Thursday, January 31, 2008

What Is Wrong With Idolatry and Superstition? Astrology - Lies and Falsehood.

In Bamidbar 15:22 we read –

כב וְכִי תִשְׁגּוּ--וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, אֵת כָּל-הַמִּצְו‍ֹת הָאֵלֶּה: אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה.

22 And when ye shall err, and not observe all these commandments, which the LORD hath spoken unto Moses,

The difficulty with this verse is obvious – a special sin offering for not keeping (doing) ALL the Mitzvot?

The Rabbis in Sifrei tell us that this verse is talking about Avodah Zara – idolatry – because it is the underlying reason for the majority of Mitzvot. Idolatry is so nefarious that its eradication is the Torah’s central objective. That is why it is seen as if one has contravened all the Mitzvot.

What exactly is Avodah Zara? Why is it so nefarious? Rambam in the first chapter of Hilchot Avodah Zara gives a long historical explanation for idolatry and also addresses it in various places in his Pirush Hamishna and Moreh Hanevuchim. I will try to summarize how I understand him, quoting and paraphrasing / translating what I believe to be pertinent segments. (Link to the full original MT Hil AZ at the fabulous Mechon Mamre - )

People noticed that the stars and spheres (the ancients understood the cosmos as being composed of a number of spheres) have a strong influence on how things work on our world. The moon controls the tides; the sun daylight and night; the weather is influenced by seasons which are controlled by the movement of the sun and so on. Not having developed a natural scientific theory for how the stars and spheres function, they assumed that they were sentient entities created by God as His subordinate representatives, similar to what we would call a cabinet minister. The original idea was that as representatives of God, one shows respect to their Creator by honoring and worshipping them, much as a king’s minister requires homage as a representative of his master.

כיון שעלה דבר זה על ליבם, התחילו לבנות לכוכבים היכלות

ולהקריב להם קרבנות, ולשבחם ולפארם בדברים, ולהשתחוות למולן--כדי להשיג

רצון הבורא, בדעתם הרעה. וזה, היה עיקר עבודה זרה

Once this idea was developed, [people] started to build temples to the stars, offering them, Korbanot [fire-offerings], praising and honoring them with words and prostrating themselves to them. All this was done to acquire God’s goodwill according to their misguided thinking. This was the basis [literally: root] for idolatry.”

The misguided thinking Rambam refers to, as I understand it, is that there is a non-physical - a spiritual - cause and effect relationship between the stars and our world. Worship and other such acts can influence the natural flow of events; in fact, it IS how nature works. That idea, which to the ancient idolaters was natural science, blinded them to reality and had far-reaching consequences in every aspect of humanity’s intellectual and social development. It took millennia to reverse the harm done by this thinking and it still plagues many of us nowadays. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Coming back to Rambam, what appeared as a harmless misguided way of thinking, in fact had deep and extremely negative consequences. Instead of turning to scientists to try to understand how humanity could affect its environment, people listened to false “prophets” who developed entire religions based on what they claimed would influence the gods, the stars, the spheres and the “spirits” that emanated from them. Some “prophets” claimed that God instructed them while others claimed that they were in communion with the different forces that ruled as His proxies. A human hierarchy of kings, prophets and priests sprouted who oppressed and controlled the population exploiting this superstitious understanding of their environment.

In his commentary to the Mishna in Massechet Avodah Zara 4:7, Rambam breaks down the development of the pseudo-science that idolatrous thinking brought about into three steps. First people established Astrology as a science. As the stars do not influence physically but rather spiritually, knowing which star is in ascendance at a particular time and the type of influence it has, would be the first step in understanding our world. This was followed by developing a whole system of talismans and statues that affected the stars influence some attracting and others deflecting. The third step combined with the second led to a whole system of worship where certain incense coupled with rituals and magic words could influence further the way the stars would deal with us.

This way of thinking was encouraged by the ruling elite because it was an easy way of uniting the populace and controlling and oppressing them.

וזה, שבזמנים שעברו אוחדו בהם המדינות והוטעה בהם המון העם, ונאמר להם שתיקון ארצכם ומצביכם באלה הצורות

ושתתקבצו לבתיהן, ותגדלו אלו הזקנים אשר ילמדו סודותיהן, והתקיימה בזה


It is through this that in the earlier times nations were united, fooling the masses with this [fiction]. They were told that their land and status would improve by worshiping these stars and statues and therefore they should gather into places of worship and honor and aggrandize the elders who taught these secrets. This then promoted the monarchy [who supported these elders].”

By taking advantage of ignorance, in fact promoting it by closing the door to any rational scientific investigation, and playing on the fears of these people in their struggle for day to day survival in the face of the elements, their rulers controlled them. That is why idolatry persisted for so long and, if we think about it carefully and honestly; it is why superstition is still rife even in our contemporary community.

Rambam, unlike other Rishonim, insists that the core problem with idolatry and superstition is that it is a lie. It is false and falsehood is destructive. Here is how he puts it in a letter to the sages of Marseilles who asked him about astrology, the first of the steps towards idolatry.

דעו רבותי, שאין ראוי לו לאדם להאמין אלא באחד משלשה דברים.
הראשון דבר שתהיה עליו ראיה ברורה מדעתו של אדם כגון חכמת החשבון, וגימטריאות, ותקופות.
והשני דבר שישיגנו האדם באחד מהחמש הרגשות, כגון שידע ויראה שזה שחור

וזה אדום וכיוצא בזה בראית עינו. או שיטעום שזה מר וזה מתוק. או שימשש שזה

חם וזה קר. או שישמע שזה קול צלול וזה קול הברה. או שיריח שזה ריח באוש

וזה ריח ערב וכיוצא באלו.

והשלישי דבר שיקבל אותו האדם מן הנביאים ע"ה ומן הצדיקים.

Know my teachers that a person may only believe in one of three things –

The first are things that can be proven rationally such as arithmetic, geometry and astronomy [literally: seasons].

The second are things that one can “feel” through one of the five senses, such as, recognizing colors, differentiating tastes, feeling different temperatures, hearing different sounds or smelling different odors.

The third are things transmitted from the prophets and the righteous.”

Rambam continues by telling the Marseilles sages that one has to always keep in mind to which category a particular knowledge belongs.

וכן צריכים אתם לידע, שכבר חיברו הטיפשים אלפי ספרים, וכמה אנשים גדולים

בשנים - לא בחכמה - איבדו כל ימיהם בלמידת אותם ספרים, ודימו שאותם ההבלים

הם חכמות גדולות, ועלה על ליבם שהם חכמים גדולים, מפני שידעו החכמות ההן.

So too must you know that these fools wrote thousands of books [on the pseudo-science of astrology], and many “great” people – [great] in age not in wisdom – wasted their life reading them thinking that all this nonsense is a great science. They considered themselves wise men for having [acquired] this “wisdom”.”

After dismissing the popular belief that written things must be true, Rambam makes a fascinating and full of implications statement –

וזו היא שאבדה מלכותנו והחריבה בית מקדשנו

והאריכה גלותינו והגיעתנו עד הלום. שאבותינו חטאו ואינם, לפי שמצאו ספרים

רבים באלה הדברים של דברי החוזים בכוכבים, שדברים אלו הם עיקר עבודה זרה,

כמו שביארנו בהלכות עבודה זרה, טעו ונהו אחריהן, ודימו שהם חכמות מפוארות

ויש בהן תועלת גדולה, ולא נתעסקו בלמידת מלחמה ולא בכיבוש ארצות, אלא דמו

שאותן הדברים יועילו להם.
ולפיכך קראו אותם הנביאים סכלים ואווילים.
ודאי סכלים ואווילים היו, ואחרי התוהו אשר לא יועילו הלכו.

And it is the sins of our ancestors that caused us to lose our land, destroyed our Beit Hamikdash and lengthened our exile bringing us to our current situation. They found many books written on this subject of astrology, which are at the root of idolatry, as I explained in Hilchot Avodah Zara, and mistakenly followed them. They imagined that this [astrology] was an admirable science that afforded great advantages. They therefore did not learn how to fight wars nor did they conquer lands, believing that these things would help them [prevail]. That is why the prophets called them [our ancestors] evil fools! They were evil fools for following hopeless nonsense!”

I think that reading this we get an idea of how Rambam understands the great damage that idolatry brings about. It is the negation of truth, the consequent resistance to seeking truth out, losing touch with reality. One cannot win a war by invoking the spirits that emanate from the heavens! One wins wars through courage, tactics and strategy, building armies and acquiring weapons.

There is much more to be said but I am reaching the limits I imposed on myself on the size of a post.

To be continued…

Monday, January 28, 2008

Four Cubits of Halacha - Rambam Shows How to Interpret an Aggadeta.

After writing my last three posts on Aggadeta, I would be remiss ignoring the following discussion of Rambam in his Introduction to Pirush Hamishna . After explaining the correct way of reading Chazal, he quotes a Gemara that supports his position and being an Aggadeta Rambam explains it, giving us an immediate example of how we should analyze and understand a Chazal. I believe that Rambam’s understanding of this Chazal is earth shattering for our times as it highlights a major deficiency in the thinking of our community and what I believe is the greatest threat to our long-term growth and survival.

ואמרו אין לו להקב"ה בעולמו אלא ארבע אמות של

הלכה. והתבונן בדברים אלו, שאם תבינם כפשטם ייראו בעיניך רחוקים מאד מן

האמת, כאלו ארבע אמות של הלכה בלבד הם התכלית, ולהזניח שאר המדעים

והחכמות, ובזמן שם ועבר ושאחריהם שלא היתה הלכה בלי ספק שלא היה להקב"ה

בעולמו כלום. אבל אם תתבונן בדברים אלו התבוננות מעמיקה, תמצא בזה חכמה

נפלאה, ותמצאהו כולל הרבה מן המושכלות, והנני מבארו לך כדי שיהיה לך זה

דוגמא לכל מה שיזדמן לך ולכן התבונן בו היטב.

“The Gemara [in Berachot 8a] says, “HKBH only has in His world four cubits of Halacha[1]”. Think about these words, for if you will interpret them literally, they will seem far from truth, as if the only objective [for man to attain perfection] are the four cubits of Halacha ignoring all other knowledge and wisdom. [This would intimate that] at the time of Shem and Ever and the following [generations], when there was no Halacha, God had nothing in the world! However if you will ponder these word thoughtfully, you will discover in them marvelous wisdom, encompassing much of acquired knowledge. I will now explain [this Gemara] as an example for other such sayings, therefore pay attention well!”

Rambam has laid out the problem with this statement of the rabbis. It just does not make sense that they would be telling us that we should only concentrate on learning what is nowadays called Torah, Halacha, exclusively of any other knowledge! Furthermore, it is inconceivable that before Torah was given, God had no place in the world. Were there not righteous people, starting with Shem and Ever, Noach’s children after the flood and continuing with Avraham and his children?

Rambam then has a lengthy discussion of how the different components of the world are interdependent and are needed for each other’s existence allowing for the most advanced creature, man, to exist. The need of the whole of existence for each component is its Raison D’etre, the reason it exists. The question therefore comes to mind what is Man’s reason to exist? Now that this advanced creature came into being, we still need to understand what is man’s reason for being? When philosophers looked at the role each component plays, they found that unlike all the others who had one or two roles and thus limited activities, man has multiple abilities and tasks. For example, an ant is a gatherer and that is its main activity, a spider weaves and that is its main activity while man can do many more and varied activities. As the philosophers thought about this more, “they concluded that man can do many things but they all have one goal - to help him survive so that he can accomplish one central and focused task, apprehension of acquired knowledge and knowing the Truths thoroughly.”

ומצאו שתכליתו

פעולה אחת בלבד ושאר פעולותיו אינן אלא להמשכת קיומו כדי שתושלם בו אותה

הפעולה היחידית והיא השגת המושכלות וידיעת האמתיות על בורים.

They realized that, because it does not make sense that man has no purpose other than promoting his own temporal survival without any other objective. If the whole of the universe apparently exists within a system that promotes its own eternal survival, man must have a role beyond his own personal survival, at the service of the whole. Furthermore, if we compare man to other living entities, he is no different from all of them except in his ability for abstract thought thus acquiring knowledge of his surrounding. Potential for acquiring knowledge is man’s uniqueness and he is no more than an animal until he actualizes this potential.

וגדול שבמושכלות השגת

אחדות הבורא יתעלה וישתבח וכל הקשור בכך מן המדעים האלקיים, לפי ששאר

המדעים אינם אלא כדי שיוכשר בהם עד אשר יגיע אל מדעי האלקות,

The most advanced acquired knowledge is the apprehension of the Creator and all that pertains to this in metaphysics [literally: Divine Sciences]. For all the other sciences are there to prepare [man] to understand metaphysics.”

For the acquisition of this type of knowledge and its retention, man clearly cannot be focusing on bodily pleasures. Indulging in physical pleasure requires major efforts, using the mind and working to have the wherewithal for that indulgence, leaving little room to successfully acquire knowledge. It also muddles a person’s thinking by distorting his value system, making pleasure seeking the goal rather than intellectual growth.


נתברר מכל ההקדמות האלה שהתכלית בעולמינו זה וכל אשר בו הוא איש מלומד בעל

מדות טובות, וכאשר נקנו למי שהוא מהמין האנושי המדע והמעשה, רצוני ב"מדע"

השגת האמתיות על בורים והשגת כל מה שאפשר לאדם להשיג, וב"מעשה" המצוע

והאיזון בענינים הטבעיים ואל ישקע בהם ולא יקח מהם אלא מה שיש בו קיום

הגוף, וכן שפור כל המדות, אדם שהוא במצב זה הוא המטרה

“It is clear from all this that the goal of this world of ours {as opposed to the Universe – DG[2]] and all it contains is to [produce] a learned person, who has good traits, an individual who belongs to humankind, who has attained knowledge and actions. By “knowledge”, I mean apprehension of the Truths and the knowledge of all that a man can know. By “actions”, I mean someone who is well balanced and [follows] the median in natural [physical] matters without wallowing in them, taking from them [the physical] only as needed for the sustenance of the body. Included in “action” is self-improvement. Such a person is the intended objective [of the world].

The perfected individual, the end result of this world of ours, consists of a person who has acquired all the knowledge that is possible and has also developed his person to be a perfectly attuned being that only procures the minimum necessary for sustenance. A person that is an ignoramus but a good person is better than an evil person is, but cannot be seen as an ideal. So too a self-described learned person who is not in control of his bestial self is not a true wise man. It is the combination of the two, knowledge and behavior that produce a perfect and ideal person. Rambam continues with a long discussion to explain why there are so many imperfect individuals. I will leave that for another post. He ends the discussion with -

וכיון שמדבריהם ע"ה אנו לומדים שני הדברים הללו

כלומר החכמה והמעשה ממה שביארו וממה שרמזו, בצדק אמרו אין לו להקב"ה

בעולמו חוץ מארבע אמות של הלכה

Being that from the Rabbis’ teachings we learn these two things, [self-control and self-improvement when it comes to] actions [and the obligation to learn everything that can be known when it comes to] “knowledge”, their saying that God has in his world only four cubits of Halacha is correct.

Rambam interprets this Aggadeta in a completely original and counter intuitive way. Unlike the traditional understanding that the rabbis are discouraging learning outside the four cubits of Halacha, he sees Halacha as encompassing all knowledge and action. The ultimate goal is the acquisition of all knowledge while the Mitzvot themselves, what we traditionally call Halacha, are a necessary condition to allow us to acquire and retain that knowledge. Learning the halachot themselves, what we traditionally refer to as Halacha, have as their purpose to know how to do the Mitzvot and not the ultimate “learning”. The ultimate learning is to know the universe we live in and through it know HKBH as much as a human can.

. וכן אם היה האדם ירא ה' פרוש, מרחיק

התענוגות זולתי בכדי קיום הגוף, מתנהג בכל הענינים הטבעיים בדרך הממוצעת,

והורגל בכל המדות הטובות אלא שאינו מלומד, גם זה חסר שלמות, אלא שהוא יותר

שלם מן הראשון, לפי שמעשיו אלה אינם מתוך ידיעה ברורה והכרה יסודית,

ולפיכך אמרו חז"ל אין בור ירא חטא כמו שביארנו.

A God fearing person, an ascetic who has distanced himself from pleasures beyond what the body requires, behaves in the median path as it relates to the natural [physical] needs, who has good traits but is unlearned, lacks too in perfection. Although he is better than the first, [one who claims that he knows but has no self-control], he lacks perfection because he does not act out of conviction and clear knowledge. That is why the Rabbis say, “An ignoramus cannot be a person that fears sin”.

A God fearing person or one who fears sin is not one who does not understand why he is following these rules, does them because he is afraid of the potential punishment or bad consequences. A God fearing person is one who does good deeds and imposes self-control on himself because he understands that it is necessary if he wants to find Truth thus God. He does all this because by doing it he will train himself and perfect himself so that he will be able to acquire the knowledge necessary to answer the existential questions – know God to the limit a human can.

As we can see understanding an Aggadeta is quite complex and requires us to read it very carefully, making sure it does not go against reason. The literal and simple reading may sometimes convey the opposite of what it is really telling us. The only way we know what the real message is when it is rational and agrees with reason.

On a personal note, when I first understood Rambam’s position regarding what we call “learning”, I was afraid to let myself go in that direction. It was so contrary to what we had been taught in Yeshiva about “learning” that I was sure I was mistaken and misguided. As I continued studying Rambam’s thought, I found that he repeats this theme all across his writings. I slowly became convinced that I was reading him correctly and that for whatever reason his teachings have been ignored or even worse, censored and suppressed through misinterpretation whether willful or unintentional. When we learn Gemara and spend time on issues that are not pertinent to the ultimate practical Halachik ruling on how to act, we are wasting our time. Rambam, I am convinced and can prove it from his many writings on this subject, would not consider that a Kiyum of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah. We have to look at the text but even more important, try to wrest out the idea behind the Halacha, the concept that runs through it. For that is what drives the practical aspect of the Halacha, how the mitzvah has to be practiced or the prohibition has to be respected. Ultimately, we learn Halacha [I use it here in its popular meaning] only to know how to keep the Mitzvot so that we can become self disciplined and unbiased by personal urges, to allow us to understand the world we live in and through it the Creator.

I find this understanding of what Torah is and what the goal of man is, exhilarating. It gives meaning to everything I do without the usual obsessive behavior followers of the minutiae of Halacha tend to develop. It also gives meaning when I learn a Gemara working my way through the Rishonim who try to squeeze out from the text and the different details of how a Mitzvah (negative or positive) is traditionally practiced, the concept underlying the rule. It is by knowing the concept that they then can apply the rule to the different situations that come up in our daily life that are impacted by this rule. Ultimately, once I know how to keep the mitzvah, I have to understand what it is meant to do for me, helping me to better answer the existential questions that confront us all constantly. Keeping that goal in mind all the time, gives meaning to my praxis. It is not a burden and restrictive but a voluntary choice to help promote my intellectual growth.

Post script: There is much more to say about the philosophical and theological implications of Mitzvot. I do not want to leave the impression that they are two independent ways of thinking linked only through causal connections. They are completely intertwined and interdependent. The Rav in his shiurim has shown how far and deep this connection is. But that will have to be discussed when the occasion arises.

[1] The exact quote is since the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, HKBH… Rambam omits this.

[2] I make this comment to differentiate between the existence of man being the objective in the context of the world we live in contrasted with man not being the objective in context of the whole of existence – the universe and the cosmos.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rambam on Aggadeta - The Correct Approach - Metaphors and Riddles.

Having introduced the literalist groups, the fundamentalists who shame the Torah with their ignorance and the mockers who jump to conclusions and accuse the rabbis of being ignoramuses, Rambam introduces us to the correct way of understanding the Aggadeta. In his introduction to the Pirush Hamishna, Rambam has already explained the purpose of the Aggadeta which I will hopefully translate and discuss in future posts. Here he teaches the proper attitude a person should have when trying to decipher their real meaning. It is only when they are approached with that attitude that the intended purpose of the Aggadeta is achieved.

והכת השלישית והם חי ה' מעטים מאד עד שאפשר לקרוא להם כת כמו שאפשר

לומר על השמש מין, והם האנשים שנתבררה אצלם גדולת החכמים וטוב תבונתם במה שנמצא

בכלל דבריהם דברים המראים על ענינים אמתיים מאד, ואף על פי שהם מעטים ומפוזרים בכמה

מקומות בחבוריהם הרי הם מראים על שלמותם והשגתם את האמת. וגם נתברר אצלם מניעת

הנמנעות ומציאות מחוייב המציאות, וידעו שהם עליהם השלום לא דברו דברי הבאי, ונתברר

אצלם שיש בדבריהם פשט וסוד, ושכל מה שאמרו מדברים שהם בלתי אפשריים אין דבריהם בכך

אלא על דרך החידה והמשל, וכך הוא דרך החכמים הגדולים, ולפיכך פתח ספרו גדול החכמים

ואמר להבין משל ומליצה דברי חכמים וחידותם, וכבר ידוע אצל חכמי הלשון כי חידה הם

הדברים שענינים בסודם ולא בפשטם וכמו שאמר אחודה נא לכם חידה וכו', לפי שדברי כל

בעלי החכמה בדברים הנשגבים שהם התכלית אינם אלא בדרך חידה ומשל, ומדוע נתפלא על

שחברו את החכמה בדרך משל ודמו אותם בדברים שפלים המוניים, והנך רואה החכם מכל אדם

עשה כן ברוח הקדש כלומר שלמה במשלי בשיר השירים ומקצת קהלת, ומדוע יהא מוזר בעינינו

לפרש את דבריהם ולהוציאם מפשטן כדי שיהא תואם את המושכל ומתאים לאמת ולכתבי הקדש,

והרי הם עצמם מבארים פסוקי הכתובים ומוציאים אותם מפשוטם ועושים אותם משל והוא

האמת, כפי שמצאנו שאמרו שזה שאמר הכתוב הוא הכה את שני אריאל מואב כולו משל, וכן מה

שנ' הוא הכה את הארי בתוך הבור וכו' משל, ואמרו מי ישקיני מים ושאר מה שאירע כל זה

משל. וכן ספר איוב כולו אמר אחד מהם משל היה ולא ביאר לאיזה ענין נעשה המשל הזה.

וכן מתי יחזקאל אמר אחד מהם משל היה ורבים כאלה.

ואם אתה הקורא מאחת משתי הכתות הראשונות אל תעיין בדברי בשום דבר מן

הענין הזה, כי לא יתאים לך ממנו מאומה, ולא עוד אלא שיזיק לך ותשנאהו, כי איך

יתאימו מיני המזון קלי הכמות ממוצעי האיכות לאדם שכבר הורגל למיני המזון הרעים

והכבדים, הלא רק יזיקוהו וישנאם, הנך רואה דבר אותם שהורגלו באכילת הבצלים והשומים

והדגים על המן מה הוא ונפשנו קצה בלחם הקלקל. ואם אתה מאנשי הכת השלישית, שכל זמן

שיזדמן לך דבר מדבריהם ממה שהשכל מרחיקו תתעכב אצלו ותדע שהוא חידה ומשל ותשאר

בטרדת הלב ואמוץ המחשבה בהבנתו, דואג למצוא דרך האמת ורעיון הצדק כמו שאמר למצוא

דברי חפץ וכתוב יושר דברי אמת. התבונן בדברי תשיג תועלת אם ירצה ה' יתעלה.

The third category, which by God, is composed of so few people that it is difficult to even refer to them as a category, just like the sun is not a category [Rambam did not know about other suns]. They are those who, seeing the sages’ discussions of true realities, though rare and spread out among many of their writings, appreciate their greatness and wisdom, their perfection and grasp of truths. Having understood that there are impossibilities as well as a Necessary Existent, [IOW, some things cannot exist and then there is God who is uniquely non-contingent and exists necessarily], they realize that the sages would not say nonsensical things. [I believe that Rambam is saying that when we are confronted with writings of the sages, that discuss illogical things, things that cannot exist, or things about God that contradict what we know about Him, we must assume that they were not nonsensical.] They therefore understand that their words are composed of both a plain and a hidden meaning and that whenever they say something that is not possible it must be either an allegory or a metaphor, which is how great sages present such matters. That is why the greatest of the sages, [Shlomo Hamelech] opens Mishlei with “to understand a proverb, and an epigram; the words of the wise, and their riddles”. Linguists know that “riddles” are words that have a hidden meaning as we find [in Shoftim where Shimshon proposed] Let me now put forth a riddle unto you”. For all sages speak in riddles whenever they talk about deep matters which the reader’s ultimate goal [in life] is to apprehend those matters. Why are we surprised that they wrote matters of wisdom in allegorical language, using common and base things for metaphors? The wisest of all men, namely Shlomo, did so while experiencing Ruach Hakodesh [revelation] when he wrote Mishlei, Shir Hashirim and parts of Kohelet. Why then should it be strange for us to explain their words not literally, so that they should conform to logic, the truth and the Holy Books? They themselves do so with the written texts, explaining them non-literally as metaphors, which is really their true meaning. We find them explaining the whole verse in Divrei Hayamim 1:11:22 Beniah the son of Jehoiada, the son of a valiant man of Kabzeel, who had done mighty deeds, he smote the two altar-hearths of Moab” as a metaphor (see Berachot 18b). So too the rest of the verse “he went down also and slew a lion in the midst of a pit in time of snow” they explain as a metaphor. So too verse 17 in the same chapterAnd David longed, and said: 'Oh that one would give me water to drink of the well of Beth-Lechem, which is by the gate!” is explained as a metaphor (Baba Kama 60b). [I find these examples fascinating as Rambam picks historical verses that were seen as metaphors; this should give us much food for thought!] So too the book of Iyov, one of the Rabbis said it is a metaphor (Baba Batra 15a) without explaining. So too the [resurrected] dead of Yechezkel, one Rabbi said, it was a metaphor and many more.

If you the reader belong to one of the first two categories, do not read my words on this subject as nothing will speak to you. Not only that, it will also damage you and you will hate it for how can gourmet foods [even] of medium quality satisfy a person who is used to coarse and heavy ones. They will only sicken him and he will hate them! Don’t you see that the people who were used to eat onions, garlic and fish [the Jewish slaves of the Egyptians] said about the manna “and our soul loathes this light bread (Bamidbar 21:5).” If you are however one of the third category, who whenever he is confronted with one of the sages’ saying that is removed from logic, you will stop realizing that it is a metaphor and a riddle, leaving you preoccupied emotionally and mentally challenged, searching for understanding. You will worry to find the correct path and the judicious idea [to decipher the riddle] as it says, “to find out words of delight, and that which was written uprightly, even words of truth” (Kohelet 12:10). Think about my words and with God’s help you will find them helpful.

I plan to eventually dissect the proof texts Rambam uses to prove how liberal the Rabbis were with allegorizing even apparently innocuous historical texts. I think we will glean some interesting insights from that exercise. Be it as it may, it is clear that the Aggadeta are not to be taken literally, as they would not be preserved in our tradition if they were not teaching some moral, ethical or philosophical lesson. Another point made here is that when we are confronted with a saying of Chazal that seems to contradict reality, we have to look for the underlying message, and not worry about the metaphor or allegorical presentation. The Rabbis are not teaching us the natural sciences, which we should strive to know as much as we can on our own, but how to look at what we discover from a religious and ethical perspective. I believe the following sentence is central to this discussion –

לפי שדברי כל

בעלי החכמה בדברים הנשגבים שהם התכלית אינם אלא בדרך חידה ומשל

For all sages speak in riddles whenever they talk about deep matters which the reader’s ultimate goal [in life] is to apprehend those matters.

It is through these Aggadeta, when properly understood, that the ultimate knowledge that allows us to take our intended place in creation can be attained. Insisting that they are literal and therefore practically irrelevant, whether said reverently or irreverently, is an insult to the intelligence of great thinkers. But even more importantly, we miss learning some crucial and fundamental truths.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Evil Literalists - Rambam on Agadeta - Group Two - The Mockers.

In my last post, I translated Rambam’s description of those who insist that all Midrashim are literal. Although Rambam admits that a majority of the religious people he knows and read are from that group, he does not hold back and rips into them mercilessly, accusing them of bringing shame on the Torah instead of glorifying it in the eyes of mankind. As I am writing this, a comment Rambam makes in MN 1:36 comes to mind – (I quote the English and Hebrew [Michael Schwartz edition] for clarity)

By infidelity (Kefirah) I mean the belief that a thing is different from what it really is. By ignorance, I mean ignorance of what it is possible to know.”

בכפירה אני מתכוון לאמונה שדבר הוא שונה ממה שהוא. בבורות אני מתכוון לאי-ידיעת דבר אשר אפשר לדעת אותו

Unlike our current Jewish orthodox language where anyone that accepts reality over some misunderstood Chazal insisting that it be read literally is accused of being a heretic (Kofer), Rambam sees that accusing fool as the real Kofer!

I will now continue with my translation of the second group who read the Rabbis’ Midrashim literally – the Mockers.

והכת השניה גם הם רבים והם אותם שראו דברי חכמים

או שמעוהו והבינוהו כפשטו, וחשבו שאין כונת חכמים בכך אלא משמעות פשטי הדברים, ולכן

זלזלו בו וגנוהו וחשבו למוזר מה שאינו מוזר, וילעיגו על דברי חכמים לעתים קרובות,

וחושבים שהם יותר נבונים מהם ויותר זכי רעיון, ושהם עליהם השלום פתיים חסרי דעת

סכלים בכל המציאות, ואינם משיגים שום דבר כלל, ורוב מי שנפל במחשבה זו אותם הטוענים

שהם רופאים, וההוזים במשפטי המזלות, לפי שהם לפי דמיונם פקחים חכמים פילוסופים וכמה

רחוקים הם מן האנושות אצל הפילוסופים האמתיים. והם יותר סכלים מן הכת הראשונה ויותר

פתים, והם כת ארורה שהתפרצו כלפי אנשים רמי המעלה שכבר נודעה חכמתם אצל החכמים.

ואלו הכשירו את עצמם במדעים עד שידעו איך כותבים את הדברים בענינים האלהיים וכיוצא

בהם מן המדעים להמון ולחכמים, ויסגלו לעצמם את החלק המעשי של הפילוסופיא, כי אז היו

מבינים אם החכמים חכמים או לאו, והיו מובנים להם עניני דבריהם

The second group is numerous too. They also understand the words of the sages literally. Because they insist that the sages meant what they said literally, they insult and debase them for what they consider to be strange while it is not. They therefore mock the words of the sages and consider themselves smarter and clearer thinkers while the sages are ignorant of reality, unable to grasp anything. Most of these people are those who claim to be doctors or astrologers [note that Rambam stresses that they are doctors by self-proclamation in the same category as astrologers]. While they consider themselves smart philosophic sages, they are seen as subhuman by the true philosophers. They are greater fools than the first group and stupider. They belong to that cursed sect that dares to let loose against people of high esteem who are known for their wisdom by connoisseurs. These wise men [attacked by the fools] have developed their knowledge of sciences, knowing how things are written [expressed] for both public consumption and for the wise, when dealing with matters pertaining to God [metaphysics]. Had they acquired knowledge of the practical aspects of philosophy [I am not sure what Rambam means here] they would know whether the sages are really sages and they would have understood their words

This description of both the first and second group resonates very strongly for me. I am always frustrated by the fundamentalist who insists that something impossible and illogical is literal and our limited knowledge is at fault. How dare one question the wisdom and “Ruach Hakodesh” of the wise men? I can see their argument on things that cannot be proven empirically but when they argue against facts, the age of the universe for example, using arguments that are embarrassing to any semi intelligent person, I am always stumped. Are they trying to insult the wisdom of our great Rabbis? I am even more frustrated by the scholar, who should know better; who insists that he is trying to discover the original intent of the author. I have no problem if that is done in the spirit of better understanding the message that was being conveyed. But assuming that the message only had meaning based on the author’s knowledge of the sciences of his time, the culture he lived in and so on, losing meaning for us is wrong. These people knew the limit of knowledge of their times. They knew that the theories that they worked with did not answer all questions just as we know nowadays that we have many things to explain about the world we live in. They were telling us how to look at things from a perspective of a thinking person in whatever scientific and cultural era he lives in. We are to emulate the approach not the detailed explanation. As we will see in the next segment this applies to not only general thought but also to what seems to be historical explanations.

On a personal note, although originally I thought I was getting distracted from my focus on idolatry, I now realize that I have touched on one of the core issues that underlie the Torah’s, one can almost say obsession, with the eradication of that sickness. As I get deeper into it, it will become clear. It will also highlight how Idolatry, in many of its forms, is still rampant among us!

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Foolishness of the Literalists - Rambam on Agadeta - Group One the Fools!

I was traveling this week so I did not have a chance to continue with Ta’amei Hamitzvot. One of the regular commenters – Holy Hyrax – asked me in an email for a reference to where Rambam talks sharply against those that insist on reading Aggadeta literally. It is in the introduction to Chelek (the 10th according to Rambam or the 11th Perek according to the standard printed Shas) and I thought it worthwhile to translate it. BTW, I used to dislike translating but after doing it a few times, I found that I got new insights in the text that I was working on. It became a fun activity. [As usual I paraphrase / translate with my comments in brackets].


המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת סנהדרין פרק י משנה א

וממה שאתה צריך לדעת שדברי חכמים עליהם השלום נחלקו בהם בני אדם

לשלש כתות.

הכת הראשונה והם רוב אשר נפגשתי עמהם ואשר ראיתי חבוריהם ואשר שמעתי


מבינים אותם כפשטם ואינם מסבירים אותם כלל,

ונעשו אצלם כל הנמנעות מחוייבי


ולא עשו כן אלא מחמת סכלותם בחכמות וריחוקם מן המדעים, ואין בהם מן השלמות

עד כדי שיתעוררו על כך מעצמם, ולא מצאו מעורר שיעוררם, ולכן חושבים הם שאין כונת

חכמים בכל מאמריהם המחוכמים אלא מה שהבינו הם מהם, ושהם כפשוטם, ואף על פי שיש

בפשטי מקצת דבריהם מן הזרות עד כדי שאם תספרנו כפשטו להמון העם כל שכן ליחידיהם היו

נדהמים בכך ואומרים היאך אפשר שיהא בעולם אדם שמדמה דברים אלו וחושב שהם דברים

נכונים, וכל שכן שימצאו חן בעיניו. והכת הזו המסכנה רחמנות על סכלותם לפי שהם רוממו

את החכמים לפי מחשבתם ואינם אלא משפילים אותם בתכלית השפלות ואינם מרגישים בכך, וחי

ה' כי הכת הזו מאבדים הדר התורה ומחשיכים זהרה, ועושים תורת השם בהפך המכוון בה,

לפי שה' אמר על חכמת תורתו אשר ישמעון את כל החוקים האלה וכו', והכת הזו דורשין

מפשטי דברי חכמים דברים אשר אם ישמעום העמים יאמרו רק עם סכל ונבל הגוי הקטן הזה.

והרבה שעושין כן הדרשנין המבינים לעם מה שאינם מבינים הם עצמם, ומי יתן ושתקו כיון

שאינם מבינים מי יתן החרש תחרישון ותהי לכם לחכמה, או היה להם לומר אין אנו יודעים

מה רצו חכמים בדברים אלו ולא היאך פירושו, אלא חושבים שהבינו, ומעמידים את עצמם

להבין לעם מה שהבינו הם עצמם לא מה שאמרו חכמים, ודורשין בפני ההמון בדרשות ברכות

ופרק חלק וזולתם כפשוטם מלה במלה.

You should know that as to [understanding] the words of the sages [Rambam is referring to Aggadeta] people are divided into three groups. The first group consists of the majority of the people I met, those that I read their books or that I heard about. They understand them literally without explaining them at all, accepting impossibilities as fact [literally: impossibilities as necessary existents]. They did this because of their ignorance [literally: foolishness] and their distance from the sciences, not having enough perfection to take notice themselves or because no one brought this to their attention [that these things are impossible. In other words, the lack of learning and information does not even trigger in their mind the possibility that this is absurd.] They therefore think that all the intelligent sayings of the sages are to be understood literally, as they understand them, although there are some sayings that are strange. Some things they say would stump even the masses and how much more the unique [learned] ones among them. This pathetic [literally: poor] group [literalists], a pity on their foolishness, think that they are elevating [as in bringing respect to] the sages, while they are utterly debasing them without even taking notice. I swear in God’s name [literally: By the life of God], that this group destroy the beauty of the Torah and darken its luster presenting it in a way that is the opposite of what was its intent. God stated about the wisdom of His Torah that “when they hear all these statutes”… while this group understands the words of the sages in a way that if the nations will hear this they will say “this small nation is foolish!”

[Rambam is referring to the following verse in Devarim 4:6 –

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם--כִּי הִוא

חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם, לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים: אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת

כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה,

וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן, הַגּוֹי

הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה

. 6 Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

Instead of fulfilling this prediction these people, suggest the opposite!]

Much of this [foolishness] is perpetrated by the preachers who give to understand to the people things they themselves do not! I wish they would remain silent. Silence for them is wisdom! Instead of saying that they do not know what the sages were trying to transmit, they think they understand, and undertake to teach the people what their opinion is which is not the sages’ opinion, expounding on the Gemarot in Berachot and Chelek word for word [literally].

It is fascinating how Rambam presents the proponents of the literal approach,

“The majority of the people I met, those that I read their books or that I heard about”. In other words not only are they the masses but also authors and preachers and still he calls them foolish! So much for “Mesora”, the canard used nowadays to silence any rational questioning.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Consumer Man

Shavua Tov

For those of you who missed this in this week's magazine - have a good laugh!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Ta'amei Hamitzvot - Why Look for Reasons? Follow God Blindly!

In the contemporary traditional society of Mitzvot practicing Jews, the question of why are we doing Mitzvot is totally ignored. Not only is it ignored – it is frowned upon. Anyone that raises the question in public is looked upon suspiciously. Is that person questioning God’s will and authority? What right has a human being with limited intellect to question the Ratzon of Hashem? There is no reason necessary other than God ordering us and we just have to follow blindly. This blind faith is elevated to a virtue as if suppressing our uniqueness, one of the attributes that makes us human - our ability to think critically, is a great achievement. Rambam is undiplomatic and describes this tendency as “a sickness of the soul”.

There are persons who find it difficult to give a reason for any of the commandments, and consider it right to assume that the commandments and prohibitions have no rational basis whatever. They are led to adopt this theory by a certain sickness in their soul, the existence of which they perceive, but which they are unable to discuss or to describe. For they imagine that these precepts, if they were useful in any respect, and were commanded because of their usefulness, would seem to originate in the thought and reason of some intelligent being. But as things which are not objects of reason and serve no purpose, they would undoubtedly be attributed to God, because no thought of man could have produced them.” (MN3:31)

Rambam identifies the fear of addressing why we keep Mitzvot as a complete misunderstanding of what makes Torah divine. It is not irrationality that proves its divine provenance but just the opposite, its rationality.

Human beings are very complex by nature and necessity. For them to perform their part for the good of the whole of existence, they have certain traits, freedom of choice, sentience, abstract thought and so on. These traits inherently make a human into an individual. No two people are the same. At the same time, this tendency towards individuality has drawbacks. A single human, all alone cannot procreate nor even survive. The human species would disappear in a short time without it forming a society where the many individuals work together towards survival. It is the combined abilities of all these individuals that guarantee the survival of the species. As there is a built in mechanism for survival in each species, there are individuals within a society that have the ability to organize and lead that society. That is how each society developed laws and social rules that allowed these individuals to come together and live in peace with each other. Such laws have one thing in mind - the survival of the human species. They focus on interpersonal relationships and even when theological issues are addressed, they are utilitarian in the sense of uniting and putting limits on the members of the society so that it can flourish. It is purely self-serving, either for the society or the survival of the species.

Judaism as seen by Rambam, has a much more advanced and sophisticated outlook. It sees man as an important component of the whole of existence with a role to play in the survival of that whole. The survival of the human species is necessary because humans are needed for the survival of the whole of existence. With this in mind, it addresses the day-to-day societal issues with a view of developing individuals who can play a role in the survival of the whole. It wants to develop individuals that can advance the knowledge of humanity, a Newton, an Einstein et al. who will use their human minds to its utmost so that we can learn about the universe we are part of and figure out what our role is in it at its various stages. It is this understanding of the goals of the Torah that make it divine. This kind of vision is revelatory by nature. It is not something that can be developed through empirical analysis and proof; it had to come through a revelatory experience to a perfected human. It is a view of existence from a divine perspective that goes beyond what can be deduced from purely physical data. It is intuitive and prophetic.

You will find that the sole object of certain laws, in accordance with the intention of their author, who well considered their effect, is to establish the good order of the state and its affairs, to free it from all mischief and wrong. These laws do not deal with philosophic problems, contain no teaching for the perfecting of our logical faculties, and are not concerned about the existence of sound or unsound opinions. Their sole object is to arrange, under all circumstances, the relations of men to each other, and to secure their well-being, in accordance with the view of the author of these laws. These laws are political, and their author belongs, as has been stated above, to the third class, viz., to those who only distinguish themselves by the perfection of their imaginative faculties. You will also find laws which, in all their rules, aim, as the law just mentioned, at the improvement of the material interests of the people but besides, tend to improve the state of the faith of man. They create first correct notions of God, and of angels, and lead then the people, by instruction and education, to an accurate knowledge of the Universe: this education comes from God; these laws are divine.”

Interestingly the Torah does not teach those scientific insights but rather directs us to work towards discovering them.

With regard to all the other correct opinions concerning the whole of being – opinions that constitute the numerous kinds of all the theoretical sciences through which the opinions forming the ultimate end are validated - Scripture does not make a call to direct attention towards them in detail… It does it in summary fashion with the commandment, "to love the Lord" (Deut. xi. 13). It may be inferred from the words, "And thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might" (ibid. vi. 5), what stress is laid on this commandment to love God. We have already shown in the Mishne-torah (Yes. ha-torah ii. 2) that this love is only possible when we comprehend the real nature of things, and understand the divine wisdom displayed therein.

Knowing the world we live in is a component of the Mitzvah to love God. We can only love someone we know. We have to know God’s world and love Him through that knowledge which will compel us to act in concert with that love, emulating Him.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Whose God Is This? Who Wrote This?

The following quote was written by a universally recognized great man. I wonder if my readers can guess who it is? I found it indirectly through an article that was brought to my attention by Nativ.

This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God pantokratwr , or Universal Ruler; for God is a relative word, and has a respect to servants; and Deity is the dominion of God not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants. The Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect; but a being, however perfect, without dominion, cannot be said to be Lord God; for we say, my God, your God, the God of Israel, the God of Gods, and Lord of Lords; but we do not say, my Eternal, your Eternal, the Eternal of Israel, the Eternal of Gods; we do not say, my Infinite, or my Perfect: these are titles which have no respect to servants. The word God1 usually signifies Lord; but every lord is not a God. It is the dominion of a spiritual being which constitutes a God: a true, supreme, or imaginary dominion makes a true, supreme, or imaginary God. And from his true dominion it follows that the true God is a living, intelligent, and powerful Being; and, from his other perfections, that he is supreme, or most perfect. He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done. He is not eternity or infinity, but eternal and infinite; he is not duration or space, but he endures and is present. He endures for ever, and is every where present; and by existing always and every where, he constitutes duration and space. Since every particle of space is always, and every indivisible moment of duration is every where, certainly the Maker and Lord of all things cannot be never and no where. Every soul that has perception is, though in different times and in different organs of sense and motion, still the same indivisible person. There are given successive parts in duration, co-existent puts in space, but neither the one nor the other in the person of a man, or his thinking principle; and much less can they be found in the thinking substance of God. Every man, so far as he is a thing that has perception, is one and the same man during his whole life, in all and each of his organs of sense. God is the same God, always and every where. He is omnipresent not virtually only, but also substantially; for virtue cannot subsist without substance. In him2 are all things contained and moved; yet neither affects the other: God suffers nothing from the motion of bodies; bodies find no resistance from the omnipresence of God. It is allowed by all that the Supreme God exists necessarily; and by the same necessity he exists always, and every where. Whence also he is all similar, all eye, all ear, all brain, all arm, all power to perceive, to understand, and to act; but in a manner not at all human, in a manner not at all corporeal, in a manner utterly unknown to us. As a blind man has no idea of colours, so have we no idea of the manner by which the all-wise God perceives and understands all things. He is utterly void of all body and bodily figure, and can therefore neither be seen, nor heard, or touched; nor ought he to be worshipped under the representation of any corporeal thing. We have ideas of his attributes, but what the real substance of any thing is we know not. In bodies, we see only their figures and colours, we hear only the sounds, we touch only their outward surfaces, we smell only the smells, and taste the savours; but their inward substances are not to be known either by our senses, or by any reflex act of our minds: much less, then, have we any idea of the substance of God. We know him only by his most wise and excellent contrivances of things, and final cause: we admire him for his perfections; but we reverence and adore him on account of his dominion: for we adore him as his servants; and a god without dominion, providence, and final causes, is nothing else but Fate and Nature. Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and every where, could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of natural things which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing. But, by way of allegory, God is said to see, to speak, to laugh, to love, to hate, to desire, to give, to receive, to rejoice, to be angry, to fight, to frame, to work, to build; for all our notions of God are taken from. the ways of mankind by a certain similitude, which, though not perfect, has some likeness, however. And thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearances of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Ta'amei Hamitzvot - The Role of the Perfected Human Being.

In my last posts on the Reason for Keeping Mitzvot, I wrote that they are a tool to help us understand what role we have to play in promoting existence. Before I get into the specifics of what I mean by tools, I realize that I need to define better, what man’s role in promoting existence consists of. I would like to use a classical example in the Torah that I believe I have written about several times before in different contexts, repeating it again here for this discussion. Please view this as just one example of how people tried to figure out how to act correctly.

After the experience at Sinai, where Moshe led and taught a nation of freed slaves how to attain levels of philosophical and metaphysical apprehension that was unheard of until then, he is confronted with a complete breakdown and possible loss of this great attainment. The people, after a short absence on his part, had taken a major step backwards into idolatry and superstition. They had created their own idol the Golden Calf to replace Moshe. Growing up in Egypt, he had become aware of the existence of his brethrens in slavery and he risked his life to change their state. His prophetic sense gave him the courage to stand up alone to the great Pharaoh and threaten him, cajole him and eventually browbeat him with the plagues into freeing these people. What was the vision that sustained him through all this?

וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ, וְזֶה-לְּך

ָ הָאוֹת, כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ: בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת-הָעָם

, מִמִּצְרַיִם, תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה

12 And He said, “certainly, I will be with thee; and this shall be the token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.”

The idea was to create a nation that knew and served the one and only God and repudiated idolatry. Moshe had taken over the baton from the Avot who were the first with this vision. Now, at the height of success, at the mountain – Sinai - when he thought he had arrived at the pinnacle of his career, everything came tumbling down. Moshe turns to God and wonders, “did I miss anything?” -

וְעַתָּה אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיך

הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ, וְאֵדָעֲךָ, לְמַעַן אֶמְצָא-חֵן


וּרְאֵה, כִּי עַמְּךָ הַגּוֹי הַזֶּה

Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found grace in Thy sight, show me now Thy ways, that I may know Thee, to the end that I may find grace in Thy sight; and consider that this nation is Thy people. (Shemot 33:13)

To which he receives the following answer –

יט וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲנִי אַעֲבִיר כָּל-טוּבִי

עַל-פָּנֶיךָ, וְקָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם יְהוָה, לְפָנֶיךָ; וְחַנֹּתִי

אֶת-אֲשֶׁר אָחֹן, וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם.

And He said: 'I will make all My goodness pass before thee, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. (Shemot 33:19)

Note the word כָּל-טוּבִי – all My goodness – which reminds us of the words

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד

And God saw every thing that He had made, and behold it was very good.

Rambam in MN 1:54 addresses this as follows –

“…and then received, respecting his first request, "Show me thy way," the following favorable reply, "I will make all my goodness to pass before thee"… The words "all my goodness" imply that God promised to show him the whole creation, concerning which it has been stated, "And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). When I say, "to show him the whole creation," I mean to imply that God promised to make him comprehend the nature of all things, their relation to each other, and the way they are governed by God both in reference to the universe as a whole and to each creature in particular.”

In other words, Moshe realized that his distress was caused by a lack of knowledge and understanding of how things develop in this world. It was not realistic to expect this rapid changeover from a people who were enslaved idolaters into a nation of free monotheists. Understanding how the world operates and how it develops, what man’s place in it is and how humanity will slowly develop, with all its false starts and sidetracking, into the necessary participant in the whole, helped Moshe see what he had to do and the value of what he was doing. The seed that was planted by Avraham which Moshe now took to the next level will eventually become a nation that will know God and slowly influence humanity. Whatever man’s role is in the long-term survival of existence will only become possible if he breaks away from idolatry and superstition seeing the world as it really is and tries to understand it from a realistic and scientific perspective how it works.

Consequently, the knowledge of the works of God is the knowledge of His attributes, by which He can be known… It is therefore clear that the ways which Moses wished to know, and which God taught him, are the actions emanating from God.

When we repeat the 13 Midot in our prayers, we are reminded of our goal to understand God’s world and our role in it. I find the ending of the 13 Midot telling

ז נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים, נֹשֵׂא

עָו‍ֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה; וְנַקֵּה, לֹא יְנַקֶּה--פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן


עַל-בָּנִים וְעַל-בְּנֵי בָנִים, עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים


Keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.

In this verse, the 13 Midot turn from a current perspective to an historical one. This process of humanity developing and adapting to play its role in the universe is long-term and multi-generational. We all have the choice to play our role in it if we try to understand and find it. The Avot and Moshe’s role was to plant the kernel of monotheism, of introducing and teaching humanity about God by creating a nation of seekers of God. Others, who followed their example trying to understand their own role, contributed their part. Aristotle and the thinkers that preceded him in antiquity, to the great contemporary thinkers and scientists, all rejected idolatry and superstition. They all followed in the same path that the Avot and Moshe understood, whether they came to the same realization on their own or were influenced by Judaism. (See the famous Rambam in Hilchot Melachim 11:11-13 )

I hope that using this as an example, we get an idea of what Rambam means by humanity’s role is in the preservation of the whole of existence. It is not something that can be prescribed, but something that man has to discover. For man to be able to do that discovery correctly, his rational faculty has to be in control. His personal biases have to be subsumed and he has to be able to think objectively. For whatever reason, God when He created man wanted him to have freedom of choice so that he can choose to act constructively or not. He created man with a mind that he can use in understanding how to act. The Torah and the Mitzvot it promulgates are the tools that can help, if understood and used properly, perfect a man that fulfils his role.

“… and that the religious acts prescribed in the Law, the various kinds of worship and the moral principles which benefit all people in their social intercourse with each other, do not constitute the ultimate aim of man, nor can they be compared to it [apprehension of God], for they are but preparations leading to it.” (MN 3:54)

For it is only through apprehension of God through His Creation and understanding how He runs it that we can emulate God and partake with Him in creation and its preservation, fulfilling the role set out by Him for humanity.

Ending on a lighter note for the Star Trek and Frank Herbert’s Dune fans, maybe humanity will have to spread throughout the galaxy and beyond bringing other worlds to life and populating them[1]. That may be the key to the eternal survival of existence. That surely could not happen if we were still mired in idolatry and superstition.

[1] I prefer my vision to EJ’s - "Why isn’t it possible that man is only a way station to some higher form of life, say a supercomputer that can simulate consciousness but be much more intelligent and rational?"