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.


  1. Dad-Marvin Fox has a great piece on tefilah that discusses the Rambams approach to Tefilah and Avodah.It seems that the Rambam believes Korbonos will always exist like Tefilah because Man inherently must communicate via these tools(korbonos,prayer)no matter his level of sophistication (in order to have a relationship with G-D). It is interesting to note that not once in the Torah did Moshe bring Korbonos (like the Avos) in his relationship with G-d.We only see that he was involved with the Avodah in the Mishkan(the first time only)to teach Aaron and the Leviim the Avodah. You would of expected him to bring a Korbon after the first experience of prophecy (the burning bush).At least at the giving of the Torah he should of brought a sacrifice before or after such a monumental experiance.It is only after the golden calf that it seems that sacrifices and the Mishkan is mentioned which seems to support the Rambams explanation(along the lines of the Meshech Chochmah)-alex

  2. >At least at the giving of the Torah he should of brought a sacrifice before or after such a monumental experiance.

    What about at the end of mishpatim Shemos 24:5-6?

  3. It does not seem that moshe was bringing a scarifice to G-D.It was the "naarei bnei yisroel" that brought the sacrifices.Moshe seems to be making a covenent between the jews and G-d.That is why he built a monument and sprinkled the blood on the jews (not done with traditional korbonos)declaring " this is the blood of the covenant that Hashem sealed with you concerning all these matters".
    We still don't see moshe when dealing with G-d on a personal level involved with any form of sacrifices.

  4. Suprised you did not quote the famous Rambam at the end of hilchos temurah.

  5. Chaim B. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I remembered the explanation but not the introduction.

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