Monday, January 07, 2008

Ta'amei Hamitzvot - Good Independently of Mitzvot - Mitzvot and their Role in Knowing what is Good.

In a comment on my last post Evanston Jew in his usual sharp and cogent exposition described what a coherent and logical explanation for the reason for doing Mitzvot should contain – (with some editing) -

The way to do this without cheating is to first specify what counts as the good (utility, welfare, benefit), independently of any mitzvoth. Is it satisfaction of desires or satisfaction of rational desires or achievement of the highest good, whatever you, the Rambam picks. Then you must show how each mitzvah contributes in a direct way to this good. You cannot say the good/utility is to do Hashem's commandment to perform mitzvoth, since that is circular. I don't think a complete Ta’amei Hamitzvot in the sense I just outlined has ever been put forward.”

To address the first part of the requirement I would urge the reader to go to my two earlier posts –

Believing is Knowing: Is There Purpose and Finality to our Existence?

Believing is Knowing: More on Finality and Purpose of our Existence - Practical Implications.

In those two posts, I presented what I understand to be Rambam’s position as to the place of man, his relationship to the universe and his role in it. To summarize, man is a component of a huge universe / cosmos that has a built in system for self-preservation and long-term, in fact eternal a parte post, survival. Each component as a category, has its own survival instinct so to say, but also has a part to play in the conservation of the whole by using its own unique abilities for that purpose sometimes to its own peril. The unique abilities are what define a category, in medieval Hebrew Aristotelian language that is called Tzura (Form) and give us a clue to that category’s role as a component of the whole. Man’s uniqueness is his Sechel, his potential to develop his mind to apprehend abstract thoughts, and coupled with self-awareness and introspection to understand how to act correctly to fulfill his part in the survival of the whole. Unlike the other elements that make up existence that have a well-defined role, man is unique in that he is born with the potential only. He has to develop this special ability before he can use it correctly. We call this Freedom of Choice – Bechira – to develop the potential constructively, destructively or not develop it at all. The way I see it in my mind is that we have a system with components that have well defined and predictable roles and then, one component is added, that is a wild card who can define his role, as he understands it. That wild card is man and his role is to address the needs of the whole as they become evident. When we read the story of Creation, we see that as the components come into being they are referred to by God as Tov – good and when man is created all is seen as Tov Me’od – very good. Good and very good are words that describe survival and long-term survival, fulfillment of a role that was willed for the component and the whole by their Creator. When we say that we as humans are trying to do God’s will, we are saying that we are trying to fulfill our part in existence by playing the role we were created to act out.

The problem is that this special ability of man that he is born with as a potential and is intrinsically coupled with freedom of choice, is not easy to develop. It is not a simple matter to figure out what is the correct action that will be constructive. This potential for developing the mind is inherently quite complicated. It is a blend of emotions, feelings, urges, instincts, thoughts, ideas, imagination and so on, all the human being’s elementary traits, that work together to bring about this perfected person who knows how to act constructively – do good, do the will of his Creator. If these abilities are not developed in a controlled manner, they have the potential to be really destructive.

It is acknowledged that a man who does not possess this "form" (the nature of which has just been explained) is not human, but a mere animal in human shape and form. Yet such a creature has the power of causing harm and injury, a power which does not belong to other creatures. For those gifts of intelligence and judgment with which he has been endowed for the purpose of acquiring perfection, but which he has failed to apply to their proper aim, are used by him for wicked and mischievous ends; he begets evil things, as though he merely resembled man, or simulated his outward appearance.” (MN 1:7)

Which brings us back to the question that Evanston Jew said needs to be answered before anything else – what is good independently of Mitzvot? As it relates to man, it is for him to act in a way that uses his developed potential to the maximum to fulfill the role he was created to perform for the survival of the whole of existence. The challenge is to figure out a way to get this complex entity with this powerful potential to act correctly, to develop that potential properly and not use it destructively – to do what is good. This is the “utilitarian” goal of the Mitzvot, to help man as an individual and humankind as a category, to fulfill its role in the preservation of the whole of existence. That role can only be discovered through an understanding of how the universe works, how God has created and put in place laws that govern it and what role man has in that system. That discovery and acting accordingly is called going in God’s paths. It is emulating God by understanding what He wants us to do. That understanding has to be arrived at rationally and objectively, taking out our personal biases and preferences from the equation, otherwise we will arrive at conclusions that are erroneous. That is the underlying rationale for the Mitzvot in general and it is how Rambam presents them – to promote opinions, morals and social conducts. All Mitzvot according to Rambam fall under one of these three categories.

This thinking has to always be in the background as we continue trying to understand the reason for Mitzvot. As we will see, Rambam had this in mind as he organized his Mishne Torah where he detailed all the Mitzvot and he uses that same organization as he discusses the reason for Mitzvot in the Moreh.


  1. Questions…1.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. And then there is the Dawkins aphorism that genes, not humans rule…"humans are genes way of producing more genes." Is this our purpose…to help bring about some non-human more perfect being than ourselves? 2. If we accept Slifkin that Genesis 1-11 is not to be taken literally does this affect the thesis that God has willed us into existence? 3.Is the fact that millions of species have been destroyed over the years because of climate changes, meteors, the inability to compete with stronger species have any relevance to your idea of the conservation of the whole. BTW exactly what does that phrase mean? 3. In one sentence could you say exactly what role we were created to act out? Are we defenders of the ecology of the planet? How come Torah or the rabbis past and present pay virtually no attention to issues of global warming, pollution and survival of endangered species? Is it halachically wrong to drive a SUV?

    4. Isn’t it circular to say man’s good /telos is to develop his potential to do good. ("… to develop that potential properly and not use it destructively – to do what is good."). Elsewhere you give as a reason for mitzvoth that man must discover through revelation the laws of God for man,i.e. mitzvoth. My point is if you spell out what is good for man in terms of the mitzvoth, since they are God’s will, you are explaining the right (mitzvoth) in terms of the good and then turning around and explaining the good in terms of the right. WADR I am confused.

  2. EJ -

    Re 1. I don't think there is any practical outcome in speculating about what I would call SF imaginary possibilities for humanity. Don't get me wrong - I am a SF fan but I try not to conflate it with reality. I think what I am talking about is survival of the universe and the roles each element has in that sometimes at its own peril. That includes human beings.

    2. I don't see how Slifkin's idea which BTW is Chazal's idea recorded in Halacha (see Mishna Chagiga 2:1) has any impact on God having willed . On the contrary it tells us that we should interpret our existence as being the result of God's will. I have written a lot in past posts about what is empirically provable beliefs and which beliefs are 'revelatory" which means that it is an interpretation given to existential questions by prophecy. God having will is revelatory, God's existence is empirical.

    3. Ecology is one of the aspects of survival of the whole. There are halachot that teach us to be aware of the ecology. Ki ha'adam etz hasadeh lavo mipanecha bamatzor - is one that comes to mind immediately. There are a few more.

    When I say survival of the whole I mean that each element of the universe is intimately tied with others to allow for its own survival but also they all make up a whole, whether ecosystem, world, universe and so on. When I say the whole I am talking about the existence and continued evolution of the whole of existence which includes from the individual components to the whole Cosmos. There is in my mind confusion about how Rambam saw the survival of the components. He spends a whole chapter arguing that the world, which I assume he means earth, is eternal. He also says that categories (minim) or maybe I should translate species, are also eternal. How exactly he divides that I don't know. Is man a category or part of biology? The idea seems to be that sentient beings are necessary for the survival of the whole. In that case sentience would be a category that is eternal.

    What exactly is our role? I think that in the context of being a wild card, having freedom of choice, man is expected to do the unexpected when it is necessary for the survival of the whole. I believe scientific advancement is part of that and is represented by "vekiveshua". Social responsibility is another one where we are expected to act altruistically to do Chesed tzedaka umishpat ba'aretz. It is not only reciprocal but altruistic if you get my thinking.I will deal with some as I go along.

    4.You have not yet separated Mitzvot as tools from mitzvot as goals. Mitzvot per se are not doing good. They are just ritualistic or practical actions. Mitzvot are supposed to remind you, make you think and keep you focussed so you know how to do good. Just doing mitzvot without going beyond that is not good but mitzvat anashim melumada. God's will are not the mitzvot as the neviim kept on repeating that the rituals on their own are empty if they are not to learn how to do good.

    לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר יְהוָה, שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים; וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים, לֹא חָפָצְתִּי.

    כִּי תָבֹאוּ, לֵרָאוֹת פָּנָי--מִי-בִקֵּשׁ זֹאת מִיֶּדְכֶם, רְמֹס חֲצֵרָי.

    לֹא תוֹסִיפוּ, הָבִיא מִנְחַת-שָׁוְא--קְטֹרֶת תּוֹעֵבָה הִיא, לִי; חֹדֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת קְרֹא מִקְרָא, לֹא-אוּכַל אָוֶן וַעֲצָרָה.

    חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי, הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח; נִלְאֵיתִי, נְשֹׂא.

    רַחֲצוּ, הִזַּכּוּ--הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם, מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי: חִדְלוּ, הָרֵעַ.

    note stop doing evil=destructiveness.

    לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט, אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ; שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם, רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה.

    Note do good=constructive help others to survive!

    do I have to say more?

  3. I am not happy with your answers for these reasons. There is nothing we can do to influence the solar system, the universe or the cosmos. So I have no idea what you are referring to when you say we have some connection and responsibility for the survival and evolution of the universe.We can do something to prevent species # 462,346 of the red beetle from being wiped out. I doubt if we have any such obligation uberhaupt or according to halacha. Species come and isn't out gesheft.

    If you say both evolution is true and we are the end and purpose of the evolutionary line of development, you must say why evolution drops dead and stops when it gets to us.

    Excluding Genesis, which is a metaphor for Slifkii, exactly where does it say God willed us into existence, and what does that mean if we are descendents of primates?

    Why are sentient beings required? Would the rocks and trees disappear if our species was destroyed?

    Is your definition of a good act =an act that helps others survive? Are you saying each and every mitzvah taken one at a time can be shown to help others survive? Korbonot, nidah, soteh, mechias amalek, parah aduma, ir hnidachas and a couple of hundred others help others/mankind/animals/ecological habitat to survive? What am I missing?

  4. EJ-

    Your questions are a treasure trove and I see my work is cut out to answer them. I will try to address each one on various posts. I see however that you are stuck on this mitxvah thing. Forget what you were taught and revisit them as nothing more than training tools for the person that performs them properly. (That is not all they are but let's leave that for later - one step at a time.)