Sunday, October 29, 2006

Intellectual Honesty - Rambam's way.

At the end of the first part of the Moreh Rambam lays the ground for his discussion of proofs for the existence of God. He refuses to argue for the existence of a God based on who created the universe. The fact that the universe was created from nothingness or created at all is not necessarily provable. It is at most the best of three possibilities. Although Rambam personally believes that it was created from nothingness (at least that is my read of his position though some, both classic and modern interpreters of Rambam, disagree), he admits that Plato’s position that God created it from a basic matter that is eternal could well work with Judaism. If pressed he could live, if only with difficulties, with Aristotle’s position that a First Cause and the universe are co-existent eternally. Therefore Rambam cannot accept the proofs his predecessors and contemporary philosophers used to demonstrate God’s existence based on there necessarily being a Creator.

In MN 1:76 he states:

If you wish to go in search of truth, to cast aside your passions, blind following of authority, and your fondness of things you have been accustomed to cherish, if you wish to guard yourself against error: then consider the fate of these speculators and the result of their labors: observe how they rushed, as it were, from the ashes into the fire. They denied the nature of the existing things, misrepresented the properties of heaven and earth, and thought that they were able, by their propositions, to prove the creation of the world, but in fact they were far from proving creation ex nihilo, and have weakened the arguments for the existence, the unity, and the incorporeality of God. The proofs of all these doctrines must be based on the permanent nature of the existing things, as perceived by the senses and the intellect.”

In his introduction to the third part of the Moreh, where he discusses the “Secrets of the Chariots”, the Ma’aseh Merkavah in Yechezkel, Rambam forewarns us that he is only showing us how to read and interpret the verses so that they should conform to the science of his times. He also tells us that he is aware that the sciences he bases his interpretation may be proven wrong. It is just a guide to how such matters need to be understood.

To give a full explanation of the mystic passages of the Bible is contrary to the Law and to reason; besides, my knowledge of them is based on reasoning, not on divine inspiration [and is therefore not infallible]. I have not received my belief in this respect from any teacher, but it has been formed by what I learnt from Scripture and the utterances of our Sages, and by the philosophical principles which I have adopted. It is therefore possible that my view is wrong, and that I misunderstood the passages. Correct thought and divine help have suggested to me the proper method, to explain the words of the prophet Yechezkel.”

I am appending here R. Kafih’s translation and note. It is worthwhile and important to understand how we need to deal with our theology. It is wrong to become stultified and stubbornly stick to untenable positions.

נוסף לכך, שמה שנתברר לי ממנו הוא על דרך ההשערה והמחשבה
ולא נראה לי בו חזון אלוהי שילמדני שכך היא הכוונה בדבר
ולא קבלתי את דעותי בכך ממורה
אלא הורוני המקראות שבספרי הנבואה ודברי חכמים
עם מה שיש בידי מן ההקדמות העיוניות
שהדבר כך בלי ספק
ואפשר שיהיה הדבר בהפכו ותהיה הכוונה עניין אחר

And here is R. Kafih’s note:

כוונת רבנו למה שביאר במרכבות שבמראות יחזקאל. ואין ספק שברוח הקודש אמר רבנו דברים
הייתה לו תחושה עליונה שכל מה שהוא בונה ורומז במרכבות לפי מבנה מערכת השמים
ומערכות הארץ אשר הגיע אליהן המדע בימים ההם, שמא אין הדברים כך
כפי ש"הוכח" בימינו
ובכל אופן מבחינתנו אנו דבר גדול דבר אלינו רבנו
וחשוב יותר ממה שאמר, מה שלא אמר, כלומר
דיינו במה שרמז לנו לאן מופנים הדברים,
והפרטים כבר נתאם בעצמנו בכל-דור כפי מושגיו, אם הדברים הם באמת כך
על כולן לימדנו רבנו באיזה סוג של מחשבה לגשת לאותן המיקראות, ודיינו בכך

The common thread between the two quotes is that truth is the ultimate goal. We cannot deny reality to support a belief no matter how important the belief is. Both quotes and R. Kafih’s comment make it clear that the argument that the Torah knows better than science, science changes while the Torah is immutable, is not a viable argument. This nonsensical argument is adopted by many of contemporary “theologians” and has caused more harm than admitting that one does not have the answers though they probably are out there. Humility goes farther than lies.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Existence of God and Objective Morality

It seems that the greatest criticism to my post about objective morality was the idea of emulating God. God’s existence was questioned consequently the quest to find God was seen as empty. Even assuming we accept God’s existence, how do I see emulating His actions as good? Isn’t nature neutral?

Physicists have been struggling to find the Unified Law of Physics. What makes them think there is one? Maybe they will find out that there is no such thing and they were wasting their time. But they persist. Why? Because the Universe is so elegant that it makes sense that a perfect system should be underlying it. What is more elegant and perfect than one single law for all of physics? That gives the intellectually curious enough impetus to pursue a lifelong search passing the baton from generation to generation of researchers. And as long as no one will prove that such a law cannot exist, man will continue the search.

The search for God is a similar endeavor. It makes sense that our existence which we are trying to understand has a First Cause. I personally think that the argument that there must be a First Cause is irrefutable. I will however concede for argument sake, that at most we cannot prove that there is no First Cause. And as long as that does not happen, and it will not because it cannot, as Stephen Hawking says (in a different context) it is like asking for north of the North Pole, man will continue that search.

The key point is that God is unknowable, He is transcendent. If someone thinks he found Him he can rest assured that his imagination took over and he is looking at a false god. Spinoza thought he found God in nature and we can rest assured that whatever he found is not God.

If ultimately God is unknowable what then is the search for Him all about? It is looking for His traces, His footprints in the universe He caused to exist. The universe has many attributes. It is eternal, it has a built in mechanism that allows it to survive, adjust and flourish. I happen to enjoy the Gaia Hypotheses as an interesting way of looking at things. I am not well informed enough to either criticize it or defend it. It fits though nicely with my idea of how well the universe self regulates. Be it as it may, the universe seems to thrive and is to all appearances eternal. If one assumes that it is the result of God’s original will, one can extrapolate that seeing to it that things that are under our control survive and flourish is equivalent to emulating God and doing His will.

Rambam in MN 3:53 explains the meaning of the three words חםד משפט צדקה in this context.

“In discussing the impropriety of admitting attributes of God we stated that the divine attributes which occur in Scripture are attributes of His actions; thus He is called Hasid," kind," because He created the Universe; Tzaddik," righteous," on account of His mercy with the weak, in providing for every living being according to its powers; and Shofet," judge," on account of the relative good and the great relative evils ( I will discuss this in a separate post – there is much meaning in the word ‘relative” used here – DG) that are decreed by God's justice as directed by His wisdom.”

Objective morality thus is emulating God and acting accordingly. MN 3:54, the penultimate paragraph in the Moreh reads:

The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired-as far as this is possible for man-the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, (Chesed) judgment, (Mishpat) and righteousness, (Tzedakah) and thus to imitate the ways of God”.

Shavuah Tov.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Objective Ethics and Morality - is there such a concept?

During the past few days an interesting discussion developed on my blog and Kylopod’s at with the particiaption of Rabbi Joshua Maroof of about morality and it gave me a better insight into the story of Adam and Chava in Eden that we read just last week.

In MN 1:2 (discussed in detail in the excellent Interpreting Maimonides by Prof. Marvin Fox A’H, a worthwhile study of how to read MN. See also his chapters 5, 6, and 7 relating to our discussion here), Rambam proposes that it describes the different components of a human being. The Sechel, rational part deals with true and false. It analyzes data and extrapolates from it in a methodical rational way arriving at conclusions that are either true or false. It is a purely scientific method for which man utilizes his Tzelem Elohim. Another part of a human being is his ability to discern right from wrong. That is a subjective method where cultural and personal preferences are the arbiters.

The right and the wrong are terms employed in the science of apparent truths (morals), not in that of necessary truths, as, e.g. it is not correct to say, in reference to the proposition" the heavens are spherical," it is" good" or to declare the assertion that" the earth is flat" to be" bad”: but we say of the one it is true, of the other it is false. Similarly our language expresses the idea of true and false by the terms Emet and Sheker, of the morally right and the morally wrong, by tov and rah. Thus it is the function of the intellect to discriminate between the true and the false -- a distinction which is applicable to all objects of intellectual perception… When Adam was yet in a state of innocence, and was guided solely by reflection and reason -- on account of which it is said:" Thou hast made him (man) little lower than the angels" (Ps. viii. 6) -- he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths; the most manifest impropriety, viz., to appear in a state of nudity, was nothing unbecoming according to his idea: he could not comprehend why it should be so. After man's disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said," And the wife saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes" (Gen. iii. 6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed… Hence we read," And ye shall be like Elohim (1) knowing good and evil," and not" knowing" or" discerning the true and the false”: while in necessary truths we can only apply the words" true and false," not" good and evil."

Morality has meaning because man’s imagination is the cause of physical desires. Imagination consists of the memory of past experiences which man wants to repeat. Desires make man narcissistic and selfish bringing about aggression and conflict. For society to function there is a need for ethical behavior and rules of conduct. A moral and legal system has to be put in place. These are not issues that we rate as true and false; they are cultural and are rated as good and bad.

After setting out the two components of a human being, the story continues with man thrown into the real world, constantly yearning for intellectual perfection. He has freedom of choice and if he strives for intellectual perfection, he will try to balance the two, sometimes-conflicting parts of himself, to do the right thing. Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah 5:1 finishes the story as follows:

רשות כל אדם נתונה לו: אם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך טובה ולהיות צדיק, הרשות בידו; ואם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך רעה ולהיות רשע, הרשות בידו. הוא שכתוב בתורה "הן האדם היה כאחד ממנו, לדעת, טוב ורע--כלומר הן מין זה של אדם היה אחד בעולם, ואין לו מין שני דומה לו בזה העניין, שיהא הוא מעצמו בדעתו ובמחשבתו יודע הטוב והרע ועושה כל מה שהוא חפץ, ואין לו מי שיעכב על ידו מלעשות הטוב או הרע. וכיון שכן הוא, "פן ישלח ידו" (שם).

Man has free will to do good or bad. He sets the criteria through his own thinking. If he wants to “know” objectively what is “good and bad” he needs to avail himself of “true and false” and integrate the two. The last words “Pen Yshlach Yado” is read as a wish and not negative. God is saying wistfully, let man take from the tree of life (true and false) when he deals in “good and bad” issues and he will live forever. (See also Shemona Perakim chapter 8 page 251 in Sheilat edition).

What exactly does it mean bringing these two components together? How does “good and bad” become “true and false”? The search for God through nature, trying to find the First Cause through His creation, through science follows the path of scientific inquiry. It follows the path of “true and false”, of objective analysis. When man understands the universe’s perfection in the sense that it is eternal, when he tries to emulate God in how He runs it, when he develops a system of ethics and morals that emulates Him, man uses his understanding of “true and false” to set the criteria of what is “good and bad”. Morality and ethics based on this type of thinking is grounded in objective and absolute norms. It is no longer just cultural but a single universal morality.

Rambam started the Moreh introducing this concept of the difference between “true and false” and “good and bad” suggesting that there is a way of integrating these two ways of thinking. He ends the Moreh with how this integration works. In MN 3:54 –

The prophet thus, in conclusion, says," For in these things I delight, says the Lord," i.e., My objective [in saying this) is that you shall practice loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. In a similar manner we have shown that the object of the enumeration of God's thirteen attributes is the lesson that we should acquire similar attributes and act accordingly. The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired-as far as this is possible for man-the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. 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.”

To Rambam this is the goal of Judaism and the search for God, the integration of physics, metaphysics, ethics and morality thus setting objective criteria for the latter two turning “Good and Bad” into “True and False” .

(1) Rambam earlier in this chapter and in 2:6 explains that the word Elohim here refers to judges and legislators rather than God. It is an equivocal word.

Refreshing perspective on the Lebanon War.

An excellent analysis by Mark Helprin. A worthwhile read and a realistic perspective on the Lebanon War.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Only Rambam knew how to learn! (Vos zoll ich tun, nor der Rambam hot gekent lernen)

I heard this story about 40 years ago and it made an indelible impression on me. It was told to me by Rabbi Shlomo Shapiro A”H, the son in law of the pre-war Rav of Cracow, Rav Kornitzer, who heard it from his brother in law, who was present at the event. The Rogatchover Gaon, Rabbi Yosef Rosen (1858-3 March 1936), at the end of his life was suffering from colon cancer (if I remember correctly) and was on his way by train to Vienna for treatment. He eventually died there after an unsuccessful surgery. The Rogatchover was in great pain during the trip and at some point commented that he cannot understand why he deserves this punishment. Did he not spend all his life on learning Torah? What sin could be the reason for this terrible pain? He dozed off for a while and suddenly sat up and said: “I know why I deserve this. All my life I worked on Rambam. What about Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, Ramban and the other Rishonim? I definitely deserve this.” He dozed off again and a while later sits up again and says: “Ober vos zoll ich tun? Nor der Rambam hot gekent lernen!”. “What should I do? Only Rambam knew how to learn!”

Empirical Proofs and Beliefs: The Truth is the correct approach.

One of the problems that cause immense damage to our belief system is when claims that cannot be substantiated are made. Those range from claims that the fact that God created the world from nothingness is empirically provable to Ma’amad Har Sinai being empirical proof for the divinity of the Torah, Prophecy and so on. Any logical person when presented with these proofs immediately sees through them and as the flaws in the arguments are exposed doubts are triggered about the veracity of everything else we are asked to believe in. It is therefore very important that we understand upfront what can be proven empirically, what we believe in because it is most likely to be true, what we believe in until proven wrong and so on. It is quite a broad subject and it would be impossible to address more than one or two examples in a single post so I will focus on one Rambam addresses extensively. We can learn, from his approach in this specific case, how other areas should be treated.

When discussing proofs for the existence of God, Rambam prefaces the discussion in MN 1:71. He addresses the way other religious thinkers approached the issue, who argue that there must be an intelligent Creator of the Universe, being it was created in time, an argument that is still used nowadays by the proselytizers of all religions.

They set forth the propositions which I shall describe to you, and demonstrated by their peculiar mode of arguing that the Universe had a beginning. The theory of the creation ex nihilo being thus established, they asserted, as a logical consequence, that undoubtedly there must be a Maker who created the Universe. Next they showed that this Maker is One, and from the Unity of the Creator they deduced His Incorporeality. This method was adopted by every Mohammedan Mutakillimun in the discussion of this subject, and by those of our co-religionists who imitated them and walked in their footsteps… I have examined this method, and find it most objectionable. It must be rejected, because all the proofs for the creation have weak points, and cannot be considered as convincing except by those who do not know the difference between a proof, a dialectical argument, and a sophism. Those who understand the force of the different methods will clearly see that all the proofs for the creation are questionable, because propositions have been employed which have never been proved… For it is well known to all clear and correct thinkers who do not wish to deceive themselves, that this question, namely, whether the Universe has been created or is eternal, cannot be answered with mathematical certainty; here human intellect must pause… Such being the nature of this theory, how can we employ it as an axiom and establish on it the existence of the Creator? In that case the existence of God would be uncertain: if the universe had a beginning, God does exist: if it be eternal, God does not exist; the existence of God would therefore remain either an open question, or we should have to declare that the creation had been proved, and compel others by mere force to accept this doctrine, in order thus to be enabled to declare that we have proved the existence of God. Such a process is utterly inadmissible.”

If I were to tell a religious Jew that we cannot prove empirically that God created the world in time, Yesh Me’ayin, from nothingness, most contemporary orthodox circles would consider me heretic. Rambam did not accept that as to him truth was paramount. Though he believed that God created the universe in time, he was honest in acknowledging that it is not empirically provable. The argument for creation in time is rather ontological as Rambam shows in the first half of the second part of the Moreh. It is therefore wrong to base the proof for the existence of God as the First Cause, which he proves empirically, on an unproven belief. As Rambam says to “compel others by mere force to accept this doctrine” is not a viable option.
There are very few things that we empirically prove when it comes to religious beliefs. It is important to distinguish what is an accepted belief and what is provable. Only then do we have a leg to stand on if we want to be truthful.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Religion and Science - Brothers in Arms

My son Alex brought to my attention the last few paragraphs in an editorial in today's NY Times by Brian Greene entitled The Universe on a String:

I have worked on string theory for more than 20 years because I believe it provides the most powerful framework for constructing the long-sought unified theory. Nonetheless, should an inconsistency be found, or should future studies reveal an insuperable barrier to making contact with experimental data, or should new discoveries reveal a superior approach, I'd change my research focus, and I have little doubt that most string theorists would too.

But this hasn't happened.

String theory continues to offer profound breadth and enormous potential. It has the capacity to complete the Einsteinian revolution and could very well be the concluding chapter in our species' age-old quest to understand the deepest workings of the cosmos.

Will we ever reach that goal? I don't know. But that's both the wonder and the angst of a life in science. Exploring the unknown requires tolerating uncertainty.

The same could be said about the search for God in religion especially the last sentence. Rambam in MN 1:50 says:

" If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of this belief or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief is true."

The Torah does not give us answers. It is a guide of how we should look at our existence. It is eternal because its wisdom is such that religious men of all times who follow its path grow in their understanding of God in complete agreement with the scientific understanding of their era.
If the scientific understanding of an earlier generation hits a roadblock, the Torah approach is flexible enough to adapt and overcome the barrier. As long as no reasonable argument is found for rejecting its belief in a God whois the First Cause, and that has not happened yet nor will it ever happen, the Torah approach in searching for God is true and valid.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Reward and Punishment - Part of the natural course of events.

ד הַצּוּר תָּמִים פָּעֳלוֹ, {ס} כִּי כָל-דְּרָכָיו מִשְׁפָּט: {ר} אֵל אֱמוּנָה וְאֵין עָוֶל, {ס} צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר הוּא.
4 The Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice; a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is He.

This verse, Devarim 32:4, is addressed nine times in the Moreh. Rambam understanding of this verse gives us an interesting insight into his views on the meaning of reward and punishment and ultimately providence. I will trace the references that I think are pertinent and what I learned from them.

The word Tzur is addressed in MN 1:16. Rambam sees it as a synonym for First Cause. It refers to God when we see Him as the source for everything.

It is in the latter sense that the Almighty is called" rock," He being the origin and the Efficient Cause of all things besides Himself. Thus we read," He is the Rock, His work is perfect" (Deut. xxxii. 4.”

The next words, “Tamim Pe’alo”, are addressed in 2:28 where Rambam argues that the world is eternal “a parte post”, from the time it was created onwards. God’s creation is perfect and therefore will continue to exist eternally without any need for interference on His part.

The fact that the works of God are perfect, admitting of no addition or diminution, has already been mentioned by Moses, the wisest of all men, in the words:" The rock, His work is perfect" (Deut. xxxii. 14). All His works or creations are most perfect, containing no defect whatever, nothing superfluous, nor anything unnecessary”.

God created a world with a system that can sustain itself without any needs for adjustments on His part. And now Rambam ties the first part of the verse with the next;

Similarly all that is being accomplished for and by the created things is absolute justice and is the result of His wisdom, as will be explained in some chapters of this treatise.”

Justice is reward and punishment. Just as nature is preset and does not require God adjust, interfere or micro manage, reward and punishment similarly is the result of the same wisdom, “Chochma” that does not require His interference. One might argue that the comparison is only as to wisdom, but not how He acts when being a judge, so read on.

In 3:12 Rambam discusses “good and bad” as it relates to people. At the end of an interesting and telling discussion which I will address in a separate post, Rambam sums up:

In these two ways you will see the mercy of God toward His creatures, how He has provided that which is required, in proper proportions, and treated all individual beings of the same species with perfect equality. In accordance with this correct reflection the chief of the wise men says," All his ways are judgment" (Deut. xxxii. 4) … for it is an act of great and perfect goodness that He gave us existence: and the creation of the controlling faculty in the living beings is a proof of His mercy towards them, as has been shown by us.”

The fact that nature provides and that men have the faculties to make good or bad use of them is justice. Rambam, as I read it, sees justice, reward and punishment, as the natural result of how the world functions. The words “for all His ways are justice” refer to reward and punishment. God created the universe and as part of that creation He also made living things that operate according to their will. That is nature and “perfect goodness”, which means they have longevity (see MN 2:30 “When the creation of any part of the Universe is described that is permanent, regular, and in a settled order, the phrase" that it is good" is used”). For the universe to exist eternally, perfectly, it needs living organisms that operate according to their free will. It is the combination of what we call unchanging, natural events, and living things that interact with that unchanging element that allow for its longevity.

In 3:49 when discussing the rationale for the punishment the Torah metes out to a person that falsely accuses his wife of adultery, Rambam summarizes:

See how, according to the Law, the slanderer of his wife, who only intended to withhold from her what he is bound to give her, is treated in the same manner as a thief who has stolen the property of his neighbor; and the false witness who schemes to injure, although the injury was in reality not inflicted, is punished like those who have actually caused injury and wrong, like the thief and the slanderer. The three kinds of sinners are tried and judged by the same law. See how wonderful the divine laws are, and admire His wonderful deeds. Scripture says:" The Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are judgment" (Deut. xxxii. 4), i.e., as His works are most perfect, so are His laws most equitable; but our mind is too limited to comprehend the perfection of all His works, or the equity of all His laws: and as we are able to comprehend some of His wonderful works in the organs of living beings and the motions of the spheres, so we understand also the equity of some of His laws; that which is unknown to us of both of them is far more than that which is known to us.”

Even the laws that man implements using his own judgment, ultimately it is the judge who decides whether this act is punishable, are seen as God’s justice. He set the rules when He gave the Torah just as He set the rules of nature at Creation. Punishment again is seen as a natural event in the course of human existence. The individual decisions that bring about consequences are not directly controlled by God but are the normal course of events.

Finally in MN 3:53 where Rambam discusses the word מִשְׁפָּט:

The noun Mishpat," judgment," denotes the act of deciding upon a certain action in accordance with justice which may demand either mercy or punishment.

We have thus shown that Chesed denotes pure charity; Tzedakah kindness, prompted by a certain moral conscience in man, and being a means of attaining perfection for his soul, whilst Mishpat may in some cases find expression in revenge, in other cases in mercy.

In discussing the impropriety of admitting attributes of God, we stated that the divine attributes which occur in Scripture are attributes of His actions; thus He is called Hassid," kind," because He created the Universe; Tzaddik," righteous," on account of His mercy with the weak, in providing for every living being according to its powers; and Shofet," judge," on account of the relative good and the great relative evils that are decreed by God's justice as directed by His wisdom. These three names occur in the Pentateuch:" Shall not the judge (Shofet) of all the earth," etc. (Gen. Xviii. 25):" Righteous (Tzaddik) and upright is he" (Dent. xxxii. 4):" Abundant in loving-kindness" (Chesed), (Exod. xxxiv. 6).”

Note how Rambam refers to reward as “relative good” and to punishment as “relative bad”. When we discuss good and bad we will see that it is a value judgment based on the personal assessment of the person that experiences an event. (See note 14 in the R. Kafih edition of the Moreh). Again we see Rambam describing Justice as another component of natural events.
The implications of this understanding are far reaching. There are many more indications that Rambam holds this position throughout. I will be addressing them and also the implications as I discuss these issues in future posts.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tradition and Wisdom - How do we know which Possek to follow?

In my last post before the Chag I discussed the word Chochma and how Rambam understands it when it refers to God. In the same discussion in MN 3:54 Rambam defines the word Chochma as it relates to us humans. He points out that sometimes it means the Torah itself at others it means the wisdom required to demonstrate the rationale of the Torah that we received.

But as the truths contained in the Law are taught by way of tradition, not by a philosophical method, the knowledge of the Law came to be set up in the Books of the prophets and the saying of the sages as one separate species and wisdom, in an unrestricted sense, as another species. It is through this wisdom, in an unrestricted sense, that the rational matter that we receive from the Law through tradition is demonstrated… Our Sages further say, that man has first to acquire knowledge of the Torah, then to obtain wisdom and then to know what is incumbent on him with regard to the legal sciences of the Law – I mean the drawing of inferences concerning what one ought to do.”

Rambam lays out a procedure that we must follow when learning Torah. First we receive it as given. We study the texts and traditions we receive from our parents and teachers. We then try to understand the reason for these received laws, the philosophical, logical and ethical underpinnings for the rules. Only then do we know how to extrapolate from them and apply them to our daily lives. It is not just a legalistic system but also a fully integrated one that is based on logic, ethics and theology. One cannot legislate practical Halacha without also being steeped in logic and philosophy. Our laws are logical and must be well understood before one can undertake to legislate.

“This is also the right order: we must first learn the truths by tradition; then they should be demonstrated; then the actions through which one’s way of life may be ennobled, should be precisely defined.”

As anyone that learns Rambam’s Halachik work knows, he is always consistent and every rule has an underlying logic. Unlike the Beit Yosef, Rabbi Yosef Karo who wrote the Shulchan Aruch using a method where he followed the majority of opinions of the Rishonim on each issue, thus having sometimes-contradictory rules, Rambam is fully consistent. (The Beit Yosef was a great thinker and Mekubal and that is why the Shulchan Aruch is accepted as the Halacha sefer for all Jews. However the method he chose to decide differences of opinion (see his introduction to Kessef Mishna) led to some inconsistencies.)

The laws have to be rational. A rabbi who has not integrated the Torah with its philosophy, who legislates based on mechanical rules only, cannot be taken seriously. The real great legal minds in Judaism were also great thinkers who were able to discern the rationale behind each Halacha. Unfortunately they are rare and few apart and one needs a certain dose of sophistication and learning to be able to evaluate who these contemporary real Possekim are.

Friday, October 13, 2006

A thought about wisdom- Chochma

As I was thinking about how to understand God’s will I found myself thinking about “Chochma” usually translated as wisdom and remembered that Rambam has an interesting discussion about it in MN 3:54. It is the introduction to the last chapter in the Moreh where he explains how one arrives at the ultimate goal of knowing God and emulating Him.

It is possible that the meaning of wisdom in Hebrew indicates aptitude for stratagems and the application of thought in such a way that the stratagems and ruses may be used in achieving either rational or moral virtues, or in achieving skill in a practical art, or in working evil and wickedness.”

It is a mechanism that we humans use that gets the brain going when we think or act. When we try to understand what made God create existence we assume that a similar mechanism triggered that action, though He does not think or act at all. We attribute wisdom to Him because that is the only way we can understand how things came about. That is the deep meaning in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 2:2:

והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו, ויראתו: בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו הנפלאים הגדולים, ויראה מהם חכמתו שאין לה ערך ולא קץ--מיד הוא אוהב ומשבח ומפאר ומתאווה תאווה גדולה לידע השם הגדול, כמו שאמר דויד "צמאה נפשי, לאלוהים--לאל חי"

What is the way to love and fear God? Whenever one contemplates the great wonders of God's works and creations, and one sees that they are a product of a wisdom that has no bounds or limits, one will immediately love, laud and glorify [God] with an immense passion to know the Great Name, like David has said, "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God".

I believe the translation of the word “Erech” as “bounds” is incorrect. It means estimation or value. For something to be valued it has to be compared to something, it has to be relative. God’s wisdom cannot be valued or estimated because there is nothing to compare it to. The mystery of God’s wisdom that was the catalyst for creation forces the inquiring mind to seek an understanding of that great unknown. That process, that urge, that almost hopeless search triggers an emotion that is described as love, praise, glorification, appetite and thirst to know God.

Chag Sameach.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Is man the center of the universe? Does it exist to serve humankind?

One of the most important existential questions we face is whether there is a purpose to existence. Is the universe and all its content just an accident, a purposeless mass of physicality or does it have a mission, a purpose, a goal of some kind? Intriguingly when we look at the components of the world that surrounds us we can detect a certain reliance of one thing on another. We see that water is one of the catalysts that make things grow; growing things serve as food to others and to living things while they serve as food to other living things and to man. There seems to be a system of dependability what we call an ecosystem. It is therefore tempting to establish a hierarchy and say that the lower elements, the ones that have less mobility, less independence, less freedom of choice are there to serve the higher and more developed organisms. Extrapolating backwards one may come to the conclusion that everything is there to serve man, the highest and most developed organism in the known universe. Many philosophers have come to that conclusion. Many of our great thinkers believe that it is the Torah way of looking at things. Many assertions by our prophets seem to promote that idea.

The problem with this anthropocentric position is that if man is the center of the universe, why do so many bad things, things that seem to hurt man, occur? After all if everything is there to protect man, why are there earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and other such natural disasters that kill large segments of a population? What about diseases? What about genetic diseases? And this is before we address what man does to each other? What about the threat of nuclear destruction where man has harnessed nature to self-destruct? It would seem that humanity survived so far in spite of all the obstacles in its path. Add in the belief in a just God and the incongruity magnifies. Is this justice? Bring in religion and the idea of emulating God and you go off the charts. Is this apparent injustice, this self-destructive streak in nature that we are supposed to emulate?

Clearly anthropocentrism is a myth and a mirage. It is wishful thinking. Man is just another organism within a whole ecology. He may have superior abilities, his survival skills are more developed, and he therefore can make better use of his surroundings. He may be able to control his environment though not always to his best interest. From a religious perspective we look at man as part of an infinite universe. God created this universe to last forever and man is one little organism that is part of this infinite entity. The first and foremost priority is for the universe to survive with or without man. Man’s abilities, the abilities that developed as part of God’s will at creation, allow him to actively partake in this great system. He has the choice of being productive and eventually take control of his environment or destroy it and himself. That is the meaning of the Passuk we will be reading in a few days:

כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל-הָאָרֶץ.
28 And God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.'

Rambam in MN 3:13 addresses the issue and concludes:

I consider therefore the following opinion as most correct according to the teaching of the Bible, and best in accordance with the results of philosophy; namely, that the Universe does not exist for man's sake, but that each being exists for its own sake, and not because of some other thing. Thus we believe in the Creation, and yet need not inquire what purpose is served by each species of the existing things, because we assume that God created all parts of the Universe by His will; some for their own sake, and some for the sake of other beings, that include their own purpose in themselves. In the same manner as it was the will of God that man should exist, so it was His will that the heavens with their stars should exist, that there should be angels, and each of these beings is itself the purpose of its own existence.”

In other words man is not the purpose of creation. Creation happened because it is God’s will (I have touched on the meaning of God’s will in the past but will deal with many more times).

Further in the same chapter Rambam continues:

Study the book which leads all who want to be led to the truth, and is therefore called Torah (Law or Instruction), from the beginning of the account of the Creation to its end, and you will comprehend the opinion which we attempt to expound. For no part of the creation is described as being in existence for the sake of another part, but each part is declared to be the product of God's will, and to satisfy by its existence the intention [of the Creator]. This is expressed by the phrase," And God saw that it was good" (Gen. i. 4, etc.)… And “good” is an expression applied by us to what conforms to its purpose.”

This brings us to the meaning of “Good” and consequently the opposite “Bad” or Tov and Rah.

The consequences of this outlook are immense and far-reaching. Rambam presents this as he starts discussing providence or what we generally call Hashgacha. I will be addressing this in more depth in upcoming posts.

Moadim Lesimcha.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Reward and Punishment - Is it part of nature or a result of God's interference?

Nature in general is deterministic. If one had enough information one should theoretically be able to predict how things will turn out. This is so with physical phenomena starting with the movement of the heavens and all the way to weather patterns and other such natural occurrences. The animal kingdom other than man is also theoretically predictable. Animals act out of need and feed off each other or the vegetation that surrounds them. They do not act out of free choice as man does. When it comes to man though, he has free choice. He can act out of necessity or capriciously for reasons other than need. Predicting how he will act is much more complicated. Furthermore because there are so many variables about man’s choices, the outcome or result from his actions will vary infinitely. Those results are impossible to predict accurately. One can approximate but to know with certitude to the smallest detail is something known only by God. That is the meaning of Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah 3:2

ושיקול זה אינו לפי מניין הזכייות והעוונות, אלא לפי גודלן: יש זכות שהיא כנגד כמה עוונות, שנאמר "יען נמצא בו דבר טוב" (מלכים א יד,יג);
ויש עוון שהוא כנגד כמה זכייות, שנאמר "וחוטא אחד, יאבד טובה הרבה" (קוהלת ט,יח).
ואין שוקלין אלא בדעתו של אל דעות, והוא היודע היאך עורכין הזכייות כנגד העוונות

This measuring system does not work on a one-for-one basis, as there are some merits which outweigh many sins, as it is written, "...because of him some good thing is found". On the other hand, there are some sins which outweigh many merits, as it is written, "Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good". Only God knows how to evaluate sins and merits in this respect. (Translation courtesy of Jonathan Baker's site )

In other words the consequences of man’s actions are impossible to foresee especially when they involve fellow man. The proof text that Rambam brings to demonstrate that a good deed that seems small can have great impact refers to the king Yerovam II and according to the Rabbis he removed guards that his predecessors had placed to prevent Jews from going to Yerushalaim on the Shalosh Regalim(Moed Katan 28:2). This act had such an impact on others that it warranted the respect he received when all the people mourned the death of his son. No one except God could foretell at the time Yerovam acted how great the impact would be.

The fact that the consequences of man’s actions are not foreseeable does not prevent us from seeing them as deterministic too. We are just unable to foresee the consequences but theoretically, in retrospect, whatever happened had to happen. Someone with a greater capacity then us would have predicted it. Reward and punishment is therefore a natural phenomenon. HKBH created the world and gave man freedom of choice. His choices result in consequences that could be good or bad. Man has to learn how to figure out what the consequence will be and act accordingly. Rambam in MN 2:48 thus argues:

According to the hypothesis and theory accepted, it is God that gave will to dumb animals, freewill to the human being, and natural properties to everything; chance being but an excess of what is natural, as has been explained and are mostly the result of the combined action of nature, desire, and freewill [the components of what we call chance are the combined actions of these three - DG] : it can consequently be said of everything which is produced by any of these causes, that God commanded that it should be made, or said that it should be so.”

When we say things are the result of God’s will we mean that He created and set rules that brought about these things.

I will give you instances, and they will guide you in the interpretation of passages which I do not mention. As regards phenomena produced regularly by natural causes, such as the melting of the snow when the atmosphere becomes warm, the roaring of the sea when a storm rages [I quote the following passages]," He sends his word and melts them" (Ps. cxlvii. 18):" And he said, and a storm-wind arose, and lifted up its waves" (ibid. cvii. 25) In reference to the rain we read:" I will command the clouds that they shall not rain," etc. (Isa. v. 6). Events caused by man's freewill, such as war, the dominion of one nation over another, the attempt of one person to hurt another, or to insult him, [are ascribed to God, as] e.g., in reference to the dominion of Nebuchadnezzar and his host," I have commended my holy ones, also I have called my heroes for my anger (Isa. xiii. 3): and" I will send him against a hypocrite nation" (ibid. x. 6) in reference to Shimei, son of Gera," For God said to him, Curse David" (2 Sam. xvi. 10): in reference to the deliverance of Joseph, the righteous, from prison," He sent an angel and loosed him" (Ps. cv. 20): in reference to the victory of the Persians over the Chaldees," I will send to Babylon scatterers, and they shall scatter it" (Jer. li. 2): in reference to the providing of food to Eliah," I have commanded there a woman, a widow, to maintain thee" (I Kings xvii. 9): and Joseph, the righteous, says:" Not ye have sent me hither," etc. (Gen. xlv. 8).

Chag Sameach.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Some thoughts on prayer

I am reading Worship of the Heart by Rav Y. B. Soloveitchik Z”L and one idea resonates with me sharply. I always struggled with the meaning of petitionary prayer, where we ask God to change, heal or protect us from all kinds of bad things. I understand the idea of Avodah Shebalev where we are required to spend time daily contemplating and serving God. As the Rav puts it, Avodah Shebalev is a constant requirement (Kiyum Hamitzvah) where Tefilah is one of many ways (Ma’aseh Hamitzvah) of actualizing it. However I never understood how my praying helps in any way. Will I change God’s mind? Make Him have pity? Is God changeable, malleable or can He be manipulated God forbid? On a simpler level doesn’t He know what I need before I tell Him?

The Rav notes that the Amidah is composed of three distinct parts in a fixed order; Praise, Petition and Thanksgiving. My take on it is that first one sets the tone, the background against which the drama of our daily life and needs are laid out. When one contemplates how the Avot dealt with their daily life, setting a goal of building a nation that searches for God, when one apprehends the greatness of creation and the Creator, His limitless ability and boundless grace in maintaining physical existence, His transcendence, our daily needs take on a different perspective. The personal ills as well as the communal ones, though painful to the sufferer, may be constructive from a global perspective. The life lost in the latest conflict in Eretz Israel, tragic as it is, may be necessary and constructive for the long-term survival of the nation. The seemingly tragic outcome of that war may be a stepping-stone to long-term advantages to our people. The cancer that is killing this person is also part of the system of cellular mutations that guarantees the longevity of humankind. When one removes the self from the equation, the personal tragedy may no longer be so devastating. That introspection in itself is a step towards healing. Of course self-criticism and reflection on our actions trying to see what role we played in the development of this problem has to come first. That is why the first petition is for intellectual development, followed by a reminder to repent and then forgiveness if one’s action were the cause. Only after that can we start addressing the particular petitions and place them into their proper perspective. Placing them in the proper perspective is the first step to healing.

Thanksgiving in a sense is also an admission and declaration. Now that we have presented our personal needs in the context of the whole of existence, we declare that we realize that we are dependent on God and His will. We also thank Him for having given us our intellect that is able to perceive and interpret our insignificant state in the larger context of God and His creations. We have the ability to attach ourselves to the Almighty and partake in His creation to the extent of our capabilities.

Our prayer does not change God or the issue we are addressing in our petition. It changes our perspective and thereby changes our perception of the problem, the sickness, the disaster or just the daily challenges we are facing. That change in us is the first step in the healing process.

Gmar Chatima Tova to all.