Thursday, February 28, 2008

Happiness and Rejoicing as Service of God.

Shabbat I learned with two young men Rambam’s introduction to Chelek and I had an insight that explained to me an interesting Halacha in MT. In a lengthy discussion about Reward and Punishment and Olam Haba in that context, Rambam explains that physical wellbeing is only a facilitator for the greater good which is the intellectual apprehension of eternal truths. The pleasure a person gets from this apprehension has an element of Olam Haba in it. It allows man to get in touch with eternity.

נמצא שאין תכלית התורה שתדשן האדמה ויאריכו ימים

ויבריאו הגופות, אלא ייעזרו על קיומה בכל הדברים הללו. וכן אם עברו יהיה

עונשם שיבואו עליהם כל אותם המעצורים עד שלא יוכלו לעשות טוב וכמו שאמר

תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה' וכו'.

The objective of the Torah is not for the earth to become verdant and for people to live long and healthy lives. These things are only facilitators [for doing good – in context – intellectual apprehension of eternal truths]. Should people transgress, their punishment will be that all kinds of barriers will prevent them from doing good. As it says: because you did not serve the LORD thy God with joyfulness and with gladness of heart by reason of the abundance of all things. (Devarim 28:47)

The verse Rambam uses as proof text is found in the middle of the Tochecha in Devarim where the Torah lists a series of mishaps and tragedies that will befall the Jewish people in their land. Rambam reads the verse as telling us that all this came about because we were not happy and satisfied when things were abundant. We should have dedicated our lives to serving God with joyfulness and gladness of heart when things were going well for us. Our material wellbeing is only there to allow us to serve God not for its own sake. Our ignoring this basic principle, pushed us to act in irresponsible ways eventually bringing about the downfall of our society.

As I was learning this with my Chaverim, a Rambam in MT at the end of Hilchot Lulav (8:15), came to mind –

שהשמחה שישמח אדם בעשיית המצוות ובאהבת האל שציווה בהן, עבודה גדולה היא;

וכל המונע עצמו משמחה זו, ראוי להיפרע ממנו, שנאמר "תחת, אשר לא עבדת את

ה' אלוהיך, בשמחה, ובטוב לבב"

For the joy that a person has for doing the Mitzvot and loving God who commanded them, is a great service. Anyone that refrains from this joy deserves to be punished, as it says: “Because you did not serve the LORD thy God with joyfulness and with gladness of heart by reason of the abundance of all things.” (Devarim 28:47)

I have always struggled with this Halacha. It never spoke to me. How can one be commanded to have an emotion? If I am not happy, how do I become if commanded to be? Noting the common verse Rambam uses as proof text, here and in the Pirush Hamishna above, a light went off in my head. I think I finally get what this Halacha is telling us.

At the end of the agricultural year, after gathering all the products of the land, we look back at our accomplishment and we experience feelings of satisfaction. In corporate America, this success would be seen as a challenge and our focus would immediately turn to the future and to how we can better this record next season. The more material wealth we can accumulate, the greater self-satisfaction we will have. The joy we feel at our accomplishment is tinged with anxiety for the future.

The attitude the Torah is trying to teach is that all this material wealth is essential but is not the goal. The goal is to have enough to allow us to spend time and effort on intellectual growth. If we have a bountiful year, our material needs have been satisfied and we can dedicate ourselves to the more lofty pursuit of acquiring knowledge. Material well being is only a necessary requirement not a goal in itself. The joy that one has when we have a successful crop is that it will allow us to serve God by getting to know Him – loving Him, which is synonymous with knowing. For the joy that a person experiences for doing the Mitzvot and loving God who commanded them, is a great service. That is why only the intellectuals and the sages actively partake in this rejoicing.

מצוה, להרבות בשמחה זו. ולא היו עושין אותה עמי הארץ, וכל מי שירצה--אלא

גדולי חכמי ישראל וראשי הישיבות והסנהדרין והחסידים והזקנים ואנשי מעשה,

הם שהיו מרקדין ומספקין ומנגנין ושמחין במקדש בימי חג הסוכות; אבל כל העם,

האנשים והנשים--כולן באין לראות, ולשמוע:

It is a Mitzvah to rejoice a lot. The masses did not partake nor anyone that just wanted to. Only the greater of the wise of Israel, the heads of the Yeshivot, the Sanhedrin, the righteous, the elders and men of good deeds partook. They were the ones who danced, clapped their hands, sang and rejoiced in the Beit Hamikdash during the holiday of Sukkoth. The rest of the people, men and women, came to see and hear.

The masses watch and hear but do not really have the same feeling of joy that the perfected individuals experience. They however see that it is not those who were instrumental in having a successful crop, that rejoice. Material rewards per se are not reason enough for joy. It is what material success can bring in spiritual and intellectual growth that is the reason for the happiness and joy. Forgetting that will bring about the collapse of our society through greed, injustice and the distortion our moral compass.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Pre- Messianic Kingship -

ואם יעמוד מלך מבית דויד הוגה בתורה ועוסק במצוות כדויד אביו, כפי תורה

שבכתב ושבעל פה, ויכוף כל ישראל לילך בה ולחזק בדקה, ויילחם מלחמות

ה'--הרי זה בחזקת שהוא משיח: אם עשה והצליח, וניצח כל האומות שסביביו,

ובנה מקדש במקומו, וקיבץ נדחי ישראל--הרי זה משיח בוודאי.

ט ואם לא הצליח עד כה, או נהרג--בידוע שאינו זה שהבטיחה עליו תורה, והרי הוא ככל מלכי בית דויד השלמים הכשרים שמתו.

(Hil Melachim 11:4)

Should a Davidic king arise who learns Torah and is involved with doing Mitzvot like David his forebear, following both the written and oral Law compelling all of Israel to follow it and repair its cracks. Should he also fight the wars of HKBH, he would be considered as a presumptive Mashiach. If he is successful and conquers the surrounding nations and builds the Beit Hamikdash in its proper location, gathering in the scatterings of Israel, he is definitely Mashiach. If he was not successful that extent or if he is killed, then we know that he is definitely not the one promised by the Torah. He would be seen as any perfected and legitimate Davidic king who died.

It is fascinating that if we read this correctly, Rambam is suggesting the possibility of a Jewish king before Mashiach. In other words should a Jewish independent government come into existence before Mashiach, it would be considered legitimate.

I found this in an excellent article by Professor Aviezer Ravitzky (Lerefuah Shleima) Philosophy and Leadership in Maimonides after 800 Years edited by J.M.Harris. Although I am not in total agreement with some of his readings of Rambam, I highly recommend the article.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Meiri on Principles of Faith - Logic Trumps Sources and Conclusions of a Gemara.

Meiri, in a comment on the argument in the Gemara Shabbat 55a, whether there is death or punishment without sin, Meiri sides with Rav Ami who says that punishment comes only with sin. He says that it is a principle, an Ikar in Jewish theology. Although the Gemara refutes Rav Ami, quoting a Braitha saying that four people died although they never sinned which seems to indicate that there is death without sin, Meiri disputes the conclusion of the Gemara saying:

אין עיקרי האמונות תלויות בראיות של פשוטי מקראות ואגדות וכבר ידעת שאין משיבין באגדה

The principles of Faith (Ikarim) do not depend on the testimony of the literal sense of scriptures or Aggadot. And it is well known that one does not base refutations on Aggadot.

In other words just because a Gemara concluded that one opinion stands based on an irrefutable earlier source, where had it been a Halachik question we would have to abide by the Gemara’s decision, in Aggadot we do not. We follow the rational reasoning and assume the Braitha that is quoted as a source for the refutation of one opinion and the basis for the Gemara’s decision, should not be read literally.

Professor David Halivni quotes this Meiri in his essay “Prayer in the Shoah” in the recently published collection of his thoughts on the Holocaust, Breaking the Tablets.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Reward and Punishment - Natural Consequences or "Spritual " Connections - A Dialogue.

My last post about earthquakes elicited some interesting comments on the blog and also in separate email exchanges. The following is an edited version of an exchange I had with a very learned Talmid Chacham. I think it is very important as it shows how we hard we have to work to really read our great Rabbis’ words with an open mind. This is posted with permission from my correspondent.

R. Ploni:

"To suggest that one would prevent earthquakes by not encouraging homosexual activity is making Mitzvot into magical potions. That is close to Avodah Zara which is much worse than homosexuality."

I am not sure what I think about this. Doesn't the Torah state that certain rewards are linked to certain Mitzvos (e.g. shiluach hakein and long life)? And the Mishna links certain punishments to certain sins (e.g. women dying in childbirth due to neglecting certain Mitzvos). So while the above statement might be making the wrong link, why is the idea of a link, per se, idolatrous?

To which I responded – a bit of a ramble – with edits for clarification.

Re Shiluach Hakein, see Chulin 142 where it tells us it means Layom Shekulo Tov [a long afterlife].

However, you do make a good point regarding the case of the women. What do Hadlakat Haner, (lighting candles) Chalah and Niddah have to do with Childbirth?

The first basic issue here is can one use threats that one knows are exaggerated to reinforce a good behavior? Case in point is Hotza'at Zera Levatala (male masturbation) where they say Ein lo Chelek Le'olam Haba.

See Rambam Hilchot Teshuvah 3:14 -

ויש עבירות קלות מאלו, ואף על פי כן אמרו חכמים שהרגיל בהן אין לו חלק לעולם הבא, כדי להתרחק מהן ולהיזהר מהן.

There are lesser prohibitions than the above [Rambam just listed 24 cases where the transgressor does not attain Olam Haba], that the wise said that one who makes them a habit does not attain Olam Haba. [They said that] to distance one from them and to warn away from them.

There is a whole school of Medieval followers of Rambam who understood this to be a central tenet in his thought. I believe this requires a much more elaborate and thorough analysis. Apparently, there is a utilitarian and educational reason behind some of the threats for punishment.

The second issue is does the threat, if we accept that as a possibility, have to make sense and be related to the Aveirah? This brings us back to childbirth. I would take it in the historical context. As you know, it was the greatest killer in olden times. Most men married more than once because of it. They had no idea why women died. They used that mystery to reinforce a good behavior. Using it nowadays would be a Chilul Hashem. We know that since hygiene came into medicine, childbirth mortality is quite rare. In fact, nowadays there are more widows than widowers. To do the subject justice one would have to analyze every case where such threats are found. I would wager that they all are logical either based on the science of the time they were said or there is some connection with the transgression though maybe not obvious.

Now as to earthquakes, we now know that they are caused by the movement of plates and Israel happens to be located on a fault. Suggesting that homosexuality has anything to do with it is a Chilul hashem and does make Mitzvot magical. Anyone that lives in California for example knows that it is prone to earthquakes and remains there without making sure that his building is reinforced, should do Teshuvah. That may make him rethink whether greed overcame the importance of self-preservation - he should either move away or spend the money and reinforce his building. In the case of Israel, where we cannot move away, there is only one choice - reinforce the building. The commandment of "Vekivshu'a" applies here. [God commanded Adam (man) to populate the earth and conquer it]. Use technology to control your environment. The secular are right and Benizri was mechalel Shem Shamayim.

I will end this rambling reply with Hil Ta’aniyot 1:2 -

ודבר זה, דרך מדרכי התשובה הוא: שבזמן שתבוא צרה ויזעקו לה ויריעו, יידעו הכול שבגלל מעשיהם הרעים הרע להן--ככתוב "עוונותיכם, הטו אלה" (ירמיהו ה,כה) לכם, וזה הוא שיגרום להם להסיר הצרה מעליהם.

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

This [ritual of fasting, prayer and horn blowing when tragedy strikes] is among the paths to repentance. For when a tragedy comes people’s way and they cry out and blow horns they will realize that it is their bad deeds that brought this bad thing about. As it says in scriptures, your sins brought this about. This will cause the tragedy to go away.

But if the will not cry out and blow horns, saying that it is just happenstance and the way of the world, that is cruelty. It causes them to stay with their erroneous ways and the tragedy will only get worse and other mishaps will come their way.

Clearly, Teshuvah here is for what was done that directly caused the tragedy. If one does not change their ways we repeat the same mistake וגורמת להם להידבק במעשיהם הרעים.

To which my friend replied –

Thanks for your reply. But that quote from Hilchos Ta’aniyot seems to work

the other way, no? After all, most bad things that happen, according to you,

are linked to either natural causes or neglect of material hishtadlus,

rather than to spiritual sins?

To which I replied –

Where do you see anything but natural causes? Avonot means relying on "spirits" rather than doing. Here is an excerpt from a letter written by Rambam to the wise men of Marseilles -

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.

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!”

To which I got the following –

Wow, I never thought of looking at it that way. I have to think about it.

I post this exchange because it illustrates how difficult it is to read texts with an open mind without preconceived notions that we have been inculcated with since childhood. The truth is in front of our eyes but elusive at the same time.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reward and Punishment In Contemporary Orthodoxy - A Chilul Hashem!

Shas MK Shlomo Benizri blamed gays Wednesday for the earthquakes that have shaken the region in recent months, telling a Knesset plenum debate on local authorities' earthquake preparedness that government action on homosexuality would do much to prevent the tremors.

Benizri said the government should not make do with reinforcing buildings, but should instead pass less legislation that encourages homosexuality and other "perversions like adoptions by lesbian couples."

The ultra-Orthodox party MK invoked passages from the Talmud and the Gemarrah to support his claims.

"Why do earthquakes happen?" said Benizri. "One of the reasons is the things to which the Knesset gives legitimacy, to sodomy."

"A cost-effective way of averting earthquake damage," he added, "would be to stop passing legislation on how to encourage homosexual activity in the State of Israel, which anyways causes earthquakes." (Ha'aretz Today)

I believe that public displays and promotion of homosexual behavior should be forbidden in a Jewish state, nay in any state. It is inappropriate, as is any public display of sexuality moreover so in this case, as it is deviant. However to blame homosexuality for earthquakes! To suggest that one would prevent earthquakes by not encouraging homosexual activity, is making Mitzvot into magical potions. That is close to Avodah Zara which is much worse than homosexuality.

Such a statement by a supposed Jewish religious statesman is a Chilul Hashem as it denigrates the Torah and its Mitzvot in the eyes of any intelligent person.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Astrology and Talismans as Percursors of Idolatry - Both are Deceptions

Rambam wrote the Pirush Hamishna, his first major published work, while he was in his twenties. He tells us at the end of Seder Taharot that he started it at 23, finishing it in Egypt at 30. Although some scholars, based on certain rulings in Mishne Torah see a softening of his position on idolatry, as he grew older, it is clear that the basic underlying thinking never changed. I hope to eventually address those seeming changes of heart. As we will see his explanation of idolatry and its nefarious consequences is consistent from the Pirush Hamishna through the letter to the sages of Marseilles I already quoted in another post, which he wrote in his last years (Rambam died at 69).

As the following quote from his Pirush on Avodah Zara 4:7 is lengthy, I will break up the translation into thematic segments with comments as I go along. Depending on the length, this may spread over several posts. (Note: I copied the Hebrew translation available online and compared it with the Rav Kafieh edition. Wherever I thought it was important I used the latter in the translation. That should explain any discrepancy between the translation and the original.)


ממה שראוי שתדעהו, שהפילוסופים השלמים אינם

מאמינים בטליסמאות, אלא צוחקים מהם ומאלה החושבים שיש להן השפעה. וביאור

זה יארך, ואמנם אמרתי זאת ליודעי שרוב בני האדם ואולי כולם מרומים בהם

תרמית גדולה מאד, ובהרבה דברים מסוגם, ויחשבום דברים אמיתיים, ואינם כך.

עד שהטובים החסידים מאנשי תורתנו חושבים שהם דברים אמיתיים אלא שהם אסורים

בגלל התורה בלבד, ולא ידעו שהם דברים בטלים כוזבים שהזהירה מהם התורה כמו

שהזהירה מהשקר.

You need to know that the perfected philosophers [as opposed to the imperfect ones] do not believe in talismans. They laugh at them and at the people who believe that they have an influence [on the physical]. To explain this will be lengthy. I say this because I know that most people, indeed possibly all, are deceived by this great deception, and by many other similar things, considering them to be true. They are not. [The deception is so great] that even the best of the Chassidim [faithful] among our men [scholars] of Torah, think that they are true but forbidden because the Torah forbids them. They do not realize that they are nonsensical false things that the Torah warned against, just as it warned us against [believing in] falsehoods.

Rambam speaks plainly. He admits that what he is about to say goes against the opinion of the best of his learned and religious compatriots. Not only is he referring to his contemporaries but I understand that he is also addressing the Rabbis in the Talmud and even Mishna who seem to have believed in talismans and “other similar things”. He also stakes out his position that talismans and “other similar things” are false and do not work. They are a deception perpetrated by intentional deceivers who are so successful that everybody is susceptible. They are forbidden, not only because the Torah forbade their use, but also because they are a deception, just as lies and falsehoods would be forbidden even had the Torah not said so. I emphasize this because I believe it is one of the most important ideas that underlie Rambam’s understanding of idolatry, as we will see.

The Great Deception and why it is False:

והם דברים שזכו לפרסום רב אצל האומות, ושורש זה, הצאבה,

והם העמים אשר יצא אברהם אבינו מכללם וחלק על דעותיהם הנפסדות במה שאצר ה'

בליבו מן החכמה, והיו מגדלים את הכוכבים ומייחסים להם פעולות שאינן להם,

והם אשר יסדו את גזירת הכוכבים והכישוף והלחשים והורדת הרוחניות ושיחות

הכוכבים והשדים והקסם והניחוש לכל ריבוי מיניהם, ודרישת המתים, והרבה מאלה

הענינים אשר שלפה התורה האמיתית חרבה עליהם וכרתה אותם, והם שורש עבודה

זרה וענפה. וזה, שהכזב הראשון הוא גזירת הכוכבים, אשר מוכח במופת בחכמה

הטבעית ביטול הקדמותיה הראשונות, באומרם כוכב פלוני מזלו רע ופלוני מזלו

טוב, וחלק פלוני מן הגלגל מתאים לכוכב פלוני, ומתנגד לכוכב פלוני, עם היות

הגלגל כולו גוף אחד שחלקיו דומים, אין ניגוד בהם ולא הרכבה. ואלו שתי

ההקדמות הן עמוד גזירת הכוכבים, אשר אם יתאמת ביטולן, כמו שכבר התאמת,

יתבטלו פרטיה עד האחרון שבהם. אחר כך הורכב כזב שני על זה הכזב הראשון,

והן הטליסמאות, ואמרו שאם יהיה כוכב פלוני שמזלו טוב במקום פלוני המתאים

לו, תיעשה צורה בתואר כך והיא תביא תועלת כך, ואם היה כוכב פלוני שמזלו רע

במקום פלוני המתנגד לו, תיעשה צורה בתואר כך והיא תרחיק נזק כך, והתפשט זה

הענין כפי התפשטות גזירת הכוכבים ומה שמיוחס להם מן הפרטים. אחר כך הורכב

כזב שלישי על זה השני, והיא עבודה זרה, ונאמר שזאת הצורה אשר תיעשה במזל

כך ועל מצבה פלונית אם יוקטר לה באופן פלוני ויתפללו אליה במילים כך

וישתחוו לה, וכך וכך, הרי היא תפסיק נזק כוכב פלוני ותביא תועלת פלוני

These ideas gained great traction among the nations and at their root were the Sabeans, the peoples Avraham Avinu distanced himself from and, using the wisdom God gave him, disputed their ideas. They honored the stars attributing to them actions that were not theirs. They are the ones that established the laws [that apply to the use of the powers] of, the stars, magic, incantations, the bringing down of spirits, talking with the stars, the Sheidim, ghosts, prestidigitations of all types, consultation with the dead and many of such similar matters that the True Torah[1] unsheathed its sword and destroyed them. They are at the root of idolatry and its offshoots. The first deception was [the establishment of] astrology, which we can disprove its basic premises empirically and scientifically. For they [the astrologers] say that this specific star augurs good while the other augurs bad. They also say that a certain part of a sphere is compatible with a certain star and incompatible with another although they [the spheres] are one body without parts or compositions. These two propositions are the basis for astrology and if disproved – and they have been – all their details to the last, will fall apart.

A second deception was grafted on the first one – the Talismans. They said that if a certain star which augurs good finds itself in a compatible place [on the sphere] and if one makes a certain form in this and this way, it will be beneficial. If a certain star that augurs bad finds itself in a place that is incompatible with it, a different form will protect against it. These details broadened and spread as did astrology.

And now a third deception was grafted on the first two and that is idolatry. It was said that a form made during a specific sign on this specific altar and then certain kinds of incense are burned accompanied by specific words, genuflecting at such and such, it will stop the harm brought by a star [also] bringing a specific benefit.

Rambam explains why idolatry is a lie and false. Its underlying premise is that the spheres and stars have “spiritual” powers to influence happenings on earth. As he explained in MT that the whole thing started innocently as a natural consequence of the observation that there is a physical connection between the movement of the stars and what occurs on earth. Seasons, weather and tides depend on the sun and the moon. They conceptualized that they must be intermediaries between God and us and doing His bidding and therefore deserved respect. It was not long before powers other than physical were ascribed to them. They were no longer forces of nature that acted according to certain preset laws but now had a mind of their own. Thus, astrology came to be seen as a science. We have to understand that with the Aristotelian universe of the medieval era, it was much easier to accept these ideas than it is with our view of the universe. They, including Rambam, believed that the stars were sentient beings to an extent. Their movement was caused by a striving for the perfect motion, the circular. That limited sentience did not extend to independence of action. It was seen by Rambam and other “perfected philosophers” as a focused and single-minded sentience. However, it was not a great leap to take the extra step and give them independence albeit under the ultimate supervision of God. Almost all Rambam’s contemporaries fell for it even after Rambam’s admonition as witnessed by his letter to the sages of Marseilles and their subsequent writings. However, once that step is taken, a pantheon of greater and lesser gods is not far away.

What I find interesting is that Rambam sees talismans as an intermediate step between the original well-intentioned respects afforded to God’s tools and full-blown idolatry where they become powerful independent forces. It puts a certain light on understanding why the Torah is so strict forbidding anything that is a precursor or has any connection with idolatry more than any other prohibition. But I think the biggest point Rambam is making that idolatry and the premise it rests on is false and untrue. That in itself is reason enough for the focus of religion to be the eradication of idolatry. Deception and lies are so dangerous and bring about such destruction that an open and constant war against it must be waged.

Next post we will see the destruction the falsehood of idolatry brings about.

[1] Or in context: the Torah of truths

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Where does Physics Stop and Metaphysics Begin? Rambam and Ramban.

There is very little difference between Rambam and Ramban, the two great representatives of the two schools of Judaism, the rational and the mystical, when it comes to defining the goals and objectives of humanity. They both agree that the goal of Torah is to bring about a perfect civilization that knows God[1]. Rambam’s position is discussed in my earlier posts. We read similar ideas in Ramban in Torat Hashem Temimah (Kitvei Ramban Chavel Edition (Heb.) Vol. 1 page 142-143) and in many of his other writings. The difference between these two greats is how one answers the question of where science stops and metaphysics starts. The implications of the answer to this question underlie the great chasm that developed between the Rambam’s rationalism and the Ramban’s Kabbalah.

Rambam maintained a clear delineation between the physical and the spiritual. Spirituality to him had no place in science. If he did not understand something about the physical world, he assumed it was some mechanism that he had not yet understood. He thought that there are things that humans will never understand through systematic research, only through inspiration or intuition, but ultimately the explanation will be physical. Rambam addresses this in several places in his writing, (I know offhand of three but I am sure there are more), and to me the most telling, especially to a contemporary Jew, is the following one in his introduction to Pirush Hamishna. In a discussion about the purpose of the different components of our world, he makes the following statement -

, ויש שתכליתו עמוקה ונסתרת עד שלא תוודע כלל זולתי אם נודעה בחזון

או בידיעת הנסתרות, אבל בחקירה מדעית אין הדבר אפשרי, לפי שאין ביכולת

האדם לחקור ולדעת מדוע המציא הטבע מן הנמלים בכנפים ומהם בלי כנפים, וכן

מדוע המציא תולע מרבה רגלים, ואחר פחות רגלים ממנו, ומה תכלית התולעת הזו

והנמלה הזו

some things’ purpose is so deep and hidden that it cannot be known except through a vision or intuition [my paraphrase/explanation - the method used in finding hidden things (see Rabbis Kafieh and Sheilat notes in their respective editions)]. Understanding the purpose of those things through scientific inquiry is impossible. For it is impossible for man to inquire and know why nature has produced ants with and without wings, why it produced a critter with many legs and another with less, and what the purpose of this critter or ant is.

The example he brings is an anachronism for a contemporary reader. Darwin has explained this phenomenon quite conclusively. Rambam however contents himself with stating that there must be a physical reason and explanation that is unknown to him. To him Darwin, who explained it, would be either intuitive or a visionary, which is not so far from the truth. There is no possible “spiritual” explanation to natural phenomena because there is no interaction between the conceptual (to us), non-physical existence and the physical world we live in.

Ramban on the other hand explained scientific mysteries by ascribing them to spiritual entities that emanate from the stars and spheres. Where Rambam saw only unknown physical phenomena, what we now know is gravity, magnetism etc… Ramban saw transitional semi-physical entities that carried out the wishes of the astral powers. In his world, there was no clear delineation between the physical and the metaphysical. There is a category of semi transcendence populated by a multitude of entities such as Sheidim, Ruchot (spirits) and Neshamot (souls) which are found in Tanach and the Gemara. Where Rambam saw allegories and metaphors, Ramban saw science and reality. For a thorough discussion of the contrast between these two thinkers in this area see R. Buchman’s article in Hakirah Vol. 2 .

Ramban could therefore accept many Chazal and verses in the Torah literally. An angel was not just a “form” but also a physical entity albeit ethereal. The soul is similarly a physical entity that God “blows” into man just as the Passuk says. When the rabbis say that there are a finite number of souls stored in the “Guf” created at the same time as the world, he sees that as literal (Kitvei Haramban page 159). That being the case souls must be recycled and a whole body of theories regarding Gilgulim comes into existence. Ramban has support for these ideas from old Midrashim, the Heichalot, and literal reading of more accepted sources. This approach leads to a completely different understanding of Olam Haba, Techyat Hametim and generally has a much more eschatological view of death and its aftermath.

There is no question that some earlier thinkers including some Amoraim and probably Tannaim, held similar positions and Ramban has a rich tradition to rely on. Rambam knew the same sources and either ignored them or when forced to confront them, either interpreted them allegorically or rejected them. Rambam accepted that the Rabbis had no clear tradition when it came to these issues and based their understanding on how they saw their world. He therefore did not have a problem accepting that there are different schools of thought that contradict each other and when looking at a text one has to see to which group the author belonged. When forming our own opinion on which group to follow we have to evaluate which one fits with our reality and follow the Truth as we see it.

Rambam held that there is a limit to what humans can apprehend. Knowing that limit and not going beyond it is a sine qua non of knowledge and perfection.

A boundary is undoubtedly set to the human mind which it cannot pass. There are things (beyond that boundary) which are acknowledged to be inaccessible to human understanding, and man does not show any desire to comprehend them, being aware that such knowledge is impossible, and that there are no means of overcoming the difficulty. (MN 1:31)

If, on the other hand, you attempt to exceed the limit of your intellectual power, or at once to reject things as impossible which have never been proved to be impossible, or which are in fact possible, though their possibility be very remote, then you will be like Elisha Acher. You will not only fail to become perfect, but you will become exceedingly imperfect. Ideas founded on mere imagination will prevail over you. You will incline toward defects, and toward base and degraded habits, on account of the confusion which troubles the mind, and of the dimness of its light, just as weakness of sight causes invalids to see many kinds of unreal images, especially when they have looked for a long time at dazzling or at very minute objects.” (MN1:32)

Contrary to popular belief, Rambam was the more conservative of the two. He set limits to how far we may speculate beyond the physical. Ramban with his world of mysticism was much more daring. It was not that Ramban did not accept the limits to human knowledge but rather, though there was no direct evidence for the existence of a spiritual world, there was a lot of circumstantial evidence supporting it. One has to wonder how much his perspective would have changed when confronted with the empirically proven scientific explanations for the once mysterious phenomena. Would he still maintain that magic and astrology work but may not be used because Jews have to rely on God? Or would he accept Rambam’s position that they are forbidden because they do not work and are false? How would this have affected his understanding of the supernal world?

It is important to understand that the two approaches are mutually exclusive. If one accepts Rambam, one has to follow his position to its rational conclusion. Clearly, what to Ramban was science to Rambam was superstition and forbidden. It brought the transcendental into the physical where it does not belong. I find it an affront to my intelligence when I read some who seemingly seamlessly integrate the two approaches. It is insulting to both of these great truth seekers. The approach would have to be with both to try to update their ideas based on our current knowledge. As I quoted in an earlier post, Rav Kook already implied that this would be a much easier task with Rambam’s rational outlook than with Ramban’s mystical one. As I discuss idolatry, we will have to keep in mind the different ways Rambam and Ramban looked at the world. We will see that even in what seems a Halachik issue, the underlying philosophical thinking affects practical rulings.

[1] They seem to differ in their respective understanding of Vehalachta Biderachav. That is a subject for a separate analysis.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Saving The Jews!

Interesting posts and discussions from a Christian perspective.

Our salvation depends on our accepting their idolatrous ways of thinking! The question is how to get us to join them. That is what I gather from the discussions with a few exceptions. The arrogance really galls me. Or am I missing something?

There is no introspection on their part that maybe the watered down idolatry their doctrine teaches, is a stepping stone to Monotheism. I say watered down because from pantheons they now have only three!

Interestingly the apostate Cardinal Lustiger said it in an article in the NY Times Sunday Magazine March 20 1983

"For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That's my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it. I think that in being a disciple of Christ in my way, I enter into God's design, a part of a promise made good.'' (See MT Hilchot Melachim 11:4 for the source of this idea).

Did he say the Prayer?

Note the comment about Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Tragic.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Knowledge for the Sake of Action - Torah, Science and Metaphysics - a Definition of Talmud.

There are things about our existence that cannot be proven empirically. There are limits to human knowledge. We can understand our physical world and eventually we hope humankind will get to know it well enough to insure its continuity. We however cannot empirically prove how things came about. Were they created in time? Assuming the Big Bang theory is correct, how did that singularity happen? What was there before? The Rabbis have a term for it “מה למעלה מה למטה מה לפנים מה לאחור” “what is on top, bottom, before and after”. In modern parlance, we refer to this type of knowledge as Metaphysics. The questions that we try to answer are intimately tied in with the empirical sciences, as they are the questions that science leads to but cannot answer. The answers to these types of questions are subjective and are addressed by religion through what we call revelation – Nevuah. These answers are very important because they have a lot to say about how we behave, act and what we do with the scientific knowledge we have acquired. As an example, one of the most important questions is whether the world was created in time. Depending on how we answer this question, God has or does not have will. The implications are obvious. The answers to these types of questions are alluded to in the Torah which is revelation par excellence. It is our task to decipher these ideas correctly and apply the lessons to our daily life. To understand the importance of this task we have to turn to Rambam in Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:11-12.

וחייב לשלש את זמן למידתו: שליש בתורה שבכתב; ושליש בתורה שבעל פה;

ושליש יבין וישכיל אחרית דבר מראשיתו, ויוציא דבר מדבר, וידמה דבר לדבר,

וידין במידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן עד שיידע היאך הוא עיקר המידות והיאך יוציא

האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן מדברים שלמד מפי השמועה--ועניין זה, הוא הנקרא


יב] כיצד: היה בעל אומנות--יהיה עוסק במלאכה שלוש שעות

ביום, ובתורה תשע: אותן התשע--קורא בשלוש מהן, בתורה שבכתב; ובשלוש,

בתורה שבעל פה; ובשלוש, מתבונן בדעתו להבין דבר מדבר. ודברי קבלה, בכלל

תורה שבכתב הן; ופירושן, בכלל תורה שבעל פה; והעניינות הנקראין פרדס, בכלל


במה דברים אמורים, בתחילת תלמודו של אדם; אבל כשיגדיל בחכמה

ולא יהיה צריך לא ללמוד תורה שבכתב, ולא לעסוק תמיד בתורה שבעל פה--יקרא

בעיתים מזומנים תורה שבכתב ודברי השמועה, כדי שלא ישכח דבר מדברי דיני

תורה, וייפנה כל ימיו לתלמוד בלבד, לפי רוחב ליבו ויישוב דעתו.

A person is obligated to divide the time he devotes to learning into three parts. One third [of his time should be devoted] to the written Torah; one third to the oral Torah and one third he should [dedicate to] understanding how to deduce and compare one thing and another using the hermeneutical rules. Thus, he will understand the foundation of the hermeneutics, how one can know what is permitted and prohibited and other such things deducing them from things received through aural transmission. This [last category of learning] is referred to as Talmud.

For example, if one is an artisan, he should labor three hours each day and the other nine, learn Torah. From those nine hours, three should be used for learning the written Torah, three for the oral Torah and during the other three one should meditate and deduce one thing from another. Kabbalah [received information] are included in the written Torah category. Their explanation is included in the oral Torah category. Those things that are referred to as Pardes [literally: orchard] belong to the Talmud category.

That is only at the beginning when a person starts to acquire knowledge. However, once a person acquired wisdom and no longer needs to study the written Torah nor always study the oral Torah, he should read at specified times the written Torah and the transmitted laws so that he does not forget one of the Torah precepts. He should free his days and apply himself exclusively to Talmud commensurate with the breadth of his heart and how settled his mind is.

Rambam has given us several definitions in these halachot that clarify things. Written Torah includes Kabbalah, not in the sense we know it today as mystical concepts, but rather in its classical one - transmitted laws. Oral Torah includes the explanation of the written law category. These two categories jointly are referred to as מפי השמועה – heard [aural] transmission. This corpus is the basis used in developing rules and laws that are applied to our daily life and the new circumstances that may arise. The process of developing these new applications of the laws forms a part of what is called Talmud. [A discussion of these categories and the implications to practical Halacha is a lengthy subject which I plan one day to tackle. Rambam discusses them in his introductions to the Pirush Hamishna and to MT and in Hilchot Mamrim and Hilchot Sanhedrin].Talmud itself is the total intellectual development of an individual and it includes Pardes – the orchard. In Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 4:13 Rambam defines Pardes as comprising Ma’aseh Breishit and Ma’aseh Merkavah – sciences and metaphysics. When Rambam said

והיאך יוציא

האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן מדברים שלמד מפי השמועה

I understand “other such things” - וכיוצא בהן - to refer to Pardes. Talmud, the category of learning a person should dedicate his time to, after absorbing all the transmitted information which includes Metaphysics, is an extension of and is deduced from that received information. Once a person understands the science of the world we live in and inquires about the Metaphysical questions, he has to base the answer on received aural knowledge (מפי השמועה) just like the permitted and prohibited[1]. I also understand that not only the sparse clear theological statements but also many of the laws that we study help us in that process of developing a metaphysical understanding of our existence. Not only the theological laws like Shabbat for example are an important tool for that but also so are the societal laws. If the ultimate goal of the metaphysical knowledge is to act and emulate God, knowing His thinking about how we should interact with our fellow man is also a good indication of how He expects us to act in general. The same thinking applies to all Mitzvot. Torah in Rambam’s eyes is the integration of all possible human knowledge with the goal to know God and emulate Him. It is meant to take each individual person and teach him how to become a perfect human being. It also takes the human race, which is composed of these potential perfected individuals, and over millennia and generations will make it into a perfected humanity.

Reading Rambam this way starts to bring to our minds a picture of how integral keeping the Mitzvot and studying them is in our intended goal of emulating God. Not only to they train us to be better and less narcissistic human beings, disciplined and aware of our environment thus allowing us to have a less biased outlook when dealing with subjective Metaphysical questions, it also suggests answers to those questions. To properly address these questions we therefore have to first acquire basic information both as it relates to Mitzvot and science, analyze and develop answers to the questions about our existence based on this knowledge while at the same time, improve ourselves by keeping the Mitzvot. As we develop these answers, we slowly learn of God’s ways and try to emulate them. In Rambam’s world, Torah, Science, Philosophy and Metaphysics with all leading to action, form the integrated perfected human being. He rejects out of hand and as wrong, the schizophrenic theological world we unfortunately live in.

In my next post, I will try to address where and why the great Rishonim had different opinions in this area.

To be Continued...

[1] See my post for a discussion how to deal with this information.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Knowledge for the Sake of Action - Science and Torah - Science Is Torah.

In my last few posts and comments on them, I proposed that most secular study such as the sciences and most of the humanities are necessary to get to Yediat Hashem – Knowledge of God - which is the objective of humanity. Rambam often tells us that we learn Halacha to know how to do the Mitzvot which help us perfect our personality and thinking so that we can understand the sciences from a perspective that will lead us to God. In this sense, the Mitzvot and the Halacha that teaches us how to perform them are tools that precede and at best are equal in importance with the necessary sciences. The most telling statement is in MN 3:51 where he presents the allegory of the king living in the inner chambers of the palace and his subjects looking to find the way in. He places the Halachik authorities who have no philosophic inclination in the courtyard circling the palace, together with those who learn the basic laws of logic and Math.

Those who arrive at the palace, but go round about it, are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law. They believe traditionally in true principles of faith, and learn the practical worship of God, but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the principles of the Law, and do not endeavor to establish the truth of their faith by proof… My son, so long as you are engaged in studying the Mathematical Sciences and Logic, you belong to those who go round about the palace in search of the gate.

He places the scientist who has no philosophical training in the antechambers together with those who seek to understand the proofs for God.

Those who undertake to investigate the principles of religion have come into the antechamber; and there is no doubt that these can also be divided into different grades… If you however understood the natural things you have entered the habitation and are walking in the antechambers.

However, there is one additional point that is not accepted by all who read Rambam but is to me clear like day. The objective is Yediat Hashem but not for knowledge alone. Knowledge of God is equated with Olam Haba and with the highest levels of experiential attachment to God – Deveikut – and “Kiss of Death” - Mitat Neshikah. Knowledge of God however is not the ultimate objective but a stepping-stone and has as its own objective the emulation of God. When one knows God through His actions and analyzes them properly, he can understand what God wants from us and what our role is in the universe. That is the meaning of the 13 attributes of God that we declaim as part of our Teshuvah process.

Our Sages call them Midot (qualities), and speak of the thirteen Midot of God … only the thirteen Midot are mentioned, because they include those acts of God which refer to the creation and the government of mankind, and to know these acts was the principal object of the prayer of Moses.” (MN 1:54)

In other words if man wants to perfect himself, in the process of searching for God he has to meditate on God’s action or attributes so that he can emulate them. As Rambam states many times “good” is the promotion of existence and continuity. When we say God is good by definition, we are saying that He is the reason and First Cause for existence. If we want to do “good”, there is only one approach; emulate God who is good by definition and do our part in promoting existence and continuity.

After explaining in MN 3:54 that –

The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man: the possession of the highest, intellectual faculties; the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God. With this perfection, man has obtained his final object; it gives him true human perfection; it remains to him alone; it gives him immortality, and on its account, he is called man… And that the religious acts prescribed by 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, for they are but preparations leading to it.

Rambam makes the point that Knowledge is not enough.

The prophet [Yirmyahu 9:22-23] does not content himself with explaining that the knowledge of God is the highest kind of perfection… The prophet thus, in conclusion, says, "For in these things I delight, says the Lord," i.e., my object [in saying this] is that you shall practice loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. In a similar manner, we have shown (MN I: 54) that the object of the enumeration of God's thirteen attributes is the lesson that we should acquire similar attributes and act accordingly. The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired--as far as this is possible for man--the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired the knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.”

Clearly, Rambam does not stop at knowledge of God alone. Humanity’s objective is to figure out how to act appropriately and perform its role in creation through knowledge. I believe that this point is the most important idea in Rambam’s thought and without it, we miss the greatest insight he teaches us. Only the intellectually perfected man can know what his role is in creation and act appropriately. That person is represented by the prophet and Moshe the greatest and unique prophet is the paradigm of such a human being. Moshe gave the world, through the Jewish people, the eternal Torah, the divine approach to man’s perfection. In practical terms, Judaism sees human knowledge as a way of serving God by acting to fulfill His wish that each component of the existence He created play its role in the continuity of His creation.

The limits of human knowledge and the implications thereof will be the subject of my next post.