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.

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