Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Does Jewish Hashkafah evolve?

In an earlier post I proposed a dynamic approach to Ta’amei Hamitzvos. R. Chaim B. brought to my attention a Rambam that is quite clear about it. It is at the end of Hilchos Temurah, where he explains the reason for why both the original Kodesh item (an item that through a pledge was given to the Beit Hamikdash) and its replacement are both Kodesh and cannot be redeemed. Rambam delves into human nature, greed and self-serving. Introducing that explanation he makes the following statement, which is the interest of this post:

יד אף על פי שכל חוקי התורה, גזירות הן כמו שביארנו בסוף מעילה, ראוי להתבונן בהן; וכל שאתה יכול ליתן לו טעם, תן לו טעם: הרי אמרו חכמים הראשונים, שהמלך שלמה הבין רוב הטעמים של כל חוקי התורה

“Although the Chukim of the Torah are Gezeirot (rulings without apparent reason) as we explained at the end of Me’ilah, a person should contemplate them and wherever he can find a reason he should do so. Our earlier sages said that Shlomo Hamelech understood most reasons for all the Chukim of the Torah.”

The language Rambam uses here is a little surprising - , שהמלך שלמה הבין רוב הטעמים של כל חוקי התורה – when it should have been the reason for most of the Chukim of the Torah rather than most reasons for all the Chukim of the Torah – the implication is that each Mitzvah has more than one reason. In other words there is a personal rather than a universal reason for each Mitzvah. As a person performs a Mitzvah and contemplates the reason for the commandment, he develops new understanding about his relationship to God, new insights about God and at the same time a new understanding of the reason for doing the Mitzvah.

Where I am taking this is that it explains why we are keeping Mitzvot that at first blush seem archaic and their original intent seems to be no longer applicable. It is an argument that is always thrown at practicing Jews and many are at a loss how to respond. However the question should be viewed as a challenge and is in itself the answer. One should question why a Mitzvah that apparently has no reason must still be performed. The search for the answer should open a train of thought that addresses where the person is in his theological development and how the performance affects it. It is the stubborn performance coupled with an open-minded questioning and search for a reason that allows one to fulfill the intent and goal of the commandment. Although Rambam was talking mainly about Chukim, Mitzvot that were originally given without a reason appended to them, I believe that is so with other Mitzvot too. That explains Rambam at the end of Hilchot Me’ilah:

והמשפטים, הן המצוות שטעמן גלוי, וטובת עשייתן בעולם הזה ידועה, כגון איסור גזל ושפיכות דמים וכיבוד אב ואם; והחוקים, הן המצוות שאין טעמן ידוע. אמרו חכמים, חוקים שחקקתי לך, ואין לך רשות להרהר בהן. ויצרו של אדם נוקפו בהן, ואומות העולם משיבין עליהן--כגון איסור בשר חזיר, ובשר בחלב, ועגלה ערופה, ופרה אדומה, ושעיר המשתלח.
ז וכמה היה דויד המלך מצטער מן המינים והגויים, שהיו משיבין על החוקים; וכל זמן שהיו רודפין אותו בתשובות השקר שעורכין לפי קוצר דעת האדם, היה מוסיף דבקה בתורה, שנאמר "טפלו עליי שקר, זדים; אני, בכל לב אצור פיקודיך" (תהילים קיט,סט), ונאמר שם בעניין "כל מצוותיך, אמונה; שקר רדפוני, עוזרני" (תהילים קיט,פו).

What is interesting in the above Halacha is that Rambam only lists two categories; Mishpatim which he explains as social laws and Chukim which do not have self-evident reasons and seem to include all Mitzvot that are not of the first category. Some of those latter Mitzvot have reasons appended to them in the Torah but detractors would argue that they no longer apply. In spite of that David Hamelech stubbornly keeps them.

I believe that Rambam promotes a similar approach regarding Hashkafic issues. The belief in the resurrection of the dead is a cornerstone (Pinah) in Judaism and is not mentioned in Torah or in Tanach until Daniel who was one of the last prophets and lived at the time of the Babylonian exile. Rambam addresses the question in his Essay on the Resurrection of the Dead, Ma’amar Techyat Hametim (TH). He explains that had a prophet, including Moshe, told about the resurrection of the dead at an earlier time, the people would not have believed it. It is only after 800 years from Sinai that Daniel could tell about it and his prophecy would be accepted. A basic concept of Judaism could only be developed when the people were ready for it. Rambam tells us that prophecy was not accepted unquetionably during the days of the First Temple. Contrary to popular belief that prophecy was prevalent then, apparently real prophecy that taught proper theology was not accepted. They may have gone to the "Roeh", seer for every litlle thing as told in Shmuel, they had not accepted it as binding for theology.

Here is the full text of Rambam’s explanation:

והיו בני אדם כולם בזמן ההוא מכת הצאב"א, אומרים בקדמות העולם שהם היו מאמינים שהשם רוח הגלגל, כמו שבארנו ב"מורה הנבוכים" ומכזיבים הגיע הנבואה מאת השם לבני אדם. וכן יתחייב להם לפי אמונתם הכזבת המופתים, וייחסו אותו לכישוף ולתחבולה. הלא תראה אותם משתדלים לחלוק על מופת משה רבינו ע"ה בלהטיהם וישליכו איש מטהו. והלא תראה איך אמרו, מתמיהים, "היום הזה ראינו כי ידבר אלהים את האדם וחי". הורה שהייתה הנבואה אצלם מכת הנמנע. ואיך יסופר למי שלא התבארה אצלו הנבואה בדבר שאין ראוי עליו אלא האמנת הנביא, והוא גם כן נמנע אצלם לגמרי לפי אמונתם בקדמות העולם, כי לולי המופתים לא הייתה אצלנו תחיית המתים מכת האפשר.
וכאשר רצה השם יתעלה לתת תורה לבני אדם, לפרסם בהם מצוותו ודתו ואזהרתו על ידי הנביאים בכל העולם, כמו שאמר "ולמען ספר שמי בכל הארץ".
חידש המופתים הגדולים הכתובים בכל התורה, עד שהתאמת בהם נבואת הנביאים וחידוש העולם. כי המופת האמיתי ראיה ברורה על חידוש העולם כאשר בארנו ב"מורה הנבוכים
ולא הוציאם מענייני העולם הזה בגמול ובעונש
ומהעניין אשר הוא בטבע והוא השאר הנפש או היכרתה, כמו שזכרנו רצוני לומר העולם הבא. ולא נכנס לזולת זה מעניין התחייה וכרת
והתמיד העניין כן, עד שנתחזקו אלו הפינות והתאמתו בהמשך הדורות,
ולא נשאר ספק בנבואות הנביאים ובחידוש המופתים. ואחרי כן ספרו לנו הנביאים
מה שהודיעם ה' יתעלה מעניין תחיית המתים, והיה קל לקבלו

(For a detailed discussion of my understanding of miracles according to Rambam, see my article in Hakirah vol 3 – the latest volume. Subscribe at http://www.hakirah.org/ or email me and I will send you a copy of the article.)

It is the same with all other aspects of theology. As humanity evolved and the Jewish people along with it, new insights into how to understand the universe came about. As God can only be perceived through nature, new ways of understanding God developed as our understanding of nature changed. Of course this evolutionary process is not without constraints. It does not allow for new dogmas, but for a better understanding of the ones we already have from tradition.

Ironically this idea of Rambam was the impetus for the development of Kabbalah and the underlying argument of its legitimization. Chardal in his comments correctly pointed that out. However I believe Rambam limited this to where a person can go rationally. Prophecy was stopped at the beginning of the Second Temple and revelation no longer exists.


  1. *As God can only be perceived through nature, new ways of understanding God developed as our understanding of nature changed.*

    What happened to our understanding of nature at the time of Daniel which warranted the revelation of the concept of TH? It seems to me that this might have been justified by a development in the intellectual outlook of the Jewish people at that time, but not their scientific knowledge.

  2. >It seems to me that this might have been justified by a development in the intellectual outlook of the Jewish people at that time, but not their scientific knowledge

    Excellent point. I did not express myself properly. At that time it was accepting Nevuah that made the change, nowadays it would be the new understanding in scientific areas too.

  3. jewishskeptic7/06/2006 9:44 AM

    'kivanta le'daat gedolim',David.
    Mordecai D.Rabinovits the editor & commentator of Rambam ,Mossad Harav Kook,in a long note on the parag.you quoted above from the Iggeret ,essentially says the same thing that you wrote about the development of Hashkafaha & tchiyyat hametim. Not that he was(is?)such a great godol,but still...

    BTW,the above in a very long 'mavo'to the Iggeret(which I don't have the time to re-read right now) writes of a scholar by the name of Teicher(I think,I am writing from memory),in London,who claimed in the 40's,that the all Iggeret was a forgery in an article he wrote 'ziyyuf history mi'mei ha'benain',& that it was written by someone who wanted to clear the Rambam of the heresy he was accusedof. & indeed,as pointed out by Achad Ha-am in Shilton Hasechel,the Rambam's arguments in the Iggeret are weak.

    I once discussed the Iggeret with Dr. Howard Kreisel,who was on a sabbatical in Canada from Ben Gurion Uni.(I think),
    he told me that a manuscript has been found of the Iggeret by the Rambam. Do you know anything about it?

    In conclusion,may I put in my own 2 cents about the matter.
    In the Iggeret (mid.of ch.6)
    אלא מה שהתבאר בו שהוא מופת ולא יתכן לפרשו כלל- אז נצטרך לומר שהוא מופתי.
    Is that so ?Daniel 12:2 can't be explained allegorically?
    Let's see what the Ibn Ezra(of whom the Rambam held in high esteem) had to say about it :

    ורבי ישועה אמר כי ישני עפר משל על ישראל,שהם בגלות כמו מתים,והנה הגואל יבוא לטוב לצדיקי ישראל ולרע לרשעיהם.והמשכיל יבין הנכון משני הפירושים.
    Daniel 12:2


  4. >Ibn Ezra(of whom the Rambam held in high esteem)

    We don't know that as the letter to his son where he tells him to learn Ibn Ezra and is the only place he mentions that is definitely Mezuyaf.

    I have read the iggeret carefully many times and I belive it is consistent with Rambam in general. I sent my papaer to Kenneth Seeskin and he commented that I need to explain the discrepancies between the various Rambams on miracles. there are papers by Hannah Kasher and Langerman on the subject and I disagree with their conlusions. I have been working on writting both about that but I need time. I see all his sayings on the subject to be consistent while he addresses each time a slightly different aspect.

    I don't know anything about Prof Kreissel's manuscript but generally I trust Kafah's assesments in this area and he felt it was legit. As an aside he believes the letters to Chachmei lunil are fake.And they are used by all the Nose'ei Kelim of Rambam.

  5. JS, Your point that Daniel can be explained allegorically is good and i need to think why Rambam who was quite creative even if he had not seen IE felt otherwise.

  6. jewishskeptic7/06/2006 1:50 PM

    ?"We don't know that as the letter to his son where he tells him to learn Ibn Ezra and is the only place he mentions that is definitely Mezuyaf."

    On what basis do you make the statement that it is "definitely mezuyaf"?

  7. See Shilat's Iggerot, so believes Kafah and I believe most scholars. The letter is just not Rambam style. I have not read it for a while. When I get home if I dont forget I will look at it again.

  8. jewishskeptic7/06/2006 3:05 PM

    Just an aftertought about the Iggeret.
    He is too emotional in it,unlike the cold detached Rambam we know of by his other writings.

    "Me thinks he protesteth too much"

  9. >"Me thinks he protesteth too much"

    That is why scholars think he was cagey and apologetic. I don't know about TH as I don't have a final opinion on exactly what he holds but when it comes to miracles I think he is consistent. The problem is that as miracles to him according to my understanding are nature and TH is part of miracles, it is nature too. So is it a non recurring occurrence in the future? I don't know for sure - but it will be in a very great and long future based on the sciences of today!