Sunday, December 30, 2007

Foreign Service - Avodah Zara - Introduction

Introducing his discussions on the purpose of the Mitzvot, Rambam focuses on Avodah Zara, generally translated “Idolatry”, which I hope to show eventually to be a somewhat inexact translation. I believe the literal “Foreign Service” is more accurate. The reason for Rambam’s focus on Avodah Zara -

The knowledge of these [idolatrous] theories and practices is of great importance in explaining the reasons of the precepts. For it is the principal object of the Law and the axis round which it turns, to blot out these opinions from man's heart and make the existence of idolatry impossible. As regards blotting them out, Scripture says, "Lest your heart be persuaded," etc. (Deut. xi. 16), "whose heart turns away to-day," etc. (ibid. xxix. 17). The actual abolition of idolatry is expressed in the following passage: "Ye shall destroy their altars, and burn their groves in fire" (Deut. vii. 5), "and ye shall destroy their name," etc. (xii. 3). These two things are frequently repeated; they form the principal and first object of the whole Law. As our Sages distinctly told us in their traditional explanation of the words "all that God commanded you by the hand of Moses" (Num. xv. 25); for they say, "Hence we learn that those who follow idolatry deny as it were their adhesion to the whole Law, and those who reject idolatry follow as it were the whole Law." (B. T. Kidd, 40a.) Note it.

What is the relevance of all these many Mitzvot that are there to eradicate Avodah Zara to a contemporary Jew living in a Western culture that supposedly has already eradicated such archaic beliefs? At the time of Rambam and the Islamic society he lived in, as well as Christian Europe where the rest of Jewry lived during that time, Idolatry was considered an abomination. Was then Rambam unaware of this when he wrote these words?

To answer this question it is important to define exactly what Avodah Zara means. It is only after we understand thoroughly what it encompasses, the underlying theories and philosophies and the resultant practices that we can understand Rambam’s thinking on this matter. I plan to work on this as a project over the coming weeks (months?) and will post on the subject (among others) as I go along.

I will appreciate your input and thoughts.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Rav Kook on Rambam and the Significance of his Theology to a Contemporary Jew Continued - Revelation, Creation and Providence

“Sure, the Rambam's contribution to Jewish thought is invaluable, but that influence has been eclipsed by other streams of hashkafah that have had a far more significant impact on all the ba'alei Machshavah who have lived since the medieval period. Who among modern Jewish thinkers works with the Rambam's philosophical system? Not Rav Kook. Not RYBS. Not R' Chaim Volozhiner, the GR"A, the Ba'al ha Tanya. Not any Chassidic thinker, any of the Mussar giants. I would not go so far as to say the Rambam's Shita is illegitimate, but legitimacy and relevance are two separate issues.”

The above is part of a comment by one of my favorite Bloggers, R. Chaim B. of Divrei Chaim. It represents the typical thought process of most of our brethrens. If the majority does not find something significant it must be wrong, irrelevant or outside the pale. It is this type of thinking, the fear of individualization that turns many of our brethrens away from Judaism or, what I consider even worse, makes for lukewarm Jews focused on meaningless rituals and superstitious fears. True Rav Kook was more inclined to Kabbalah, as I noted at the beginning of my post, however R. Chaim also missed the following insightful words which I will repeat here –

“There is no question that there are people, on whom certain types of approaches have a positive effect, bringing them closer to holiness and purity, service of Torah and Mitzvot while others are affected the same way by different approaches… Can we doubt that there are a great many among our brethren that these ideas will have the same holy and beneficent effect on their psyche?”

I also do not agree with R. Chaim’s take on the theology of the greats he enumerates. I do not know enough about the theology of the Gra but all the others are all deeply influenced by Rambam either when they espouse his position, which is in most areas, or when they react to it and disagree. It is Rambam’s thinking that triggered many of the ideas that came out in Chassidus. Anyone who learns the Moreh will see him reflected in the writings of every great theological book written since as the silent interlocutor. I already mentioned several times that a very insightful and important Pirush on Ramban was written recently, the Yekev Ephraim, where he shows the hidden dialogue he was having with Rambam across his commentary. I hope similar sefarim will be written addressing the other greats and their relationship to Rambam.

Anyway, continuing with Rav Kook’s letter, he now addresses Ya’avetz’s criticisms of Rambam which are the typical ones that were thrown at the great thinker during the centuries since he wrote the Moreh.

Ya’avetz wondered how Rambam could not see the difference between Judaism and Greek philosophy, comparing and basing Judaism on it. RK responds –

Rambam created a vast and deep chasm between Greek philosophy and Judaism showing the essentially great difference between the two. There is such a difference between the holy and the secular that it cannot be missed by anyone that delves into the Moreh. That difference is based on three essential foundational teachings.

The first teaching is Revelation. Rambam established that one could apprehend things that no other human ability can through prophecy, for it is the word of God.

The second teaching is that the world is created. This uprooted the idolatrous Greek weltanschauung, giving us back the holy paths of the Torah which is the original Jewish outlook on the whole of existence. It is the opposite of the Greek dependence on an eternal world… This does not make Judaism just slightly different from Greek philosophy, but makes the two philosophies completely the opposite of each other. There is such a fundamental difference between the vision of the eternal and idolatrous world of those who “have not served the God of heaven and earth” (Yirmyahu 10:11), and the Jewish vision of a unique God, “He creates all, spreads the heavens by Himself and founded the earth, who is with Him?”[1], that we cannot even find one position or a point of commonality between these ideologies.

The third teaching is personal Providence in “the species man in all his details and deeds[2]” which is the complete opposite of the Greek consciousness, whose claim that God abandoned the world is common to all sinners from time immemorial.

The awesome difference and the complete oppositeness that is reflected from these three foundational beliefs is what our great Rabbi has established in his great wisdom and holiness as an eternal barrier between the holy and the profane, the human knowledge that is Greek philosophy and the divine wisdom of Israel. It so opposite that even when some seemingly common threads are detected in the formulation of the ideas, the separation and chasm remains and neither comes closer to the other.”

RK then explains further that the difference between the two philosophies is the same as the difference between God and His creations. Just like the two are not comparable neither are the two philosophies. In both the comparison is only in the metaphors used to communicate, but the essences are very different.

Rav Kook ZL makes a very important statement in this segment of the letter. Rambam has been accused of being an Aristotelian or a Neo–Platonist by some. This could not be further from the truth. During Rambam’s times, the science that explained nature and the world was based on an Aristotelian model. Rambam followed the Torah’s intent – interpret nature from a religious perspective. He accepted the Greek’s science but not their philosophy. It is a road map for us too on how to deal with our contemporary science. We have to learn the sciences and understand our existence from the scientific perspective. It is our reality. But we also have to interpret what we observe, ontologically within the context of God and His Torah. The two, science and torah, are completely intertwined and one cannot exist without the other. However, science is a subject we can show and prove empirically while the interpretation we are talking about cannot. It is after all an interpretation of “how” things came about. We are discussing pre-existence. Left in human hands imagination and fantasy take over spawning idolatry and superstition. Revelation is therefore the key and the only approach possible. Only a perfected individual, who has reined in his imaginative faculty, developed his psyche and controlled his urges, can have an objective revelatory experience. The Torah teaches us that by presenting Moshe Rabbeinu as the paradigm of such a prophet. He was the one who gave us the Torah.

More of Rav Kook’s letter to follow.

[1] I could not find this verse anywhere in this form. It seems to be a composite of Iyov 9:8 and some other one. Maybe someone has an idea. The original is

הוא יוצר כל נוטה שמים לבדו ויוסד הארץ מי אתו

[2] I translated carefully and literally, as the exact wording is important, as I hope to show in another post when discussing providence.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Tanach - Torah and the Books of the Prophets - Were Written by Ezra from Memory!

A friend sent me two Yemmenite Midrashim that say the same thing in slightly different versions. According to the editor’s notes on both Midrashim, one by Professor Toby, an expert on Yemmenite Jewry, it is an accepted and well-known popular story in Yemen folklore. The one I am paraphrasing is from Midrash Habiur. The Midrash comments on the following verse in Devarim 31:21


וְהָיָה כִּי-תִמְצֶאןָ אֹתוֹ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת, וְצָרוֹת,

וְעָנְתָה הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְפָנָיו לְעֵד, כִּי לֹא תִשָּׁכַח מִפִּי


21 then it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed;

For it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed: He promised them that the Torah will not betaken from them nor will it disappear. There is a tradition that the Jews did not have the Torah during the First Exile. Ezra Hasofer wrote down from memory all the 24 books and could not remember the first part of this sentence in Shir Hashirim -

יב לֹא יָדַעְתִּי--נַפְשִׁי שָׂמַתְנִי, מַרְכְּבוֹת עַמִּי נָדִיב.

12 Before I was aware, my soul set me upon the chariots of my princely people. (Shir Hashirim 6:12)

He asked an Am Ha’aretz (an unlearned man) if he remembered the beginning of the verse in Shir Hashirim that ends with מַרְכְּבוֹת עַמִּי נָדִיב. To which the man said לֹא יָדַעְתִּי-- - I don’t know! That jolted Ezra’s memory and he remembered the missing words. The Midrash continues that this is why the Mesora has עה on this verse, the acronym for Am Ha’aretz, to remind us that Ezra needed the help of one. (Unfortunately, I do not have Shir Hashirim with the Mesora so I could not check it. I would appreciate it if someone that has access to it would check it out and let me know.)

I have very little to say about this Midrash other than that it triggers a great many thoughts about how some of our rabbis understood Ezra’s role in writing down Tanach. The fact that it was an accepted traditional story in the Jewish community in Yemen is even more telling.

1. For a short overview of the Yemmenite Midrashim, see Torah Shleima Vol. 1 in the introduction note 11.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Rav Kook on Rambam and the Significance of his Theology to a Contemporary Jew.

Over time, I received several emails and comments from readers on different posts arguing that Rambam is irrelevant nowadays and his philosophy has been rejected and is unacceptable to the mainstream of "orthodox” Judaism. It shows that many people do not know how our contemporary mainstream beliefs came about and more importantly are unaware how deeply Rambam’s thought is embedded and at the core of most of them. Rambam’s influence on contemporary Jewish thought is ubiquitous whether when it agrees with it or when it is the catalyst for new ideas in reaction to it. As it seems to be an issue, I will address this issue periodically. Here I would like to start with a translation/paraphrase of a letter written by Rav Kook ZL to Yaakov Ya’avetz, the historian. The letter is printed in the back of volume 10 of the Ya’avetz History of the Jewish People (Heb.). The letter is quite long so I will post just pertinent excerpts and summarize the rest. If anyone is interested, email me and I will forward a PDF of the whole letter.

Rav Kook was responding to Ya’avetz's discussion of Rambam and his theology who apparently was critical of the Moreh as being foreign to Judaism and influenced by the Greeks. (I did not read the pertinent chapters in the book.) Remember, Rav Kook was a great Kabbalist and read with this in mind!

“In our times after the Maimonidean controversy has subsided and Rambam was shown to have been right, the Sefer Hamoreh has become part of the Sifrei Kodesh (holy literary patrimony) which are necessary for the acquisition of Torah knowledge. [RK is referring to the Braitha at the end of Avot that is called Kine’yan Torah]. We may not treat Rambam’s words with disrespect. Not only are we supposed to defend him but we must also delve deeply into his words and consider the resulting precepts as Torah precepts. [The Hebrew here is Midot. I am having difficulty finding a better word in context. I understand him to say that the conclusions we arrive at through this in depth analysis becomes part of our theology.]”

RK then states that just as in Halacha we consider two sides of an argument and do not discard the opinion that did not win out, so too in theology. We have to consider all the theological arguments of all the great Rabbis who are generally accepted based on their erudition and behavior, and we dare not consider any one of their opinions as external [foreign].

The fact that our Rabbi [Rambam] for whom God’s Torah was the source of life, considered himself faithful to God and His Torah while espousing these opinions, is in itself proof enough that there isn’t the slightest possibility of questioning them or seeing someone who follows them as not being part of the holy Torah and Israel. The decision in this [whom to follow Rambam or the others] depends upon the personal state of mind of each one of us and how we understand spirituality, each according to his makeup and the type of person he is. There is no question that there are people, on whom certain types of approaches have a positive effect, bringing them closer to holiness and purity, service of Torah and Mitzvot while others are affected the same way by different approaches. Consider the following. The ideas presented in the Moreh were in accordance with the holy sense, the strong Emunah, the attachment [to God], the true and holy service, all of the treasures of goodness and holiness, the care and striving for holiness and purity and the tremendous love and fear of HKBH which was always blazing in the heart of the great giant and holy light our Rabbi Rambam ZL. Can we doubt that there are a great many among our brethren that these ideas will have the same holy and beneficent effect on their psyche? Should some of them not be able to accept all of the ideas proposed in the Moreh, they may follow other great thinkers but one may not consider Rambam’s approach as outside the pale. How much more have we got to be careful not to refer to ideas that the holy sense of our great Rabbi Rambam sanctified, as Greek and foreign?”

So far, RK presented a reverential and circumstantial perspective of Rambam’s legitimacy. He proceeds to now discuss the meat of Rambam’s philosophy and its impact on contemporary thought.

(As I am rereading the letter, I realize that I have to post many more of Rav Kook’s arguments than I thought when I started, as they are seminal, so this will expand to more than one post).

I am wondering how we can be remiss and not thankful to our Rabbi Rambam for his great work in the Moreh, where he established the foundations of pure Jewish belief, eliminating from our midst the fearsome nonsense of God’s corporeality. It is easy to imagine what would have happened to our religion had he not done his great work in spite of the great sufferings that he had to endure for that. Only such a great and holy person could surmount the opposition with such grace and so peacefully. It is his great work that has brought about that Baruch Hashem, nowadays, that erroneous belief [in God’s corporeality] has been completely eradicated from the consciousness of our nation. The dogma of incorporeality, that God has no body nor does any physical occurrences have any affect on Him and nothing compares (is similar in any sense) with Him has now become a universally accepted dogma. God knows how much nonsense and fantasy this error of [belief in] corporeality could have generated if not for our Rabbi saving us from that? How much would heresy and nihilism have destroyed us had our religion remained so crude and populist even during our times when the sciences and freedom of thought has become so common and well known to all?”

RK then proceeds to criticize Ya’avetz for repeating the old arguments against Rambam, especially the one that he followed the Greeks blindly. RK argues that if we look at Rambam objectively, we can see how critical he was of everything the Greeks said [he expands on this further as we will see] and only when their ideas did not conflict with Torah were they accepted. As to the fact that contemporary science sees things differently -

Is it possible to say that the metaphysical issues discussed in the Moreh can be proven empirically as to their details? It is enough that the general foundations such as, the existence of God, His unity and incorporeality, can be shown to be true based on scientific reality. The other opinions are visionary [based on revelation?] such that we can at most say that man, to the best of his limited knowledge, understands them as relatively true and proven. [In other words, they do not contradict reality and are more likely to be true than other opinions – DG].”

RK then continues to say, that when Rambam saw that the seeming contradiction between these metaphysical conjectures that were accepted as fact, and the Torah, created problems among the thinking elite, he decided to publish his ideas. He showed that not only does science not disagree but is in fact strengthened by Torah. This put our religion on a strong footing to survive and stay relevant as human knowledge advanced.

There is much more but keeping to my policy against too lengthy posts, I will leave the rest for the upcoming ones.

Friday, December 21, 2007

False but Utilitarian Beliefs? Is There Such a Possibility?

Rambam in MN 3:28 makes a statement that scholars both medieval and contemporary read in a way that leads to a surprising conclusion – there are beliefs in Judaism that are utilitarian! In other words, the Torah asks one to accept a belief, even if it is not true, for a practical purpose. The prime example is the belief that God punishes transgressors and rewards those that follow the rules. They hold that Rambam believed this to be a necessary but untrue belief. God does not change his mind as He is by definition Omniscient nor does He feel anger or love. I always had problems with this, as it is clear from the way I read Rambam in his many discussions about providence, that he clearly accepts reward and punishment as fact. He may not see it as a simplistic reaction of God to transgressors but he certainly believes that there is cause and effect to actions and therefore consequences.

As I was rereading the chapter that has the statement in question this morning, I realized that Rambam addresses this clearly and dispels any doubt about his true position. I do not know Arabic but it is also significant that each translator, by changing one or two words, changed the sense of Rambam’s comment on the issue. It is however clear according to all translations what his position is. In this post, I will discuss this and I suggest that MN chapters 3:27 and 28 should be read carefully along with this post.

In MN 3:27 Rambam explains that the purpose, for all Mitzvot of the torah are either to promote the proper organization of society and the personal self-improvement of individuals or to inculcate correct opinions about God and our existence in general. Societal organization and personal improvement are tools necessary for the development of correct opinions which is the ultimate goal. Addressing opinions, he states in MN 3:28 –

It is necessary to bear in mind that Scripture only teaches the end of those true principles which lead to the true perfection of man, and made a call to believe in them in a summary way. Thus, Scripture teaches the Existence, the Unity, the Omniscience, the Omnipotence, the Will, and the Eternity of God. All these are ultimate ends that cannot be understood fully and accurately except after the acquisition of many kinds of knowledge[1].”

The Torah does not teach us how to arrive at the correct theological conclusions. It just states the principles and orders us to accept them until we develop enough knowledge to know them rationally. Understanding them rationally is a goal that the other Mitzvot are meant to help us attain, as we said earlier. Then Rambam makes a statement that taken at face value is earth shattering.

“Scripture also makes a call to adopt certain beliefs, the belief in which is indispensable in regulating our social relations: such is the belief that God is angry with those who disobey Him, for it leads us to the fear and dread of disobedience [to the will of God].

Is he telling us that the Torah may require us to accept doctrines that are known to be false for the sake of controlling the masses? Efodi (אפדי acronym for Ani Profiat Duran died circa 1414), R. Moshe Narboni (died 1362) and other commentators of the Moreh accept that as a given that it is Rambam’s position defending it saying the masses cannot understand a more sophisticated approach. Narboni in fact has an elegant explanation of a difficult Midrash based on this understanding of Rambam which deserves a post of its own.

I have great difficulty accepting this as Rambam’s position for various reasons. It does not agree with Rambam’s reverence for truth, which he repeats in all his writings. He refers to the Torah many times with awe as the ultimate truth and now he admits there are manipulative beliefs that are based on lies? It just does not make sense. Furthermore, is it so difficult to explain that when the Torah says that God is angry it is only a metaphor for consequences that result from our actions? Why is this more difficult then when we are forced to explain metaphorically God sitting, standing, seeing, talking etc…? In fact, Rambam himself addresses this particular problem in MN 1:54-

“Whenever any one of His actions is perceived by us, we ascribe to God that emotion which is the source of the act when performed by ourselves, and call Him by an epithet which is formed from the verb expressing that emotion… His actions towards humanity also include great calamities, which overtake individuals and bring death to them, or affect whole families and even entire regions, spread death, destroy generation after generation, and spare nothing whatsoever. Hence, there occur inundations, earthquakes, destructive storms, expeditions of one nation against the other for the sake of destroying it with the sword and blotting out its memory, and many other evils of the same kind. Whenever such evils are caused by us to any person, they originate in great anger, violent jealousy, or a desire for revenge. God is therefore called, because of these acts, "jealous," "revengeful," "wrathful," and "keeping anger". That is to say, He performs acts similar to those which, when performed by us, originate in certain psychical dispositions, in jealousy, desire for retaliation, revenge, or anger: they are in accordance with the guilt of those who are to be punished, and not the result of any emotion: for He is above all defect!

Interestingly Rambam himself seems to have been aware that people might read his statement as suggesting there are untrue beliefs. At the end of chapter 28 he sums up the point he is trying to make as follows –

Understand[2] what we said of the beliefs. In some cases, a commandment communicates a correct belief, which is the one and only thing aimed at, as for instance the belief in the Unity, Eternity, and Incorporeality of God. In other cases, that [same type of]* belief is [also]* necessary for securing the removal of injustice, or the acquisition of good morals. Such is the belief that God is angry with those who oppress their fellow men, as it is said, "Mine anger will be kindled, and I will slay," etc. (Exodus. xxii. 23). Or the belief that God responds instantaneously to the crying of the oppressed and vexed, to deliver them out of the hands of the oppressor and tyrant, as it is written, "And it shall come to pass, when he will cry unto me, that I will hear, for I am gracious" (Exodus. xxii. 26).” *(Bracketed words are my additions according to how I read this, as I will explain.)

The way I read this is that Rambam is telling us not to assume that there are untrue beliefs but rather that sometimes a true belief has to be presented in a form that has a practical impact. It is very difficult even for an intellectual to keep in mind that we live in a world of cause and effect and consequences especially when it is related to routine day-to-day actions. In our interactions with our fellow man, where the innate need to look out for ourselves takes on precedence, even more when dealing with a downtrodden and seemingly powerless other, the idea that our insensitivity may result in retaliation and harm to us is inconceivable. However that is exactly the case, the downtrodden of today may be the powerful of tomorrow. As history has shown societies that allow the oppression of the “other” are doomed. History has also shown that people do not want to see that truth. Presenting this truth as a metaphor where God is angry and retaliates protecting personally the oppressed is therefore necessary. One can let the uneducated believe that consequences are the result of God acting which in the sense of Him being the First Cause is correct. The belief that all our actions have consequences which can be traced back to God’s will at creation is the truth. Letting someone believe that God is directly involved, cutting out the intermediate steps, is acceptable in this situation. In fact, it is recommended.

Let me try to put this chapter in the proper context within Rambam’s thinking on this matter. In MN, 1:33 through 36 Rambam discusses how one must approach philosophical and metaphysical speculations and the difficulties of this type of study. He also discusses what one should teach beginners and the uneducated. The existence, unity and incorporeality of God must be taught to all and they are to be told that they must believe it. So too must they be taught that God is not subject to emotions and feelings.

That God is incorporeal, that He cannot be compared with His creatures, that He is not subject to affections are things which must be explained to every one according to his capacity. They must be taught by way of tradition to children and women, to the stupid and ignorant, as they are taught that God is one, that He is eternal, and that He alone is to be worshipped… Those who are not sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the true interpretation of these passages in the Bible, or to understand that the same term admits of two different interpretations, may simply be told that the scriptural passage is clearly understood by the wise. They should be told that God is incorporeal; that He is never subject to affections for affection implies a change, while God is entirely free from all change. He cannot be compared to anything besides Himself, that no definition includes Him together with any other being, that the words of the Prophets are true, and that difficulties met with may be explained on this principle. In dealing with such a man, one should stop at this measure of knowledge. It is not proper to leave him in the belief that God is corporeal, or that He has any of the properties of material objects, just as there is no need to leave them in the belief that God does not exist, that there are more Gods than one, or that any other being may be worshipped.”

Rambam is adamant that the idea that God has affections, feelings and emotions, must be excised from the imagination of all even the ignorant. It is in this context that he is telling us here, in MN 3:28 that the belief in God’s direct involvement in the protection of the oppressed is a belief that does not have to be debunked and the ignorant may continue believing it. Even more so, the Torah intentionally presents it this way, attributing the consequences for such action directly to God, as a belief that may be taken literally.

Interestingly, R. Moshe Narboni noticed Rambam’s emphasis and repetition of this statement at the end of the chapter and I believe misread it as a reinforcement of the earlier position rather than an elucidation. He read it as defensive while I read it as a clarification.

Moshe Emet veTorato Emet.

[1] I started with Friedlander but modified according to Pines. Here is an instance where translation changes the sense of the whole thrust of the idea. Generally, Friedlander’s translation does this often and should be read very cautiously comparing him with the others including R. Kafih and Michael Schwartz.

[2] Pines translates “sum up” however both R. Kafieh and Schwartz translate Haven – which means understand. Here we see how a slight difference in translation changes the sense of the whole presentation.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The New York Times Article on the Laws of Nature.- Rambam vs Ramban or are both true?

Fascinating article in today's Times :

Interesting quotes:

There is in fact a kind of chicken-and-egg problem with the universe and its laws. Which “came” first — the laws or the universe?

If the laws of physics are to have any sticking power at all, to be real laws, one could argue, they have to be good anywhere and at any time, including the Big Bang, the putative Creation. Which gives them a kind of transcendent status outside of space and time.

On the other hand, many thinkers — all the way back to Augustine — suspect that space and time, being attributes of this existence, came into being along with the universe — in the Big Bang, in modern vernacular. So why not the laws themselves?

Rambam agrees with the latter see MN 2:13 re time and that the laws are created is obvious as he equates them to angels and they are created see Hil Yesodei Hatorah 2:3.

Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate from the University of Texas, Austin, described himself in an e-mail message as “pretty Platonist,” saying he thinks the laws of nature are as real as “the rocks in the field.” The laws seem to persist, he wrote, “whatever the circumstance of how I look at them, and they are things about which it is possible to be wrong, as when I stub my toe on a rock I had not noticed.”

Interesting way of describing Tzurah - Form.

I love this idea of intrinsic randomness much for the same reason that I love the idea of natural selection in biology, because it and only it ensures that every possibility will be tried, every circumstance tested, every niche inhabited, every escape hatch explored. It’s a prescription for novelty, and what more could you ask for if you want to hatch a fecund universe?

Is this how Ramban would understand that everything is a hidden miracle?

But it is soon for any Einsteinian to throw in his or her hand. Since cosmologists don’t know how the universe came into being, or even have a convincing theory, they have no way of addressing the conundrum of where the laws of nature come from or whether those laws are unique and inevitable or flaky as a leaf in the wind.

These kinds of speculation are fun, but they are not science, yet. “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” goes the saying attributed to Richard Feynman, the late Caltech Nobelist, and repeated by Dr. Weinberg.

Maybe both alternatives — Plato’s eternal stone tablet and Dr. Wheeler’s higgledy-piggledy process — will somehow turn out to be true. The dichotomy between forever and emergent might turn out to be as false eventually as the dichotomy between waves and particles as a description of light. Who knows?

Who knows indeed!

More on Finality and Purpose of our Existence - Practical Implications.

In my last post, I discussed the position of Rambam that although we cannot know the reason for existence as a whole, we can discern an internal reason for the different components of the Universe. We see a mechanism for the preservation and survival of each species, species as a whole, ultimately the universe. We also observe that there is an evolutionary process towards perfection. How do we translate these insights into practical action? Why is it so important?

One of the conclusions one arrives at based on this opinion is that man is not the most important component of the universe and unlike the belief of some, including some of our great Rabbis and thinkers he is not the reason for all of existence. Man is only one of the elements that comprise the universe and has a place in it interacting with its components doing his part for the survival of the whole. It is man’s greater abilities, his sentience, his freedom of will and choice, his intelligence, his ability to work towards a goal and thus his ability to voluntarily impact his surroundings and environment that has to be harnessed towards the survival of the whole of existence. It is because man is the most advanced creation in the physical realm, as Rambam in his Aristotelian cosmology puts it, below the sphere of the moon, that he also has great responsibilities and obligations. This is what perfection means when we talk about human beings. It is using their particular abilities to their utmost towards the goals that they were intended for, namely the survival of the whole. It is by developing his great abilities to think and act that man actualizes his potential for perfection. By using the godlike component of his makeup, the Tzelem Elohim, which gives him the ability to think, conceptualize and be creative, man develops an understanding of his role in this great endeavor of survival and continuity. It is only after creation of man that God says that everything is exceedingly good – Tov Me’od.

Study the book which leads all who want to be led to the truth, and is therefore called Torah (Law or Instruction), from the beginning of the account of the Creation to its end, and you will comprehend the opinion which we attempt to expound. For no part of the creation is described as being in existence for the sake of another part, but each part is declared to be the product of God's will, and to satisfy by its existence the intention [of the Creator]. This is expressed by the phrase, "And God saw that it was good" (Gen1:4, etc.). You know our interpretation of the saying of our Sages, "Scripture speaks the same language as is spoken by man." But we call "good" that which is in accordance with the object we seek. When therefore Scripture relates in reference to the whole creation (Gen.1:31), "And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was exceedingly good," it declares thereby that everything created was well fitted for its object, and would never cease to act, and never be annihilated. This is especially pointed out by the word "exceedingly"; for sometimes, a thing is temporarily good; it serves its purpose, and then it fails and ceases to act. But as regards the Creation it is said that everything was fit for its purpose, and able continually to act accordingly.” (MN 3:13)

What Rambam presents here is a convergence of what seemingly were two separate ideas – survival and perfection. Perfection, the creation of the most perfect (in-potentia) component of the universe, man, is also a key requirement for its long-term survival and continuity. It is when man was created, hierarchically the last among all creations, the whole could be seen as “exceedingly good” and continuity of the universe was established while until now it was only “good”, species specific.

Man however has to actualize his potential and how to do that is his challenge. This brings us to the raison d’etre and goal of Torah. “The general object of the Law is twofold: the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body”. (MN 3:27) The welfare of the body is addressed through the laws governing society and the rules that deal with personal improvement. Intellectual growth and development cannot occur without taking care of these two basic needs. This part of the law is only a necessary requirement to promote the real development of the human potential which is the soul.

The second perfection of man consists in his becoming an actually intelligent being; i.e., he knows about the things in existence all that a person perfectly developed is capable of knowing.”(MN 3:27)

The Torah’s goal is to help man attain his potential which is to understand the world we live in and act according to this understanding. It is meant to help us overcome the challenge of how to actualize our innate potential to do our part in the survival of the whole of existence. It teaches us how to take care of our physical needs so that we can devote the time and energy necessary to learn about our existence. It is only when we understand our existence and the place God has in it, the laws of nature and how they work in the preservation and continuity of the whole, that we can do our part. That is the Mitzvah of emulating God – Vehalachta Biderachav.

“…the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired--as far as this is possible for man--the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.” (MN3:54)

The importance of how we see our part in the whole becomes clear. When we talk about Avodat Hashem, service of God, we are talking about accepting and understanding the role we play as part of the whole of existence. Avodat Hashem and cleaving to Him, is not just an intellectual exercise. It is acting in accordance with our responsibility as part of God’s universe playing the part He assigned to us at creation to promote the survival and continuity of the whole.

Rambam dispersed this discussion of purpose and finality in many chapters of the Moreh. He however focused on this in MN 3:13, at the start of his discussions on providence, and continued with it in chapters 3:25 and 26 as an introduction to his discussions on Ta’amei Hamitzvot – the rationale for the Mitzvot. It is now self evident why.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Is There Purpose and Finality to our Existence?

When we look at man, we see that he can only exist if all the conditions necessary for his survival are in place. Any small deviation such as the distance of earth from the sun would not have allowed for the appearance of man. We also find that same exquisite balance in the interrelationships of all the components of the universe. Looking from the point of view of each component, there is a tendency to see everything outside it as being there for its own existence. Man, the great narcissist, takes it for granted that everything is there to serve him. Of course, this is preposterous. In the evolutionary biological system we exist in, each component that adapts to its environment survives while the rest perish. Each component is wired in a way that it can adapt and survive as a species. Man is no different.

However, we also can see a much larger system where everything is wired for the survival of the species and of the whole universe of species in their interrelationship with each other. Looking at this whole existence from the outside, can we discern a hierarchy?

We know that the world we live in evolved from the original cosmic soup systematically. It went from the inorganic to the organic and eventually to being populated by conscious and sentient beings. If the latter development can be seen as an improvement then, in addition to survival, we can also detect an underlying push towards perfection. The combination of the built in “instinct” for survival and improvement gives us a sense that perfection is the ultimate goal. That becomes the basis for the elitist idea that all is here for humankind and humankind is here for the more perfected human being. We thus have a hierarchy going from lesser perfection to the perfect - man. It fits with our perception of our universe. This is how I understand Rambam in MN 3:13 –

I infer from the words of Aristotle that according to his opinion the ultimate finality of these species is the preservation of the course of genesis and destruction. This course is absolutely necessary for the successive formation of material objects, because individual beings formed of matter cannot be permanent. Still the production of the best and the most perfected thing that is possible is generated from it. For the ultimate purpose [in these productions] is to arrive at perfection. Now it is clear that man is the most perfect being formed of matter; he is the last and most perfect of earthly beings. Accordingly, even if it is said that all sub lunar beings exist for man’s sake that would be true from this point of view. I mean because the movement of changeable things exists for the sake of coming to be in order for what is as perfect as it is possible to be should come about.”

It is only in this context and in this conditional and tentative sense, that Rambam sees man as the final end of the sub lunar world. The sense I get is that now that sentience exists, perfection has been reached. If perfection was the original goal of existence and thus creation, that goal has now been attained and no further evolving is necessary. To me this is one of the ideas that Shabbat stands for and it always comes to mind when we say

מִזְמוֹר שִׁיר לְיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת: טוֹב לְהֹדוֹת לַיהֹוָה וּלְזַמֵּר לְשִׁמְךָ עֶלְיוֹן: לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ
בַּלֵּילוֹת: עֲלֵי-עָשׂוֹר וַעֲלֵי-נָבֶל עֲלֵי
הִגָּיוֹן בְּכִנּוֹר: כִּי שִׂמַּחְתַּנִי יְהֹוָה
בְּפָעֳלֶךָ בְּמַעֲשֵׂי יָדֶיךָ אֲרַנֵּן: מַה-גָּדְלוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְהֹוָה מְאֹד עָמְקוּ מַחְשְׁבֹתֶיךָ:

This however does not address the larger question of what is the purpose and finality of our existence. We can explain the mechanism and the software that runs the system but why is there is a system in the first place? Why was there a Big Bang? If the cause was a “quantum singularity”, borrowing from Star Trek, there is no point in looking for a reason or purpose for our existence; we are just here! If however, we go the Revelation route and accept that what we are told is the correct ontological perspective, namely that this existence is created by God, one may think that we must know the reason for creation. Considering that man is the most perfected thing, he must be the reason why everything came into being. Another series of questions though come to mind - why is man here? Is he here to worship God? What purpose does his worshipping God accomplish? What does God get out of his worship?

The truth is that the question has no answer. There is no difference if we are here because of a “quantum singularity” or because God created us. We do not know why we are here and we cannot know that. There is however, a difference between the two possibilities namely whether existence was willed or just happened as a natural event. If we see coming into existence a “quantum singularity” it must be a natural consequence of the First Cause, the non- contingent Entity. In this scenario, there is no will or thought. There just “IS” and we just “ARE” and there is no reason to think that there is a purpose or goal for anything. The concept of God in this scenario is just a necessary existent without any other attribute. God is the God of the philosophers.

The reason we do not accept this scenario is not scientific or empirical but because Revelation teaches us the correct way to look at our existence. Revelation tells us that the world was created in time, that at some point it was willed. Revelation tells us that this non-contingent Entity has will and thought and has willed us into existence. Revelation does not tell us and we do not know why we were created although there must be a reason for there cannot be will without reason.

Actions are divided as regards their object into four classes; they are futile actions, frivolous actions, vain actions, or good and excellent actions… After having explained this division, I contend that no intelligent person can assume that any of the actions of God can be in vain, futile, or frivolous. According to our view and the view of all that follow the Law of Moses, all actions of God are "exceedingly good." Thus Scripture says, "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31)… For although we believe that God created the Universe in time, none of our scholars and none of our men of knowledge believe that this came about through the will and nothing else. For they say that His wisdom, which we are unable to comprehend, necessitated the existence of this world as a whole at the moment when it came into existence, and that the selfsame immutable wisdom necessitated non existence before the world came into existence.” (MN 3:25)

Summarizing, there is an internal raison d’etre for the universe and its components - survival and perfection. We also know that there must be a reason for the whole of existence. We do not know that reason nor can we expect to ever know it. How does this insight affect our daily life? Is there a practical outcome from all this cogitation? That will hopefully be the subject of my next post.

Note: When I refer to Revelation, I mean the teachings of Torah. Outside the Dogma of God’s existence and unity, the other Ikarim or Dogmas proposed by Rambam are based on Revelation and are ontological. They are metaphysical conclusions that cannot be arrived at through empirical, scientific or historical proofs. They are teachings of a way of looking at our existence and reality as religious people. The only other exception is Revelation itself. I believe (note emphasis) that Rambam understands prophecy to be empirically provable and exists at all times to all men, if not in actu at least in potentia. If you are interested further, follow the Prophecy label on my blog.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Was Adam a Vegetarian? A Fascinating Ralbag (Gersonides).

While working on a different project I came across a fascinating Ralbag (R. Levi ben Gershon lived 1288-1344 in Perpignan, Provence) in his Pirush al Hatorah. In Breishit 1:29-30 we read:

כט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כָּל-עֵשֶׂב זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, וְאֶת-כָּל-הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ פְרִי-עֵץ, זֹרֵעַ זָרַע: לָכֶם יִהְיֶה, לְאָכְלָה.

29 And God said: 'Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed--to you it shall be for food;

ל וּלְכָל-חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וּלְכָל-עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּלְכֹל רוֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, אֶת-כָּל-יֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב, לְאָכְלָה; וַיְהִי-כֵן.

30 and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.' And it was so.

There are two possible interpretations of this text. We can understand it as a description of man and animal’s use of vegetation to feed them. In other words, biologically vegetation is a component of living things’ consumption. The other possibility for reading this text is to understand it as an order, a Mitzvah. Only vegetation is permitted for man to use as food. They are forbidden from being carnivorous. When Noach came out of the Teivah after the Mabul, that prohibition was lifted and humans were permitted to be carnivorous (see Breishit 9:3). Most commentators accept the latter interpretation which is based on a Gemara in Sanhedrin 57a and 59b. Ralbag discards that opinion and interprets the text as a statement of fact and not an order. He proves it textually from the last two words in verse 30, וַיְהִי-כן “And it was so”. But then he goes into a fascinating discussion about the impact of this interpretation which was novel and a revelation to me. [I am paraphrasing from the Ma’aleh Adumim edition – For those interested in Ralbag, Mossad Harav Kook has a completed edition and Ma’aleh Adumim has so far 3 volumes through Shemot. The latter has extensive notes and is excellent.]

Ralbag argues that his interpretation of the text as a description rather than an order answers a very difficult problem. We know rationally and from revelation (Tanach) that God does not change His mind. How then is it possible, if we interpret this text as a prohibition, that God would change His mind? Why would He at first prohibit eating meat and then, after the Flood, permit it? Ralbag then makes a statement which translates literally as follows:

This [that God prohibited and then permitted eating meat] is a great lie that any religious man must distance himself from it! Although some of our Rabbis in Sanhedrin 57a take this position as a Midrash, we must ignore that statement of theirs, as we were taught by the Rav Hamoreh (Rambam MN 2:30 says, “In short, in these questions, do not take notice of the utterances of any person” regarding an opinion of a Tanah). We will follow what makes sense according to the principles developed from Torah and rationality. It is clear that we are not forced to accept everything our Rabbis, blessed is their memory, say as we find them making contradictory statements, which makes it probable that in these matters they may say incorrect things.”

Ralbag now seems to have painted himself into a corner. By the fact that all animals were at first permitted and then the Torah prohibits some from being eaten, is it not a change of mind on the part of God? Ralbag answers, if the new prohibition of eating some animals were universal for all of humankind it would have been a problem. The fact that it is only forbidden for a portion of humankind, the Jews, makes it acceptable and is not a change of mind. There are greater demands made of Jews which is the meaning of their being holy.

I was surprised by the vehemence Ralbag shows against the accepted interpretation to the point of calling it a “great lie”! His explicit and total dismissal of an opinion offered by the Rabbis in the Gemara is quite shocking! And the Rabbi responsible for that opinion, the “great lie”, is none other then Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav!

It also never occurred to me to look at the laws of Torah as a change of mind on the part of God. In other words, if Torah would be seen as a law for all of humankind, it could be seen as a change of mind on the part of God; why not see it as appropriate to a particular stage of human development? Any ideas?

See also Rashi and Ramban on the subject.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Rambam and Ramban - Two Opinions on Spirituality - No Compromises Possible.

My post on the Avot keeping Mitzvot generated interesting comments and email exchanges and debates on the topic itself but also went into a wide area of other related issues. I see that I touched a nerve and there is a need for clarification (including for myself). I will try to segregate the different topics raised and organize my posts, addressing each one individually.

In this post I want to reiterate a very important point that, I notice, is not always clear in people’s mind. There are two basic schools of thought in Judaism that seem to go back all the way to the times of the Tannaim. I will call them the rational and the mystical. The mystical approach is not necessarily Kabalistic but rather has a different understanding of nature than the rational one. The Kabbalists developed their ideas based on this mystical understanding of nature. There is a tendency of mixing the two approaches trying to find justifications on how both are correct. The fact is that each position is distinctly different from the other and there is no possibility of reconciling them with each other. Each position sees the other as incorrect and one has to choose which approach is the correct one and follow it to its conclusions. There are no compromises.

Rambam represents the rational position and Ramban the mystical. These two great thinkers, and their respective school of followers, were interested in Truth and were uncompromising in their opinions. We can however try to understand the basis for the conviction of each of them and decide which one seems to be closer to our personal Truth.

The starting point of both positions is the same – the Torah is Torat Chaim – a teaching that deals with our life, our existence. As such, it has to be cognizant of reality and it interprets it. This nonsense that real Metziut does not exist outside the Torah, that the literal interpretation of a statement tells us how things are in reality against all our perception and senses, to me is Kefirah [as in MN 1:36 - "by Kefirah (Pines : infidelity) I mean the belief that a thing is different from what it really is"]. It is the argument put forth by small minds that fear facing reality. I think I saw reported in the name of RYBS that if one believes the Torah is divine it was given by the same God that created the world. Science and Torah are therefore perforce compatible. The Torah is HKBH teaching us how to interpret our scientific reality so that we can find Him through it.

Rabbi Buchman in his article in Hakirah 2, “U-Madua Lo Yeresem”, addresses the issue of how both positions of the Rishonim were based on their understanding of science and nature, at length. I would like to share an interesting interpretation of a natural phenomenon put forth by both camps that crystallizes how each understood nature differently. The great pupil of Ramban, Rashba (Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Aderet 1235 – 1310) writes in a responsa: (1:414)

כי באמת הדברים הפועלים בסגלה אין פעולתם בפלא מהם אלא בטבע מסגל, רצוני לומר בטבע לא ישיגנו עיון החכמים ואפילו החכם שבחכמים לרוב העלם הטבע ההוא מכלל המין האנושי מצד שהוא אדם, כסגלת אבן השואבת שהברזל קופץ עליה ויותר מזה מורגל בירדי הים באניות תוחבין מחט בחתיכת עץ צף על פני המים ומראין לו אבן וישוט על פני המים עד שיפנה אל פני הסדן ושם ינוח - ולא ישיג עיון טבע זה כל חכם שבחכמים אלו של חכמת הטבע. ואם כן אף כל המינין בעלי הסגולות בטבע הם פועלים כסמים והמסעדים ואין בהם משום דרכי האמורי כמו שאין בדברים המפורסמים המועילים לפי העיון הטבעי של אלו החכמים

Rashba was asked if someone is allowed to use a metal medallion with a lion drawn on it as a cure for an illness. He discusses what is considered magic and what is natural. He argues that there must be a supernatural element to nature for we see that a magnet attracts metal from afar. Furthermore, mariners stick a needle into a piece of wood that floats on water and is controlled from a distance by a stone that directs it toward the tiller. (I am not sure exactly what this last method is). Being that this cannot be a physical force, we clearly see that nature functions in the supernatural realm. He therefore concludes that amulets, charms and other such methods are natural powers (segulot) although no one can really ever apprehend those powers and how they work.

Rashba was following in the footsteps of Ramban and brought empirical proof for the existence of the supernatural from what we now know is magnetism. He therefore concluded that magic is real but forbidden under certain circumstances but permissible when used as medicine. (Anyone interested in a fascinating debate on the subject of amulets between Rashba and R. Abba Mari, Rashba’s interlocutor and partner on the ban on philosophy in 13th century Provence, can find it in Minhat Kenaot printed at the end of the Dimitrowsky edition of Shut Harashba.)That was the basis for Ramban’s argument in Devarim 18:9 –

רמב"ן פרשת שפטים

ורבים יתחסדו בנחשים לומר שאין בהם אמת כלל, כי מי יגיד לעורב ולעגור מה יהיה. ואנחנו לא נוכל להכחיש דברים יתפרסמו לעיני רואים.

(יג) וטעם תמים תהיה עם ה' אלהיך - שנייחד לבבנו אליו לבדו, ונאמין שהוא לבדו עושה כל והוא היודע אמתת כל עתיד, וממנו לבדו נדרוש העתידות, מנביאיו או מאנשי חסידיו רצוני לומר אורים ותומים. ולא נדרוש מהוברי שמים ולא מזולתם

Referring to Rambam, Ramban writes that many are too extreme when it comes to magic saying that there is no truth in them, for who would tell a bird what the future brings? [He explained earlier that part of magic is to listen to the sound of birds and if one knows the code, one can read the future from them]. But we cannot deny things that are empirically seen by all. [IOW magic is a science that all can verify! As Rashba later explained “magnetism” for one.]

(13) - The meaning of “be whole with your God” is that we should concentrate our minds on God only, and believe that He alone creates everything and He knows the true future. We should therefore turn only to God’s prophets or His devotees i.e. the Urim and Tumim, and we should not turn to the stargazers.

According to Ramban although there is some truth in soothsayers and magic, they are not as good as prophets are. Although they are useful, the Torah forbids turning to them. We are commanded to choose prophecy over magic although both work, albeit there is an additional bonus, prophecy always works while magic is sometimes inconsistent. As he expands in that same commentary, it is inconsistent as God can overrule the spiritual powers.

Rambam on the other hand writes in Hil Avodah Zara (11:16) –

[טז] ודברים האלו--כולן, דברי שקר וכזב הן; והן שהטעו בהן עובדי עבודה זרה הקדמונים לגויי הארצות, כדי שיינהו אחריהן.
יח כל המאמין בדברים אלו, וכיוצא בהן, ומחשב בליבו שהן אמת ודברי חכמה, אבל התורה אסרה אותן--אינו אלא מן הסכלים ומחסרי הדעת, ובכלל הנשים והקטנים שאין דעתן שלמה. אבל בעלי החכמה ותמימי הדעת, יידעו בראיות ברורות--שכל אלו הדברים שאסרה תורה, אינן דברי חכמה, אלא תוהו והבל שנמשכו בהן חסרי הדעת, ונטשו כל דרכי האמת בגללן. ומפני זה אמרה תורה, כשהזהירה על כל אלו ההבלים, "תמים תהיה, עם ה' אלוהיך"

All these things [magic, soothsaying etc…] are falsity and lies. They are the means that the idol worshipers of old used to fool the people so that they should follow them.

All those who believe in these and other similar things, thinking that they are true and scientific and still forbidden by the Torah – is foolish and mindless like women and children who have not developed their intellect. Those who have knowledge and developed intellects know empirically that whatever the Torah forbids is not science but nonsense that attracted the mindless people who have abandoned the true paths for them. That is why the Torah forbade these nonsensical things saying, “Be whole with your God”.

Rambam is uncompromising in opposing Ramban’s position adamantly disagreeing with his approach. The Torah would never forbid a scientific truth. What about Rashba’s proof for the existence of the magical and the supernatural? Isn’t that existence of magnets an irrefutable proof? In MN 2:12 in a discussion about the existence of a First Cause, Rambam argues that no movement is possible without a Prime Mover.

In Physics it has been shown that a body in acting upon another body must either directly be in contact with it, or indirectly through the medium of other bodies. E.g., a body that has been heated has been in contact with fire, or the air that surrounds the body has been heated by the fire, and has communicated the heat to the body; the immediate cause of the heat in this body is the corporeal substance of the heated air. The magnet attracts iron from a distance through a certain force communicated to the air round the iron. The magnet does therefore not act at all distances, just as fire does not act at every distance, but only as long as the air between the fire and the object is affected by the fire. When the air is no longer affected by the fire which is under a piece of wax, the latter does not melt. The same is the case with magnetism.”

Rambam acknowledges that we do not understand how magnetism works. However, it clearly is not a supernatural event but rather a physical phenomenon that has yet to be explained. Proof is that it is dependent on how close the object is to the magnet. Spiritual entities do not take up space and thus are not distance dependent. Rambam’s world has no spiritual powers. There is the physical world in all its variety and then there is HKBH. Any other understanding is nonsense and “is foolish and mindless like women and children who have not developed their intellect” - אינו אלא מן הסכלים ומחסרי הדעת, ובכלל הנשים והקטנים שאין דעתן שלמה.

No compromises! Rambam was clearly aware of the other opinions and that some theologians and Rabbis of his time believed in them. He ridicules some of the Kabalistic literature by name. He refers to the sefer Shiur Komah in one of his letters as heresy. Ramban at the same time did not compromise either. He clearly knew what Rambam was saying but as he could not agree with him, he rejected his position. Ramban had his own explanation for how magnets work and what spirits are. (He held that spirits had a physical component, and is an intermediate stage between physicality and transcendence – but that is for another discussion.) Followers of each school took their opinion to its own conclusions. Mixing the two together does not make sense and is illogical.

Although the two schools disagreed with each other, they treated each other with respect. As long as they both agreed that God is transcendent and negated any corporeality to Him, the issue of spiritualism was not a central dogma that would make the other school heresy. I will address this issue in another post.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Remah's Eulogy upon Rambam's Death

I thought it worthwhile to post the eulogy in its entirety-

נִבְלֵי דְמָעוֹת מֵעֲרֹף יִתְאַפְּקוּ /כִּי גַחֲלֵי - אֵשׁ בַּקְּרָבִים נִשָּׂקוּ
מַה תִּשְׁאֲלוּ לָכֶם רְבִיבִים מִמְּקוֹר/ לִבִּי וּמוֹרָשָׁיו כְּתֹפֶת דָּלָקוּ
דַּי לַלְּבָבוֹת דַּי לְכַבּוֹת מוֹקְדֵי /לִבָּם וְאֵיךְ מַיִם עֲלֵיהֶם יִצָּקוּ
מַה - לַּלְּבָבוֹת נוֹאֲשׁוּ עוֹד מִמְּצוֹא/ מַרְפֵּא וְרוּחוֹתָם בְּקִרְבָּם נָבָקוּ
נָא שַׁאֲלוּ אִם תּוֹלְדוֹת יוֹם פָּגְעוּ /בָהֶם וּמִשּׁוֹד הַזְּמָן יֵאָנָקוּ
אוֹ בָעֲרָה בָּם אֵשׁ כְּתַבְעֵרָה אֲהָהּ/ כִּי - נֶאֱסַף מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל - מִי יִצְעָקוּ
מִי זֶה יְכַבֶּה מוֹקְדֵי תוּגוֹת וּמִי /יוֹצִיא אֲסִירִים מוֹסְרֵהֶם חָזָקוּ
מִי יַעֲבִירֵנוּ בְיַבָּשָׁה בְּתוֹךְ/ יַמֵּי מְלִיצוֹת מִתְּהוֹמוֹת עָמָקוּ
מִי זֶה אֲשֶׁר יִבְקַע בְּצֻרִים נַחֲלֵי /חָכְמוֹת וּמֵי מָרָה בְּיַד - מִי יִמְתָּקוּ
חִדְלוּ רְעֵבֵי הַתְּעוּדָה כִּי בְנֵי/ יָמִים גְּפָנֶיהָ כְּהַיּוֹם בָּקָקוּ
וּבְכוּ לְשַׂר מוּסָר אֲשֶׁר הוּסַר הֲכִי /אַחְרָיו כְּהַיּוֹם רֹאשׁ - פְּתָנִים תִּינָקוּ
הָיָה כְּגִבּוֹר בַּקְרָב יָשִׂישׂ לְיוֹם/ רִכְבֵי תְעוּדוּת בָּרְחוֹב יִשְׁתַּקְשָׁקוּ
הָיָה פְּרִי חַיִּים בְּחֶבְרָתוֹ כְּמוֹ /חַרְבוֹת נְדוּדָיו הַלְּבָבוֹת בִּתָּקוּ
הָיָה כְנֶפֶשׁ וַאֲנַחְנוּ גוּף רְאוּ/ מִי יִחְיֶה מֵהֶם בְּיוֹם יֵחָלָקוּ
כִּתְבוּ בְּקִירוֹת הַלְּבָבוֹת זֹאת וְסוֹד /פֶּלִאי בְּמִצְחוֹת הַזְּמַנִּים חוֹקָקוּ
אֵיכָה מְאוֹרִים יִשְׁכְּנוּ קֶבֶר וְאֵיךְ/ צוּרֵי מְלִיצוֹת מִמְּקוֹמָם יֶעְתָּקוּ
הֵילֵל אֲשֶׁר נִקְבַּר וְכִמְעַט חָמְדוּ /אוֹרִים שְׁכָן קֶבֶר וְצֻרִים חִבָּקוּ
עוּרָה גְּבִיר בָּחַל בְּצוּף תֵּבֵל וְהֵן/ הַיּוֹם רְגָבֶיהָ לְחִכּוֹ מָתָקוּ
עוּרָה רְאֵה עַמִּים סְבִיבוֹת קִבְרְךָ /יִרְצוּ אֲבָנָיו וַעֲפָרָיו יִשָּׁקוּ
עוּרָה רְאֵה חַכְמֵי זְמָן יַחַד עֲלֵי/ דַּלְתֵי תְבוּנָתָךְ כְּדַלִּים דָּפָקוּ
יֶהְגּוּ בְּתוֹרָתָךְ וְיוֹם יוֹם יִלְקְטוּ /מִשְׁנֵה תְעוּדוֹת שָׁם כְּזָהָב זֻקָּקוּ
יִרְאוּ בְמוֹרֶה הַנְּבוּכִים חַרְבוּת/ שֵׂכֶל בְּמַחְשַׁכִּים בְּרָקִים בָּרָקוּ
שָׁם יֶחֱזוּ חַרְבוֹת מְבוּכָה לֻטְּשׁוּ /זַכִּים בְּשֶׁמֶן הַמְּזִמָּה חֻלָּקוּ
מִלִּים כְּתַפּוּחִים יְצוּקִים מִזְּהַב/ חָכְמָה בְּמַשְׂכִּיוֹת תְּבוּנָה חֻשָּׁקוּ
בָּם יָדְעוּ תוֹעֵי - זְמָן בִּינָה וּבָם /נִרְפִּים בְּיִרְאַת יוֹצְרָם הִתְחַזָּקוּ
עוּרָה רְאֵה צֹאן אוֹבְדוֹת מִמִּשְׁכְּנוֹת/ בִּטְחָה כְּהַיוֹם אַחֲרֶיךָ נִתָּקוּ
בָּנוּ בְךָ מִקְדַּשׁ תְּעוּדוֹת כַּאֲשֶׁר /עָפָר עֲלֵי רֹאשָׁם כְּהַיּוֹם זָרָקוּ
אֶל - מִי יְנוּסוּן עוֹד לְעֶזְרָה וַעֲלֵי/ מִי אַחֲרֶיךָ בַּזְּמָן יִתְרַפָּקוּ
לֹא - יִפְרְקוּ עוֹל אֶבְלְךָ לָעַד עֲדֵי /יָמִים אֲרוּרִים עוֹל נְדוּדָךְ יִפְרָקוּ
הָהּ בִּשְּׂרוּ שָׂרִים לְחַכְמֵי יוֹעַצֵי/ פַרְעֹה וְחַרְטֻמֵּי זְמָן שֵׁן חָרָקוּ
אַל - יִשְׁמְעוּ כָזֹאת בְּעִיר סִיחוֹן וְאַל - /נָא זַעֲקַת - שֶׁבֶר בְּחֶשְׁבּוֹן תִּזְעָקוּ
לֹא יוֹם - בְּשֹׂרָה הוּא שְׁעוּ פֶּן - יִשְׁמְעוּ/ זָרִים וְכַפַּיִם עֲלֵיכֶם יִסְפָּקוּ
מִי - יִתְּנֵנִי כַדְּרוֹר אָעוּף אֱלֵי /קִבְרוֹ וְעֵינַי לַדְּמָעוֹת יִשְׁרָקוּ
אַשְׁקֶה בְדִמְעוֹתַי עֲפָרוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר/ פַּלְגֵי תְעוּדוֹתָיו לְבָבִי שׁוֹקָקוּ
אוֹ אֶשְׁחֲקָה אַבְנֵי זְמָן בָּם כַּאֲשֶׁר /מֵימֵי תְלָאוֹתָיו אֲבָנִים שָׁחָקוּ
מַה - יַּעֲנוּ יָמִים אֲרוּרִים עוֹד וּמַה -/ יִתְאוֹנֲנוּ עַל - זֹאת וּמַה - יִצְטַדָּקוּ
הַעוֹד בְּפִיהֶם לַתְּנוּאוֹת מַעֲנֶה /אוֹ יַחֲטִיאוּנוּ לְמַעַן יִצְדָּקוּ
הַאִם עֲוֹנוֹת מֵי מְרִיבָה נִפְקְדוּ/ הַיּוֹם וְעוֹדָם אַחֲרֵינוּ יִדְלָקוּ
אוֹ יַד זְמָן רָע חָזְקָה יוֹם תּוֹלְדוֹת /יָמִים חֲבָלִים בַּחֲרוֹנָם חִלָּקוּ
טָרֹף בְּדֵי חוֹרָיו עֲדֵי כִי - נִמְלְאוּ/ טֶרֶף וְאִישׁ אָחִיו בְּחוֹרָיו יִדְחָקוּ
וּקְבוֹר יְלָדִים בַּעֲפַר אָבוֹת וְאִם /לֹא אֵיךְ שְׁעָלָיו לַחֲלָלָיו יִשְׂפָּקוּ
זֶה חֹק יְמֵי - קֶדֶם וְאֵלֶּה לָמְדוּ/ מֵהֶם וּמַיִם עַל - יְדֵיהֶם יָצָקוּ
אַיֵה מְתֵי - קֶדֶם הֲלֹא הָעֵת מְעַט /קָט עָבְרוּ מִזֶּה וְאֵיפֹה חָמָקוּ
הַאִם צְבָא לַיִל גְּנָבָם וַהֲלֹא/ מֵעִיר מְתִים גָּלוּ וְאֵיךְ לֹא נִזְעָקוּ
אוֹ בָחֲלוּ בָנוּ וְעַל - כֵּן עָזְבוּ /לָנוּ נְאוֹת חֶמְדָּה וְצִיָּה עָרָקוּ
אִם יוֹם בְּנֵיהֶם יִגְבְּרוּ לֹא יִצְעֲרוּ/ אוֹ דָלֲלוּ לָמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ עָתָקוּ
אִם יִקְרְאוּ לָהֶם וְאֵין עוֹנֶה וּבֵין /שִׂיחִים בְּמַר שִׁיחָם כְּפֶרֶא יִנְהָקוּ
מַה - תִּקְרְאוּ אַחַי בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם וְאֵין/ מַקְשִׁיב לְקוֹלְכֶם תִּנְאֲקוּ אוֹ תִשְׁתָּקוּ
הַיּוֹם לְנוּדָם תֶּהֱמוּ וַהְלֹא מְעַט /מִזְעָר וְכָעֵת אַחֲרֵיהֶם תִּדְלָקוּ
אַתֶּם כְּמוֹהֶם מִלְּבַד כִּי מִהֲרוּ/ הֵמָּה וְאַתֶּם לַעֲבוֹר תִּתְאַפָקוּ
דוֹרֵשׁ בְּעַד תֵּבֵל שְׁאַל - נָא פִי שְׁאוֹל /כִּי שָׁם גְּדוֹלֶיה בְּזִקִּים רֻתָּקוּ
.. רו רְאוּ חֶלְקַת מְחוֹקֵק כִּי לְאוֹת/ עַל - כָּל יְצוּרִים כִּי לְשַׁחַת נִתָּקוּ
פָּנָה וְלֹא פָנוּ פְּנֵי גָדְלוֹ וְאִם /רָחַק נְגִידֵי מַעֲשָׂיו לֹא רָחָקוּ
שָׁלוֹם כְּנַחַל צִדְקְךָ אוֹ כַחֲמַס/ יָמִים בְּנוּדְךָ הַנְּפָשׁוֹת עָשָׁקוּ
שָׁלוֹם כְּחִשְׁקִי אוֹ כְחֵשֶׁק מַלְאֲכֵי /צֶדֶק בְּךָ הַיּוֹם לְאַהְבָה דָבָקוּ
אִם - חָשְׁקָה נַפְשָׁךְ בְּצֶדֶק וַהֲלֹא/ כֵן מַלְאֲכֵי צֶדֶק בְּנַפְשָׁךְ חָשָׁקוּ
שָׁלוֹם יְחוֹפֵף עַל בְּשָׁרָךְ כַּאֲשֶׁר /תָּמִיד בְּךָ צֶדֶק וְשָׁלוֹם נָשָׁקוּ

Remah and Rambam - A Transformation - Seeing the Light.

I happened to read over the weekend an interesting group of letter exchanges between Rabbi Meir Abulafia Halevi (Remah[1] – 1170 – 1244 of Burgos, Spain) and Rabbi Aharon Ben Meshulam of Lunel, France regarding Rambam’s position on Techyat Hametim (Resurrection of the dead). I am not planning to get into the meat of the discussion and the subject per se, but rather, describe the undercurrents and attitudes that I detect in these exchanges. I am extremely intrigued by, what I interpret as the Remah’s radical change of attitude from when he wrote the first letter and the time he wrote the poem in honor of Rambam’s death.

The first letter was written during Rambam’s lifetime and addressed to the Chachmei Lunel including Rabbi Yehonatan Hacohen (1135 -1210), a correspondent of the Rambam. It is an arrogant and very aggressive letter where Remah upbraids RY for his great regard for Rambam. Here are some excerpts (translated/paraphrased as usual) –

ועתה שמע נא יהונתן הכהן הגדול אתה ורעיך היושבים לפניך כי אנשי מופת המה. השי"ת ויתרומם נתנך כהן להיות פקיד בבית ה' לפלח לב נלוז בחיצי תוכחתךוללכוד רגלים נטו מני הדרך בשיחתך. ועתה למה לא גערת באיש אשר נטיו רגליו, מטעם המלך וגדוליו.

And now listen O Yehonatan the High Priest, you and your friends who sit with you, you are outstanding people![2] HKBH has made you a priest so that you should serve in the house of God, cleaving a wayward heart with the arrows of your admonitions and restraining with your speech straying feet. That being the case, why did you not rebuke the man who has strayed from the path of the King and his grandees? [He is asking why RY does not rebuke Rambam for his straying and waywardness].

וכי תאמרו איש הוא ואין בישראל כמוהו, גם עתה כדבריכם כן הוא. אכן אין תבונה ואין עצה, לנגד המסעף פֻארה במערצה. ולכן מהרו להוכיחו, וידוע תדעו את האיש ואת שיחו.

If you said [in the past] that he is a man with no equal among Israel, is that still so? [In other words, if you had him in high esteem until now, do you still think the same of him now after reading my arguments?] There is no choice but to oppose [a person] that cuts branches with a sickle. [Based on Yeshayahu 10:33[3] and a play on
קוצץ בנטיעות of similar meaning - a metaphor for heresy]. Therefore, hurry to admonish him [Rambam] and know the man and his talk [Beware of his heresy].

Addressing the high esteem Rambam was held as a Halachik Great, Remah writes –

אף לזאת יחרד לבי וימס בקרבי. בשמעי כי נפלא הספר הזה בעיניכם מאד, באמרכם איש אל רעהו כי יפלא ממנו דבר לאמר הגישה האפוד. ואולם כי התבוננתי בדברי הספר והנו נותן אמרי שפר. אך זאת שמעה אזני וַתָּבֶן כי אין בר בלא תָּבֶן

Furthermore, my heart trembles and melts inside me when I hear that you consider this sefer [the Mishne Torah] as extremely marvelous. You even go so far as to rely on it for every unknown [Halacha] saying, bring forward the Ephod[4]. However as I contemplated the book, though it is full of correct things, I know from experience that there is no hay without chaff [it is not flawless].

In other words, do not be impressed by the Halachik prowess found in Mishne Torah. Although it is a good work, it is not flawless; even there errors can be found.

These are certainly not words of restraint. This letter must have been written in the 1190’s when the Remah was in his twenties, a relatively young scholar. It is with this in mind that Rabbi Aharon ben Meshulam, apparently a leader of the Lunel community of scholars, writes back a scathing and accusatory letter.

In the opening RA portrays how he was looking forward to the letter from Remah who he held in high esteem for his love of knowledge and his background, the son of R. Todros, a great leader of his community. How deeply he was disappointed noting how it is filled with insults and lack of appreciation for the great Rambam. He then describes the greatness of Rambam. Here are some snippets –

מדוע אליו ריבוֹתָ, ועל דבריו בגאוה ובוז השׁיבוֹתָ. וחשבת צדיק כביר להרשיע, ודמית להשמיע. לכל פנה ואפס, כי דבריו אין ואפס. וכי גדול מנשוא עונו ומעלו. המקנא אתה לו. הברב כח חכמת התלמוד תריב עמו. הֲבאת עד נבכי ימיו והתהלכת בחקר תהומיו ועברת מי כביר זרמיו, התבוננת עד רחבי התלמוד וחדריו, להופיע עיפת ששת סדריו. החקר סוד אלוה תמצא, אם עד תכלית החכמה ידך תמצא, כי ירום לבבך ויתנשָּׂא. הנגלו לך שערי תעלומות חכמה ותושיה, לאמר הריני כבן עזאי בשוקי טבריא (עי' ערובין כט. וש"נ). הידעת חקות השמים ושמי השמים

Why have you chosen to fight with him, questioning his words with haughtiness and disdain, presenting a righteous person as evil? You tried to propagate in all corners that his words are naught and that his waywardness is unforgivable. Are you jealous of him? Are you fighting him based on your great knowledge of Talmud? Have you reached the depth of his thinking [literally: seas][5]? Have you researched his thinking and crossed his strong streams? [Have you grasped his thinking?] Have you contemplated the Talmud and its many rooms to the point that you can light up the darkness of its six Sedarim [parts]? [This is apparently a reference to Rambam’s Pirush Hamishna which he finished as he turned 30. I understand it as a barb comparing Remah and Rambam’s accomplishments at comparable ages.] Have you found the secrets of God? Has your reach extended to the ends of knowledge? [He is questioning his knowledge of philosophy and metaphysics]. [How dare you] be proud and haughty? Can you say that you are like Ben Azay, that the secrets of science and torah have been uncovered to you? Do you know astronomy [literally: the laws of heaven and earth]?

RA continues to compare Remah, his Rebbis and peers’ knowledge to the far greater breadth and depth of Rambam’s. He even threatens to excommunicate him if not for the respect he has for Remah’s father and lineage[6].

Remah responds with a much more respectful letter, quoting extensively from Tanach and Rabbinical literature, where it is clear that Techyat Hametim is the resurrection of the body and that it is part of Olam Haba. To the possibility that all this is allegorical, Remah relies on Rav Sa’adyah Gaon in his Emunot Vede’ot who argues that one should interpret metaphorically only in cases where there is no choice. [The difference between RSG and Rambam’s approach on this issue will be discussed in a future post BN]. Remah ends the letter with an extensive apology for attacking Rambam blaming himself for being too zealous in defending what he perceived as breaches in orthodox thought. In passing, he criticizes Rambam for opening the door to secular knowledge. However, the tone is now much more restrained and extremely respectful. Should one think that this newfound restraint is just a political retreat, Remah published a poem, a kina, after Rambam’s death. Rambam died in 1204 at which time Remah was about 34, in the prime of his life and activities. It is a beautiful and clearly heartfelt eulogy to a great man. Here are some excerpts –

עוּרָה רְאֵה חַכְמֵי זְמָן יַחַד עֲלֵי/ דַּלְתֵי תְבוּנָתָךְ כְּדַלִּים דָּפָקוּ

Wake and see the sages of all times will knock like paupers on the gates of your knowledge

יֶהְגּוּ בְּתוֹרָתָךְ וְיוֹם יוֹם יִלְקְטוּ /מִשְׁנֵה תְעוּדוֹת[7] שָׁם כְּזָהָב זֻקָּקוּ

They will learn your Torah and daily will gather from the laws that you purified like gold.

יִרְאוּ בְמוֹרֶה הַנְּבוּכִים חַרְבוּת/ שֵׂכֶל בְּמַחְשַׁכִּים בְּרָקִים בָּרָקוּ

Minds that are destroyed will find in Moreh Hanevuchim lightening that will illuminate their darkness.

Remah has now come to accept MN although it is full of Greek philosophy. Apparently, he has muted his earlier objections. More surprising is the following stanza -

מִלִּים כְּתַפּוּחִים יְצוּקִים מִזְּהַב/ חָכְמָה בְּמַשְׂכִּיוֹת תְּבוּנָה חֻשָּׁקו

Words like golden apples, knowledge that is presented in vessels of wisdom.

Anyone that reads Rambam’s introduction to MN knows the metaphor he uses for describing Midrashim as allegorical – apples of gold in vessels of silver. Remah is clearly alluding to that and apparently accepting Rambam’s position on the issue.

He is full of remorse for his earlier attacks – [I am too lazy to translate this part].

מִי - יִתְּנֵנִי כַדְּרוֹר אָעוּף אֱלֵי /קִבְרוֹ וְעֵינַי לַדְּמָעוֹת יִשְׁרָקוּ
אַשְׁקֶה בְדִמְעוֹתַי עֲפָרוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר/ פַּלְגֵי תְעוּדוֹתָיו לְבָבִי שׁוֹקָקוּ
אוֹ אֶשְׁחֲקָה אַבְנֵי זְמָן בָּם כַּאֲשֶׁר /מֵימֵי תְלָאוֹתָיו אֲבָנִים שָׁחָקוּ

מַה - יַּעֲנוּ יָמִים אֲרוּרִים עוֹד וּמַה -/ יִתְאוֹנֲנוּ עַל - זֹאת וּמַה - יִצְטַדָּקוּ
הַעוֹד בְּפִיהֶם לַתְּנוּאוֹת מַעֲנֶה /אוֹ יַחֲטִיאוּנוּ לְמַעַן יִצְדָּקוּ
הַאִם עֲוֹנוֹת מֵי מְרִיבָה נִפְקְדוּ/ הַיּוֹם וְעוֹדָם אַחֲרֵינוּ יִדְלָקוּ

Remah apparently had a complete change of heart.

[1] Not to be confused with the Remah, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the author of the Mapah on the Shulchan Aruch.
[2] This is a play on Zechariah 3:8 -
שְׁמַע-נָא יְהוֹשֻׁעַ הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל, אַתָּה וְרֵעֶיךָ הַיֹּשְׁבִים לְפָנֶיךָ--כִּי-אַנְשֵׁי מוֹפֵת, הֵמָּה:
[3] הִנֵּה הָאָדוֹן יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, מְסָעֵף פֻּארָה בְּמַעֲרָצָה
[4] A play on the Ephod which contained the Urim and Tumim.
[5] Based on Iyov 38:16.
[6] . ואלמלא בן טדרוס אתה נשיא ורבי נגיד ורב תבונות, וחתן המלך רב ברכות איש אמונות. נדיב קם על נדיבות, אשר שמעו הולך בכל המדינות, ושמו הטוב כמור עובר לכל הלשונות, וכבוד משפחת יולדתך ובית אבותיך נשיאים ראשי המחנות, גוזרני עליך במושב זקני וחכמי על אשר מעלת וחללת שר שרי קודש, להתנהג כל ימיך כמעשה דר' יהושע על דברי בית שמאי בפרק חומר בקודש (חגיגה כב ב

[7] This is a play on Mishne Torah. תְעוּדוֹת as in Ruth 4:7.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Reb Naftoli Bochner - יהי זכרך ברוך

A member of our community, R. Naftoli Bochner A’H passed away this Friday night and the levaya was attended by an overflowing crowd. R. Naftoli A’H succumbed to a long and arduous fight with cancer leaving a bereaved family, neighbors and friends. During his touching Hesped (eulogy), R. Sender Epstein quoted a Rambam in Hilchot Aveil 13:12

[יב] כל מי שלא מתאבל כמו שציוו חכמים, הרי זה אכזרי; אלא יפחד וידאג ויפשפש במעשיו, ויחזור בתשובה. ואחד מבני חבורה שמת, תדאג כל החבורה כולה.

Anyone who does not mourn as the Rabbis have ordered is cruel. One should be fearful, worry and audit his deeds [literally: search his actions] and repent. One member of the Chabura that dies, the whole Chabura should worry.

As he was quoting this Halacha, it reminded me of a similar language Rambam uses in Hilchot Ta’aniyot 1:3 where after explaining that praying and fasting when bad things happen is a method of repentance, Rambam says:

אבל אם לא יזעקו, ולא יריעו, אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם אירע לנו, וצרה זו נקרוא נקרית--הרי זו דרך אכזרייות, וגורמת להם להידבק במעשיהם הרעים, ותוסיף הצרה וצרות אחרות

But if they will not cry and blow [trumpets] saying that what happened to us is natural [literally: custom of the world], this trouble just happened to us by chance – this is the path of cruelty. It leads them to remain attached to their bad ways bringing on more trouble.

When bad things happen to us, we are commanded to consider the causes of this trouble having in mind to remedy and prevent its recurrence. Similarly, when a person dies, his contemporaries are reminded that their time is coming closer too. Are they ready to go? Have they accomplished all that they could have? If they do not introspect, they are cruel to themselves. They risk dying without having accomplished all they could and should have. Mourning is to remind the living that their time will come too and time is precious. That explains the preceding Halacha which is the introduction to this one -

אל יתקשה אדם על מתו יתר מדיי--שנאמר "אל תבכו למת, ואל תנודו לו"
, כלומר יתר מדיי: שזה הוא מנהגו של עולם; והמצער עצמו על מנהג העולם, הרי זה טיפש.

A person should not grieve too much for [his] the deceased. As it says, “do not weep for the dead and do not lament for him,” meaning too much, for it is the custom of the world. One who suffers too much for natural events [literally; as is the custom of the world], is a fool.

We as humans grieve even for the inevitable and the irreparable. Like all our emotions, they have a purpose and should be harnessed for constructive goals. Grieving when channeled properly can be turned into an introspective experience for our own self-improvement and betterment. The deceased offers us life through his act of dying, his last act as a person, the ultimate altruistic deed. It is up to us to make it so. I believe that this is the meaning of the term
יהי זכרו ברוך– Baruch means the source of goodness. When we say Baruch Ata Hashem Hamotzi Lechem Min Ha’aretz – we are acknowledging that You God are the source for the bread, as You are the One responsible for bringing it out from the earth. Remembering the deceased as the Rabbis commanded us, make him, the deceased, the source of our betterment, the one responsible for it.

Reb Naftoli Bochner - יהי זכרך ברוך.