Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Archeological Find: A miracle destroyed.

Imagine that a famous archeologist discovered in a dig a preformed slab of stone and as he is cleaning it off words in an ancient but still understood language appear on it. Those words conform with thoughts that he was thinking about at the time. Moreover anybody that looked at those tablets with words recognized some similarity to his own thoughts.

טז וְהַלֻּחֹת--מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹהִים, הֵמָּה; וְהַמִּכְתָּב, מִכְתַּב אֱלֹהִים הוּא--חָרוּת, עַל-הַלֻּחֹת.
16 And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.

Rambam explains this whole verse in Moreh 1:66. The tablets themselves are called the work of God as is all nature. That implies that God directed Moshe to preexisting naturally shaped slabs of stone.

AND the tables were the work of God" (Exod. xxxii. 1:6), that is to say, they were the product of nature, not of art: for all natural things are called 46 the work of the Lord," e.g.," These see the works of the Lord" (Ps. cvii. 24)”

The writing too was an anomaly; a unique one of a kind natural phenomenon created at the same time everything else was way at the beginning of time.

Or was the creation of the writing on the tables more difficult than the creation of the stars in the spheres? As the latter were made by the direct will of God, not by means of an instrument, the writing may also have been produced by His direct will, not by means of an instrument. You know what the Mishna says, ten things were created on Friday in the twilight of the evening, and" the writing" is one of the ten things. This shows how generally it was assumed by our forefathers that the writing of the tablets was produced in the same manner as the rest of the creation, as we have shown in our Commentary on the Mishna (Abot, v. 6).”

We have already discussed in an earlier post that the people were given instructions in basic theological philosophy, inferring the existence of a unique God. Imagine finding that idea naturally engraved on a stone – one would almost be stupid not to worship that stone. Could you imagine the cathedrals, pilgrimages and votive prayers that such an object would generate?
When Moshe came down and saw the worship of the Golden Calf he realized that this would be unavoidable. He therefore shattered the tablets and the Rabbis say the words flew away, disappeared. He shattered them to such an extent that the words could not be recovered.

R. Meir Simcha in Meshech Chochma (Shemos 32:16 and 32:19) explains that the rapid change in thinking that the Sinai experience forced on the people, did not give them enough time to grasp properly what transcendence means. They could not understand that holiness is more a state of mind than something spiritual hovering or attaching itself to a physical thing. Moshe made that point by taking this most revered and unique object, these tablets that were clearly made by God’s will, they in fact demonstrated that God has a will, are only special when they are perceived correctly. There is no intrinsic holiness only in the mind of the observer. The Rabbis say that God thanked Moshe for breaking the tablets. The second tablets although written by Moshe apparently still had to be hidden at the end of the first temple. We could not deal with them properly yet even today. Considering Uman, Meron and the contemporary “miracle workers”, have we really evolved that much?

Gut Yom Tov.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Why practice? An argument for a dynamic approach to Ta'amei Hamitzvot - the "why" of praxis.

Note: This post is an idea that I have been working on for a while. I have not researched it extensively to check against the Meforshei Hamoreh. I am floating it more to get some feedback. i also think it explains away some difficult issues in Ta'amei Hamitzvos. I hope to explore this further.

Rambam in Moreh 2:40 makes the following statement about the Torah:

You will also find laws which, in all their rules, aim, as the law just mentioned, at the improvement of the material interests of the people: but, in addition, tend to improve the state of the faith of man, to create first correct notions of God, and of angels, and to lead then the people, by instruction and education, to an accurate knowledge of the Universe: this Law comes from God; these laws are divine.”

The Torah is divine because its goal is not only to create a civilized society but also a society that is advanced theologically and ontologically (Ontology: It studies being or existence and their basic categories and relationships, to determine what entities and what types of entities exist. Ontology thus has strong implications for conceptions of reality. (Wikipedia)) The commandments that deal with how people relate to each other help create a peaceful society that allows, for those who are so inclined, to develop intellectually, study the sciences and by observing the effects of His actions, develop a proper understanding of God so that man emulates Him. The goal is clear but it is not immediately obvious how the commandments, especially those that do not deal with societal relationships, help in attaining it. With this in mind Rambam cannot accept the idea that there are Mitzvos that do not have any reason other than obeying God’s edicts. It is incumbent on a practicing religious Jew to understand why he is doing a Mitzvah that has no clear explanation. Rambam legislates this in Hilchos Me’ilah 8:8:

[ח] ראוי לאדם להתבונן במשפטי התורה הקדושה, ולידע סוף עניינם כפי כוחו. ודבר שלא ימצא לו טעם, ולא ידע לו עילה--אל יהי קל בעיניו

A person should contemplate the laws of the holy Torah and learn their goal according to his abilities. (DG: apparently it is something that is a personal process - more later). However if he cannot find a reason for a certain Mitzvah, he should not deal with it lightly.”

This process of finding a reason is part of the performance of the Mitzvah and its objective because it forces man to focus on its Giver and His goal for people’s development. Each person should find a meaning that suits his stage and needs in his development to self-perfection. As Rambam in the latter parts of the Halacha makes it clear, that applies to the Mitzvos where the explanation is not obvious. This idea that the reason for certain Mitzvos is not static but dynamic is reinforced, to my mind, in a Halachik setting in the Pirush Hamishna on Shavuot 1:4 where the Mishna discusses the sins different offerings are meant to atone for. The Mishna presents an argument among Tannaim for specific offerings and Rambam notes that one cannot legislate like either of the opinions because these are things that pertain to God. In other words, when the Rabbis wanted to understand why a certain offering is brought, each came up with his reason based on his understanding and each approach is legitimate. Rambam applies this principle several times not only to Mitzvos and to their reason, but also to Hashkafic issues.

In Moreh 3:29 Rambam gives a lengthy presentation of his take on the philosophy of the idol worshippers in the Middle East during the period of the Exodus and Matan Torah and states:

The knowledge of these theories and practices (i.e. idol worship) is of great importance in explaining the reasons for the commandments. For it is the principal object of the Law and the axis round which it turns, to blot out these opinions from man's heart and make the existence of idolatry impossible… they form the principal and first object of the whole Law, as our Sages distinctly told us in their traditional explanation of the words" all that God commanded you by the hand of Moses" (Num. xv. 25); for they say," Hence we learn that those who follow idolatry disbelieves in the Torah in its entirety, and those who reject idolatry profess the Torah in its entirety." (B.T. Kidd, 4oa.) Note it. (DG: whenever Rambam introduces a very important idea he ends with these words – in Hebrew D’a Zo’t).

This is a seminal idea Rambam introduces as a macro reason for many Mitzvos that do not have a clear objective, namely the eradication of idolatry. (BTW, this is a very rational explanation of “Shekula Avodah Zara Keneged Kol Hatorah Kula”, namely by eradicating idolatry, a person has fulfilled the intentions of the whole Torah. Other Mitzvos too have the same aspect such as Shabbos for example). Idolatry is a very broad prohibition and encompasses many doctrines and beliefs that can be summarized as those that deny God’s uniqueness or in a positive sense:

Thus Scripture teaches the Existence, the Unity, the Omniscience, the Omnipotence, the Will, and the Eternity of God. (Moreh 3:28).”

This idea of a transcendental God that is Unique and the clear understanding of such a concept by a large majority of a people takes a long time. Unfortunately we are still, after all these years struggling to have this concept assimilated even by some of our leaders. The Torah is very cognizant of this human trait and is structured in such a way that by interacting with it, with time people can develop their thinking and eventually overcome the ingrained superstitions that idolatry has brought about.

Rambam uses Korbanot – offerings as an example for such a strategy. He explains that as a strategy of idolatry, people were indoctrinated that unless they bribe the gods with offerings they will not look upon them favorably. The Torah however wanted to teach us that the way to avert disasters is by getting close to God by studying His ways and emulating them, not by bribing Him. That is the reason for daily prayer to provide a daily dose of theological thinking. However coming from a culture where bribing gods was a prerequisite, total and sudden change goes against human nature, and would be rejected. Korbanot were therefore instituted as a transition from the culture of bribery to the culture of knowledge and emulation which is called Avodah – worship. (See Sefer Hamitzvos Asseh 5). Rambam explains this at length in Moreh 3:32. I will just excerpt a few pertinent concepts:

Many precepts in our Law are the result of a similar course (gradation) adopted by the same Supreme Being. It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. Now God sent Moses to make [the Israelites] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. xix. 6) by means of the knowledge of God…But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to bum incense before them; …It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action (DG: this is a quite interesting statement implying that this is not the ideal prayer – I have more to say about this at another time)…As the sacrificial service is not the primary object [of the commandments about sacrifice], whilst supplications, Prayers and similar kinds of worship are nearer to the primary object, and indispensable for obtaining it, a great difference was made in the Law between these two kinds of service. The one kind, which consists in offering sacrifices, although the sacrifices are offered to the name of God, has not been made obligatory for us to the same extent as it had been before. We were not commanded to sacrifice in every place, and in every time, or to build a temple in every place, or to permit any one who desires to become priest and to sacrifice.”

Rambam presents here a vision of a gradual development over time, apparently millennia, where an ingrained human impulse needs to slowly and gradually change. Offerings which are bribes slowly are changed to prayer, the first being discouraged by setting very strong limits, the latter encouraged by removing limits as Rabbi Yochanan says “Ulvay She’yspalel odom kol hayom kulo” – a man should immerse himself in contemplation. Rambam uses offerings as one example implying similar ideas for other commandments. Clearly the early Bnei Israel who were steeped in Egyptian culture understood offerings differently than a second temple Jew. The performance was identical but the rationale was certainly different. The same applies for all commandments that do not have a clear explanation. Rambam sees them all as a method to eradicate idolatry and that can only be accomplished by appending to the praxis a reason that helps the individual in that goal.

I know that the practical question that comes to mind, especially when it comes to Korbanot, how can we justify our yearning for the reconstruction of the temple and the resumption of offerings? I do not have an answer to that, especially how to reconcile that with my understanding of Moshiach, which is a time, when humankind knows and has correct notions of God. I am confident that when that time comes the problem will resolve itself somehow.

To summarize a much longer than intended post: The Torah is a blueprint for human development. It is composed of practical commandments and theological concepts. As to the commandments, some have clear explanations others do not. The reasons for the latter are left for the practitioner to find and adapt to his needs, keeping in mind that the general goal of all praxis is to develop correct notions about God. Correct notions will allow for correct understanding of the effect of His actions, and the proper emulation of His ways.

I want to make one point very clear, the practical side of the commandments is static in the sense that it is governed by the rules of Halacha; it is only the intellectual part, the reason for doing it, that is dynamic.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Ahad Ha'am and Rambam - Religion and Intellect - a review of Shilton Hasechel

I have read excerpts and references to Ahad Ha'am's article "Shilton Hasechel" which was written about 100 years ago in honor of the 700th anniversary of Rambam's death, but just yesterday found the whole article on line here (hat tip Jewish Skeptic).

Ahad Ha’am shows his exceptional talent as a writer and a clear thinker. The exposition of Rambam’s theological thought is concise and laid out in such a way that one idea leads to another almost without effort. However, he like many other scholars, misses Rambam’s most important idea which to him is the ultimate goal of a religious man – Imitato Dei. Rambam talks about it in several places in the Moreh and in the Yad but it is in the last chapter of the Moreh where he brings it out with full force. Rambam cannot contain his excitement and his religious fervor comes through his words. The purpose of all the Torah and Mitzvos is to help us find God and understand as much as one can about the results of his actions. That knowledge alone, although it brings a person great satisfaction and guarantees him Olam Haba, is not the end all of religion. The ultimate goal of religion is, once he has developed a true notion of God, to have man imitate God and partake in His creation; get involved productively with the world and its inhabitants. Anybody reading chapter 54 of the third part of the Moreh cannot escape the soaring spirit of Rambam as he writes it. In fact the last five chapters are a must read for any Jew who really wants to get a glimpse of what the real purpose and goal of Torah is. Achad Ha’am missed this completely and as we read on it becomes clear why.

In the next section he discusses the interaction of Rambam the philosopher with Rambam the religious man. Although generally accurate, Achad Ha’am emphasizes Rambam’s need to interpret Pessukim to conform to reality and his philosophy. I see it a little differently. The Torah is telling us how to interpret reality rather then the reverse. It is a lengthy issue that I posted about in the past and I will not attempt to deal with it here.

Ahad Ha’am then addresses the influence of Rambam on Judaism and general philosophy. It is a well presented summary.

Now Ahad Ha’am’s lack of religious feeling comes out. Having rejected religion he could not imagine that the great Rambam, the rational thinker, could see religion as the basis for all beliefs. The idea that Rambam included the belief in the coming of Moshiach as part of the basic tenets of Judaism, the Ikkarim, totally stumped him. Why would that be a goal? Isn’t the purely philosophic and rational exploration of reality and its relation to God the ultimate goal? What has Moshiach got to do with it? He therefore concludes that this proves that Rambam had a strong nationalistic instinct that he was not even aware of. A subconscious inbred sense for the need of a Jewish nation. That could very well be but certainly this is not Rambam’s thinking about Moshiach. Just like he missed the ultimate goal for religion, he missed Rambam’s understanding that Moshiach is no more than a state where mankind is so well developed and adjusted that people are free to engage without distraction in getting to know God and ultimately imitate their Creator. It is generally the case with scholars who try to read Rambam objectively without taking into account the strong underlying religious impetus that was the center of his persona.

With these caveats in mind the article is a worthwhile read and has not lost any of its relevance in the 100 years that passed since its first publication. Ahad Ha’am called the article “Shilton Hasechel”, the rule of the intellect, implying that it overruled Rambam’s religious persona. It is clear that Rambam’s intellect was totally suffused with religion – awe and fear of God.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ethical behavior and Halacha - Chumros v.s. Midos.

When Rambam came to Cairo from Spain via North Africa, he threatened the position of the Gaon Rabbi Samuel Ben Eli in Baghdad, as he very rapidly became the foremost Halachik scholar in the Middle East. A fierce controversy broke out because Rambam ruled that one could travel on rivers on Shabbos even though Rav Hai Gaon had prohibited it because of Issur Techumim. This led to an open war where people took each of the sides and the arguments spilled into theological and political issues with many letters exchanged between the two parties.

In a letter to a pupil of his in Aleppo, who asked him how to respond to the RSBE who apparently sent the pupil a scathing letter attacking him on a ruling and appointment he had made, Rambam advises him to refrain from counterattacking and further comments, and I translate:

“What you were bothered that he insulted you in writing – that should not be held against him. Who gets hit and does not yell? You know that you damaged him a lot, destroyed his pride, blunted his arrows, for without you the Rosh Galut would have been in his hands like a dove in the claws of a vulture and he would have shamed him on the issue of the Get and others. (DG: Apparently the Gaon had a disagreement with the Rosh Galut and Rambam’s pupil supported him). You cannot expect of someone who has been damaged by you to love you and praise you. There is no purpose in your asking where is their fear of Heaven (Yira’as Shamayim)? Because he and those who are like him, fear of Heaven consists of no more than being meticulous with Chumrot, while proper Midos is not considered by them fear of Heaven. They will also not be careful with their language as real Yre’eim are. Most religious people who have these positions of power, when something threatens their power, their fear (Yre’atam) disappear. Don’t expect everyone to be like Hanina Ben Dossa or Pinchas Ben Yair A’H and not all who have not reached that level can be considered as lacking fear of Heaven.”

Apparently people never change. We are talking about Rambam’s opinion of a person seen as one of the “Gedolei Hador” if not the”Godol Hador”at his time as Rambam points out earlier in the letter.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Rambam and me - why Rambam? לֹא-כֵן, עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה:

Why Rambam? What makes him so appealing to me as the greatest teacher of Judaism? He is difficult to understand, he based his philosophical writings on medieval philosophy and science which has since been discredited, he seems to be forcing meanings into Pessukim which make modern biblical scholars shudder when they read those interpretations, he seems to be elitist, he is not always politically correct and many more such criticisms that a modern man may enumerate. I am well aware of all these criticisms and still I find him to be the greatest thinker and teacher of Judaism of all times. Let me try to tell you what I see in him.

First when you read him a lot you start getting a picture of Judaism that is quite exhilarating. Rambam sees humankind as evolving from paganism with the societal, moral and ethical ills that were its consequence, to a utopian society where all men will be free and happy, able to spend their full time developing intellectually. Avraham Avinu started that process and it has continued since with his descendants at the vanguard.

He sees the Torah as a blueprint which is understood differently at each stage of human development. The practice of the Mitzvos does not change but the meaning behind each takes on different hues and shapes as our development changes. God’s transcendence and uniqueness is a constant but as we develop we understand it differently.
That is the famous statement of his in 2:25 –

We do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation.”

Biblical criticism, high or low, would not faze him nor make a dent in his thought process. He would see it as irrelevant. That is his meaning in 2:40:

You will also find laws which, in all their rules, aim, as the law just mentioned, at the improvement of the material interests of the people: but, besides, tend to improve the state of the faith of man, to create first correct notions of God, and of angels, and to lead then the people, by instruction and education, to an accurate knowledge of the Universe: this education comes from God; these laws are divine.”

The Torah is divine because of its content. It is a tool given to humankind to use for its material and spiritual advancement. It teaches man to emulate God, to partake in creation and gives us tools how to arrive there. That in itself makes it divine.

Once you understand his approach, the way he handles science vis-à-vis religion starts to make sense. The Torah is teaching us not the sciences but how to relate to science as a religious person. He tells us to learn from the Rabbis and how they related the science of their days to the Torah. He does the same with the science of his times and shows how we can do the same with the science of our times. We have to be truthful and accept that science wins at the end of the day because that is the reality the Torah wants us to interpret from a religious standpoint.

He teaches us to be careful and accept that the metaphysical questions don’t have empirical answers. There is a clear delineation between the physical and the non physical and the barrier cannot be crossed by a physical person. It makes it clear that all the theories about how things function outside the physical are just that, theories and nothing more.

He teaches that Torah and Mitzvos are not a goal in themselves but a tool to be used in the search, apprehension and love of God. As he makes it clear in Moreh 3:54:

that the simple term hokmah, as a rule, denotes the highest aim of man, the knowledge of God; that those properties which man acquires, makes his peculiar treasure, and considers as his perfection, in reality are not perfection: and that the religious acts prescribed in the Law, I refer to the various kinds of worship and the moral principles which benefit all people in their social intercourse with each other, do not constitute the ultimate aim of man, nor can they be compared to it, for they are but preparations leading to it.”

And finally he gives practical meaning to this dedication to understanding God and the results of His actions. Man having come to a proper apprehension of God emulates Him and partakes in the world by giving back, loving-kindness, judgment and righteousness. Ethical behavior is no longer just a moral obligation but a religious act of bonding with God the Creator by copying Him. Rambam ends the Moreh with this idea:

Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.”

There is much more to say on this subject. I think that probably the most important aspect of Rambam’s teachings is that he is a teacher par excellence. He does not give you a finished product but opens up new ways of thinking and once having set you on a path, he lets you develop and understand things at your own pace and level.

ז לֹא-כֵן, עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה: בְּכָל-בֵּיתִי, נֶאֱמָן הוּא.
7 My servant Moses is not so; he is trusted in all My house;

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Geshem and Geshem - Body or Rain ?

In my previous post I made the mistake of not paying attention to biblical Hebrew versus medieval Hebrew. I mistook the word Geshem used by R.Kafieh to translate the Arabic for rain as a metaphor for physicality. R.Shmuel Ibn Tibon, the medieval translator of the Moreh Nevuchim from the Arabic was confronted with a dearth of Hebrew words for a whole new philosophical vocabulary developed since the last time when Hebrew was a spoken living language - the time of the Mishna. He therefore coined a series of new words and composed a dictionary for them which is found in the editions of the Moreh with the Tibon translation. It is in itself a quite interesting work, especially the introductions, from a historical perspective, where he attacks R.Yehudah Al Harizi, the contemporary of his who published a competing translation. (That translation is used by Ramban and the Ritva ( Rabbi Yom Tov Al Ashbili) in his Sefer Hazikaron dismisses one of Ramban's arguments against Rambam because of his use of the AlHarizi translation which he considered erroneous).

Anyway Ibn Tibon coined the word Gashmut as a derivative of Geshem and used it to denote a physical body. I was wondering how he arrived at that until I looked up the concordancia which referred me to 4 verses in Daniel (the Aramaic section of the book) where the word is used to denote a body. One of those is in Daniel 3:27 :

כז וּמִתְכַּנְּשִׁין אֲחַשְׁדַּרְפְּנַיָּא סִגְנַיָּא וּפַחֲוָתָא, וְהַדָּבְרֵי מַלְכָּא--חָזַיִן לְגֻבְרַיָּא אִלֵּךְ דִּי לָא-שְׁלֵט נוּרָא בְּגֶשְׁמְהוֹן וּשְׂעַר רֵאשְׁהוֹן לָא הִתְחָרַךְ, וְסַרְבָּלֵיהוֹן לָא שְׁנוֹ; וְרֵיחַ נוּר, לָא עֲדָת בְּהוֹן.

27 And the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, and the king's ministers, being gathered together, saw these men, that the fire had no power upon their bodies, nor was the hair of their head singed, neither were their cloaks changed, nor had the smell of fire passed on them.

I decided to see if this word was used anywhere in the Gemara so I turned to the Aruch who lists the word and refers to a targum on Mishlei 5:11 -

יא וְנָהַמְתָּ בְאַחֲרִיתֶךָ; בִּכְלוֹת בְּשָׂרְךָ, וּשְׁאֵרֶךָ.
11 And thou moan, when thine end cometh, when thy flesh and thy body are consumed

The targum translates "Ushe'erecha" as "Vegushmech". Apparently that is the way R. Shmuel Ibn Tibon came to using the word that denotes rain in classical Hebrew for body in his translations. Of course it has found its way into modern Hebrew and into Yiddish. Those Medieval Jewish philosophers certainly made their mark for the long term on the Hebrew language.

Did it rain during Matan Torah?

As we are nearing Zman Matan Toraseinu it is time to turn our attention to Ma’amad Har Sinai, so I will try to post a little on that topic.

The Torah describes the event with a lot of emphasis on fire, clouds, smoke, mist and darkness – Esh, Anan, Ashan, Choshech and Arafel. The visual image is of a mountain surrounded by dark swirling clouds with thunder and lightning coming out of them. The imagery is fascinating and I can see a great De Mille epic, but this will not impress a thinking person.

Rambam in Moreh 2:30, as he usually does, in an offhand remark in a chapter dealing with creation, points out an incongruity. Devarim 5:19 reads:

יט וַיְהִי, כְּשָׁמְעֲכֶם אֶת-הַקּוֹל מִתּוֹךְ הַחֹשֶׁךְ, וְהָהָר, בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ; וַתִּקְרְבוּן אֵלַי, כָּל-רָאשֵׁי שִׁבְטֵיכֶם וְזִקְנֵיכֶם.

19 And it came to pass, when ye heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain did burn with fire, that ye came near unto me, even all the heads of your tribes, and your elders;

While Devarim 4:36 reads:

לו מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם הִשְׁמִיעֲךָ אֶת-קֹלוֹ, לְיַסְּרֶךָּ; וְעַל-הָאָרֶץ, הֶרְאֲךָ אֶת-אִשּׁוֹ הַגְּדוֹלָה, וּדְבָרָיו שָׁמַעְתָּ, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ.

36 Out of heaven He made thee to hear His voice, that He might instruct thee; and upon earth He made thee to see His great fire; and thou didst hear His words out of the midst of the fire

Where did God’s voice come out of the fire or the darkness? Obviously both fire and darkness are metaphors. They represent an almost non-physical entity. In other words it parallels that other verse in Devarim 4:12:

יב וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֲלֵיכֶם, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ: קוֹל דְּבָרִים אַתֶּם שֹׁמְעִים, וּתְמוּנָה אֵינְכֶם רֹאִים זוּלָתִי קוֹל.

12 And the LORD spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire; ye heard the voice of words, but ye saw no form; only a voice.

The voice they heard was disembodied just as fire and darkness have no substance. So what were those clouds?

Rabbeinu Avraham the son of Rambam in his Pirush on Chumash explains that Moshe Rabbeinu taught the people the basics of theology. He explained how one seeks God and the processes that we have to go through to prove to ourselves that God exists, that He is unique and that He is transcendental. Rambam understands the saying of the Rabbis that the people heard the first two commandments, Anochi and Lo Y'iyeh Lecha, the existence of God and the prohibition to believe in other gods, MiPi Hagevurah, from their own strong intellect. Traditionally all Rishonim understood that to mean that they heard the first two commandments from God and then asked that it stop for fear of dying, Gevurah being a synonym for HKBH. Rambam sees it as a synonym of Sechel, human intellect. In fact Rambam says that though they did not hear any words at all, they were however convinced that Moshe was repeating to them God’s words. See Rambam Moreh 2:33:

“In order that the people hear when I speak with thee" (Exod. xix. 9), shows that God spoke to Moses, and the people only heard the mighty sound, not distinct words…There is, however, an opinion of our Sages frequently expressed in the Midrashim, and found also in the Talmud, to this effect: The Israelites heard the first and the second commandments from God, i.e., they learnt the truth of the principles contained in these two commandments in the same manner as Moses, and not through Moses. For these two principles, the existence of God and His Unity can be arrived at by means of reasoning, and whatever can be established by proof is known by the prophet in the same way as by any other person; he has no advantage in this respect. These two principles were not known through prophecy alone.”

As part of that process of learning about the God of Israel, people have to understand the limits of how far they can go. It is one of the most important concepts that have to be assimilated so as to not follow one’s imagination. Rambam in Moreh 3:9 explains that very cogently:

“THE corporeal element in man is a large screen and partition that prevents him from perfectly perceiving abstract ideas…However great the exertion of our mind may be to comprehend the Divine Being or any of the ideals, we find a screen and partition between Him and ourselves. Thus the prophets frequently hint at the existence of a partition between God and us. They say He is concealed from us in vapors, in darkness, in mist, or in a thick cloud: they use similar figures to express that on account of our bodies we are unable to comprehend His essence. This is the meaning of the words," Clouds and darkness are round about Him" (Ps. xcvii. 2). The prophets tell us that the difficulty consists in the grossness of our substance: they do not imply, as might be gathered from the literal meaning of their words, that God is corporeal, and is invisible because He is surrounded by thick clouds, vapors, darkness, or mist…The objectif of God revealing Himself in thick clouds, darkness, vapors, and mist (at Sinai) was to teach this lesson; for everything that is apprehended in a prophetic vision contains some lesson by means of allegory. Though that great assembly (at Sinai) was greater than any vision of prophecy and beyond any analogy (in other words it was an abnormal prophetic experience) it also indicated a notion: I mean His revelation in a thick cloud. It was intended to indicate that we cannot comprehend Him on account of the dark body that surrounds us and not Him, because He is incorporeal. A tradition is current among our people that the day of the revelation on Mount Sinai was misty, cloudy, and a little rainy. "

DG: The Hebrew word for rain is Geshem, which also stands for physical – in other words there were very little physical phenomena at Sinai – rather abstract thinking with the recognition that God is unfathomable – He is surrounded by clouds mist and smoke

Edit: Jewishskeptic in comments brought to my attention that the use of Geshem for physicality is a medieval one and not biblical. He is correct and in fact Tibon translates the arabic word Matar instead of Geshem as R. Kafieh did. Mea Culpa.

However I believe that my interpretation of Rambam is correct. He refers to the word Natfu in the verse which suggests drops of rain rather that a stream as expected from a sky covered by heavy clouds and dense mist..

As we read “Lord, when thou went forth from Seir, when thou marched out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped water" (judges v. 4). ( Rambam notes the words "heaven dropped water" as meaning little rain - the word being 'Notfu") The same idea is expressed by the words" darkness, clouds, and thick darkness" (Deut. iv. 11). The phrase does not denote that darkness surrounds God, for with Him there is no darkness, but the great, strong, and permanent light, which, emanating from Him, illuminates all darkness, as is expressed by the prophetic simile," And the earth shined with His glory" (Ezek. xliii. 2).”

This just gives us a little glimpse of how Rambam understood revelation at Sinai. It was a prophecy that is understood by Rambam to mean that man searches and tries to understand his surroundings and in the process sees God’s actions and infers things about God. However in the process man tries to visualize God and relate Him to his own experience. Although man "hears" a voice, he is to remind himself that the source of that voice, is fire, darkness, clouds and mist. In other words incomprehensible. Any other understanding is idolatry.

The assembly of all the people and Moshe teaching them brought them to such high levels of apprehension that they believed Moshe as God’s messenger. Unfortunately, they were not able to completely assimilate the lessons of their vision of clouds, darkness and mist. They could not completely assimilate a transcendental God and that led to the mistakes of Nadav Avihu and the elders. More tragically it brought about the Egel, the Golden Calf barely forty days after the event.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Emunah Peshuta - True or False.

I always get irritated when people refer to ignorance as Emunah Peshutah. Nebech an idolater is still an idolater and a person that believes in a comprehensible God is wrong and does not believe in the God of Israel.

Rambam in Moreh 1:35 states;

That God is incorporeal, that He cannot be compared with His creatures, that He is not subject to external influence; these are things which must be explained to every one according to his capacity, and they must be taught by way of tradition to children and women, to the stupid and ignorant, as they are taught that God is One, that He is eternal, and that He alone is to be worshipped. Without incorporeality there is no unity, for a corporeal thing is in the first case not simple, but composed of matter and form which are two separate things by definition, and secondly, as it has extension it is also divisible. When persons have received this doctrine, and have been trained in this belief, and are in consequence at a loss to reconcile it with the writings of the Prophets, the meaning of the latter must be made dear and explained to them by pointing out the homonymity and the figurative application of certain terms discussed in this part of the work. Their belief in the unity of God and in the words of the Prophets will then be a true and perfect belief.”

In other words if a child is taught that God is transcendental and as he grows up he is confronted with the text which seems to contradict that, he is forced to think about this. His Rebbis should grasp the opportunity and explain to him why we understand God this way. As he grows further he will come to know more and understand more. The Torah’s goal is to teach man and it does it by forcing him to confront the contradictions of our existence. We can only understand the physical but we know and can infer that there is a God/Creator whose essence is not understood or known. Rambam continues:

Those who are not sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the true interpretation of these passages in the Bible, or to understand that the same term admits of two different interpretations, may simply be told that the scriptural passage is clearly understood by the wise, but that they should content themselves with knowing that God is incorporeal, that He is never subject to external influence, as passivity implies a change, while God is entirely free from all change, that He cannot be compared to anything besides Himself, that no definition includes Him together with any other being, that the words of the Prophets are true, and that difficulties met with may be explained on this principle. This may suffice for that class of persons, and it is not proper to leave them in the belief that God is corporeal, or that He has any of the properties of material objects, just as there is no need to leave them in the belief that God does not exist, that there are more Gods than one, or that any other being may be worshipped.”

Emunah Peshuta is not to believe in a God of our imagination, never mind how comforting a personal, knowable and tangible God is, but accepting on faith what smarter people have concluded about God. That He is not a body nor anything physical, nor anything that a human can understand or know no matter how brilliant they are. That is Emunah Peshuta. However it is not a goal in itself but must be seen as a stepping stone that will allow for greater insight and understanding. To be satisfied with Emunah Peshutah, even the correct belief, is avoiding to fulfill one's obligation of Yedias Hashem.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Magnets, Kabbalah, Meron, Uman and other superstitions.

A commenter on an earlier post, Gil Kobrin, among other very insightful comments, laid out a very important point that I have been trying to make, very succinctly:

However, we do not understand the "act" of God's Creating, nor do we truly understand anything about God Himself; therefore, the relation to God via causality is one-way, and we have no way frame of perception by which to gain an iota of understanding of how (if) God "relates back" to us.The Kabbalists attempt to do this with the idea of "emanation" - atzilut - but such a concept is false as it is impossible for human beings to understand anything from God's "perspective" (including how He "created").”

I have been harping about this idea of the unknowability of God, because it is the foundation of Judaism, and any other understanding borders on idolatry. It is a fiction that Avodah Zara does not exist today. The Members of the Great Assembly might have dampened the Yetzer Hara for it, but they certainly have not eliminated it. To really clarify what I am talking about I must spend a little effort explaining where the current Kabbalah comes from.

Ramban in Toras Hashem Temimah and in his commentary on Devarim 18:9, states that magic is a science. As we can see the earth is under the influence of the stars which we can objectively verify when we look at the tides and the influence the moon has on them, how rain is impacted by the heat of the sun and such other natural phenomena which can be traced back to the forces that emanate from them and the stars. Rambam sees that influence as a purely physical thing and does not give them any supernatural powers. Ramban however could not differentiate between the natural and supernatural. To him science was incomprehensible and when he saw natural phenomena that he could not understand he was convinced that some extra-physical force was causing the event. Ramban brings several examples for his position but to illustrate vividly the contrast between the two thinkers I will quote a Rashba responsa regarding a certain type of amulet that was used during his time and whether it is permitted.

זה באמת מה שלא יקבלוהו השכל כי באמת הדברים הפועלים בסגלה אין פעולתם בפלא מהם אלא בטבע מסגל, רצוני לומר בטבע לא ישיגנו עיון החכמים ואפילו החכם שבחכמים לרוב העלם הטבע ההוא מכלל המין האנושי מצד שהוא אדם, כסגלת אבן השואבת שהברזל קופץ עליה ויותר מזה מורגל בירדי הים באניות תוחבין מחט בחתיכת עץ צף על פני המים ומראין לו אבן וישוט על פני המים עד שיפנה אל פני הסדן ושם ינוח - ולא ישיג עיון טבע זה כל חכם שבחכמים אלו של חכמת הטבע. ואם כן אף כל המינין בעלי הסגולות בטבע הם פועלים כסמים והמסעדים ואין בהם משום דרכי האמורי כמו שאין בדברים המפורסמים המועילים לפי העיון הטבעי של אלו החכמים. (תשובת הרשב"א א:תיג, סוף התשובה)

Rashba is saying that nature cannot be grasped even by the smartest of man because he is man (man qua man). No one can explain why a magnet attracts metal, nor can they explain why a needle inserted in a piece of wood when placed in water always turns in one direction ( I am not sure that he refers to a compass but it is the closest I can figure this out. Maybe someone can enlighten me.) That being the case, Rashba concludes, the same applies to amulets and other such magical phenomena. Supernatural forces cause them and they are part of nature. Reading him carefully we see that Rashba is equating science with metaphysics (“man because he is man”). There was no clear demarcation and once that line was crossed, the relationship between man and the supernatural, was changed. Man could influence the supernatural; he could try to understand how God related back to him. It was no different than trying to understand natural phenomena. Ramban therefore developed a very different understanding of man’s relationship with God. God was still transcendent but much more accessible than Rambam’s God. One could try to explain how God created the world through a process of emanation which eventually led to the Zfat Kabbalist’s theory of Tzimtzum and the rest is history. (This process did reduce God’s transcendence and in truth I am not sure they still see Him as such notwithstanding their strident insistence to the contrary).

Rambam in contrast sees the same phenomena, magnetism in a completely different perspective. Discussing his proofs for the existence of a First Cause, Rambam describes how the physical universe operates. We see a system of causation, and there always is some outside impetus for change within an object. There has to be a physical influence even when one is not immediately noticeable. In Moreh 2:12 he states:

In Physics it has been shown that a body in acting upon another body must either directly be in contact with it, or indirectly through the medium of other bodies. E.g., a body that has been heated has been in contact with fire, or the air that surrounds the body has been heated by the fire, and has communicated the heat to the body; the immediate cause of the heat in this body is the corporeal substance of the heated air. The magnet attracts iron from a distance through a certain force communicated to the air round the iron. The magnet does therefore not act at all distances, just as fire does not act at every distance, but only as long as the air between the fire and the object is affected by the fire. When the air is no longer affected by the fire which is under a piece of wax, the latter does not melt. The same is the case with magnetism. When an object that has previously not been warm has now become warm, the cause of its heat must now have been created: either some fire has been produced, or the distance of the fire from the object has been changed, and the altered relation between the fire and the object is the cause now created. In a similar manner we find the causes of all changes in the Universe to be changes in the combination of the elements that act upon each other when one body approaches another or separates from it.”

I will leave to the reader to decide who understood nature better.

Ramban’s theory for some reason took root much stronger than Rambam’s understanding. It is only in the last century or so, that scientific advances have shown how prescient Rambam was. However Ramban’s theology has been so deeply embedded in our religious thought that anyone who denies that Kabbalah is correct and “Misinai” is considered a heretic while the obvious truth is quite the opposite. Believing in all the magical and supernatural influences is Avodah Zara precisely because it is irrational. Irrational is the definition of Idolatry. The fact that Ramban and his followers believed in it does not mean anything. They thought they were seeing things rationally based on the science of their time. Had they been in our times, these great thinkers would have repudiated and banned all the superstitions we have integrated into our day-to-day religious praxis. It is painful to see the things that we have accepted; magicians in the cloak of Rabbis and Kabbalists who hand out amulets and magical potions, turn Mitzvos into medicine, mezuzahs into spirits, rebbis into Moshiach and God. The sacrilege that Meron and other supposed tombs, kevarim, have become, the fact that thousands travel to the Uman shrine on the Holy Days, when instead of Teshuvah and distancing from Avodah Zara, they go and practice it, all these outrages are the direct and indirect results of this erroneous concept of the world.

I believe that anyone who looks objectively at how different the two views of religion are, the basis for them and the consequences we observe from the adoption of one them, he must conclude that Rambam’s derech is the only one that can stand up in the real world. It is the only one that has relevance to our religious life and can teach us how to view the world from a Jewish perspective. It is therefore important to really absorb Rambam’s great insight and assimilate that there is a limit to our knowledge. We cannot understand God, how He acts, how He thinks, how He knows nor how He does anything. All we can do is infer that He exists and infer from the result of His actions what He wants from us.

Friday, May 19, 2006


I have subscribed to feedblitz. All bloglet subscribers have automatically switched to the new service.

For some reason the whole right side moved to the bottom. It happened before and fixed itself. I am too technologically impaired to try to fix it on my own. Sorry.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Harry Potter and Rambam.

Rambam in Hilchot Avoda Zara 11:16 legislates:

טז [טו] המכשף, חייב סקילה: והוא, שעשה מעשה כשפים; אבל האוחז את העיניים, והוא שייראה שעשה והוא לא עשה--לוקה מכת מרדות, מפני שלא עשה.

(This Girsa according to Rav Kafieh's Rambam - see his commentary re halacha 6).

One who performs witchery is liable to stoning, provided that he performed an act of witchery, but if he fooled others and appeared to do something but didn't he is flogged because of a Rabbinical decree as he did not perform an action.

Here is a transcript of an article in Jerusalem Post brought to my attention by a friend of mine:

J.K. Rowling's fictional series on child wizard Harry Potter - which has been a monumental success among most Israeli children but has not been accepted as suitable reading material in the haredi community - would "not be regarded as pagan worship" by Maimonides, according to an Israeli father-and-daughter research team.

Prof. Menahem Kellner of the University of Haifa's department of Jewish history and thought, and his daughter Rivka Kellner, who is a doctoral candidate in literature at Bar-Ilan University, prepared their joint paper, "The Magic of Science and the Science of Magic: Harry Potter and Maimonides," for this week's University of Haifa conference on "Expressions of Science - Scientific and Literary Journey with Jules Verne."

The conference, sponsored by UNESCO in conjunction with the university's Hecht Museum, the Haifa Science Museum and the city's Gordon College of Education, ends Wednesday.
According to the Kellners, many generations of researchers deliberated on how to define magic. Much attention had been paid to distinguishing between magic and science on the one hand, and between magic and religion on the other. They explained that Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish sage, philosopher and physician known as the Rambam, rejected the kind of magic that was supernatural and could not be explained.

DG: In light of the earlier quote I am not sure that the Kellners are right. Any opinion?

He saw it as competing with religion.

The version of magic used by Rowling's Harry Potter, however, was different, they said. This magic was similar to normal science, and it was explainable - whether we understand it or not.
To demonstrate this, the researchers cited the Potter books' Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The fictional school, they contend, taught magic in a "scientific" way, and the use of magic in the world of Harry Potter depended on study and training as well as on the talent of the performer. It is, therefore, something with an explanation.

"Nothing in Harry Potter's world is based on anything that is in principle impossible to know," according to the Kellners. "The magic of that world is not supernatural. It is based on aspects of the natural universe of which we humans are simply unaware. There are no occult properties or forces beyond investigation. In principle, there is an explanation for everything, even if Albus Dumbledore [headmaster of the Hogwarts School] himself doesn't always know what it is."

For the Kellners, it was also most important that Harry's magical world was thoroughly secular. Unlike the magic condemned by Maimonides, the magic in Rowling's world did not lead to idolatry or paganism.

"It ignores astrology almost entirely. It does not constitute a rival to religion, and it certainly doesn't propose to be an alternative to religion. In fact, the books almost totally ignore religion."
The Kellners contrasted the Harry Potter books with another contemporary craze, C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, which connects its magic to Christianity.

DG: I am not as convinced as the Kellners. Although my grandson is into Harry Potter, I am not so sure it is such a great idea. Abizrahu de'avoda zara? Magic was considered a science by medieval thinkers who saw astrology as proven fact. Ramban (Devarim 18:9) believed that magnetism is a spiritual force and thought Rambam to be a fanatic (Mischassed) because he said that:

[טז] ודברים האלו--כולן, דברי שקר וכזב הן; והן שהטעו בהן עובדי עבודה זרה הקדמונים לגויי הארצות, כדי שיינהו אחריהן. ואין ראוי לישראל, שהן חכמים מחוכמים, להימשך בהבלים אלו, ולא להעלות על הלב שיש בהן תעלה: שנאמר "כי לא נחש ביעקוב, ולא קסם בישראל" (במדבר כג,כג), ונאמר "כי הגויים האלה, אשר אתה יורש אותם--אל מעוננים ואל קוסמים, ישמעו; ואתה--לא כן, נתן לך ה' אלוהיך" (דברים יח,יד
יח כל המאמין בדברים אלו, וכיוצא בהן, ומחשב בליבו שהן אמת ודברי חכמה, אבל התורה אסרה אותן--אינו אלא מן הסכלים ומחסרי הדעת, ובכלל הנשים והקטנים שאין דעתן שלמה. אבל בעלי החכמה ותמימי הדעת, יידעו בראיות ברורות--שכל אלו הדברים שאסרה תורה, אינן דברי חכמה, אלא תוהו והבל שנמשכו בהן חסרי הדעת, ונטשו כל דרכי האמת בגללן. ומפני זה אמרה תורה, כשהזהירה על כל אלו ההבלים, "תמים תהיה, עם ה' אלוהיך" (דברים יח,יג).

All these matters [i.e. necromancy, enchantment, et cetera] are all matters of falsehood and deceit, and it was with these that the early idolaters made the other [non-idolatrous] gentiles deviate and follow them. It is not fitting for Jews, who are the cleverest of the clever, to use such nonsense, or even to think that they are of any use, for it is written, "Surely there is no enchantment in Jacob, or divination in Israel", and it is also written, "For these nations, whom you shall dispossess, listen to soothsayers and diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so". Anyone who believes in these or similar things and privately thinks that they are true and wise, but that [we don't practice them because] the Torah forbade them, is an idiot and lacks knowledge, and is in the category of women and children, who are of an deficient mentality. But those people who are wise and of a perfect mentality know very clearly that all these things that the Torah forbade are not wise, but are merely stuff and nonsense which those lacking in knowledge follow and because of which abandon the ways of truth. Because of this, when warning us against these nonsenses, the Torah says, "You shall be perfect with the Lord your God".

DG: Ramban understood that the prohibition against magic is not because it is false. He believed it was true and worked, it was scientific, but forbidden because we have to rely on God. Rambam on the other hand held it to be a lie and falsehood. Believe in it is idiocy like all idolatry.

The Kellners in my opinion confused Ramban's understanding with Rambam's.

Please let me know what you think.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Science and Religion - Rav Kook interpreted.

In a letter Rav kook writes:

"In general, this is the principle in the conflict of ideas: That any idea which comes to contradict anything from the Torah must not at first be dealt with by us with opposition. Rather, we must build upon it the palace of the Torah. Thus we are uplifted by it, and for the sake of this uplifting are these ideas revealed. Afterwards, when we are not pressured by anything, we may also object to it [the idea] with a heart full of confidence. There are examples which prove this."

I read an excellent discussion of the letter here:

I find the lecture excellent and worthwhile reading however I cannot grasp the last paragraph and here it is:

Rav Kook cites the same idea, not from the Rambam, but from Kabbala. The Kabbalists describe the process of emanation as a "process", in which one stage prepares for and results in a second; there in an inner causality. This stands in opposition to the impression given by a reading of the first chapter of Genesis. There, God appears over and over again and beginning a new stage, new beginning after new beginning. The second day is not presented as the "result" of the first day, rather, as a new beginning and creation unto itself. Rav Kook, therefore, is only prepared to accept a progressive position in the natural sciences, and is able to view the process of evolution as a gradual revelation of God, because this is exactly the way that the spiritual process of the emanations of the worlds is described by the Kabbala.

The way I understand the "days" in Creation in Rambam is that they describe different chains or sequences of cause and effect. There are parallels chains of cause and effect that sometimes interact at others don't and the result is our reality. Theoretically we should be able to follow those chains back to their beginning. Rav Kook seems to understand that the "days" refer to a pre-physical stage, emanations, and not as physical cause and effect sequences. Here again we have the urge for understanding the unfathomable. Maybe someone can enlighten me?

Monday, May 15, 2006

Does God Exist?

After spending the first 70 chapters of the Moreh indoctrinating us in thinking of a transcendental God that is unfathomable, Rambam lays out in chapter 71 his approach to proving God’s existence. (It is a worthwhile read if we want to see how intellectually honest the man was.) He then discusses all the different approaches that philosophers used to prove God’s existence finding fault with every one of them. In the beginning of Book 2 he then lays out his position. It is important to note Rambam’s insistence on God’s transcendence and non-corporeality to the point that he believes it must be taught even to children and the simple. He makes that point very strongly in Moreh 1:35:

That God is incorporeal, that He cannot be compared with His creatures, that He is not subject to external influence; these are things which must be explained to every one according to his capacity, and they must be taught by way of tradition to children and women, to the stupid and ignorant, as they are taught that God is One, that He is eternal, and that He alone is to be worshipped.”.

Before one starts to prove something, one needs to first define what one wants to prove. That is why Rambam insists on transcendence. He does not plan to prove the existence of a personal, involved and easily grasped God. He plans to prove one thing only; that a transcendental God exists, no more or less.

Rambam’s basic approach is that being that God’s essence is unfathomable all we can do is infer His existence from His actions, which is the Universe we live in. Isaac Frank very eloquently and succinctly presents Rambam’s case: (I posted this before)

Without knowing the nature or essence of G-d, we know that G-d exists because we know from our experience that things, contingent things exist. If anything exists, and obviously finite, contingent things, such as you and I, do exist, then it cannot be the case that everything that exists is contingent. To be contingent means that the existence of the contingent thing is contingent upon, depends upon, some other thing or being. But not everything can be dependent on something else, i.e., not everything can have been caused by, or brought into being by, something else. At least one entity must be in existence by itself, independent of anything else, must have come into being (if it did not exist eternally) by itself, must be its own cause, i.e. must exist necessarily not contingently, and its non - existence is inconceivable. This necessarily existent being is what we call G-d... G-d is the absolute existent, to whom existence is so essential as to be His very essence.”

I am aware that there are those who disagree with this approach however I have not found their objections compelling. As we are trying to prove the existence of a transcendental God there can be no empirical evidence other than inference from His actions which is the universe we live in. Understanding the universe is therefore the only way to find God, understand His objectives and emulate them. That is the meaning of Ve’ahavta es Hashem Elokecha, to love God. It is not an ecstatic emotional reaction but a rational one that ends up with awe and trembling before the greatness we glimpse. The emotions are triggered not by our neediness or imagination, but by an intellectual understanding of how great God’s actions are.

ו מַה-גָּדְלוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְהוָה; מְאֹד, עָמְקוּ מַחְשְׁבֹתֶיךָ.
6 How great are Thy works, O LORD! Thy thoughts are very deep.
ז אִישׁ-בַּעַר, לֹא יֵדָע; וּכְסִיל, לֹא-יָבִין אֶת-זֹאת.
7 A brutish man knoweth not, neither doth a fool understand this.

For someone to understand God’s ways, one has to be an intelligent and sensitive person. The Torah sets out to make us into that type of a person. That is why we keep the Mitzvos, why we pray and so on. It is only when we understand God’s ways that He becomes a personal God. We have to personalize Him. The personal God of the masses is just a figment of their imagination. That God is accepted on faith and His existence need not be nor can it be proven.

I am always struck when I see the skeptics discussing God’s existence, questioning it and stating with such self-importance that it is only a matter of faith, that they are right. The God they are looking for does not exist. He may be the God of Christianity but he certainly is not the God of Israel. Our God is unique in all senses – Echad – which translates into transcendental, beyond all thought and experience, which is the ultimate uniqueness. That God is the one we are looking for and He is findable.

כט וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמָצָאתָ: כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.
29 But from there you will seek the LORD thy God; and thou shalt find Him, if thou search after Him with all thy heart and with all thy soul.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Intellectual Honesty, Truth and Despair.

Godol has been posting about intellectual honesty here
And a quite desperate sounding post about orthodox thinking here:

I do not accept, and in fact protest, orthodoxy being described with acronyms, LW,MO,UO,LW and so on, I also have problems with the Orthodox word itself, because I believe it conveys an impression of there being more than one religion and goal. There is one goal in Judaism, and one only, succinctly laid out in Moreh 3:32:

Now God sent Moses to make [the Israelites] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. xix. 6) by means of the knowledge of God.." Unto thee it was showed that thou mightest know that the Lord is God (Deut. iv. 35):" Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the Lord is God" (ibid. v. 39). The Israelites were commanded to devote themselves to His service;." and to serve him with all your heart" (ibid. xi. 13):" and you shall serve the Lord your God" (Exod. xxiii. 25);" and ye shall serve him" (Dent. xiii. 5).”

The purpose is to understand as much as it is possible about God by searching for Him, which as we have already spoken about many times, is only possible by knowing His actions, how He runs the Universe, in other words science. The ultimate goal is that once we have developed an understanding of His actions, we are to serve Him. That is done through emulating God and collaborating with Him in doing “Chesed Mishpat and Tzedakah“(see Moreh 3:54). Everything else a Jew does, Mitzvos, self-improvement, discipline and meditation are all for that ultimate purpose, knowledge of God and emulating His actions.

The problem is that to understand the universe and find God is a very difficult thing. It took mankind many millenniums of trial and error to arrive at the science we have today, which ultimately tells us that we still know very little – we have just scratched the surface of scientific knowledge. That acknowledgement is an accomplishment in itself. Medieval thinkers thought that with Aristotles the world and its workings were known and with a few adjustments the limits of human knowledge would be attained. Thank God for the men who were not so confident! How then can one expect for a human being, in a lifespan, to arrive at all this a priori? Even when building on humankind’s developed knowledge so far, trying to understand and discover the next step in scientific knowledge requires full concentration and focus. In the process one loses sight of the ultimate goal which is finding and emulating the Creator. Science for its own sake is a good endeavor but fraught with danger. Much evil has come from science. Without looking beyond the physical, without trying to understand and see the long-term development of the universe and humankind within it, science is mechanical. That is the Torah’s goal, to bring the search for God into play so that man can emulate him.

The only way this can work successfully is to establish clear goals. Just like a good businessman will develop a business plan, setting clear objectives first and then develop a strategy how to attain them, so the Torah established a clear objective, finding and emulating God. Unlike a business plan the Torah plan is for the long term. It is a plan for humanity to arrive at the end to knowledge of God and to emulate Him thus creating a perfect world. The strategy is for one people to accept this as a goal, a national goal. The Torah set down certain parameters, God exists, He is perfect, He is transcendental and can only be found through his actions. It is now Judaism’s goal to find Him, learn His ways and emulate them. It may take millenniums, but the step-by-step process brings us one step closer, and as we get closer the world follows us and as it does it gets better.

Coming back to GH and his dilemmas. Intellectual honesty is necessary, and proving God’s existence empirically with scientific tools is impossible, nor is it possible to prove that He created the world ex-nihilo, but we can infer much from looking at the world and trying to understand what is behind it. Following that path and looking out for it we will see the traces of God in the physical reality. For if there is truth there can only be one, a transcendental God. Ultimate truth cannot be contingent, everything in our reality is contingent, therefore a unique God is the only being that is by definition not contingent, thus the truth. Here is Hil. Yesodei Hatorah 1:2

ב לפיכך אין אמיתתו כאמיתת אחד מהם [ד] הוא שהנביא אומר "וה' אלוהים אמת--הוא לבדו האמת, ואין לאחר אמת כאמיתו
והוא שהתורה אומרת "אין עוד, מלבדו" , כלומר אין שם מצוי אמת מלבדו כמותו

One cannot start with an a priori approach and say wherever the search will take me I will go. It is like looking for the unknown in a haystack. Even looking for a needle in it is near impossible how much more looking for something unknown. We accept the Torah’s statement that God exists, we accept the Torah statement that God created the world, and we accept that God prophesizes man and so goes for the other Ikarim Rambam lays out. They are the ultimate goal of where our search is to lead us to. The strategy is now to go and prove them. That process is the responsibility of the Jewish people as the leaders of humankind, the pioneers in the search for God. We need to be confident that revelation is true and that at the end we will find God. We will stumble on the way, be sidetracked (Kabbalah?) even lose our way, have to contend with skepticism and despair, sometimes suffer for our beliefs but ultimately we believe we will get there. That last belief, ultimate success, is the only thing a Jew has to accept on faith.

Gut Shabbos.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Chabad, The Rebbe, God and pantheism - the Dangers of Ignoring Human Limitations.

I read a very interesting piece rebuffing Rabbi Dr. David Berger on an article he wrote against Chabad and its current Meshichist trend. Thanbo argues that he did not bother to learn Chabad theology before indicting them of Kefira and anthropomorphism / pantheism.
You can read the whole argument here According to Thanbo, "Rather, the world is in some way a part of God. I am part of God, you are part of God, the trees and rocks are parts of God, the PC is part of God, etc. That is the reality of the Universe from God's perspective. It is only from our perspective that we imagine the rock to have physical existence, that I have physical existence, that the PC has physical existenceI." The idea is that somehow the Rebbe is the manifestation of God in this world. Not that God resides in the Rebbe but being that he is so attached to God his deeds are indeed God's will. Again in Thanbo's words "When the tzaddik has become a tzaddik, his will is entirely shaped by Torah, which is the expression of God's Will in the world. Conversely, then, anything which he wills to do is an expression of God's Will. This is the meaning of "Tzaddik gozer" - that the Tzaddik decrees something and God does it. Not that the tzaddik can "force" God to do anything, God-forbid, but that what the Tzaddik wills is a pure reflection of what God Wills". I am not sure I get it exactly but enough to scare me to death - (Nadav and Avihu type of death as we shall see).

My earlier post about the limitation of human knowledge, when it comes to metaphysics, addresses exactly this issue. Mekubalim especially the later ones who flourished in Italy, Tzfas after the Girush from Spain, wrestled with the problem of how one understands that God is everywhere, Melo Kol Ho'oretz Kevodo, and the existence of a physical universe. How can two things occupy the same space? They came up with the idea of Tzimtzum, where God left a space within himself, or as Chabad understands it, reduced the light emanating from Him to allow for the universe to exist. (You can see more details on Thanbo. I am even uncomfortable rpeating those ideas.)

I believe that they should have stopped right there at the question and admit that as humans these concepts cannot be fathomed. An existence that does not exist in time and space is beyond our comprehension and that is all we can say about it. If we don't understand its existence how can we ask how it occupies more than one space? In fact the limitations that we face in understanding Him underline His uniqueness and are a cornerstone of real monotheism.

As Rambam says:

"Praised be He! In the contemplation of His essence, our comprehension and knowledge prove insufficient; in the examination of His works, how they necessarily result from His will, our knowledge proves to be ignorance, and in the endeavour to extol Him in words, all our efforts in speech are mere weakness and failure". (Moreh 1:58)

Regarding the word Makom - place as it refers to God Rambam deals with it in several places. In Moreh 1:70 he addresses this concept head on and denies that it is acceptable.

Referring to the Gemara in Talm. B. Hagigah, p. 12," The high and exalted dwelleth on 'arabot, as it is said, 'Extol Him that rideth upon 'arabot '" (Ps.lxviii.4). Rambam notes:

"Consider well that the expression" dwelling over it," is used by them, and not" dwelling in it." The latter expression would have implied that God occupies a place or is a power in the sphere, as was in fact believed by the Sabeans, who held that God was the soul of the sphere. By saying" dwelling over it," they indicated that God was separate from the sphere, and was not a power in it.

Clearly God is not in the universe but separate from it and the Rabbis were very exact in their language when trying to depict how God has an impact on it, they use a term that connotes Him being outside of it, lest we think of Him as a natural component of the world.

Addressing the word place - Makom - as it relates to God, Rambam in Moreh 1:8 states:

"In the verse," Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place" (mekomo) (Ezek. iii. 12), makom has this figurative meaning,(" position," or degree," as regards the perfection of man in certain things) and the verse may be paraphrased" Blessed be the Lord according to the exalted nature of His existence," and wherever makom is applied to God, it expresses the same idea, namely, the distinguished position of His existence, to which nothing is equal or comparable, as will be shown below.

The word Makom instead of implying space when it is used with God it reflects a status that we confer to Him in our mind when we meditate about Him, His uniqueness. Once we have accepted that whenever there is a connotation of location when talking about God it means a hierarchical position Rambam in Moreh 1:19 deals with Melo Kol Ho'oretz Kevodo -

"In this sense it is said" The whole earth is full (melo) of his glory" (Isa. vi. 4)," All the earth gives evidence of his perfection," i.e. leads to a knowledge of it. Thus also" The glory of the Lord filled (malei) the tabernacle" (Exod. xl. 34): and, in fact, every application of the word to God must be interpreted in this manner; and not that He has a body occupying space."

The word "Melo" translated as full, means that the world when looked upon by us, in its magnificience, every detail of it, conveys a sense of God's perfection.

To me this understanding of theses concepts is so elevating and thought provoking that I don't understand why reduce God to an imaginary presence everywhere through Tzimtzum to accomodate a literal reading. Tzimtzum is not understood by us either so what have we gained? Even if the original thinkers who came up with the idea had something in mind that could be seen as not pantheist, their followers have certainly distorted it and turned it into a Meshichist nonsense. It is the story of Nadav and Avihu who went further than was permitted and, in spite of their greatness, "Bikrovai Ikadesh", they were wrong and misguided.

This reinforces and explains the importance Rambam placed on understanding our limitations.

Rambam and Darwin - Quite compatible

In an exchange of comments with Ben Avuyah we touched on an interesting subject that is worth a post. Here is the exchange edited to stay on subject:

Ben Avuyah finished a comment with this : The bottom line is that OJ's want to marvel at god's creation in an overal sense that gives them the requisite awe required to sustain belief in odd dietery laws and dress codes. But when it comes to the details, they feel very strongly that you should not draw any conclusions about the designer at all.

To which I responded focussing on the last sentence: Rambam has an interesting take on that. He claims that we have to look at all genetic problems as positive because mutations are necessary for the survival of the species. (I am translating Aristoteleian concepts into modern ones) see Moreh 3:12.

BA: How could he be so possesed of the idea of the necessity of genetic variation so many years before Darwin ??

DG: Here are the words I refer to:
"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". (the last sentence is a general statement why there is death but I use the same idea for genetic mutations.)

DG:Of course he is talking about Galen and his theories but if you take this argument about evil and translate it into contemporary language the philosophical question is answered exactly the same way. That is what I mean that we have to learn from him how to answer substituting contemporary science for the science of his day.

When Rambam is read literally he does not seem to have any relevance to the sciences of our times. However if we look at the method he used to understand the world as he saw it from a theological point of view he is the greatest teacher and his real genius comes to the fore. Rambam when confronted by the question of how can God be seen as good when an innocent human being is suffering for no fault of his own, did not respond with the usual platitudes we hear today. He did not say that that person suffers now to gain later in afterlife, or that our souls transmigrated from an earlier life and is paying for past misdeeds or some other such nonsense. Having understood that when we say God is good we refer to his having given permanence to existence by setting in place laws of nature that insure its long term survivability, this tragedy has to be looked at from that angle. He knew that death of the individual is necessary for the survival of the species so he assumed that a child born with a deformity or an adult that developed an incurable sickness somehow was tied in with a good for the species. He could then accept that God is good even when bad things happen to innocents.

We now understand that genetic mutations which are a major cause of many sicknesses are necessary for the long term survival of humankind. We can use the same insight Rambam used in his time and age to answer the same question with our current understanding of nature.

Rambam addressed here only one facet of Tzaddik vera Lo, the one that deals with natural disasters and tragedies. He addresses separately when bad things are committed by man to each other and man to himself. This is all for other posts.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Why humility? An Indispensable Trait.

The death of Nadav and Avihu is a theme repeated several times in the Torah suggesting that it has great significance. I want to follow Rambam’s comments in the Moreh on this episode and I believe it will be enlightening.

The story of these two sons of Aharon starts at Har Sinai where they are singled out among the people “who ascended to God”. Rambam warns us in Moreh 1:10 not to interpret literally the word Aleh or Oloh in this context for

When, on the other hand, it says," And Moses went up unto God" (Exod. xix. 3), it must be taken in the third signification of these verbs, (“when our attention is raised to a subject above us we are said to rise.” – earlier in the same chapter) in addition to the fact that Moses also ascended to the top of the mount, upon which the created light had descended; but it does not mean that God occupies a place to which we can ascend, or from which we can descend. He is far from what the ignorant imagine”.

Thus when God said to Moshe in Shemos 24:1 “go up to God you, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu and seventy among the elders of Israel “He was telling them to enter a state of meditation rather than a physical repositioning.

After entering into this state of meditation the Torah describes the following experience:

י וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר.
10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.
יא וְאֶל-אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ; וַיֶּחֱזוּ, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאכְלוּ, וַיִּשְׁתּוּ. {ס}
11 And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink. {S}

Rambam addresses almost every word in these two verses.
Moreh 1:4:
"And they saw (va-yiru) the God of Israel" (Exodus. xxiv. 10). All these instances refer to intellectual perception, and by no means to perception with the eye as in its literal meaning: for, on the one hand, the eye can only perceive a corporeal object, and in connection with it certain accidents, as color, shape, etc.” Quite self-evident.

Now to the more complicated words. What is God’s feet? What does it mean that under His feet there was something? God does not take up space for the word “under” to apply?
Moreh 1:28

According to our opinion" under his feet" (raglav) intends to signify: He being the cause and because of Him, as we have already explained. (Rambam explained earlier that “Regel” could also mean something that is the cause for something else). They (Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the nobles of the children of Israel) therefore comprehended the real nature of the first matter, which derives from Him, and of whose existence He is the only cause.”

Thus Regel does not mean feet but the cause of something. God is the cause of “livnas hasapir” which we will see later refers to the first matter. In their meditation they reached the limits between non – physicality and physicality. They were trying to understand how a transcendent Being could create a physical universe and be the cause of it. In other words they entered the realm of metaphysics.

Rambam’s explanation of the word כְּמַעֲשֵׂה is complicated. To simplify - Rambam understands that without it, the next few words would not necessarily mean physicality. The word denotes physicality which is usually associated with an action.

The expression" the whiteness of the sapphire" refers to the transparency, not to the white color: for" the whiteness" of the sapphire is not a white color, but the property of being transparent. Transparency is however not a color.... In this respect it resembles the first matter, which as such is entirely formless, and thus receives all the forms one after the other”.

This is an Aristotelian concept translated into contemporary language it would mean the least physical of all physical materials.

Accordingly their apprehension had as its object the first matter and the relation of the latter to God inasmuch as it is the first among the things that He created that necessitates generation and corruption; and God is its Creator ex-nihilo.”

So far Rambam explained that in the process of “ascending to God” man studies the physical world and as he explores the origins of his reality he comes to the crossroads of “the Beginning”, how nothing came to be something. The transition from “Nihilo” to being. That is where the search for God leads.

The problem is that when one speculates in this way there is an inherent risk of trying to understand more than man can, not accepting our limitations. Rambam contrasts the next verse which describes where their speculation lead them with Moshe’s first steps in meditation. At the burning bush Moshe “hid his face”

Moreh 1:5:"He (a person who speculates in metaphysics) must, however, not decide any question by the first idea that suggests itself to his mind, or at once direct his thoughts and force them to obtain knowledge of the Creator, but he must wait modestly and patiently, and advance step by step. In this sense “And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God" (Exodus. iii. 6), though retaining also the literal meaning of the passage, that Moses was afraid to gaze at the light which appeared to his eye; but it must on no account be assumed that the Being which is exalted far above every imperfection can be perceived by the eye. This act of Moses was highly commended by God, who bestowed on him a well deserved portion of His goodness, as it is said:" And the similitude of the Lord shall he behold" (Num. xii. 8). This, say our Sages, was the reward for having previously hidden his face, lest he should gaze at the Eternal. (Talm. B. Berakot 7a.)".

Because Moshe understood his human limitations he was able to advance in metaphysical speculation while the nobles of the children of Israel which included Nadav and Avihu were punished for their haste.

But" the nobles of the Children of Israel" were impetuous, and allowed their thoughts to go unrestrained: what they perceived was but imperfect. …They are blamed for the nature of their perception, which was to a certain extent corporeal -- a result which necessarily followed, from the fact that they ventured too far before being perfectly prepared.”

When one ventures too far before being prepared like Moshe to know the limitations, one anthropomorphizes.

The nobles of the Children of Israel, besides erring in their perception, were, through this cause, also misled in their actions: for in consequence of their confused perception, they inclined towards things of the body. This is meant by the words," Also they saw God and did eat and drink" (Exodus. xxiv. 11)”.

It seems that when one anthropomorphizes there is the tendency to worship in a physical manner. Rambam then ties in the death of Nadav, Avihu and the Nobles to this episode.

They deserved to perish, but at the intercession of Moses this fate was averted by God for the time. They were afterwards burnt at Taberah, except Nadav and Avihu, who were burnt in the Tabernacle of the congregation, according to what is stated by authentic tradition. (Midr. Rabba ad locum.)”

Rambam understands that the story of these two sons of Aharon is recounted to teach us a very important idea that there are limits to human knowledge. Metaphysical speculation, which is a requirement for any serious religious person, requires humility to be successful. Self-esteem should not lead one to arrogance where one cannot appreciate the limits of human knowledge. When Miriam and Aharon criticized Moshe, the Torah comments:

ג וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, עָנָו מְאֹד--מִכֹּל, הָאָדָם, אֲשֶׁר, עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. {ס}
3 Now the man Moses was very humble, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.-- {S}

Moshe’s humility which allowed him to understand his limitations made him into the great man he was. He was therefore able to understand God to the limits a human can. Rambam sees this as the cornerstone of Jewish theology and developed his Negative Theology from here. It also explains why humility is such an important trait that the Mishna in Avos 4:4 warns" Me'od Me'od haveh shefal ruach", be very very humble, it is a key to attaining real knowledge.

Moreh is the Friedlander translation with many changes based on Pines. Chumash courtesy of Mechon-Mamre

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Of Demons (Sheidim) and Men - Rambam believes that Sheidim exist!

Happywithhislot has a post about Artscroll position on Shedim, demons . It brought to mind an interesting Rambam on the subject and here it is:
Moreh 1:7 -

A man who has instructed another in any subject, and has improved his knowledge, may in like manner be regarded as the parent of the person taught, because he is the author of that knowledge: and thus the pupils of the prophets are called" sons of the prophets," as I shall explain when treating of the homonymity of ben (son). In this figurative sense, the verb yalad (to bear) is employed when it is said of Adam," And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat (va-yoled) a son in his own likeness, in his form" (Gen. V. 3). As regards the words," the form of Adam, and his likeness," we have already stated (ch. i.) their meaning.

(Rambam explains there that Tzelem and Demut refer to the quality that defines a man when compared to any other living thing namely the intellect).

Those sons of Adam who were born before that time were not human in the true sense of the word, they had not" the form of man." With reference to Seth who had been instructed, enlightened and brought to human perfection, it could rightly be said," he (Adam) begat a son in his likeness, in his form." It is acknowledged that a man who does not possess this" form" (the nature of which has just been explained) is not human, but a mere animal in human shape and form. Yet such a creature has the power of causing harm and injury, a power which does not belong to other creatures. For those gifts of intelligence and judgment with which he has been endowed for the purpose of acquiring perfection, but which he has failed to apply to their proper aim, are used by him for wicked and mischievous ends; he begets evil things, as though he merely resembled man, or simulated his outward appearance. Such was the condition of those sons of Adam who preceded Seth. In reference to this subject the Midrash says:" During the 130 years when Adam was under rebuke he begat spirits, i.e., demons;when, however, he was again restored to divine favour" he begat in his likeness, in his form." This is the sense of the passage," Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and he begat in his likeness, in his form" (Gen. v. 3)

People say that Rambam does not believe in Demons - Sheidim. That is untrue. He does not believe that they are a separate species half - human and half spirit. But he does believe that sheidim exist. They are the people amongst us us who are wicked and mischievous. It is those who have the brains and the ability to grow into good and great people who use them to harm and destroy.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Astrology and Magic - Ramban and Rambam - two world views.

In the first of this week’s two Parshiot, at the end of Acharei, Ramban lays out in detail a position that he repeats many times in his writings and is the cornerstone of much of his theological thinking. I find it very productive to every year revisit and compare Ramban with Rambam on this issue as it clarifies the Weltanschauung of these two giants and the subsequent impact of both on the thinking process of thoughtful Jews in the generations that followed them. I will try to summarize the two positions in as few words as possible knowing that I will not do them justice. My focus this time is the Parshanut of each of the same verse.

At the end of the listing of the forbidden sexual relations, the Torah states: (Courtesy of Mechon-Mamre)

Vaykra 25:18 - And the land was defiled, therefore I did visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land vomited out her inhabitants.

Ramban wonders why forbidden sexual mores would be the cause for exile from Eretz Yisroel. It having no obvious connection to land, rather a personal behavior, why should it have an impact on our continuity in Eretz Yisroel? He says that the secret can be found in the following verses:

Devarim 32:8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of men, He set the borders of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel 9 For the portion of the LORD is His people, Jacob the lot of His inheritance.

As opposed to other nations Israel is God’s people under his direct control while other nations are governed directly by other forces such as stars, and indirectly by God, as is clearly stated in Devarim 4:19

יט וּפֶן-תִּשָּׂא עֵינֶיךָ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה, וְרָאִיתָ אֶת-הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְאֶת-הַיָּרֵחַ וְאֶת-הַכּוֹכָבִים כֹּל צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנִדַּחְתָּ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לָהֶם, וַעֲבַדְתָּם--אֲשֶׁר חָלַק יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֹתָם, לְכֹל הָעַמִּים, תַּחַת כָּל-הַשָּׁמָיִם

And lest you lift up your eyes unto heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven, you will be drawn away and worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God has allotted unto all the peoples under the whole heaven.

Ramban deduces from this last verse that all nations are controlled by the stars, as it is well known in Astrology, “Ka’asher nodah be’itztagninus”. Each nation has its own star that governs its fate; however that star is subservient to the One God. Thus one expects that all nations worship the stars and the intermediaries that govern them. The nations of the world do not lose their country because they worship stars and intermediaries to God. However for the inhabitants of Eretz Yisroel, God’s private domain and under His direct control, whoever worships any other power besides HKBH cannot remain in the land. The land will not tolerate it because it is God’s land given as an inheritance to the Jewish people on condition they follow certain basic rules. It will therefore not tolerate Avodah Zarah nor will it tolerate sexual promiscuity because such is God’s wish for His land that He controls exclusively and directly. ( Note how the punishment is not a direct effect of the misdeed - it is a miraculous connection - more on that some other time)

Ramban thus reads the words “which the LORD thy God has allotted unto all the peoples under the whole heaven” to mean literally that the stars are the fate of all nations except Israel. Astrology and consequently magic are therefore a reality that cannot be denied and accepted by the Torah and needs to be taken into account by all nations. However Jews are forbidden to do so by the Torah because we are God’s people. That is the meaning of Segula - a special and unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. For further expansion on the subject and consequences of this understanding see Ramban Devarim 18:9, Breishis 1:18, Shemos 20:3 and in Toras Hashem Temimah as well as in other writings. Clearly it is one of the cornerstones of his world view.

Now let us turn to Rambam on the same verse. In Hilchos Avodah Zara 2:1-2

א עיקר הציווי בעבודה זרה, שלא לעבוד אחד מכל הברואים--לא מלאך, ולא גלגל, ולא כוכב, ולא אחד מארבע היסודות, ולא אחד מכל הנבראים מהם. ואף על פי שהעובד יודע שה' הוא האלוהים, והוא עובד הנברא הזה על דרך שעבד אנוש ואנשי דורו תחילה--הרי זה עובד עבודה זרה.
ב ועניין זה, הוא שהזהירה עליו תורה ואמרה "ופן תישא עיניך השמיימה, וראית את השמש ואת הירח ואת הכוכבים . . . אשר חלק ה' אלוהיך, אותם, לכול העמים" (דברים ד,יט): כלומר שמא תשוט בעין ליבך ותראה שאלו הם המנהיגים את העולם, והם שחלק ה' אותם לכל העמים להיותם חיים והווים ונפסדים כמנהגו של עולם; ותאמר שראוי להשתחוות להן, ולעובדן. ובעניין זה ציווה ואמר "הישמרו לכם, פן יפתה לבבכם" (דברים יא,טז)--כלומר שלא תטעו בהרהורי הלב לעבוד אלו, להיותם סרסור ביניכם ובין הבורא
1) The core prohibition of idol worship is not to worship any creation, be it an angel, one of the spheres, a star, one of the four elements or something created from one of the elements. Even though a worshipper knows that the Lord is God but nevertheless worships one of the creations in the way that Enosh and those of his generation did before they forgot God, he is still counted as an idolater. This is what the Torah warned us against when it said, "And in case you look to the skies, and when you see the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the host of heaven, and you be misled to worship them, et cetera"; that is to say, "In case you contemplate them and conclude that it is they who control the world, and that the Lord allotted the whole world to them as the cause of their becoming alive, being and destructing[1]" ( in other words - being that they are the natural forces that impact our world such as gravity, heat from the sun etc…) , and consequently one will think that it is fitting to bow down to them and to worship them. We have received commandments concerning this matter when it says, "Be careful that your judgment is not deluded, et cetera"; that is to say that one should not be misled by one's thoughts and think of the idols as a go-between between oneself and God. (Translation with my modifications courtesy of ).

Rambam reads the same words Ramban used as one of his proof texts, “which the LORD thy God has allotted unto all the peoples under the whole heaven” in a totally opposite way. The stars are nature’s instruments that bring about change in the physical world, not through free choice and spiritual / magical influence, but in a scientifically explainable way. They interact with the other natural events on earth and without them our world could not exist. They are part of the fabric of the world. “All people” therefore includes the Jewish people and Eretz Yisroel uniqueness is not because it is under God’s direct control. Everything and the whole world is under God and there are no such things as intermediaries and local powers. Rambam elaborates on this further in Moreh 2:5 and 6 using the same verse as the basis for the discussion. In his letter to the Rabbis of Marseilles here in Hebrew Rambam makes it clear that there is no such thing as Astrology or magic, or any other intermediaries. Note the interesting comment where Rambam blames the destruction of our land on the reliance of our forebears on Astrology and Magic instead of learning how to fight and wage war. Thus Rambam agrees that our downfall was caused by superstition but only because it is ineffective while Ramban feels it is effective everywhere but EY.

I will leave it to the reader to decide which approach makes sense in light of our contemporary knowledge.

For a detailed and interesting discussion of Ramban's position in contrast to Rambam's see my friend Rabbi Buchman's article .

[1] The translator did not understand this Rambam. I fixed it accordingly.