Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Can there be a Halachik consensus on Hashkafah? Part 3 conclusion - Does Menashe get Olam Haba?

I have so far analyzed two of the cases where Rambam makes his statement that there is no Halachik determination on an argument where there is no practical outcome. The first argument dealt with how to interpret an observation and the second was an argument about an action attributed to God. The third time Rambam makes this statement is in Sanhedrin 10:4, which chronologically is between the two cases above. I arbitrarily decided to leave it for last because I had an intuition that it would work out better in our discussion. I hope I was right.

The Mishna starts with a statement that all Jews have a part in Olam Haba. Rambam as an introduction to the Mishna goes through a lengthy discussion about how to interpret Aggadah followed by a definition of what are Olam Haba, Techyat Hametim, Gan Eden and the 13 Ikkarim. He explains that Olam Haba is a natural result of the understanding and knowledge that man attains during his lifetime. The level of Olam Haba is commensurate with how much and how deeply one has acquired correct opinions. Therefore a Jew that has acquired correct opinions even if only by acceptance rather than full understanding already has a certain insight that is Olam Haba – a perfected Nefesh. The word Nefesh is traditionally translated as soul or spirit. It is not exactly correct. Rambam in his Eight Chapters describes it as what we call the total array of functions a human mind performs. I say human because animals too have a mind of sorts which they use for their survival. They even have freedom of choice, communication skills and other capabilities. What differentiates the human “Nefesh” from other animals is its ability to abstract, conceptualize and act beyond survival only. Man has the potential to behave ethically and morally even if it is against what he perceives as his immediate survival needs. Acting morally and ethically is a step in the direction of acquiring correct opinions and a knowledge of God which is the highest level of abstract thought. It shows an understanding that there is something more than just physical existence. That insight and understanding is Olam Haba. I am just scratching the surface here of an issue that is quite lengthy and complicated and ultimately impossible to totally grasp. It is also a very personal and individual experience which is difficult to share with others.

The Mishna then continues by listing certain things which a person who believes in or acts in certain ways, indicate that he is on the wrong path and has not even perfected his “Nefesh” at the most basic level thus may not experience Olam Haba. (It is interesting to note that the word Chelek, as in Chelek Le’olam Haba, connotes partaking rather than receiving. It is something out there that one can partake in. Also see R. Chaim Volozhiner in his Ruach Chaim on Avot that the reading Le’olam as opposed to Be’olam connotes a current state rather than a future one.)After listing a series of those negative things (which deserves a post of its own comparing the listing in the Mishna with the one in Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah), the Mishna lists individual people and groups of people who have not acquired Olam Haba. Some of those listed generated arguments among the Rabbis.

Rambam explains that the reason the individuals were listed, Yerovam, Ahab, Menashe etc… was because of their great intellectual achievements and in spite of that they had not acquired the necessary understanding that allows the experience of Olam Haba. In other words it is teaching us that by examining the history of these people we will learn why they failed and thus learn how to avoid the same error. When the Rabbis argue whether Menashe has acquired Olam Haba they are arguing whether at some point he acquired correct opinions. Another way of putting it is whether the Teshuvah that he reputedly did, the opinions that he developed in that process, were correct or not. The Rabbis are therefore arguing whether a certain opinion is correct or not. The other arguments in the Mishna are analogous. It is on these arguments that Rambam says, “I already mentioned several times that any argument between sages which does not depend on an action, when it only establishes an opinion, there is no place for a determining the Halacha like one of the sides”.

Here we are clearly dealing with a matter of philosophical understanding and Rambam is telling us that a variety of opinions are acceptable. But before we jump to conclusions lets take a little closer look at one of our cases, the case of Menashe. When the Chachamim said that he does not partake in Olam Haba Rabbi Yehudah argued with them basing his argument on the interpretation of a text. It was not something he pulled from his own repertoire. In the case of the sin offerings which we discussed in my last post on the subject, Rambam noted that the argument was interpreting a text too - והם נחלקו בראיות ולמידות מפסוקים. The argument in Sotah also revolves around reconciling reality with a text. In other words the arguments that we cannot arrive at a Halachik determination all revolve around reliable and traditional sources. At least one part of the discussion has to be rooted on reliable sources. Jewish theology is really a point of view that we have when analyzing and interpreting our existence. As many of these interpretations cannot be empirically proven, as scientific theory can, because they try to explain, from a theological perspective, scientific facts. There are therefore certain conditions required before anyone can just make them up. First one has to see if the theory developed has a basis in the texts that we hold sacred because we accept them as revelatory, Tanach. They may also not disagree with reality. When we are confronted with a reality that we cannot find in those texts, we have to make sure that our interpretation does not clash with other interpretations that are based on the texts. Our Rabbis did that and all theological opinions in Chazal meet these criteria. Rambam makes that point many times in his writing. Here is one that stands out. In his discussion about Divine Providence Rambam makes the following statement: (MN 3:17)

I will show you [first] what has been literally expressed on this subject in our prophetical books, and generally accepted by the multitude of our scholars. I will then give the opinion of some of our later day scholars, and lastly, I will explain my own belief.

And then when he presents his own opinion he states:

My opinion on this principle of Divine Providence I will now explain to you. In the principle which I now proceed to expound, I do not rely on the conclusion to which demonstration has led me, but on what has clearly appeared as the intention of the book of God, and the writings of our Prophets. The principle which I accept contains fewer incongruities[1], and is nearer to intellectual reasoning than the opinions mentioned before.

What is interesting is that he has no problem disagreeing with the earlier Rabbis as long as he can base his opinion on the “writings of our Prophets” in other words interpretation of revelatory opinions. In our Mishna Menashe is the cautionary note. After all he is the one the Rabbis say was proficient in Derashot Shel Dofi, faulty interpretations (DH?).

The common ground of all three cases where Rambam voiced his opinion is that they all are text related. Sotah was a trial at reconciling reality with a text; Sin Offerings was also explaining textual obligations and our Mishna interpreting reality based on textual analysis.

Conclusion: Philosophical theories have to be rooted in text and developed by competent authorities who have the vast knowledge to do that. Interpreting revelation is not up to every Tom, Dick and Harry. We however are allowed to choose an opinion developed by such authorities that fits best with our honest understanding. What makes an opinion reliable? I believe it has to go through a kind of peer review. A great person who develops an idea presents it to the community of learned men who then, over time, take it apart until it is accepted as a legitimate position.

Rambam does not sanction a free for all!

[1] Pines and Friedlander translate “less disgraceful”.

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