Sunday, January 06, 2008

Introduction to Ta'amei Hamitzvot - Why the Commandments? Mystical or Utilitarian?

Growing up I was taught that when I did a mitzvah I somehow changed something in heaven that would make good things happen and if I sinned a similar but opposite celestial change would bring about bad things. As a little boy in Paris, my first tutor was a Lubavitcher Chassid who taught me Aleph Beis. I remember him telling me that if I said the words with proper Kavanah (whatever that meant to a 5 year old child), I would be immediately rewarded. As I scrunched my head reading the letters, suddenly a candy flew down from the ceiling. I remember even then thinking, “who is he kidding?” but there was a smidgen of doubt and a feeling of guilt about being skeptical so I shut up. That was the concept of Mitzvot and consequent reward and punishment I knew as the basis for keeping them. As I got a little older, I started questioning this. For the sake of full disclosure, it was not a purely intellectual problem triggered by skepticism and the quest for truth, but rather me trying to deal with my urges and why it was forbidden to succumb to them. If all these prohibition were for this mystical, irrational and not provable consequence, they were just there to torture and nothing more. So I rebelled and did things just to satisfy my parents and keep them off my back. I also started searching for some understanding. It is when I bought myself, in Sao Paulo where we lived during that period, my first Moreh Nevuchim which I still have. I did not understand much but I had the intuition, based on what the bookstore owner, R. Rafi Fisch ZL told me about Rambam’s approach, that I would find in there some answers to my perplexity. When I came to Yeshiva in Israel, I was at the height of adolescence and rebellion was simmering in me. Fortunately, I was approached by an older Bachur who introduced me to Ramban, Nefesh Hachaim, Tanya and other Sifrei Chassidus. For a while, I got into that and loved going to Rebbes and Tischen, Viznitz, Ger and Klausenburg were my favorite Shabbat experiences. The interesting thing was that it never worked. I now had two personas, the spiritually seeking person who had temporary ecstatic experiences and the human being with urges to repress. I could easily swing from one persona to the other, feeling pangs of guilt when I entered my spiritual state for the actions of my physical self, but not enough to prevent them. If I got depressed in those moments of conflict, I resorted to the Breslov dictum that “Mara Shechorah (depression) is not a sin but the consequences of Mara Shechorah are greater than those of any sin” and that somehow kept me going. I forgot all about Rambam and after a while, I became an automaton doing things out of convenience and comfort without any conviction. These ecstatic experiences became less and less frequent and especially after getting married and dealing with day-to-day pressures, this theological quest fell to the wayside. I just continued doing things out of habit without any conviction. I had an instinctual feeling that I had to make sure not to go too far off the Derech, so I became this split personality, with chumrot at one end but also able to act very badly at other times. Unfortunately, now I see many of my brethrens in this conundrum and I understand very well where they are coming from. It is a painful and miserable life.

To make a long story short, at some point I got interested in learning again and realized that ignorance was at the base of my problem. I also got professional help while I was learning and gathering information. I remember the great breakthrough came when I discovered Yeshayahu Leibowitz and his take on Rambam. It renewed my interest in Rambam and I believe that it was the key to my rehabilitation. My internal life has since changed dramatically.

I am writing this not because I have exhibitionist tendencies but rather to share with others who may have similar experiences and hopefully, as they follow some of the things I work through on this blog, they will find the same solace and sense of integration rather than a conflicted split persona. Especially important to deal with this issue, is what I want to address as the next subject, Ta’amei Hamitzvot. What is the purpose of all these commandments and prohibitions? When we transgress, we feel guilty. For what exactly are we feeling guilty? Is it because we hurt God, our soul or the consequences that we brought down on ourselves? If it is God that we hurt, is He not a petty tyrant being hurt because I picked a rotten tomato out of a batch on Shabbat? If it is our soul, what does that mean? What exactly is that soul? If it is consequences why feel guilty? Take them like a man (or woman) and move on. I hope to answer these questions as I progress with this subject.

Unlike Ramban who believes, that Mitzvot change things in heaven especially in Eretz Israel, and therefore have an intrinsic value, Rambam believes that they are purely utilitarian. Their purpose is to help us become better people by developing our innate potential as human beings. The laws are just practical tools to help us focus on the important issues and not be distracted and derailed into a purely selfish and thoughtless survival mode. For a thorough treatment of the difference between these two approaches I highly recommend Professor Menachem Kellner’s “Maimonides: Confrontation with Mysticism” where he has a chapter that does a great job explaining this. I think that the most compelling difference is that according to Ramban there is only one way to do the Mitzvah for it to accomplish its purpose, the way the Torah tells us. According to Rambam, there may be other actions that would accomplish the same thing but we as Jews, have taken upon ourselves to follow the one the Torah chose and ordered. That acceptance itself is utilitarian rather than the only true way.

What then is the utility of Mitzvot?

“But the truth is undoubtedly as we have said that every one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits. All this depends on three things: opinions, morals, and social conduct.” (MN3:31)

The way I would like to deal with this subject is to follow Rambam’s exposition which is to first examine the exact meaning of each of these categories and what is their importance in making us better people. Some are more obvious than others are, though I am sure, if we think about them carefully, we will find that our preconceived ideas about them may be wrong. I will address this in upcoming posts. As usual, I do not stay with a subject exclusively, so I beg your indulgence for my regular digressions to things that catch my attention or come up indirectly in this endeavor.


  1. Great post. Just for clarification, you said that you "realized that ignorance was at the base of [your] problem". However, it seems that you are saying that it was a specific kind of ignorance - specifically the derekh haRambam and his approach to ta'amei haMitzvot. Is that correct?

    I have also felt that "mystical" ta'amim are not able to give meaning to "actual" life - as you called it: utilitarian (but that word has some negative connotations). Unless the "mystic" is blessed to have Eliyahu HaNavi as his mystical tutor, life gets fake or meaningless (or one is forced to attach himself to charismatic figures who have "mystical" experiences - and we all know where that leads).

  2. R' David, your blog is phenomenal. Ever thought of writing a book?

  3. >Unless the "mystic" is blessed to have Eliyahu HaNavi as his mystical tutor, life gets fake or meaningless

    I am not sure what exactly Elyahu Hanavi means either!

    Yehuda, re your first question, I meant general information. In yeshivah one is not taught Messechtot just the first 15 to 20 daf, one is not taught how to learn Lehalacha, and one is not taught Mishna and tenach. Unless one has yediot one cannot understand the derech hashem whether it is derech harambam or anyone else. One surely cannot make an intelligent differentiations between the various derachim. So I started cramming daf yomi, mishna tanach, chumash each year with a different parshan and reading voraciously on the side both Jewish history, machshava etc...

    Kermit - you made my day. Who knows this blog might be the basis for a book. Don't repeat these compliments too often or I will have to fight off Ga'ava!

    But truly deep down I like it so bring on the praise!

    It reminds of R. Simcha Wasserman ZL who was the founder of the yeshiva in Aix les Bains in France before wwII. He returned to france in the late 1980's and was honored by the now sefardi kehilla as the original source of Torah in france. He once told me that the first time a person kissed his hand he was embarassed but after a while "es hot mir ganz gut geshmekt". I liked it very much! and he gave his hearty chuckle.

  4. Some random thoughts…You write "What is the purpose of all these commandments and prohibitions? When we transgress, we feel guilty. For what exactly are we feeling guilty." The first question has little if anything to do with the second question. A norm might have no purpose but I might feel guilty, and conversely it might be very useful and for one reason or another I feel no guilt when I transgress the norm.

    The word purpose has the connotation of being forward looking…what future good is achieved by my doing a mitzvah. Are all mitzvoth forward looking? Punishments could be as payment/retribution for past deeds and not all are lmaan yismeuu veyeerawu. The mitzvah of mechiaas amalek looks like payment for the past. Isn’t the correct translation of taamei hamitzvoth reasons for doing mitzvoth?

    A mitzvah might have a function or a point but not be a reason or have any utility for me. I have in mind Mary Douglas style anthropological explanations for kashruth (see her Danger and Purity) which these days is used quite frequently to explain chukim (see for example Jacob Milgrom’s commentary of Leviticus.) The idea that we are forbidden to eat bottom crawlers because they are not fish or animals EXPLAINS the mitzvah without being exactly a reason for doing the mitzvah other than to mark the distinction itself. Another example is the current popular explanation of why homosexuality is forbidden. (I provide a sketch in the comments to R. Maryles’s post 12/26.)

    I strongly second the suggestion that you turn your blog and already published articles into a book, and call it xxxxx VolumeOne.

  5. Yehuda.. I am in the same situation as David was before he got married. I am still a teenager. I too was brought up by lubavitcher chasidim.

    I think, I understand what David means by ignorance. I'll give an example, Lubavitcher chasidim keep on citing foolish reasons for prohibitions. For example, the prohibition for whiping ones butt with his right hand. They explain the reason for this as it is for respect for the hand we fulfill the miztvah of tefillin with. Therefore, making a simple rational law in order to give respect for holy object. (I personally am in disagrence with seeing tefillin as a holy object. Rather, I prefer to see it as it holy because it contents and only because of that.) The problem is if one learns the Talmud he sees that the prohibition has scriptual sources (mainly, the right hand is said to of written the Torah). Therefore, making it a it a path that the Torah has set us on. We are commanded not to follow our heart from the path that the Torah set us on.

    What has bother me the most is the are the philosophical questions that I have not only heard among lubavitchers but also Modern Orthodox. For example, can God create a rock that is too heavy for himself to lift up? My first amateur answer to this question was at the age of 14 arguing God is spiritual and therefore rocks not being spiritual makes this not a question. I came up with this arguement after having my teacher preach for nemours lessons during the ages of 12, 13, and 14, about how to answer this question with endless "proofs." I was also told how some people like (I think, a certain chabad Jacobson) would think too logically to be able to answer question correct. The correct answer being yes but he still will be able to carry it. (Jacobson would answer a simple no.)

    Now that I am no longer in their school and have gained a little more understanding I see that all this was foolishness and most likely heretical! It was all in vain for as it states, is God a man for you to understand his existance? (paraphrase)

    Today, I am criticize for having touched Moreh Nevukim for Nachman from Breslov says it brings a person to heresy. I can not withhold my complete anger at these heretics. They are dogs that cause God anger at every moment and I pray for their complete annulation speedily, three times a day.

    I have only read minor parts of the Moreh Nevukim as I am spending most of my time learning scripture. I should of been trained in scripture as a child. But instead the lubavitcher chasidim decided to train me in the foolishness of superior nusachot and other nonsense that I wish not to mention. How does the fool in Brooklyn reconcile the nonsense he has spread about his nusach with halakha, I do not know. He surely is counted with the heretics.

    I each day tremble out of fear of sin. As I see my colleagues freely inviting everyone into their Grace and yet murmur some jumbled words to themselves.

    I wish there was a yeshiva today that would focus on teaching scripture, halakha, and the fundamentals of our faith such as the incorporeality of God. That I do not have to explore down the true path myself.

    It is time to go to bed.
    -A child now living in Jerusalem.

  6. EJ

    >The first question has little if anything to do with the second question.

    Correct. I was just presenting different problems.

    >The word purpose has the connotation of being forward looking…

    Not necessarily at least in the context I was talking. Maybe I should have phrased why do mitzvot?

    >A mitzvah might have a function or a point but not be a reason or have any utility for me.

    That is exactly the issue. According to Rambam there is no Mitzvah without it having some utility for the doer. I would have a problem with mitzvot that are illogical and serve no purpose or offer no benefit or teach no lesson. If I do it it has to mean something to me and have a utility for me.

    >and call it xxxxx VolumeOne.

    LOL so you consider my blog pornographic!?

  7. C''v. By 'xxx' I meant it is for you to decide the name; but I think you already knew that.

    Utility versus functional explanation is difficult to explain clearly. But if you say utility only that is fine, but it is a very strong condition. The way to do this without cheating is to first specify what counts as the good (utility,welfare,benefit), independently of any mitvoth. Is it satisfaction of desires or satisfaction of rational desires or acheivement of the highest good, whatever you, the Rambam picks. Then you must show how each and every mitzvah contributes in a direct way to this good. You can't say the good/utility is to do Hashem's commandment to perform mitzvoth, since that is circular.I don't think a complete taamei hamitzvoth in the sense I just outlined has ever been put forward.

  8. >I don't think a complete taamei hamitzvoth in the sense I just outlined has ever been put forward.

    EJ your outline is the only possible rational way to understand Mitzvot and Rambam does propose that. I hope to be able to work this through.

  9. Did you ever stop and think that you aren't even a Jew. I don't believe you are a Jew. You don't fit the Curses.