Sunday, April 02, 2006

Is Olam Haba (the world to come) now, in the present?

It is quite telling in what context Rambam decided to develop his famous principles, I prefer Foundations, of Judaism or in popular parlance, Ikkarim for short. He uses the Mishna of Kol Israel Yesh Lahem Chelek le’olam Haba – all Jews have a portion to “Olam Haba” to explain that these foundations of Judaism are what brings a person to the level of Olam Haba and by denying them one loses that ability. So first we need to understand what Olam Haba is.

Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah Chapter 8 discusses it at length. It is an intellectual attainment where, each to his level apprehends God. It is an experience that apparently comes at the moment of death or shortly thereafter, where the intellectual understanding of God is translated into an experiential cleaving to Him, which is eternal. I will quote two Rambam’s which I believe will help us get an idea, mind you no more than an idea, of what it might be. First Rambam in Moreh 3:51 addressing what Chazal mean when they talk about Misas Neshikah (Death by Kissing) : (my comments in parentheses)

“In a greater measure this is the case as regards the purity of thought which man attains through the perfection of those ideas that lead him to an intense love of God. Man can by no means attain this so long as his bodily humors are hot. (has strong physical urges) The more the forces of his body are weakened, and the fire of passion quenched, in the same measure does man's intellect increase in strength and light; his knowledge becomes purer, and he is happy with his knowledge. When this perfect man is stricken in age and is near death, his knowledge mightily increases, his joy in that knowledge grows greater, and his love for the object of his knowledge more intense, and it is in this great delight that the soul separates from the body.”

(In other words a man, who has prepared himself intellectually for this moment, can experience this kind of understanding and apprehension at the time of death).

This is the state our Sages referred to, when in reference to the death of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, they said that death was in these three cases nothing but a kiss…. The meaning of this saying is that these three died in the midst of the pleasure derived from the knowledge of God and their great love for Him. When our Sages figuratively call the knowledge of God united with intense love for Him a kiss, they follow the well-known poetical diction," Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth" (Song i. 2). This kind of death, which in truth is deliverance from death, has been ascribed by our Sages to none but to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The other prophets and pious men are beneath that degree: but their knowledge of God is strengthened when death approaches. …. The intellect of these men remains then constantly in the same condition, since the obstacle is removed that at times has intervened between the intellect and the object of its action: it continues forever in that great delight, which is not like bodily pleasure.

The next Rambam is at the end of chapter 8 in Hilchos Teshuvah:

יד [ח] זה שקראו אותו חכמים העולם הבא, לא מפני שאינו מצוי עתה וזה העולם אובד ואחר כך יבוא אותו העולם. אין הדבר כן, אלא הרי הוא מצוי ועומד, שנאמר "מה רב טובך, אשר צפנת ליראיך" (תהילים לא,כ). ולא קראוהו העולם הבא, אלא מפני שאותן החיים באין לו לאדם אחר חיי העולם הזה, שאנו קיימין בו בגוף ונפש, וזה הוא הנמצא לכל אדם בראשונה.
When the Rabbis called Olam Haba (world to come) it was not because it is not extant now and will only happen after this world is destroyed, (see Moreh 2:28 where he argues that there is no reason why one should believe the world will exist for only 6000 years). That is not so but it is extant now and the reason they called it world to come, because that kind of life happen to a person after his current life, which comes first and we are in it with body and soul.

If one puts the Moreh above and Yad here together clearly Rambam is describing the same experience. However Rambam cautions us that the concept is not something that our physical existence can grasp :

יב כבר הודיעונו חכמים הראשונים שטובת העולם הבא אין כוח באדם להשיגה על בורייה, ואין יודע גודלה ויופייה ועוצמה אלא
הקדוש ברוך הוא לבדו

I think it is important that before we get into the Ikkarim we understand the context Rambam is presenting them in. For man to attain his potential in this world, to apprehend as much as he can about His Creator, these 13 “foundations” are what one builds upon. Building on different foundations one will not find God but something else. These are not beliefs but subjects of study, something like headers of issues that man has to study and learn to “know”. This is one of the reasons that the “Ani Maamin” is not compatible with Rambam’s Yesodos “Foundations”. There is no "emunah" here but only Yediah - knowledge. The author of Ani Ma'amin apparently did not understand that.

Rambam understands that when the Rabbis tell us in the Mishna that a person who does not believe in these foundations does not get Olam Haba, that is not an external punishment coming from God. It just means that without these foundations it is impossible to attain Olam Haba. Olam Haba is an intellectual state resulting of intense study and search for God.

(see R. Chaim Voloziner in his Ruach Chaim on Avos, at the end of his first piece on the Mishna in Chelek, for an even more radical understanding of Olam Haba and Gan Eden).

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