Monday, October 15, 2007

Evolution - An Historical Perspective.

In my article regarding miracles at (pages 220-225) I discussed my reading of Rambam’s understanding of the six days of creation. I showed that he sees the days as sequences of cause and effect rather than time elements. In other words, each day describes a different series of cause and effect that when combined and interwoven make up the universe and our existence. That is the meaning of Tov Me’od in the sixth day, where now everything is in place and can exist forever as a self-sustaining entity. Accordingly, I explained the Mishna in Avot 5:5 that list ten “miracles” that were created Friday at dusk, at the end of Creation, as events that are rare because they require a greater interaction and number of sequence of cause and effect than the usual natural occurrences.

I am reading Menachem Kellner’s Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism, and on page 72, in a discussion of the different understanding of Rambam and Ramban of a Midrash that states the Torah existed before the world, he points to this Mishna in Avot (see note 102). Among the ten miraculous things is “Haktav Vehamichtav”. Rambam explains that Ktav refers to the written torah and Michtav are the writing on the tablets. According to my understanding the Mishna is therefore telling us that these two events, the giving of the Torah and the tablets, were unique and rare events that were however part of the natural order of things. In fact in MN 1:66 we read –

"AND the tablets were the work of God" (Exod. xxxii. 16), that is to say, they were the product of nature, not artificial; for all natural things are called "the work of the Lord," e.g., "These see the works of the Lord" (Ps. 107:24);”

And he continues discussing the writing on the tablets concluding –

Or was the creation of the writing on the tablets 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 ancestors 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 (Avot, v. 6).”

Rambam is telling us that the Rabbis understood the tablets and the writing on them, to be a natural occurrence. We will never know what that means exactly – it would be hard for us to accept that Moshe found on the mountain two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Be it as it may, by placing the Tablets and the Torah at the end of sequences of cause and effect, supports how Kellner understands Rambam, that Torah law is not a priori but a reaction to human history. In other words, laws put in place by Torah are tailored to the reality of the people at the time they were promulgated. That reality is the result of long sequences of cause and effect. Of course once set in place they are immutable but had the people been in a different state at that time, the law may have been different. A famous example of such a Law is the one about Korbanot which Rambam understands as a necessary panacea to the strong need the people had at the time to pacify God. It is important to add, and as I have not finished the book Kellner may still say it, that the way the law is written, it has inherently the capacity to be reinterpreted and adapted to the new situations that develop as times change. Of course, there are safeguards and systems in place to prevent arbitrary modifications (see Hil Mamrim chapters 1 and 2).

I think that it is a very important idea that we have to absorb. The Torah came to us as a system that was meant to transform us from a simplistic idol worshiping people to one sophisticated enough to “know” the unique, transcendental and unknowable God. As the word Torah indicates, it is a teaching instrument. The Laws are meant to help us achieve that sophistication and it was clear that the transformation would take generations and millennia. It is still ongoing, as we have not apparently achieved it. In such a system, there will necessarily be changes in the way of thinking. It is clear that a Jew who lived at the time of Tanach was not in harmony conceptually with a contemporary Jew. It took 40 years in the desert for a group of slaves accustomed to subservience to become a nation that could conquer a country (though it took 400 years to accomplish). Rambam in Iggeret Techyat Hametim tells us that the concept of Techyat Hametim does not appear in the Torah, only in the later Prophets, because it would not have been understood at that early stage in our development. It could only be taught once we were able to differentiate between Magic and the Will of God. (This is a fascinating subject that I will address in a separate post). To me this idea of evolution is extremely important and explains many difficulties we have with old texts and traditions. It puts textual analysis in its proper context as it applies to religion. It also gives us a better perspective on the various trends in Judaism that sometimes seem to deviate from the intended goal. It helps us understand where these deviations come from and although their proponents may have erred in retrospect, we still have to respect and study them. Their ideas have kernels of truth in them that, when adapted and understood correctly, help the whole nation in its travel towards discovering the ultimate Truth. To me this vision of the Jewish people, its goals and its travel through history is exhilarating and makes me want to partake in that endeavor. That is the meaning of Or Lagoyim – a light to the nations.

Digressing a little off the topic, regarding the Mishna in Avot and the meaning of Vehamichtav, I remember reading in Sarei Hameah by R. Y.L. Maimon a very interesting interpretation that is quite intriguing. In Divrei Hayamim 2:21:12, after telling about Yehoram the son Jehoshaphat’s evil ways, we read –

יב וַיָּבֹא אֵלָיו מִכְתָּב, מֵאֵלִיָּהוּ הַנָּבִיא לֵאמֹר: כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵי דָּוִיד אָבִיךָ--תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא-הָלַכְתָּ בְּדַרְכֵי יְהוֹשָׁפָט אָבִיךָ, וּבְדַרְכֵי אָסָא מֶלֶךְ-יְהוּדָה.
12 And there came a writing to him from Elijah the prophet, saying: 'Thus says the LORD, the God of David thy father: Because thou hast not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat thy father, nor in the ways of Asa king of Judah;

Elyahu had gone up to heaven almost 7 years before the arrival of this letter (writing). The Mishna is referring to that miraculous letter, (Michtav), and explaining that it was there at the time of creation. Although Rambam’s interpretation is probably closer to the truth, I thought this was quite an interesting connection.


  1. The evolution of ideas or concepts is not part of the theory of evolution since they are not genetically coded and are not subject to random mutations. When it comes to the issue of which ideas survive it is called the theory of memes, though it is far from a science.

    The claim that ideas have to 'evolve' in a certain way from more primitive to non-primitive used to be called the whig conception of history.

    I assume on your histiography kabalah, chasidus plus much modern Jewish thought has been a descent from the one moment of philosophical perfection reached in the Rambam. It is similar to man evolving into an ape. Maybe yeridah tzorech aliyah or derech aruchaw sheee ketzarah.

  2. EJ
    Of course I realize I was playing on the word evolution - dont be so literal!

    The difference is that here it is a consciously directed evolution by a divine Torah. The digressions and diversions are part of the struggle to understand and they flow from Torah too. I got intrigued lately by Rav Kook's torah because I suspect he attempted to take the diversion and redirect it. RYBS did take some of kabbalistic thought and redirected it towards the goal . So this is not a natural progression bur a directed one.

  3. BTW read frank herbert's dune series and the Bene Jezereet are somewhat a standin for that type of evolution though they throw genetics into the pie. There goes Ychus!

  4. I think that Rav Kook was a big proponent of the idea of this sort of evolution of Judaism.