Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Did the Patriarchs (Avot) Keep the Whole Torah? - Apples of Gold in Vessels of Silver.

I got into a discussion with a friend regarding the meaning of the saying of Chazal that the Avot (patriarchs) kept the 613 Mitzvot. This discussion was also briefly touched on at the excellent Divrei Chaim blog (although dealing with an even more radical extrapolation of the idea) as well as on the follow up posts. See also the recent posting on the also excellent Mevaseretzion blog .

My friend a product of the mainstream Yeshiva world, after much prodding on my part, came out with the following statement (note the slightly frustrated undertone) –

“Taryag Mitzvos – The Avos knew innately to keep the Mitzvos without a specific commandment. According to some, the perception of theirs extended to Derabanans (such as Eiruv Tavshilin) as well. And perhaps only when they were in Israel, where the Kedusha is greater.”

So I ask, “Does this make sense to you?” – And he answers –


Let me make it clear that I am not at all critical of this young man. He is the product of a system that Rambam already struggled with during his time.

The object of this treatise is to enlighten a religious man who has been trained to believe in the truth of our holy Law, who conscientiously fulfils his moral and religious duties, and at the same time has been successful in his philosophical studies. Human reason has attracted him to abide within its sphere; and he finds it difficult to accept as correct the teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Law, and especially that which he himself or others derived from those homonymous, metaphorical, or hybrid expressions. Hence, he is lost in perplexity and anxiety. If he were guided solely by reason, and renounce his previous views which are based on those expressions, he would consider that he had rejected the fundamental principles of the Law. Even if he retains the opinions which were derived from those expressions, and if, instead of following his reason, he abandon its guidance altogether, it would still appear that his religious convictions had suffered loss and injury. For, he would then be left with those errors which give rise to fear and anxiety, constant grief and great perplexity.” (Introduction to MN)

They teach you in Yeshiva how to interpret a Halachik Ramban, Rashba and a Reb Chaim here and there, but to read a Midrash Chazal rationally trying to understand what they teach us – they were not storytellers or reporters of magical events – is too much to ask. The Mussar Schmuessen are so focused on Midot and other practical matters, so little on Hashkafah that most just blank out and ignore them. I also am convinced that the Rashei Yeshivot and Mashgichim do not have a clue themselves. If they do, they are afraid to voice their opinions for fear of excommunication. Only those like Rav Dessler, R. Chaim Shmulevitz et al. who achieved fame and were respected as Gedolim, dared openly discuss these issues.

Understanding the meaning of the Avot keeping the Torah before it was given as I see it, hinges on how we understand the reason for Mitzvot. As I discussed in the series of posts on Yaakov’s Ladder, Ramban sees a world full of spirits and magic that needs to be harnessed so that man is not buffeted by events beyond his control. The Torah teaches man how to remove himself from the control of the capricious and magical nature, to throw himself on the mercy of God. The Mitzvot have therefore intrinsic meaning and they interfere with the natural order of things, deflecting the nefarious influence of the magical forces. By focusing on HKBH and attaching himself to Him, accepting with his whole heart that all comes from Him, man throws himself on His mercies. HKBH orders the spiritual forces that control nature to protect that particular person. Certain acts are prohibited because they interfere with the proper functioning of these spiritual forces. A typical example of such a prohibition is the Issur of Kilayim. Each entity, animal fibers or vegetal ones, vine and grains, grains and vegetables, each has a different spiritual source, is controlled by a different power that watches over them. Mixing them together creates confusion in those powers[1]. According to this understanding of Mitzvot, the Avot too understood this spiritual world and were able to develop on their own or through their nevuah similar actions that took them from under the influence of the stars and threw them under God’s direct supervision.

Rambam on the other hand understands the world differently. HKBH does not need intermediaries to run the world. He is omniscient and omnipotent having created a perfect world that runs itself without the need of constant spiritual input. Man cannot manipulate nor change nature other than through his physical actions. If there is no rain in an area, he must bring waters from afar, build canals and work the land in such a way that it will produce. No amount of Mitzvot or prayer will change the physical reality. However, man also has the ability to act beyond his immediate needs for survival. He can also try to understand how his actions have a long-term effect, sometimes beyond his own lifetime. He can try to find and decipher the will of HKBH and partake with Him in creating. He searches for meaning beyond the present and wants to understand the meaning of his own existence. Man on this quest can very easily get lost in an imaginary universe, out of touch with reality, a world of fantasy and eventually idolatry. Torah and Mitzvot is the path that, if followed properly, prevents us from veering off into this world of fantasy. It also establishes interpersonal relationships so that we can dedicate ourselves to thought rather than spending time defending ourselves against our neighbors. It teaches us restraint, so that we don’t dedicate our life to the accumulation of wealth. It teaches discipline both in actions and thought. It teaches us to think about God at all times by doing Mitzvot like Shabbat, Yom Tov, prayer etc… It tells us not to act in the superstitious ways of the idolaters who believed in the spiritual control of the world and tried to influence the spirits through actions that affected them. They planted vines with grains because they believed that the powers that controlled them liked these types of combinations.

According to Ramban, there is an intrinsic value to Mitzvot. Keeping them properly has a real effect out there. Rambam sees them as tools. They have no intrinsic value other than what they teach, what they represent. Keeping this in mind Meiri (1249-1310), the great Maimonidean Rabbi who lived in Provence during the 13th century, addresses the issue of the Avot keeping the 613 Mitzvot in his introduction to Pirkei Avot. When Chazal tell us that Avraham Avinu kept the whole Torah including Eiruvei Chatzerot, (Breishit Rabah 64) they are referring to a minor detail in Hilchot Shabbat, as if to say that Avraham taught the whole idea behind Shabbat. He taught in great detail, what Shabbat stands for, that God created the world and the practical implications of that belief. When the Rabbis say that Avraham kept Eiruvei Tavshilin (Yoma 28b) they are telling us that Avraham taught the meaning of Yom Tov. Yom Tov stands for Yetziat Mitzraim, the Exodus, which teaches that there is reward and punishment in this world, that there is Divine Providence and that there are miracles.

Rambam’s Mitzvot are meant to help us understand our existence and find God. This idea of searching for God was introduced to the world by the Avot who taught these lessons in their times. They tried to accomplish this without the practical Mitzvot, teaching the underlying theology. These teachings were almost lost when the natural course of events interfered and their descendants ended up in slavery in Egypt. By a miraculous confluence of events, God gave us Moshe Rabbeinu, who then gave us a Torah and Mitzvot so that the near catastrophe of Egypt does not repeat itself. They are the practical anchor that keeps us focused.

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in vessels of silver" (Prov. 25:11).

[1] Ramban Vaykra 19:19 –
רמב"ן פרשת קדשים

ומחברינו מוסיף בטעם הכלאים, כי הוא שלא לערבב הכחות המגדלים הצמחים להיות יונקים זה מזה, ממה שאמרו בבראשית רבה (י ו), אמר רבי סימון אין לך כל עשב ועשב מלמטה שאין לו מזל ברקיע ומכה אותו ואומר לו גדל, הדא הוא דכתיב (איוב לח לג) הידעת חקות שמים אם תשים משטרו בארץ. והנה המרכיב כלאים או זורען בכדי שינקו זה מזה מבטל חקות שמים, ולכך אמר בהם את חקותי תשמורו, כי הם חקות שמים, וכך אמר רבי חנינא משום רבי פנחס משום חקים שחקקתי בהם את עולמי (ירושלמי כלאים פ"א ה"ז):
וכבר כתבתי בסדר בראשית (א יא) שהצמחים כולם יסודותם בעליונים ומשם צוה להם השם את הברכה חיים עד העולם, והנה המערב כלאים מכחיש ומערב מעשה בראשית:

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Of Angels and Men - A Provencal Interpretation of a Halacha in Mishne Torah

I was learning the following Halacha in Rambam -

וכל זמן שיכנס לבית הכסא אומר קודם שיכנס התכבדו מכובדים קדושים משרתי עליון שמרוני שמרוני עד שאכנס ואצא שזה דרכן של בני אדם[1]

רמב"ם הלכות תפילה ונשיאת כפים פרק ז הלכה ה

Whenever he enters the toilet, he says before entering – [I offer] my respects O respected ones, holy ones, servants of the [One] on high. Wait for me, wait for me until I enter and exit, for that is how humans are.

This Halacha is based on a Gemara in Berachot 60b and at first blush seems like a mystical formula, an incantation that one says for protection or for some other superstitious motive. Apparently, the person is addressing an angel or an invisible presence that waits for him while he takes care of his bodily functions. Interestingly, Rambam quotes this Gemara as is without any comment although he generally ignores any supernatural or mystical prescription in the Gemara. Clearly, he did not see it as such and it behooves us to understand how he viewed this formula.

In MN 3:23 in a discussion regarding the story of Iyov, Rambam quotes a Gemara in Bava Batra 16a that says that Satan, the angel of death and the Yetzer Harah (the evil inclination) are synonymous. Yetzer Harah (the evil inclination), clearly is an internal human trait, not something external. Satan and the angel of death are therefore also not external but different appellations (descriptions) of that same human trait. Satan in Iyov is described as belonging to the category of angels,

ו וַיְהִי הַיּוֹם--וַיָּבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים, לְהִתְיַצֵּב עַל יְהוָה; וַיָּבוֹא גַם הַשָּׂטָן, בְּתוֹכָם.

6 Now, it fell upon a day, that the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them.

The conclusion therefore is that a person’s evil inclination, his personal trait, is in the angel category. The Yetzer Harah’s companion, the Yetzer Hatov, the good inclination is therefore also categorized as an angel. Angels in Rambam’s worldview are not external entities but rather concepts and forces that are entwined and enmeshed in every aspect of the world and its existence. The word Mal’ach means messenger or intermediary. It is a word used to describe a perception of something being the immediate cause of an occurrence, an action or an event. It could be a physical entity but it also could be just a completely non-physical concept. If a personal urge was the cause of an action by a person, that urge is seen as the intermediary that provoked the action – an angel. As HKBH is seen as the First Cause, everything that happens is seen as the effect of His original will. Everything that happens is therefore seen as being caused by God’s messengers – His angels. As man’s freedom of choice is defined as the ability to choose between good and bad, the two opposing urges within him, and that ability being the result of HKBH’s original will, we attribute that to two angels, Yetzer Harah and Yetzer Hatov – good and bad inclinations. Yetzer Harah being the necessary inclination of man to preserve his physical wellbeing and Yetzer Hatov his ability to develop his Sechel, his mind to understand his own existence and his relationship to HKBH. These two opposing but necessary inclinations are part of man and accompany him throughout his life.

According to our Sages, the evil inclination, the adversary (Satan) and the angel [of death] are undoubtedly identical. As the adversary is called angel, “because he is among the sons of God”, and the good inclination being in reality an angel, it is to the good and the evil inclinations that they refer in their well-known words, "Every person is accompanied by two angels, one being on his right side, one on his left." In the Babylonian Gemara (Shabbat 119b), they say distinctly of the two angels that one is good and one bad. See what extraordinary ideas this passage discloses, and how many false ideas it removes.” (MN 3:22)

That brings us back to the Halacha we started with. We are fortunate to have nowadays the Frankel edition of Rambam where they have added the Pirush of Rabbeinu Manoach of Narbonne on Ahavah. Provence in the 12th through 14th centuries was a center of Maimonidean thought. They worked on understanding and developing the master’s Torah expanding its limits in both Halacha and theology. As is known Rambam saw no difference between the two, each being complementary to the other. Here is how Rabbeinu Manoach, one of the prominent Rishonim of the era and area interprets this Rambam.

He quotes Rashi on the Gemara who says that the person is addressing the angels that accompany him, the same angels Rambam referred to in the quote above. RM adds, “The Mal’achim are intellectual powers [Hakochot Hasichlyot]. The person states that he does not want to use them [his intellectual powers] at this time”. RM explains the words wait for me “as if saying that he is not abandoning them altogether [just for a while]. However even during this down time, he has in mind to use them immediately afterwards as the verse says “I place God in front of me at all times”. These forces are referred to metaphorically as Mal’achei Hasharet – serving angels[2].”

RM clearly had the above MN and Rambam’s understanding of angels in mind when he wrote this. He agreed with Rashi connecting the Gemara of the two angels that always accompany a person to this formula – but reinterpreted them according to Rambam. The idea is, being that during this activity the intellect is put on hold, so is the inclination and drive for physical endeavors other than the present one. One cannot trust one human trait without the other so both are put in abeyance. By asking them to wait, he does not however sever completely his connection with them.

Interestingly, based on this understanding, RM explains the first part of the blessing [Bracha] we make after relieving ourselves, as follows:

“, אשר יצר את האדם בחכמה who created man giving him wisdom with which he can understand his own nature and the loving-kindness [Chesed] he received. If one were to translate [as it is traditionally – see Tur and Shulchan Aruch] that his creation was done with wisdom, one need to ask was not all God’s creations done with wisdom? [Why is man singled out?]”.

As we have temporarily relinquished our connection with our intellect, now that we rejoin it, we acknowledge that it is God who made us and gave us that ability to think and grow.

Unfortunately, this interpretation was lost and not known to the later codifiers. [Aruch Hashulchan suggests this interpretation of the Bracha based on the Maharsha who sees this as comparing man’s intellect to other animals. He however does not explain why one would mention this at this occasion and time.]

[1] Rav Kafih has a different text – RM seems to have the same as the Frankel text so I left it and translated it accordingly.
[2] Think how this changes the meaning of the Friday night poem Shalom Aleichem! These two angels being the ego and the id in psychiatric parlance, we are declaring the Shabbat to be a time for introspection, integrating our two opposite urges.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Annapolis - A Major Concern

I don't usually comment on Israeli politics. I don't live there and I don't believe that I have the right to voice an opinion on such matters. Those who live there and have their lives on the line should be the ones to opine on their own future and security . However, I cannot refrain from sharing my worries about the unfortunate scenario I see unfolding. The present Israeli government is in very bad shape as it does not have the confidence of the majority of the people and is in power only because of the cynicism of the politicians in the coalition who are afraid to lose their ministerial perks. It is headed by a corrupt prime minister who has no morals or integrity. Worse we have a President in this country who, although he has his heart generally in the right place, has shown himself time and again to be totally inept. I believe Daniel Pipes makes a very strong argument here .

It also seems to me that people generally are feeling that Annapolis will amount to nothing and that is why there is such equanimity and lack of concern. I worry that we will be surprised.

I hope I am wrong.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Clarification -

I was taken to task by Anonymous in a comment on the last post for saying that “I can see how some would prefer the alternate one – Ramban’s Derech and its different evolutions imagining that they address the jarring difference between it and contemporary scientific knowledge”. A’s argues “if the science of the Ramban was wrong how can you understand that some would prefer this Derech of thought. The Ramban himself would have probably changed his philosophy if he knew the science of our times. The people who follow the science of the Ramban are just plain Tipshim and fools.”

I have to admit that I basically agree with A. I was treading carefully out of respect for Ramban who was a great thinker and one of our greatest Rishonim with the possible exception of the other Rabbeinu Moshe. Although I do not exactly understand how they did it, some of the great people I have enormous regard and respect for, including among others R. Meir Simcha, Rav Kook and even to an extent RYBS, accepted many of Ramban’s positions. I therefore cannot but remain respectful and hope that one day I will understand what they understood and allowed them to accept Ramban’s views.

I however agree that those who follow Ramban’s views blindly, without trying to understand him in a way that does not conflict with reality, are fools. Unfortunately there are many such fools nowadays even among our supposed leaders.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ramban's Going With God - Magic Works but Forbidden.

As we saw in the last post, Ramban’s world is not run by laws of nature. It is controlled indirectly by God via the stars or directly by Him but only in the case of certain rare individuals. Unlike Rambam’s worldview in which these special individuals have apprehended how God runs the world and are actively participating in the process emulating God, we have to define what makes the individuals special in Ramban’s view. To Ramban, nature is not predictable how then does one emulate God being that He is known only through nature? Can one even emulate Him? How does he interpret the commandments of walking in God’s ways – Vehalachta Biderachav and other similar statements found repetitively in the Torah?

As we saw, Ramban sees the spiritual world as part of the natural order of things. The spiritual world controls and runs nature while it is ultimately under God’s control operating independently only at His behest. There are therefore two ways man can take control of his destiny; influencing the spiritual world or beseeching God to either directly or indirectly watch out for him. Although man can influence the spiritual world by magic, necromancy and other such “sciences”, we Jews are forbidden to do so. We may only avail ourselves of the second approach, beseeching God directly. Instead of magic, the “science” of the spiritual world, we were given prophecy, the divine “science”. (For a detailed discussion see, Ramban’s Torat Hashem Temimah in Kitvei Haramban Chavel edition (Hebrew) pages 146 – 150). Unlike Rambam who describes Avraham as arriving to his conclusions on his own, that being the great innovation he brought into the world[1], Ramban held that Avraham received much of his theology from Noach and others whom he met. Avraham’s big teaching was that man could bypass the sometimes-capricious spiritual world and deal directly with HKBH who is just[2]. He learned that from Noach and was successful in promulgating it. That success, and the success of his progeny to do so, is what make Jews special. It is this belief that triggers God’s direct involvement. When man turns to HKBH instead of the spiritual world, He responds.

Ramban introduces this idea with Noach. In his commentary on Breishit 6:9, on the verse, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹח Noah walked with God he writes:

אמר שהיה מתהלך את השם הנכבד ליראה אותו לבדו

He says that he was walking with HKBH fearing Him only

איננו נפתה אחרי הוברי שמים ומנחש ועונן

He was not tempted to follow the different astrologers and magicians

וכל שכן אחרי עבודה זרה

Even more [was he not tempted to follow] idolatry

ואיננו שומע להם כלל, רק בשם לבדו הוא דבק תמיד

He would not listen to them at all for he was always attached to God only

והולך בדרך אשר בחר השם, או אשר יורה אותו, כי נביא היה

He followed the path that God chose or taught him, for he was a prophet.

Walking with God means choosing to attach oneself to God and repudiating the magical world replacing it with prophecy. Ramban continues to explain that this theology of Noach, who got it from Shem and Ever and Adam Harishon[3], was the source for Avraham and eventually the Jewish people’s ways -

וזה כטעם אחרי ה' אלוהיכם תלכו ואותו תיראו (דברים יג ה

This is similar to the verse “go after Hashem your God and fear Him”

הנאמר בהרחקת המתנבא לעבוד עבודה זרה ונותן אות ומופת, כאשר אפרש

[This verse] is referring to the distancing from a person who, after offering signs and miracles, prophesizes that idols should be worshipped.

ועוד אזכיר זה בפסוק התהלך לפני והיה תמים (להלן יז א,

I will address this further in the verse [where God tells Avraham], “walk with me and be blameless”.

Ramban clearly ties together Noach, Avraham and the laws of the torah against idolatry. Ramban understands that although the spiritual world is real and can be accessed, that is not the way a person who wants to “walk with God” acts. He expands on this in Breishit 17:1

והענין בשניהם
שיאמין בלבו כי הקב"ה לבדו הוא בעל
היכולת בתחילה ובסוף הוא היכול לעשות ולבטל, ולא ישמעו אל מעוננים ואל קוסמים או
למנחש ומכשף,
ולא יאמין שיבאו דבריהם על כל פנים, אבל יגזור בלבו שהכל ביד עליון
העליונים, שהוא
"אל שדי"
, עושה טובה שלא היה במזל ומביא
רעה בהיות המזל טוב ויפה, כפי שיתהלך האדם לפניו, מפר אותות בדים וקוסמים יהולל
ישעיה מד כה). וזהו שאמרו (שבת קנו א): צא מאצטגנינות שלך וכו': )

The idea in both [“walk with me” and “be blameless”] is that he [Avraham] should believe in his heart that HKBH alone, being always [literally: at the start and at the end] powerful [literally: the owner of ability], is also the One who can do or undo. He [literally: they] should not listen to the different practitioners of magic, and in all circumstances, should not believe that what they say will happen. [The reason that these things will not happen is because] he should make up his mind that everything depends upon the Highest among the high ones who also is “the strong One” and also “the power behind the stars[4]”. [For] He does good things that were not in [the person’s] star [horoscope] and brings bad things when the star [horoscope] is good and well. Depending on how the person walks with Him, He “frustrates the tokens of the imposters, and makes diviners mad”. That is the meaning when the Rabbis say [God said to Avraham when his name was changed from Avram] “exit from your Horoscope”.

The picture we get from the above is that to Ramban man cannot understand the world he lives in because it is not 100% consistent. It is run by thinking entities that can be capricious. Without prophecy and knowledge transmitted by tradition all the way back to the first human, Adam Harishon, who “knew” God personally, man depends on those intermediary powers. He therefore rightfully tries to placate them, learn their psychology and thus manipulate them for his favor. The “scientists” who are adept at this are the magicians, each with his particular specialty. However, those who have a prophetic tradition going back to the beginning know that God is above all this and that He is the ultimate power behind it. “Walking in God’s path” means accepting that tradition and trusting in God by following His prophet’s teachings thus bypassing the power of the stars. These prophetic teachings were eventually all gathered up, restated and given to Moshe in the form of the Torah. The Jewish people who received this Torah, when they follow it bypass the power of the stars and place themselves under the direct governance of God. The Torah and Mitzvot are a formula that teaches how to fall under God’s direct control.

In a general macro sense both Rambam and Ramban have the same schematic. Man can chose to be under the sway of nature or under God. According to Rambam, man knows nature and may choose to use this knowledge to find God, understand His ways and act in a way that is consistent with those ways. Man takes control and emulates God in his actions. He is thus under God’s control!

According to Ramban, man cannot know how nature works. Nature is run by independent spiritual entities. He is dependent on prophecy to tell him how to remove himself from these capricious entities and put himself under the control of God who is just and good. While Rambam’s man is powerful and self-sufficient using his abilities to the utmost to decide how to act, Ramban’s man is dependent on forces outside himself having the choice under which force he should throw himself – the stars or God. Interestingly both thinkers’ theology is based on each one’s understanding of science.

What I have described here are the two major trends in Judaism since medieval times. Ramban’s approach is the one underlying what we call the Kabbalah tradition and it has its antecedents in R. Yehudah Halevi in his Kuzari. We can find strong support for this approach in the earlier Mishna and Gemara and many Midrashim. Rambam’s approach is the one underlying what is called “rational” Judaism. It also has antecedents in Rabbeinu Bahya (Chovot Halevavot), Ibn Ezra, R. Sa’adyah Gaon and other medieval thinkers. It also has strong support in earlier sources of Tannaim and Amoraim. Both approaches have had to evolve over time and adapt to the new realities and scientific developments that the advances of civilization have brought about. Although personally I find myself at home more with the “rational” approach, I can see how some would prefer the alternate one – Ramban’s Derech and its different evolutions imagining that they address the jarring difference between it and contemporary scientific knowledge. What I have difficulties with is when people are inconsistent, mixing parts of one approach with parts of the other, not realizing and I suspect, sometimes consciously, fusing two contradictory premises.

I know this post is becoming longer than I like and I do not want to ramble on, but I have to make one more point. Both Rambam and Ramban’s approach put a lot of emphasis on man’s choices; he can choose to follow in God’s path or rely on nature in the two different understandings of the two terms. However, in Ramban’s understanding man really cannot control his destiny. He is completely and constantly dependent on outside forces in everything he does. His only choice is under which force he should place himself. Mitzvot and many of man’s actions are not necessarily consequential but rather work in an indirect way. They are a formula for placing man under God’s oversight. This understanding has the propensity to let people not take responsibility for their actions. Everything is dependent on “providence” – it is “Bashert”. It encourages people to put more emphasis on certain things that they believe are more influential in how God should respond and less on others. It is difficult to shake the feeling that we do things to placate God. Although it clearly was not Ramban’s intent, it has evolved in this way and I believe this distortion is behind the many ills in our society. It is the thinking behind Segulot, Amen clubs, magical “Rabbis” and many of the superstitious nonsense we witness. We need to take responsibility for our actions and understand that there is a direct correlation between cause and effect. Ramban teaches that we should rely on HKBH and not on magic notwithstanding what form it takes on – Segulot or idols.


[1] Rambam in Hilchot Avodah Zara notes that individuals like Shem and Ever continuously taught about God, as far as I know he does not tie in Avraham with them.
[2] It is interesting that while contemporary Jewish thought accepted Ramban as to providence, they did not accept his understanding of Avraham but rather Rambam’s view of him finding God. This is only a smaller of the many inconsistencies in current thought. It would be a study with quite relevant lessons, to understand and explain these inconsistencies.
[3] Torat Hashem Temimah page 144.
[4] For the definition of these two names as I translated, see preceding Ramban on this verse.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Yaakov's Ladder - Ramban Deciphers the Metaphor.

Ramban when interpreting the metaphor of Yaakov’s ladder dream writes as follows - (my paraphrase/translation with comments in brackets)

והנה סלם מצב ארצה וראשו מגיע השמימה והנה מלאכי אלוהים
עולים ויורדים בו

הראהו בחלום הנבואה כי כל הנעשה בארץ נעשה על ידי המלאכים
והכל בגזרת עליון עליהם
, כי מלאכי אלוהים
אשר שלח ה' להתהלך בארץ לא יעשו
קטנה או גדולה עד שובם להתיצב על אדון כל הארץ לאמר לפניו התהלכנו
בארץ והנה יושבת
בשלוה או מלאה חרב ודם, והוא יצווה עליהם לשוב לרדת בארץ ולעשות דברו:והראהו כי הוא יתברך נצב על הסלם

He was shown in the prophetic dream that all that is done on earth is done by the angels, all a decree from on high. For God’s angels, who are sent by Him to walk the earth will not do anything, from the smallest to the biggest, until they return to stand in front of the Lord of the whole earth and report to Him. [They tell Him] whether she [the earth] is peaceful or full of swords and blood, and he will order them to return to earth and do His bidding. He also showed him [Yaakov] that He is on top of the ladder.

(For those who have not used Chavel’s original Hebrew edition of Ramban, I highly recommend it. Ramban is a master at using verses from Tanach as the basis for his sentences and ideas. Chavel refers each citation to its original source. Here the poetic language is based on Iyov 1 and 2).

Ramban has a different view of nature. As he explains many times in his writings, we are fooled when we think that because nature is repetitive, there are natural laws that govern everything. Ramban did not accept that there are natural laws at all. His understanding of how things operate is that everything is governed by stars. God gave over to the stars the power to decide how things work. Every occurrence we see, whether when we lift our finger or when a leaf falls, every occurrence is caused by the external influence of a star. There is in general a predictive quality to how things will go, but that is only because the forces generated by the stars have set things in motion and they, the stars, have decided not to interfere or change. Should they arbitrarily decide to interfere those things will not happen. The “souls” of the stars, the “thinking” element in them, are the angels and are represented in this dream as climbing to report to God. (See Ramban Devarim 18:9- ועשה עוד על הכוכבים והמזלות מנהיגים מלאכים ושרים שהם נפש להם)

The point is that the stars themselves, though generally left to their own machinations, do so only because God allows it. Should He decide to change the rules, He will. (For an in-depth discussion of Ramban’s position on this and the underlying thinking, see this article by R. Asher Benzion Buchman in Hakirah vol. 2). This understanding of how the world operates, though foreign and viewed as magical and absurd by contemporary intelligent people, was however the view of Ramban’s contemporaries in Catholic Europe, forced on them by their lack of understanding of the physical sciences. The point of the dream was to tell Yaakov that although in the natural order of things, God leaves it to the stars (angels), a person can remove himself from their control and be placed under God’s direct oversight and protection.

ומבטיחו ליעקב בהבטחה גדולה
להודיע שהוא לא יהיה ביד המלאכים אבל יהיה חלק ה' ויהיה עמו תמיד
כמו שאמר והנה אנכי עמך ושמרתיך בכל אשר תלך
כי מעלתו גדולה משאר הצדיקים שנאמר בהם
תהלים צא יא) כי מלאכיו יצווה לך לשמרך בכל דרכיך: )

He offered Yaakov a great promise telling him that he will not depend on the angels. He will belong to HKBH who will be with him always. As He told him, [the following verse] I am with you and I will protect you wherever you go. For his [Yaakov’s] status is greater than all the Tzadikkim [righteous] about whom it is said He will send His angels to protect you in all your ways.

Although even the righteous remain under the direction of the angels, the thinking part of the stars who report to God and can be ordered not to harm him, special great Tzadikkim who cleave to HKBH bypass this array of intermediaries and fall under God’s direct oversight. In other words, Ramban argues that Divine Providence is also only available to the very righteous. There is no Hashgacha Pratit on every individual human being. Ramban is consistent as he also tells us in Breishit 18:19 –

ירמוז, כי ידיעת השם שהיא השגחתו בעולם השפל, היא לשמור הכללים
[The verse saying that God “knows” Avraham] indicates that God’s knowledge, which is identical with his Hashgacha [providence – oversight] on the lower world, is only to protect the generalities [groups and the whole].

וגם בני האדם מונחים בו למקרים עד בא עת פקודתם

Even people are left in it [the world] to chance until their time [of death] comes.

אבל בחסידיו ישום אליו לבו לדעת אותו בפרט, להיות שמירתו דבקה בו תמיד, לא תפרד
הידיעה והזכירה ממנו כלל
But to His devotees, He makes it a point [literally puts His heart on them] to know each in detail, so that His protection is with each at all times, [His] knowledge and remembrance of them is never separated from them.

This idea of Ramban is repeated in many of his theological writings and is an interesting study of how the early Spanish Kabbalah understood the world’s workings and God’s place in it.

Although he agrees with Rambam that Divine Providence is dependent on the state of perfection of the individual, the mechanism of Divine Providence is completely different in Ramban’s world. We saw that to Rambam, Divine Providence is a natural consequence that results from the insight and knowledge acquired by the prophet when he understands the natural functioning of the universe from God’s perspective. Ramban’s world does not have a self-functioning natural order. It either is a directed system controlled indirectly by God via the stars or, in the case of the very righteous, controlled directly by God. The protection the righteous gets is not a result of his decision and action but rather, if the decision and action are made with the proper intention, God makes sure that no evil befalls him. Ramban can therefore see nature as a continuous miracle unnoticeable when things happen repetitively as predicted and noticeable when they deviate from the norm. Both, the normal and the abnormal are actively controlled by non-physical forces. The spiritual world is very much a reality. Magic is deeply entwined in the makeup of the universe. It is man’s goal to bypass this array of magical forces by submitting himself to God’s will. That is done through the Mitzvot, through offerings (Korbanot) and prayers, through meditative attachment to God.

So what is Ramban’s understanding of the Mitzvah to go in God’s ways? It cannot mean emulating Him and partaking in nature. Nature after all is not consistent. It is always dependent on God’s direct or indirect direction.

I will address this in my next post.
The purpose of this discussion is to clarify to myself and to my readers the basic positions of these two great thinkers. The current mainstream Jewish Hashkafah on Divine Providence is not compatible with Rambam’s thought. Rambam has influenced our Hashkafah greatly in many areas such as the incorporeality of God and in general, his 13 Ikkarim have been accepted though with many modifications and misinterpretations. Rambam is not accepted in the area of Providence. As Ramban’s approach is the one that has evolved (note that I use the word evolved rather than basis for) into the current thinking, it is important to understand it. In writing this post, I have clarified to myself several little points in Ramban’s thinking that I had misunderstood until now. I hope my readers will benefit too.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Yaakov's Ladder - Practical Implications - Divine Providence.

After writing the last two posts about Yaakov’s dream, I came away with a feeling of not having brought out the most important practical aspect of what this interpretation of the dream teaches us. It is thought by many that to Rambam, who understands Olam Haba to be a natural result of knowledge acquired while a person is alive, the contemplative life is the ultimate goal. Nothing could be further from the truth and his interpretation of the dream alludes to it. Notice how he describes prophecy. The prophet seeks out God “climbing” up the ladder. He finds Him atop it. He is however not satisfied with the knowledge he acquired and now must come down to earth and acts according to his new insight. We humans generally do not have a long-term outlook. If we predict what effect our actions will have the next day, we are considered smart, a week, brilliant and a month, geniuses. The shortsightedness we are afflicted with makes it difficult for us to figure out what is good, which actions are correct and which are wrong. It is this helplessness that compels many of us to soothe their anxiety by resorting to faith. Some will say that as long as the goal was good, God will make sure it works out. Others will see the hand of fate, to a religious man, God, in everything. We are brought up to say IYH (God willing) all the time without even thinking, assuming it means that God willed this action so things are out of our hands. In popular parlance, we call this Hashgacha Pratit - individual providence. It is soothing because it takes away the anxiety. It also takes away responsibility.

I remember in the 80’s my partner and I used to seek advise from a very smart individual, a big Talmid Chacham who was also very worldly and savvy, Rabbi Schneider ZL, who lived simply in the projects on the Eastside. R. Simcha Wasserman ZL sent us to him when we had a serious business problem claiming that he was the smartest Jew in America and that R. Yaakov Kaminetsky ZL consulted with him regularly. During the conversation, my partner said something to the effect that “what could we do? It was min Hashamayim”. R. Schneider immediately jumped up and vehemently protested, “You act stupidly and blame God? Why is it His fault?”

Yaakov’s dream teaches a completely different Providence than the popular one. The prophet who is in a quandary how to act in a way that will have an effect long term, possibly over many generations, does not rely on fate or God in a passive way. He actively seeks out God and tries to understand His perspective which is timeless. It is from this perspective that he can now decide how to act. Of course there is no absolute certainty, the prophet is constantly racked with doubts and questions his actions whether they are really totally devoid of ego and thus compromised. Many tyrants have acted in the name of God. That is why the prophet has to be a perfected person in complete control of his human urges and needs. The paradigm of such a person was Moshe whose physical needs and urges were under the complete control of his mind. Besides acting in a temporal manner leading the people into Eretz Yisrael, he also acted in a way that affected eternity; he gave the world the Torah and its underlying ideology. (See MN 2:36 here: for a depiction of a prophetic personality).

In Rambam’s worldview, there are two types of Providence. One is the providence we notice in our environment where HKBH put into nature the ability for long-term viability and survival. That providence covers everything including biological species like humans. Individuals within each specie exist for the group and what happens to them is part of the overall good of the whole. That includes humans. There is no providence geared specifically to each person other than the natural ability to survive as part of a group. After all a group is only as good as the sum total of its components. BTW, this is the misunderstood “Providence (Hashgacha) on species” popularly ascribed to Rambam. (The proper term would be Hanehagah rather than Hashgacha. Professor Avraham Nuriel shows how Rambam uses different terms in Arabic for each of these two types of providence.)

Humans however as part of their makeup, also have the ability to grasp abstract concepts and ponder their existence. That ability allows them to search for their Creator, the original entity that is the First Cause, the unique and only non-contingent Being that we call God. That ability is the Tzelem Elohim referred to in Breishit. It is when a person is attached and close to God, when he starts to understand God’s will and how He runs the universe, that man can try to act synergistically with HKBH’s ways. That is what Rambam calls Hashgacha – Divine Providence. This is not a passive Providence – Bashert – but very proactive and dependent on the person and the choices he makes. We have to climb the ladder and then turn around and descend it to earth to act in accordance with the understanding and insights we learned. The ultimate goal of all this philosophizing is to act emulating God. According to Rambam, that is not just a theological theory but also a Mitzvah in the Torah, the eighth positive commandment in his Sefer Hamitzvot.
המצווה השמינית
הציווי שנצטווינו להדמות לו ית' כפי יכלתנו, והוא אמרו: "והלכת בדרכיו" (דברים כח, ט). וכבר כפל ציווי זה ואמר: "ללכת בכל-דרכיו" (שם יא, כב), ובא בפירוש עניין זה:
"מה הקב"ה נקרא רחום - אף אתה היה רחום; הקב"ה נקרא חנון - אף אתה היה חנון; הקב"ה נקרא צדיק - אף אתה היה צדיק; הקב"ה נקרא חסיד - אף אתה היה חסיד" - זהו לשון ספרי.
וכבר כפל צווי זה בלשון אחר ואמר: "אחרי ה' אלקיכם תלכו" (שם יג, ה), וגם בפירושו בא, שעניינו להתדמות למעשים הטובים ולמידות הנכבדות שבהם מתואר יתעלה על דרך המשל - יתעלה על הכל עילוי רב.

(I will leave it in its original Hebrew translation (R. Kafih’s). Should any one want it translated ask for it in the comments and I will do so in a separate post).

Rambam ends the Moreh with this thought. At the end of chapter 3:54 which is a summary and at the same time a manifesto of the goals of Avodat Hashem he writes –

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 the knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God. We have explained this many times in this treatise” (MN3:54)

I have only scratched the surface on this issue. More to come.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Yaakov's Dream - The Ladder - Deciphering a Metaphor - Continued.

רבנן פתרין ליה בסיני ויחלום והנה סולם זה סיני מוצב ארצה (שמות יט) ויתיצבו בתחתית
ההר וראשו מגיע השמימה (דברים ד) וההר בוער באש עד לב השמים והנה מלאכי אלהים על שם (תהלים סח) רכב אלהים רבותים אלפי שנאן ולמדנו לנביאים שנקראו מלאכים דכתיב (חגי א) ויאמר חגי מלאך ה' במלאכות ה' לעם והנה מלאכי אלהים זה משה ואהרן עולים (שמות יט) ומשה עלה אל האלהים ויורדים זה משה (שם) וירד משה והנה ה' נצב עליו (שם ) וירד ה' על הר סיני אל ראש ההר

The above Midrash (Breishit Rabah 68:12) seems to be a possible source for the interpretation Rambam gives to the dream as explained in my last post. (Professor Sarah Klein Braslavy’s article in Bar Ilan Vol. 22-23, 1987, brought this Midrash to my attention.)

I am intrigued by what this tells us about Sinai. The process of receiving the Torah proceeded in a similar fashion with Moshe “ascending” by understanding the physical world and finding HKBH at the top of the mountain/ladder. In this metaphor, the ladder/Sinai represents the physical world above which we find God as the prime Mover and First Cause. Torah is the practical result of Moshe’s apprehension, an apprehension that is so perfect that it is verbatim God’s words. Moshe brings the Torah down to the people. That is described as descending the ladder/Sinai.

I believe that this comparison with the experience at Sinai is the clue to why Yaakov’s metaphor is a ladder rather than a mountain or any other representation of ascension. Searching for the transcendental God, our minds have to go beyond the physical. We are trying to apprehend things that we cannot touch and feel. We use different methods of thought - inference, induction and deduction. At the end, we develop a picture in our mind of what we apprehended. It is a quite dangerous path as we are always at risk of letting our imagination take over. The only way to finding Truth and not some imaginary deity is by being systematic, following a prescribed regimen of study and development. Rambam repeatedly makes this point and dedicated several chapters in the Moreh (1:32-35) explaining this point. In its description of Sinai, the Torah makes this point over and over when it forbids the people from ascending the mountain or even getting close to it and touching it. It also sets a clear hierarchy of the different levels of apprehension among the participants.

“… but only those of them who were duly qualified were prophetically inspired, each one according to his capacities. Therefore, it is said, "Come up unto the Lord, thou and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu." Moses rose to the highest degree of prophecy, according to the words, "And Moses alone shall come near the Lord." Aaron was below him, Nadav and Avihu below Aaron, and the seventy elders below Nadav and Avihu, and the rest below the latter, each one according to his degree of perfection.” (MN2:32)

The ladder with its rungs represents this orderly ascension. It negates shortcuts promoting systematic learning and development. Rambam describes its utility as “everyone who ascends does so climbing up this ladder, so that he necessarily apprehends Him who is upon it”. Here is just one of the many times Rambam insists on an organized approach to the search for HKBH –

As regards the privileged few, "the remnant whom the Lord calls" (Joel 3:5), they only attain the perfection at which they aim after due preparatory labor. The necessity of such a preparation and the need of such a training for the acquisition of real knowledge, has been plainly stated by King Solomon in the following words: "If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength: and it is profitable to prepare for wisdom" (Eccles. x. 10). "Hear counsel, and receive instruction, that thou may be wise in thy latter end" (Prov. xix. 20)…

He who approaches metaphysical problems without proper preparation is like a person who journeys towards a certain place and, on the road, falls into a deep pit, out of which he cannot rise, and he must perish there. If he had not gone forth, but had remained at home, it would have been better for him.” (MN1:34)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Deciphering a Metaphor - Yaakov's Ladder Dream.

Rambam in his introduction to the Moreh writes that there are two kinds of Prophetic Metaphors; those that every word and detail teaches something and those that the general theme teaches while the details are there just to make the metaphor understood. As an example for the first kind of metaphor, he uses this week’s Parsha story of Yaakov and the vision of the ladder. Rambam apparently finds this prophecy to be quite seminal as he deals with it in several of his writings.

An example of the first class of prophetic figures is to be found in Genesis:--"And, behold, a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and, behold, the angels of God ascending and descending on it" (Gen. xxviii. 12).
1. The word "ladder" refers to one idea.
2. "Set up on the earth" to another
3. "And the top of it reached to heaven" to a third
4. “Angels of God" to a fourth
5. "Ascending" to a fifth;
6. "Descending" to a sixth;
7. "The Lord stood above it" to a seventh.
Every word in this figure introduces a fresh element into the idea represented by the figure.”

Here are the verses Rambam is addressing -

יב וַיַּחֲלֹם, וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה, וְרֹאשׁוֹ, מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה; וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ.

12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

יג וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה נִצָּב עָלָיו,

And, behold, the LORD stood beside him [or upon it].

In MN 1:15 Rambam explains the term Nitzav as having several meanings including-
“[In other instances] it denotes continuance and permanence, as, "Thy word is established (Nitzav) in Heaven" (Ps. 119:89), i.e., it remains forever…”

Starting with the last words in our text, Rambam explains "And, behold, the Lord stood (Nitzav) i.e., appeared as eternal and everlasting” -

The word Alav in the context could be referring to Yaakov. God was standing beside him while talking to him. Rambam however interprets the word Alav –

““upon it” - namely, upon the ladder, the upper end of which reached to heaven, while the lower end touched the earth. This ladder all may climb up who wish to do so, and they must ultimately attain to knowledge of Him who is above the summit of the ladder, because He remains upon it permanently.”

So far, Rambam has addressed numbers 2, 3 and 7 above. Addressing number 4 Rambam explains –

“"Angels of God" who were going up represent the prophets. That the term "angel" was applied to prophets may clearly be seen in the following passages: "He sent an angel" (Num. xx. 16); "And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim" (Judges ii. 1).”

Number 5 and 6 are addressed as follows -

How suggestive, too, is the expression "ascending and descending on it"! The ascent is mentioned before the descent, inasmuch as the "ascending" and arriving at a certain height of the ladder precedes the "descending," i.e., the application of the knowledge acquired in the ascent for the training and instruction of humankind. This application is termed "descent," in accordance with our explanation of the term Yarad.”

The application of the knowledge acquired is termed Yarad – descended – because –

When it pleased the Almighty to grant to a human being a certain degree of wisdom or prophetic inspiration, the divine communication thus made to the prophet and the entrance of the Divine Presence into a certain place is termed (yeridah), "descending."” (MN1:10)

This is how Rambam addresses six out of the seven terms (metaphors) that he told us in the introduction have meaning beyond the simple reading of the text. I will try now to present in a coherent manner how I understand what he is saying.

Yaakov’s vision is a description of how prophecy is developed. Yaakov is going into exile, leaving the safety of his father’s house, into the unknown. He carries with him the blessing of his father, a visionary blessing, of descendants that will become a nation worthy of Avraham.

ג וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ, וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ; וְהָיִיתָ, לִקְהַל עַמִּים.

3 And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou may be a congregation of peoples;

ד וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ אֶת-בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ--לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת-אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לְאַבְרָהָם.

4 and give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou may inherit the land of thy sojourning, which God gave unto Abraham.'

This is not only a blessing but also a challenge for Yaakov to work towards that goal, Avraham’s goal, of creating a nation that follow in the path of HKBH emulating Him. How does one accomplish this? That was the question that was foremost in Yaakov’s mind and it triggered this prophetic dream. The way to prophecy, to know with certainty the path one has to follow to accomplish a long-term multi generational goal, is by starting at the bottom of the ladder, the end that is planted in the ground. Learn about how the world operates and follow the cause and effect trail climbing the ladder all the way to the First Cause, the Entity that is permanent and unchanging and the source of everything. Contemplating the world from that perspective, the prophet develops an understanding of what has to be done to accomplish the goal. He then comes back down the ladder, “the application of the knowledge acquired is termed Yarad – descended” – and acts so that his goal is attained. This insight and ability to focus all one’s actions towards this goal is what is referred to as Divine Providence.

I think these four [the Avot and Moshe] reached that high degree of perfection in their relation to God, and enjoyed the continual presence of Divine Providence, even in their endeavors to increase their property, feeding the flock, toiling in the field, or managing the house, only because in all these things their end and aim was to approach God as much as possible. It was the chief aim of their whole life to create a people that should know and worship God. "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him" (Gen. 18:19)”. (MN1:51)

In my next post, I will address the choice of a ladder as a metaphor and its meaning.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Oven of Achnai - A Rational Explanation by Rabbeinu Hananel.

While I am on the topic of the Oven of Achnai, I wanted to just quote an interpretation by one of the early Rishonim/ late Geonim, Rabbeinu Hananel (990-1053) of Kairouan, Tunisia. This can be found in the Shita Mekubetzet Bava Metziah 59b and it comes here with my translation/paraphrase – Ayin Sham for the original text.

The events mentioned in the story, for example the water rivulet [reversing its flow] and the other such events, appear to be signs and omens. [In other words – how are they explained rationally?]… Others say that a certain sage [Chacham], fell asleep in the Beit Midrash and dreamt that the Rabbis [Chachamim] were arguing with R. Eliezer. In the dream, R. Eliezer asked them why they are arguing with him [as he felt he was right and had the correct Kabbalah on this Halacha] and as the story continues used the [strange] events as proof that he was right. He also saw in the dream that R. Yehoshua responded to R. Eliezer and that a Bat Kol was heard [stating the Halacha is like RE everywhere] to which R. Yehoshua responded”[the Law] is not in heaven”. Should one ask why did they [the editors of the Gemara or the Rabbis] not make it clear that all this was a dream? These types of dreams that were close to prophecy were common [with the Rabbis]. Still they did not rely on dreams- dreams are false – and they followed the rule of the majority.

Clearly, Rabbeinu Hananel is uncomfortable with the literal story and tries to explain it rationally. [I skipped the first explanation, as it is unclear (see note of the editor in the Mossad Harav Kook edition)]. Dreams that are close to prophecy are false. A prophet does experience his visions in dreams, however dreams that are “close” to prophecy are false. Rambam in MN 2:38 and other places in Pirkei Nevuah, explains that the way a prophet knows that he has seen a prophecy, is the certainty he feels. He cannot restrain himself from sharing and acting on it as the story of Yonah teaches.(Also see SHUT Chatam Sofer last Teshuvah in Orach Chaim where he discusses the Akedah in a related context).

This post has been edited at the request of Anonymous. I hope it is better now - it was bad before. I thank and appreciate my readers when then bring this to my attention.

Shavua Tov.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Burning of the Talmud - Interpretation of an Aggadeta - The Oven of Achnai.

תנן התם חתכו חוליות ונתן חול בין חוליא לחוליא ר"א מטהר וחכמים מטמאין
וזה הוא תנור של עכנאי מאי עכנאי אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל שהקיפו דברים כעכנא זו וטמאוהו תנא באותו היום השיב רבי אליעזר כל תשובות שבעולם ולא קיבלו הימנו אמר להם אם הלכה כמותי חרוב זה יוכיח נעקר חרוב ממקומו מאה אמה ואמרי לה ארבע מאות אמה אמרו לו אין מביאין ראיה מן החרוב חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי אמת המים יוכיחו חזרו אמת המים לאחוריהם אמרו לו אין מביאין ראיה מאמת המים חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי כותלי בית המדרש יוכיחו הטו כותלי בית המדרש ליפול גער בהם רבי יהושע אמר להם אם תלמידי חכמים מנצחים זה את זה בהלכה אתם מה טיבכם לא נפלו מפני כבודו של רבי יהושע ולא זקפו מפני כבודו של ר"א ועדיין מטין ועומדין חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי מן השמים יוכיחו יצאתה בת קול ואמרה מה לכם אצל ר"א שהלכה כמותו בכ"מ עמד רבי יהושע על רגליו ואמר לא בשמים היא מאי (דברים ל) לא בשמים היא אמר רבי ירמיה שכבר נתנה תורה מהר סיני אין אנו משגיחין בבת קול שכבר כתבת בהר סיני בתורה (שמות כג) אחרי רבים להטות אשכחיה רבי נתן לאליהו א"ל מאי עביד קוב"ה בההיא שעתא א"ל קא חייך ואמר נצחוני בני נצחוני בני

This is the story in Bava Metziah 59a-b known as תנור של עכנאי – The oven of Achnai. I will not translate just paraphrase.

In a Mishna, R. Eliezer and the Chachamim argue whether an oven made of broken shards assembled and held together by sand is considered a completed oven and can become impure or is it seen as an incomplete object which does not become impure. The Gemara explains the word Achnai as referring to a snake. The argument got so heated and the Chachamim surrounded R. Eliezer with so many arguments that he felt as if a snake had wrapped itself around him. As R. Eliezer saw that his arguments were not making an impact, he resorted to what appears to be the supernatural. He ordered the Boxer tree to move one hundred cubits if he is right and the water rivulet that was passing nearby to change the direction of its flow. As the Rabbis refused to be convinced by these extraneous events, he threatened that the walls of the Beit Hamidrash would cave in and R. Yehoshua stopped that from occurring. A “Bat Kol” was then heard announcing that being the Halacha is according to R. Eliezer everywhere, why don’t you leave him alone and concede? To which R. Yehoshua responded that since Sinai, the Torah belongs to man and heaven has no longer the right to interfere. Therefore, the majority rules and R. Eliezer using the supernatural to forward his position is out of place and unacceptable.

This story is very important in understanding how Halacha works. Much has been written about this issue of the role of prophecy and miracles in it. Rambam in his introduction to Pirush Hamishna has a long discussion about how prophecy, even when confirmed by extraordinary events, has no impact on Halacha. Maharatz Chayes has written a lot about the issue. That is however not where I am going here.

I was reading a very interesting article in Tarbiz ( volume 75 #3-4) by Dr. Izhak Brand on this Gemara. As a child, I used to live in Paris and went to public school where we studied as expected Histoire de France – French History. I liked the subject though dates are not my forte, but generally, the stories were quite exciting. The kings, dukes, counts and knights were heroic figures that a ten year old could look up to with awe. One of my heroes was Louis IX (1215-1270) – Saint Louis – the saintly king – crusader – warrior who also washed the feet of the poor on certain holidays. Of course, they never told us in school that he decreed the expulsion of the Jews from France and that he burned 12,000 copies of the Talmud in Paris in 1242. This brings me back to the subject of the Oven of Achnai and the Brand article.

The burning of Shas did not happen in a vacuum. By the time it happened, there was already a 100 years history of the Christian Church attacking the Talmud. Around the year 1143, Petrus Venerebilis of Cluny, a monk, wrote a polemical book against the Jewish religion. The fifth chapter deals with difficult Aggadot found in the Gemara. As he was trying to show that the Jews consider the Talmud superior to even God, as they say that God learns it, he quotes a Gemara in Bava Metziah 86a where God is uncertain of a Halacha and Rabah Bar Chana resolves the question and God acquiesces. To make his point Petrus ends the quote by adding the words ואמר נצחוני בני נצחוני בני – God said my children won over me – which he transposed from the Oven of Achnai Gemara. His argument was that the Jews considered the Talmud as more correct than even God. The Talmud is therefore blasphemous and it should be banned.

One hundred years later, Nicholas Donin of La Rochelle, an apostate and a pupil of Rabbeinu Yechiel of Paris, one of the great Ba’alei Hatosafot set himself the task to burn the Talmud and finish what Petrus started. He orchestrated the great debate in 1240, which was held in Paris in front of Louis IX and his mother the ex-dowager queen Blanche de Castile. Preparing for this event he dispatched letters to the Pope and other European men of clergy, Feudal Lords and Kings, attacking the Talmud and laying out his reasons for recommending the burning thereof. One chapter of the letters deals with our story of the oven of Achnai.

We have records of the debate in the French legal archives as well as Jewish sources and several scholars have worked with them and published articles discussing them. R. Yechiel addressed the attacks on this story in the disputation and explained that God is not at all involved in the argument with the Rabbis. He is just watching and following it because he has given them the authority to decide the issue according to the majority. When God says נצחוני בני , the word Nitzchuni is translated “they praise me, my children” or “they make me happy” from the word Lamenatzeach, which we find many times in Tehilim and is translated as praise and happiness. He explains that God gave the authority to decide the Halacha to each generation of Rabbis (Sanhedrin) who then decide according to the majority. We therefore find the same case where one generation would say that it is pure while the next may reverse the rule depending on the majority of opinions. Each ruling would receive God’s blessing and make Him happy. Regarding the bat Kol, R. Yechiel does not address it in this forum but in a Tosafot in Pessachim 114a s.v. De’amar ein Mashgichim be’bat kol he does address it saying that BK has no Halachik validity and comes as a way of soothing ruffled feathers and making peace. The BK that affirmed the Halacha like Beit Hillel happened to agree with the majority rule and reinforced it despite the Beit Shamai being sharper. The BK that supported R. Eliezer was to give him reverence as he was losing the argument. Professor Ephraim Auerbach in his ba’alei hatosafot traces these Tosafot to the Beit Midrash of R. Yechiel.

The article continues tracing the role this Gemara played in later disputations in the 14th and 15th centuries, in the internal Jewish arguments regarding philosophy and Kabbalah and the different interpretations that sprung from these. I may address some in coming posts. I picked this one because of my familiarity with French History and how my childhood preconceptions were shattered.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What is the Purpose of Existence? A Question That Has No Answer

Rambam in MN 3:13 discusses the question of God’s purpose in creating the Universe.

Intelligent persons are much perplexed when they inquire into the purpose of the Creation. I will now show how absurd this question is, according to each one of the different theories [above-mentioned].”

The question Rambam considers absurd, is not trying to understand the reason for the existence of the different elements that compose the universe. As I explained in my previous post, when viewed from down up, we can definitely develop a theory of why each element is necessary for the existence of the whole. Even from the up down perspective, where theoretically, predictions of how things will evolve may be possible, we can discern a logic as to why things would evolve the way they do. Although each element may be seen as independent, it is also a component of the total environment and plays a role in its long-term survival. In fact, were we to accept that the world is not created, that matter is eternal a parte ante, even if we were to understand that a non-contingent intelligent entity is the First Cause, we would perforce argue that survival of the whole is the ultimate goal for the totality of existence. Each component of an environment, coming into being and even at times disappearing, can be understood in this context, and we can therefore explain its existence and purpose. There is no absurdity in such a question but rather is the basis for all scientific inquiry.

The question Rambam considers as absurd is the one that comes to mind, if we accept that the universe was created in time, willed into existence by HKBH, asking to what end and purpose did God create. God, in whom Chochma is essence, cannot have created aimlessly. So why did he create? What was the purpose? Although at first blush the question seems logical, Rambam explains that there is no possibility for us humans to ever find an answer to that question. A question that cannot be answered is an absurdity (is not a valid question). [I am not sure that the word “absurd” used by Friedlander makes sense in this context. Pines translates the last sentence above “Now I will explain that in all schools this question is abolished”. However, I would have to rewrite too much so I will stay with the word cautioning the reader to keep this in mind.]

Here is how Rambam presents the problem -

But of those who accept our theory that the whole Universe has been created from nothing, some hold that the inquiry after the purpose of the Creation is necessary, and assume that the Universe was only created for the sake of man's existence, that he might serve God. Everything that is done they believe is done for man's sake; even the spheres move only for his benefit, in order that his wants might be supplied. The literal meaning of some passages in the books of the prophets greatly support this idea. "He formed it (the earth) to be inhabited" (Isa. xlv. 18); "If my covenant of day and night were not," etc. (Jer. xxxiii. 25); "And spreads them out as a tent to dwell in" (Isa. xl. 22). If the sphere existed for the sake of man, how much more must this be the case with all other living beings and the plants. On examining this opinion as intelligent persons ought to examine all different opinions, we shall discover the errors it includes.” (MN 3:13).

The fallacy of this trend of thought, Rambam explains as follows –

Those who hold this view, that the existence of man is the object of the whole creation, may be asked whether God could have created man without those previous creations, or whether man could only have come into existence after the creation of all other things. If they answer in the affirmative, that man could have been created even if, e.g., the heavens did not exist, they will be asked what is the object of all these things, since they do not exist for their own sake but for the sake of something that could exist without them. Even if the Universe existed for man's sake and man existed for the purpose of serving God, as has been mentioned, the question remains, what is the end of serving God? He does not become more perfect if all His creatures serve Him and comprehend Him as far as possible; nor would He lose anything if nothing existed beside Him. It might perhaps be replied that the service of God is not intended for God's perfection; it is intended for our own perfection,--it is good for us, it makes us perfect. But then the question might be repeated, what is the object of our being perfect?”.

Having been brought up in traditionally frum Yeshivot, I was quite shocked when I first read these words. It shattered all my preconceptions.

The words that follow are one of Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz favorites, though I am not sure his understanding of them is what Rambam had in mind.

“We must in continuing the inquiries as to the purpose of the creation at last arrive at the answer, it was the Will of God, or His Wisdom decreed it; and this is the correct answer. The wise men in Israel have therefore introduced in our prayers (for Ne‘ilah of the Day of Atonement) the following passage:--"Thou hast distinguished man from the beginning, and chosen him to stand before Thee; who can say unto Thee, What dost Thou? And if he be righteous, what does he give Thee?"”.

Man was created because God so wanted it and we have no idea what the reason is. Leibowitz focuses on one more detail in the text - and chosen him to stand before Thee- reading it as saying that once created, man is now obligated to stand before God in service without any reason or understanding why. Man, having the ability, the brains, to ask the question, realizing that there is no answer, realizes how insignificant he is and all that he can do to find his place in this universe making sense of his existence, is by serving his Creator. Leibowitz stops here. To him this is the ultimate reason for why we do Mitzvot and work on self improvement; God's service.I think that he does not reflect accurately Rambam’s position. I accept the idea of service, Avodat Hashem. I however believe that once man has realized how insignificant he is, he finds his own reason for existence in the need to emulate God and partake in His creation. He wants to exploit to the maximum the gift that he has been bestowed with which allowed him to compose the question in the first place. His Avodat Hashem expresses itself in a creative and positive manner. (See the last chapter of MN for Rambam’s presentation of this idea).

Rambam then continues -

“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 other words, we can figure out the purpose for the different elements that compose our environment but we cannot hope to understand the purpose pf the whole. The most important aspect of this insight is that man is not the goal of Creation. Man is just a small cog who has a tendency to be self important and narcissistic. The implications of this way of thinking are far reaching in Rambam’s thought and understanding of reality, Divine Providence and Jewish Theology. (See my article in volume 5 of Hakirah).

How different this is from the following selected excerpts from Ramchal in Derech Hashem Chapter 2.

הנה התכלית בבריאה היה להטיב מטובו יתברך לזולתו

God’s goal in creation was to bestow from His goodness to others.

ובהיותו הוא לבדו יתברך הטוב האמיתי, לא יסתפק חפצו הטוב אלא בהיותו מהנה לזולתו בטוב ההוא עצמו שהוא בו יתברך מצד עצמו, שהוא הטוב השלם והאמיתי

Being that God Himself is true goodness, He could not fulfill His goodness without awarding others the same goodness that He Himself experiences, which is the true and perfect goodness.

ונמצא היות כוונתו יתברך שמו בבריאה שברא, לברוא מי שיהיה נהנה בטובו יתברך באותו הדרך שאפשר שייהנה בו.

God’s purpose was to create someone that could enjoy God’s goodness in the best way that is possible.

In other words – a good person cannot actuate his potential for goodness without having another on whom to bestow the good. The same applies to God – the Perfect Goodness. He had to create man to actuate this potential for good. According to Ramchal, man is the goal of Creation. Man gives God the opportunity to actuate His potential for goodness.

The contrast between these two thinkers is jarring. The Ramchal approach is nowadays considered mainstream – it is much more soothing and satisfying. Though when we read further we find Ramchal challenging man to achieve greatness, the idea that man is the center and end of the whole of existence is too exalting. Rambam’s approach, which is basically a challenge to do truth because it is truth and nothing else, is too daunting and scary.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Two Perspectives - Dependence and Independence.

When we look at the world and try to understand its working there are two possible perspectives. We can look from the top down and try to understand how one thing brought about the other. Using the theory of survival of the fittest for example, we are able to explain how certain species evolved. If given enough information we should be able to predict the path of that evolution. The environment and the circumstances where a particular biological entity finds itself will put pressure on it to adapt by selecting for a mutation that fits best under the circumstances. From this perspective, each element in a particular environment is seen as having its own independent purpose however adapting to function harmoniously with each other. Had there been a different environment, they would have evolved in a different way ultimately finding a harmonious way to cohabitate.

The other perspective is to look from down up. Without knowing how the mechanisms that make the species evolve in a particular way work or even if there is such a mechanism, we can however see that there is a dependency between different elements in the same environment. From this perspective, the different elements in the environment are there to sustain each other. In many cases, we can even discern a certain hierarchy where one element is the most important in that environment, thus seeming the focus of all the others.

I remember a National Geographic presentation I saw years ago, where they showed how the baobab tree in Africa propagates. Elephants eat the leaves and fruit, separating the seeds in their digestive system and expelling it in their feces. Eventually a rare seed finds its way into the ground and a new tree grows. The tree exists in an arid environment with rare rains. The tree evolved this way so that its seeds have a longer life span in the moist dung of the elephant surviving until the rains come. The elephant evolved with a long trunk enabling it to survive in that environment by reaching the higher areas of the tree untouched by other animals. Looking from up down, the elephant has its own raison d’etre as does the tree. They evolved into a symbiotic way of existing with each other. Each would have found a way to adapt in a different environment or with different elements in the current environment. From down up, we see the tree as being there for the elephant as a source of food. The elephant, though involuntarily, plants additional trees to provide more food in the future. Both perspectives are correct however, there are some interesting ramifications ensuing from each.

In a discussion about the purpose of creation in MN 3:13 Rambam argues that –

“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.”

In the same chapter he then says –

It is also reasonable to assume that the plants exist only for the benefit of the animals, since the latter cannot live without food… To those who receive the good flowing down upon them, it may appear as if the being existed for them alone that sends forth its goodness and kindness unto them.”

Rambam is using the two perspectives, each in its proper context.

Another interesting idea that springs from this insight is how we understand things about God in this context. Starting from the top down perspective, let us assume that we do have all the information and we can predict how things will evolve, once that knowledge is acquired, knowing the future, what each element will look like in any future time period is automatic. There is no new knowledge and all is predictable and theoretically predicted. This is always God’s perspective so to say and therefore when we say God knows the future there is no added knowledge which would imply change. It is always God’s perspective because He is the Creator of everything.

An artisan makes a box in which weights move with the running of the water, and thus indicate how many hours have passed of the day and of the night. The whole quantity of the water that is to run out, the different ways in which it runs, every thread that is drawn, and every little ball that descends--all this is fully perceived by him who makes the clock. His knowledge is not the result of observing the movements as they are actually going on; but, on the contrary, the movements are produced in accordance with his knowledge… His [God’s] knowledge of things is not derived from the things themselves: if this were the case, there would be change and plurality in His knowledge; on the contrary, the things are in accordance with His eternal knowledge, which has established their actual properties ” (MN 3:21)

Our perspective, on the other hand, is always from down up when seen relative to God’s knowledge. Even when we understand the mechanism that makes things how they are, we get that knowledge from observation rather than planning and creating. Our knowledge is therefore incremental and contingent.

In my next post, I will discuss if we can know the purpose of existence. It is an extension of the discussions in this post.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Cynical Kiruv - A Chilul Hashem

In this week’s New York Times magazine there is an article about the philosopher Antony Flew’s supposed conversion from atheism to a version of Theism .

I found the article very disturbing and I think that in some circles the need to succeed in Kiruv trumps truth and decency. To take advantage of an old philosopher who is in the process of losing his memory is despicable and counterproductive. I am referring to Professor Gerald Schroeder who is closely affiliated with Aish Hatorah and who has been lecturing on Intelligent Design as proof for the existence of God. Teaming up with John Haldane, a Christian philosopher and sponsored by Roy Abraham Varghese, a Texan businessman, they orchestrated a debate with Professor Flew and were able to so confuse him that he comes across as if he seemingly recanted on his earlier opposition to religious belief. Varghese then published a book jointly with Flew but apparently mostly written by Varghese claiming Flew’s participation, confirming this recantation. The reporter Mark Oppenheimer who subsequently interviewed Flew describes a confused 84-year-old man who has partially lost his memory and is completely overwhelmed and unable to maintain a coherent position for any length of time.

It is not enough that Schroeder partook in this cynical manipulation; he also uses the Intelligent Design argument as the basis for proving the existence of God. As I have written many times, using ID as proof for the existence of God is a flawed approach and Rambam has already shown its invalidity. Do not get me wrong. I do believe that God created the world and that He is the intelligence behind this incredibly beautiful and well-designed universe. I base that belief on the Torah and revelation and see it as a way of looking at the universe that has consequences in the way I act and think. I however accept that I will never be able to prove this empirically nor will any human being ever be able to prove it. I believe that all we can prove is that there must exist “out there” a non-contingent existent. We cannot define the essence of that Existent nor will we ever. All we know is that there is such a Unique Existent out there and that is all we can know and prove empirically. The fact that He has will, creates intelligently, rewards, punishes etc… are all ontological explanations based on belief and revelation. (According to Rambam, as opposed to R. Yehuda Halevi et al. prophecy as defined by him, is also a provable capability of humans – but that is a separate issue.) In other words, the process is to prove, independent of whether there is Intelligence behind the universe, that God exists and explain the rest as ontological beliefs.

It is disturbing to me and puzzling that a smart scientist like Dr. Schroeder would lower himself to this inane approach. What is even more galling is the cynical manipulation of an old man. Using lies and falsehood in this way is a Chilul Hashem of the first order. It will backfire and discredit Schroeder and his affiliation with Aish Hatorah will erode the respect that people have for that institution.

ז לֹא-יֵשֵׁב, בְּקֶרֶב בֵּיתִי-- עֹשֵׂה רְמִיָּה:דֹּבֵר שְׁקָרִים-- לֹא-יִכּוֹן, לְנֶגֶד עֵינָי.

7 He that works deceit shall not dwell within my house; {N}he that speaks falsehood shall not be established before mine eyes. (Tehilim 101)

Rambam was confronted with a similar situation where some philosophers wanted to prove the existence of God by arguing that the world must have been created by an intelligent entity from nothing. Rambam on the other hand shows that there is no such proof that can stand up to a close investigation.

If you wish to go in search of truth, to cast aside your passions, your tradition, and your fondness of things you have been accustomed to cherish and if you wish to guard yourself against error, consider then 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 the creatio 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 well-known nature of the existing things, as perceived by the senses and the intellect.” (MN 1:76)

Shavua Tov.