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.


  1. R' Guttmann, I just want to share with you some comment from Avodah list serve (I believe I can share this, unlike Araivim, which is private)Here it is...

    >While browsing in a bookstore a few days ago I came across a book on
    >Shiluach Hakan. I was a little surprised that there was enough to
    >write about this mitzvah to fill a book I had a brief look through its
    >pages and I was a little surprised by some of what I read.

    I am curious as to which sefer this is as my machitan wrote one.

    >Now if you think about it there are three attitudes one could have to
    >this mitzvah.
    >1. To actively seek out nests to perform the mitzvah on.
    >2. To not actively seek out nests but to perform the mitzvah if one
    >came across one
    >3. To only perform the mitzvah if one needed eggs from a nest.
    >I had always assumed that No 3 was correct. And if the mitzvah is at
    >least partly to do with minimising pain to animals then to send away
    >the mother bird when one does not really need the eggs is
    >contradictory. Now I only glanced at the book for a few seconds but I
    >was surprised that there could even be a hava aminah that 1 was
    >correct or that there was a body of opinion that 2 was correct.

    Why would you think that?

    > I was also surprised that there was an opinion that everyone should
    >try and perform this at least once in their life. There was a
    >suggestion (R. Vital?) that one would be brought back as a gilgul
    >until one had performed every mitzvah. According to this opinion would
    >one be brought back as a gilgul if one had not performed the
    >commandments relating to eshes yefas toar? Now I am aware of the
    >promised rewards for shiluach hakan but I cannot believe we are
    >supposed to be tramping through woods frightening birds to secure long

    The view of the Ari is that one is required to do every mitzvah and
    one could be m'galgil if one did not.

    Last year I was in Israel for a kiddish for a grandchild and before I
    left i spent some time with my machiton and he discussed this mitzvah
    with me. He had be zochah to arrange for a number of great rabbis to
    perform it (including the late Satmar Rov) Unfortunatly it was in the
    wrong time of the year for me to do it. He related a number of things
    to me. One was that the Zohar says that performing this mitzvah is
    makarav Moshiach. He said the explanation is that when a Jew performs
    the mitzvah The Satan comes and complains to HaShem that it is cruel.
    But rather then angering HaShem at the Yidden, he is angry at the
    Satan and complains that for this bird you have mercy but for my
    children who are in exile and suffer, you have no mercy? He also told
    me that the egg is placed in the cholent. (I believe he heard this
    from the great makibal Rabbi Yeshaya Asher Margulious.)

    I just find this derech to be so troubling and even problematic. It is obvious that one can find mystical reasons for anything you do, but here it seems mysticism or is being used oblivious to how their action has a chance be completely contrary to what the Torah wants of us. (ie tzar baalai chayim)
    Also the concept of gilgulim always seriously bothered me. That probably is one of the main reasons that this type of kaballa doesn't resonate to me. It's one thing if somebody states that a gilgul has some "connection" to a previous person/place/thing, but that neshomas are constantly recycled because of another existance shortcomings?! And doesn't kabbalah talk about huge tzadikim being gilgulim, so if they don't stand a chance then what do we the "hamon am" have. And rationally, if somebody has no memory of something existed - that thing did not exist.
    Anyway keep up the good work, and sorry for this rant.

  2. ZB

    Thank you for the reference.

    I believe that Kabbalah, even the more rational one, is dangerous because it has a tendency to get out of hand when let loose among the masses. It therefore takes us back to idolatrous ways of thinking. I also believe that with time and realizing the bankruptcy of the old dogmas and out of respect for the greats who taught it, some later great thinkers tried to fix it and update it. (R.Kook and RMS mostly but others too). They were faced with the reality and dealt with the deck of cards they were handed.

    I personally am interested in it more from respect and also wonder at how great thinkers could accept it. Ramban, Rashba, and the other great Rishonim,and later Gra and others of that caliber whose Torah I respect. I however truly believe it is at best nonsense and at worst abizrayu and they were misled by the science of their times. They thought they were explaining physical reality and scientific facts. Subsequent scientific advances has proven them wrong. See R. Buchman Umadua lo Yeritem article in Hakirah vol 2 available online at

    Accepting the limits of human knowledge and not letting the imagination run freely in this area is a crucial part of what Judaism teaches. It is my point of contention with my friend Chardal.

  3. Thanks for getting back to me.

    First of all who is RMS?

    Second of all, there is in my opinion, a big difference in the kabblah of the Ramban, Rav Kook, and even perhaps the Gra, and the the kabbala from the Ariza'l and Chasidus. So I don't think its fair to lump all Jewish mysticsm in one pile. Also I think kabbala learned properly, can benefit those individuals who understand its proper parameters. I see Kabbala as the color that can illuminate the drawing the HAS to be drawn by rationality. Rational/Halachcik thinking is the lines, and mysticsm is the color. Once we lose those lines of rational discourse, I believe the picture then can become more and more blurry. In that way I personally see Kabbala as part of the mesorah - an explation of ontological reality, but it cannot replace reality, and that is why the lines of rational halachick discourse and philosophy is so important.
    Also once you lose these lines, its not that far from getting into the mess of Sabbateans, Meshichists, even perhaps early Christains...

  4. ZB

    I did not mean to ignore you. I disagree Kabbalah is idolatry to rambam as much as Rambam is atheism to Kabbalah! The two are at opposite ends and can never meet. It is not the place here to prove that but I promise I will. I have addressed it a little in some of my posts comparing Rambam and Ramban.

    Arizal is an extension of Ramban via Chassidei Ashkenaz,Abulafia, Cordovero et al. They are all tied in together

  5. David,

    With all due respect, it is hard to accept your derech. At the most I can say that mysticism is dangerous if it falls in the wrong hands. THat is one of the reasons that the GRA opposed Chassidim. He held of the Zohar, but did not believe it was for the masses. And for good reason. Look what happened shortly before with the Sabbetean debacle.

    Even R' Yakov Emden, who may be the most independent mind that we have had in the last five hundred years, and critiqued the Zohar, was a supporter of the Zohar and the Arizal. He believed that parts of it were less reliable than others and did not believe that any of it was literally the words of RSBY. But even R' Emden held of the Zohar. I do not think that you will find anyone else (other than R' Yihye Kafa who was a lone voice and a bit of a reformer) excluding Scholem and company who remotely agreed with R YE.

    I need to put some context to my remarks. I struggle every day with rationalism vs. mysticism trying to understand how two paths seemingly so opposite can each be part of authentic Judaism. They seem very opposite. Your conclusion though is very difficult to accept. There have been many times that I have thought exactly like you basically thinking that mysticism (Zohar) is one big mistake. But how can it be that so many greats from all walks of life-Sephardim, Chassidim, Litvaks-all accepted the Zohar. Can they all have made a mistake? I doubt it. However, I sometimes hear kabbalistic thoughts or even peshatim on chumush based on remez or sod which do not do much for me. Does this mean that there is a flaw in kabbalah. No, it just means that sometimes people will say peshatim to suit their particular ideology and may be saying incorrect things just like from a rationalist approach there are many peshatim that do not seem logical so too mystical peshatim do not always do justice for mysticism.

    I understand that the Yeshiva education that you received which leaned heavily to mystical thought over rational thought was not right for you. I can understand that. However, can't you also see that perhaps you were not taught this approach correctly? Perhaps they should have stressed the rational path which is certainly the path that we all should follw at first? True mysticism is really about finding a deeper meaning to mitzvos and understanding things on a cosmolgocal level. While this may not be for everyone, does it really contradict rationalism which seeks intellectual reasoning for all that we do. I do not think that mysticism claims to be a replacement for rationalism as you claim; rather, it is a path that proponents feel can add to the somewhat-limited rational experience by helping you "get" things that the rational mind can not. Of course this is dangerous as once we get out of the rational realm, anything can be stated as a mystical truth. There is no way to rationally explain a mystical fact. This is that point that I am making. Mysticism must be handled very carefully. It is not for the masses. This was a concern of the GRA and others as mentioned. However, to the defense of the Chassidim, I do not think that they intended for the masses to learn Zohar, rather to take on certain mystical customs, etc. that they felt would be more appealing to those less-rationally inclined.

    I do agree with you that for the most part mysticism opposes philosophy (though I believe a handful of mekubalim were also philosophers) but this is no proof that their way opposed rationalism. They simply opposed philosophy as a method because they believe it leads to endless speculation and confusion (see the blog XGH for a good example of this).

    All in all, I respect your views as they are respectful. I also struggle similarly so your blog interests me a great deal; however, your conclusion is quite out there and though I may want to accept it, rationally, I can not.

    I would also add that your rationalist-only approach is tough to accept putting the Zohar aside for a second. There are so many gemaras that discuss miracles especially in the bais hamikdash. Apparently, miracles can and did happen though we do not see them much today. Additionally, as skeptical as I am, I have heard stories from relatives and people who I really trust that are quite miraculous in nature. I am talking about berachos from great people or even dreams, etc. I have difficulty accepting these things, but apparently they do happen. It is difficult to deny that. What I would say is that I am much more comfortable with the rational method than the more mystical type who seem to have their faith enforced by hearing the next godol miracle which to a certain degree is shallow (though there is no doubt that inspirational stories can be very positive). I would not confuse this with true mysticism which is really a deeper understanding of the universe as mentioned above. Miracles do not necessarily have to be a part of that derech.

    It seems that your biggest beef is that the Rambam did not hold of this derech and even virulently opposed it. However, as you know there have been many disagreements throughout our history with great men on either side of the battle. Sometime the truth is that both sides have validity depending for who. WIth that sais, I think that your defending the Rambam at all costs to the exclusion of any other path is short-sighted.

    Discussing Gilgulim makes us uncomfortable, but does that mean that it is not true? It is scary to contemplate and sometimes an easy scapegoat to explain away certain occurences, however, why can't it be true? We accept the concept of soul and judgemet day, but can not accept that souls may return for what the kabbalists call tikun? I am not sure about it but I do accept the possibility that it is true.

  6. ZB

    I have the same problem you have and I think I mentioned it earlier. The fact that Gedolei Olam, mi lanu gadol than Maran Habeit yosef, believed in kabbalh. However for me I have to go with truth the way I see it and I believe that there is a limit to where people , humans , may go safely. Kabbalah is beyond that limit and the fact that these greats did baffles me and I stand silently in bafflement.

    Where i have a problem is in practice. I feel guilty following practices that I know are kabbalistic and found in shulchan Aruch at the same time I feel guilty not following them. I am right now working through the halachot of netilat yadayim in rambam hil brachot with the tur and BY and it is mind boggling how the mystical approach changed the whole concept of a halacha especially as it evolved with the SA nossei kelim. I will try to write about it soon. It is in this area that I have problems but when I feel good and confident I stick with rabbeinu Hagadol.

    Re Brachot et al you talk about, I have completely kicked the habit :-)

    I think it is all bogus and falls in the category of Al tehe birkat hedyot kalah be'eneycha no more. Re yeshuot it is nonsense!

    Re the rabbis in Gemara which is full of stories, take the Rambam's description of the third group (in Chelek) as a guide.

    Let me put it simply, when I walk away from a Rambam machshava I feel elated and with my feet on the ground ready for ol malchut shamayim. I do not get the same when I read a mystic thought unless I use it to contrast it to Rambam.

    I guess as the kabbalists would say they are not from my shoresh neshama.:-)

  7. Oh and Gilgulim

    It is totally nonsense and although Ramban held it as a yesod, Kevodo Bimekomo Munach!

    There are enough Rishonim who hold that way and I feel very comfortable with them.

    I will deal with that in the near future and show why I am so adamant.

  8. ZB

    I reread your comment and i am struck about the similarity of the struggles you have with mysticism and mine. For years I tried your approach and it made me feel like a Posseach al Shnei Hasse'ifim. It never satisfied me until I finally realized that one cannot have Kila'yim - either one or the other an d we have to chose. The way I see it one has to check every philosophical idea against reality and if it is contradictory throw it away just like one does with science except that there positive proof is required too before it is accepted. Here we can accept it as long as it is not contradictory. Kabbalh does not stand up in its classical way.

    I love R. Meir Simcha (RMS) and have dabbled with rav Kook. I lived in confusion until I realized that they were trying to reconcile Kabbalah with reality of our times. I have not yet grasped how they do it - how far they have innovated in Kabbalah and changed it to do that, Chardal has a better grasp on it though what I see from him does not satisfy me. I hope to one day learn that but I am not up to there as I have some Rambam areas to explore first. In the meantime I reject the kabbalah as taught and consider it dangerous. the fact that Gedolei Olam liked it - Vehamaskil ba'et hahi ydom. I cannot lose with this attitude while trying to to accommodate both derachim may make me schizophrenic. They are de facto contradictory and start from opposite premises.

    Do I learn Ramban? Of course i am working through Torat Hashem Temimah now and want to redo Sha'ar Hagemul soon. I have done Al Hatorah many times and plan to do it more. Do I agree - no - but as he talks to rambam all the time I get a better undertsanding of rambam by seeing his argument.

    I hope you get my position.

  9. 'I finally realized that one cannot have Kila'yim '.

    How do you know this...I would say the definition of being human let alone a Jew let alone an Orthodox Jew (thrice blessed) is that we do have a non totally unified self. A self needs to be together only for practical purposes; you need to decide if you will start walking with your left foot or your right foot. If you wait for reason you will starve. But inwardly, the existence of a dynamic unconscious interrupting and cutting through our conscious ,rational grasp of the world is a clear example of kelayim.

    Der mensch tract und Gott lacht.

  10. >But inwardly, the existence of a dynamic unconscious interrupting and cutting through our conscious ,rational grasp of the world is a clear example of kelayim.

    You are talking about emotions and true we do have a dynamic emotional life. I am talking about rational thought. There it is one or the other. Read my upcoming post.

  11. EJ

    I just realized you have explained why Rambam understands Kilayim (Kla'ey hakerem specifically - others too apparently) as Avodah Zara. :-)