mislead you: you would then adopt the theory [of the Eternity of the Universe) which is contrary to the fundamental principles of our religion, and leads to "speaking words that turn away from God." You must rather have suspicion against your own reason, and accept the theory taught by two prophets who have laid the foundation for the existing order in the religious and social relations of humankind. Only demonstrative proof should be able to make you abandon the theory of the Creation: but such a proof does not exist in Nature.” (MN 2:23).

This is the basis of our acceptance of God as the willing Creator of our existence. We will now have to define what we mean by Will and the ramification thereof in our understanding of providence and our day-to-day life.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Epicurus and randomness - No providence - God is denied.

In MN 3:17, as an introduction to his opinion on Providence, Rambam lists five approaches. I will post each one separately and discuss them as they relate to different currents in Judaism.

The first opinion is the easiest one to deal with as it is foreign to Judaism. It is the theory proposed by the Atomists[1] who did not accept the existence of a First Cause. Everything to them was a result of random recombination of atoms without any underlying plan or rationality.

“There is no Providence at all for anything in the Universe; all parts of the Universe, the heavens and what they contain, owe their origin to accident and chance; there exists no being that rules and governs them or provides for them. This is the theory of Epicurus, who assumes also that the Universe consists of atoms, that these have combined by chance, and have received their various forms by mere accident. There have been atheists among the Israelites who have expressed the same view; it is reported of them: "They have denied the Lord, and said he is not" (Yirmyahu 5:12). Aristotle has proved the absurdity of the theory that the whole Universe could have originated by chance; he has shown that, on the contrary, there is a being that rules and governs the Universe. We have already touched upon this subject in the present treatise.”

Rambam is so convinced of the irrefutability of his proof for the existence of a First Cause that he does not even bother refuting this theory. As you know from my previous posts I am of the same opinion. So far none of the counter arguments have been convincing to me.

An interesting aside and a question that I really do not have an answer to: In his Pirush Hamishna on Sanhedrin 10:2 Rambam comments on the word Epicurus mentioned in the Mishna. He says it is an Aramaic word meaning a lack of respect for authority. Rambam clearly knew Epicurus as he mentions him in the above quote. Did he think that the Rabbis of the Mishna did not know him? I would doubt that very much. I would also doubt that he did not know about him in his twenties, when he wrote his commentary on Mishna discovering him only later. Anyone have any thoughts about this?

[1] The ancient theory of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, according to which simple, minute, indivisible, and indestructible particles are the basic components of the entire universe. ( )

What have creation and darkness in common?

Rambam in MN 3:10 discusses how to define something that a certain quality has been removed from it. For example some medieval philosophers saw darkness as a substance. Rambam disagrees and sees it as we do - the absence of light. The ramifications from this way of thinking are how one should look at evil or bad when opposed to good. If good is existence then bad is the absence of existence. It is not a state in its own right but only the absence of good. Rambam then makes a statement that at first blush is quite confusing:

Just as we say of him who puts out the light at night that he has produced darkness, so we say of him who destroyed the sight of any being that he produced blindness, although darkness and blindness are negative properties, and require no agent. In accordance with this view we explain the following passage of Isaiah: "I form the light and create (Boreh) darkness: I make peace, and create (Boreh) evil" (Yeshayahu 45:7), for darkness and evil are nonbeings. Consider that the prophet does not say, I make (Osseh) darkness, I make (‘osseh) evil, because darkness and evil are not things in positive existence to which the verb "to make" would apply; the verb Bara "he created" is used, because in Hebrew this verb has a connection with nonbeing e.g., "In the beginning God created" (Bara), etc.; here the creation took place from nothing. Only in this sense can non-existence be said to be produced by a certain action of an agent. In the same way we must explain the following passage: "Who hath made man's mouth? or who makes the dumb, or the deaf, or the seeing," etc.”

Rambam is suggesting that the word Bara or Boreh are used when something is created from nothingness and that is why Yeshayahu chose Yotzer for light and Boreh for darkness, Osseh for peace but again Boreh for evil. He then makes a general statement that the word Bara has a connection with nonbeing. What is he trying to say?

Rav Yaakov Koppel Schwartz in his Yekev Ephraim, (introduced to me by R. D.H to whom I am eternally grateful) an excellent commentary on Ramban on Chumash has a very lucid explanation for this Rambam. When the word Bara is used for creating Yesh Me’ayin, something from nothingness, the image one gets is that something just appeared. Before this instant there was nothing and now there is something. That is in contrast with Yotzer or Osseh where one takes something and shapes it into something else. One takes a piece of wood and makes a utensil or a piece of furniture from it. Darkness happens on its own when one puts out the light. Darkness is not made, it just happens just like creation from nothingness.

Ramban in Breishit 1:1 says: “Ve’ein etsleinu belashon Hakodesh be’hotza’at Yesh Me’ayin ela lashon Bara” – Bara is the only word in Hebrew that refers to creation from nothingness. Harav Schwartz suggests that the above Rambam is his source.
The sefer Yekev Ephraim in general shows that Ramban wrote his commentary on Chumash with Rambam in the back of his mind and that Rambam had an enormous influence on his thought process. Anyone interested in understanding how our great Rishonim related to Jewish theology, how truth was their main concern, will really enjoy the sefer.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

What do Socialism, the Mann and the left have in common?

Setting limits on physical self-gratification is a central issue in Rambam’s thinking. The form of man, the attribute that differentiates him from other living things, is his mind. The mind however cannot exist without the body and the brain, both physical entities. The mind therefore has the ability and is empowered to control the physical and make sure that it self protects so that it can continue to live for as long as possible, allowing the brain to expand its knowledge and understanding of its own existence. For the body to survive it has built in systems where it has tendencies to seek out things that are necessary for its survival. Those are all the things people crave for starting with food for personal survival and ending with sex for the survival of the species. Those are all necessary cravings that inform the mind to help the body to satisfy these needs. However these cravings also need the mind to set limits on them otherwise they become the sine qua non of existence. They take over the mind and direct it to spend all its energies in satisfying these cravings even to the body’s own detriment. The mind now is completely distracted from its main purpose. To Rambam that is the underlying reason for morals and all the laws in the Torah that address morality.

The fact that the Jewish people were willing to spend forty years in the desert relying on a minimal amount of food, monochromatic taste though nourishing, all for the purpose of freedom of action and thought, allowing them to develop their intellect, demonstrates to the world and future generations, how far one has to go to attain intellectual perfection. The idea is that if one can learn to be satisfied with necessities only, those are usually available.

About twenty years ago I had the privilege to visit with Rav Simcha Wasserman Z”L in Yerushalaim on Pessach. Although I got to know him in my thirties, I learned an enormous amount from this gentle Gadol and his rebbetzin. He asked me (and my son Aryeh who was with me at the time) if we knew why socialists are called leftists? Why does the left side connote socialism? When a person wants to make something he uses primarily his right hand and his left hand is the supporting actor. The same applies in every area that requires action by human beings. The primary requirement for survival is the procurement of food for survival. However without appetite there would be no impetus to do so. The appetite is therefore the supporting element in this process. When one makes the supporting act into the main purpose one gives the left side primacy and becomes a leftist. Socialism makes its primary objective man satisfying his appetites and is therefore seen as the left. I do not know if I agree with his analysis of socialism but I believe it explains why the left has negative connotations in Judaism. In kabalistic writings Sitra Desmalah has a negative connotation. It even got a place in Shulchan Aruch that one should always turn to the right side first. It is a subliminal message to make us aware of what is important.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Miracles: In the eyes of the beholder.

It would seem at first blush that God performing miracles is something to be expected from an all-powerful Deity. After all limiting God to what is natural would seem to make Him almost human. However a little more in depth analysis will show this to be wrong. On the contrary the need to make miracles is an insult to God. Of course He can perform miracles if He so wishes as long as He does not have to. A perfectly infallible Entity should be able to bring about our existence, have it planned and so well set in place that He, the Creator, need never interfere or adjust. Even the minutest adjustment is a sign of imperfection. So what exactly are those miracles the Torah talks about so often?

Interestingly, etymologically, we are coming back to our earlier discussions of Nissayon, for Ness is one of the words that are commonly used to describe a miracle. The word Ness stands for flag, pole or demonstration. Again it would seem that miracle is an event whose purpose is to make a point. Rambam in the last of his Eight Chapters puts it as follows
(My paraphrase/translation)

For we believe that the Will was present during the six days of Creation, and that all things always behave according to their nature as it says “Only that shall happen which has happened only that shall occur which has occurred; there is nothing new under the sun” (Kohelet 1:9.) Therefore the Rabbis found it necessary to say that all the miracles that already happened, that will happen in the future as promised, and that are irregular, all were willed during the first six days of creation. Those things had in their original nature the novel behavior that occurred later, at a set time, and when that happened at a fortuitous time, people perceived them as if they were willed now. That is not so. Our Rabbis expanded on this in Midrash Kohelet and in other places. They also stated “the world acts according to its custom.””

Kohelet 3:14 reads as follows:

יד יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי כָּל-אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה הָאֱלֹהִים הוּא יִהְיֶה לְעוֹלָם--עָלָיו אֵין לְהוֹסִיף, וּמִמֶּנּוּ אֵין לִגְרֹעַ; וְהָאֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה, שֶׁיִּרְאוּ מִלְּפָנָיו.
14 I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever; nothing can be added to it, nor any thing taken from it; and God hath so made it, that men should fear before Him.

Rambam comments in MN 2:28:

He declares in these words that the world has been created by God and remains for ever. He adds the reason for it by saying, "Nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it;" for this is the reason for the perpetuity, as if he meant to say that things are changed in order to supply that which is wanting, or in order to take away what is superfluous. The works of God being perfect, admitting no addition or deduction, must remain the same forever. It is impossible that anything should exist that could cause a change in them. In the conclusion of the verse, Solomon, as it were describes the purpose of exceptions from the laws of Nature, or an excuse for changes in them, when he says, "And God doeth it that men should fear before him." He refers to the production in time of miracles”.

In other words everything works according to its original plan or nature. There are events in nature that are more common than others. The sun rises and sets daily unchangingly. To us that is obviously natural. There are however other events, though natural but much rarer. These can be extremely rare, so rare, that they happened just once or twice throughout human history. These events are no less natural than the daily occurrences. However the rarity itself is a catalyst that makes the observer pause. It makes him take stock and realize that there is a First Cause that this event can be traced back to. Our mundane day-to-day existence is so constant that we forget to think about what is the cause for all this. The abnormal makes us aware that there is a question to be asked that begs for an answer.

So what is a miracle? If we look at miracles it is always the interaction between man and the event. It is when man is saved because the event occurred at a fortuitous moment for him. When the Jewish people were squeezed between the sea and the Egyptians and the sea split at just the right moment, that rare natural event is interpreted as a miracle. Moshe’s greatness was his ability to sense this rare occurrence and take advantage of it. His intuition, or what we would call his prophetic insight into the future was so strong and certain, that he refused to surrender to the Egyptians.

One cannot prove empirically that miracles occur. As a man of religion one can however interpret the event as being something put in place by God at time of creation and that included this person being at the right place at the right time. It is all in the eyes of the beholder.