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.


  1. So then why is it, if the ikkur is knowing and emulating hashem, that we as a society, spend so little time educating our children in the fundamental building blocks of hashkafah and Jewish philosophy? We are so concerned with the study of halacha, mishna, and gemorah, but we basically ignore both the underpinnings and the pinnacle of what halacha is attempting to accomplish for us.
    I was told (second hand source) that the mehalech of BMG in Lakewood is that the whole purpose of life is learning. But the caveat is, this learning - is the learning of halacha (and gemora). This seems to be contrary to what learning halacha is according to the Rambam. We learn in order to know how to act in order to be able to both know and emulate hashem. But all I hear today is that we learn in order to learn in order to learn. I understand the focus in Iyun Gemora and Meforshim is important to a degree, but the lack of awareness of this crucial principle of the Rambam is unsettling to say the least.

  2. ZB

    You are so right and I could not put it more succinctly. This comment alone justified all the writing on this blog.

    Professor leibovitz had a knack for concise ideas. He used to say that the Avodah Zara of Bnei Brak is Torah. They have developed a new religion and worship Torah instead of HKBH!

  3. Well I am uncomfortable with that charecterazatoin by Professor Leibowitz. I understand what he is trying to say, but imho that is inappropriate language.
    I believe this phenomenon is somewhat based ignorance and a lack of critical thinking, that is probably as a result of galus (specifically the detrimental influence that post-15 century christainity and possibly Islam impacted Judaism). Orthodox Judaism in the modern age has to define itself as squarely based on mysticism (and therefore what we say rationally doesn't matter), or embrace the Rambams concept of rationalism that can be tailored to fit our day in age. Picking an choosing between mystical and rational approaches isn't true to either.
    I was actually thinking last night, that this type of dogmatic approach to halacha, chazal, and haggadata resonates somewhat to how the tzedukkim approached the Torah. In other words, a literal fundamentalism, that forces one to lose complete focus of the big picture in life.
    Even somewhat rational litvaks get the right idea of the importance of Torah and knowledge, but then they take a left turn and apply mystical parameters to the knowledge. A great example that always bothered me was learning mussar that R' Yisroel Salanter instituted. Today a good portion of people emphasize the learning of the mussar - when the whole entire point was changing one's middos.

  4. ZB

    Leibovitz knew how to shock people with words. He was a very gentle man as described by people who knew him but tried everything to wake people up.

    You are right about the lack of critical thinking and I think it is the remnants of a defensive wall against assimilation through emancipation and the supposed scare of haskallah.

    R. Ysroel Salanter to me is a very enigmatic figure and mysterious.

    Re learning for the sake of learning Rambam is very explicit that it is a waste of time. One has to learn lehalacha and not just for argumentation and sophistryt.

    I agree that one cannot mix mysticism with rationalism. However I question if the mystical approach extant in our community nowadays is permissible and should not be suspect of having gone off the derech.

    There are still a few legitimate mystical thinkers but they are so far from what the masses think that they are misunderstood. They probably don't enlighten the masses out of fear or probably more likely because they consider the mass belief shtus rather than kefirah. I am not sure they are right.

  5. I think the kotzker said it before leibovitz:

    chassidim worship Hashem
    misnagdim worship the Shulchan Aruch


  6. Has the ship not already sailed? Has Judaism not already voted with its feet and moved away from the rationalism of Rambam, even while claiming to be loyal to him?

    It seems to me that the fundamentals have been pushed so far to the periphery that they no longer represent the moral core of the religion. Joseph Telushkin wrote the book You Shall be Holy, a Code of Jewish Ethics, to reemphasize the central core of Jewish belief, which is at its heart the desire to emulate the ethics of God.

    As for Mussar, it is not as enigmatic as it might appear. Salanter was a genius who understood psychology on a very deep level...a leve which modern scientific psychology is only now beginning to discover. It is not mystical, it is rational but appears not to be because it deals with deep inner parts of the human psyche.

  7. David S.

    The attitude that the ship has already sailed is defeatist and is why we are right now digressing and hopefully will straighten out eventually. Historically that has been the way we went twisting and turning but eventually coming back on course. Rambam made a big difference and hopefully HKbh will send us another great man one day who will make a seminal difference like he did. We, Azuvei kir, have to do our thing to keep us focussed and maybe a few will climb on board. It isthe work of the ants that bprepares the ground for a big leap.

    Do the truth for truths sake,

    Re R. Salanter. I agree with you though I have a hard time with how the system has evolved. ZB's point is that the learning has taken precedence over the doing!

  8. Can it be a main reason that one of the reasons we were hit so hard by the haskalah was because we didn't have a proper grounding in rational judaism. The era of mysticm worked well in an age of magic, superstition, and mimitic tradition, but we live in a new world. Everything is out there for anybody to find, instead of building a massive castle that is so easy to pock holes in, we should be protecting and understanding the true core of our beliefs. If every single maamer chazal is taught to be a revelation in har sinai, how can the essence of Judaism be both studied and protected.
    So to say the ship has sailed, cannot and will not work in today's day in age, unless we are chas v'sholom fine in having masses of skeptical non-believers roaming our midst, that no doubt can have a corrosive effect on our people and our beliefs. How many people can be saved by teaching them ALSO the Rambam's viewpoint and not only the Mahara"l and the Ramban's (If we teach them hashkafah at all, that is).

  9. ZB

    You are 100% correct! I get very angry at the defensiveness that I see as if our torah could not stand up to scrutiny and attacks. If it is divine is it not probable that when it finds itself in an untenable postion it is because we misunderstood it? Does it not make sense that it was presented in a way that each generation as it learns more about its world will find in it the proper perspective? Why detract from its greatness by ossifying it?

    It is torat Emet and teaches us today and will do so ad olmei ad!

  10. You write "…if man wants to perfect himself…he has to meditate on God’s action or attributes so that he can emulate them." I often wonder how this is supposed to work. If you look in Tanach God is frequently very angry. For example he brought the flood; he hardened Pharaoh’s heart so as to destroy the Egyptians. Sometimes he attacks people like the situation with Jacob and the ladder, or Moses and Tziporah and the dor hamidbar. He destroyed two temples and in our time brought a Holocaust upon us. How are we to emulate these actions? It says that God remembers sins up to the forth generation. Should we do the same, and tell our children to remember evils done to us? God is in favor of genocide with respect to the original residents of Cannan. Does his commandment determine our stance towards the Palestnians? Similarly if you look at nature God creates black holes, allows galaxies to be destroyed, has no particular concern for the survival of any species. How are we to emulate these activities? In fact how are we to emulate any law of nature, e.g. the laws of thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, or the epidemiology of plagues? How do we know which attributes to emulate simply by meditating on God or learning more science?

  11. EJ

    First if it was so simple and all we had to do is look at nature and emulate it why all this perfecting ourselves?

    You also focus on history and Tanach, the 13 midot do not deal with history but with nature itself.

    Your question about the palestinians is a good one. Are the two peoples equal? Are the Palestinians idolaters? To answer these type of questions I would need a perfected person to tell me. or i myself would have to be one.

    Your question about black holes, are they destructive or ultimately constructive? Is mt st helen destructive or is a way for the planet to regenerate itself?

    Who was responsible for the holocaust? God or man?

    As you can see there are no easy answers and in theory if we - all of us - all mankind - would be in a perfect state most of these things would be preventable because we would know how to act. I believe that is the dream of Yemot Hamashiach. It is the utopia that seems to always elude us.

    The sad thing is that we are so far from that state after all these millenia. Maybe if we followed rambam's vision we would be getting there faster.

  12. So we are back to God's 13 non-literal attributes, which is fine by me, but to learn what they are we need a sidur not tanach or history or nature or science or reason. Selichos will do.

    The general point is that the way we know what to emulate is either by a mesorah from chazal or by a general moral theory. Armed with such weapons we know not to copy God's anger or destructive aspects or his silences (hester panim).Both nature and God's activities in history or tanach do not come with a tag saying 'copy me, learn from me.'Even the Book of Job where God explains his actions provides an obscure lesson.

  13. >Selichos will do.

    You are missing the whole point. The 13 attributes represent the innumerable faces of God that we see if we want to. Saying them alone is meaningless.

    Mesora cannot teach us how to emulate because what happened thousands of years ago is irrelevant to us today. What we can learn from them is how they approached the world and learned from it how to emulate God in their circumstances. We learn that lesson and apply to our situation.

    You also missed another point i tried to make. When I learned arithmetic and you try to teach me trigonometry. to my state of knowledge that is an impossibility.It is the same asking me the person I am to understand what a Moshe would. Mesora tells me that others who have followed this path have succeeded. the ones that stand out are the Avot and moshe, their actions 3000 years ago are still impacting us today one way or another. They have emulated God to a level that is seen as a paradigm by rambam.

  14. EJ,

    I believe that Chazal address your question when they say in the pesikta:

    "אחרי ה' אלקיכם תלכו" – "זו דרכיו של הקב"ה, מה הוא רחום וחנון אף אתה היי כן, מה הוא גומל חסדים אף אתה כן".

    They do not list all midot of Hashem like Gevurah, Nokem, etc. Mainly because this moral lesson comes from the subjective perspective of created beings who have a completely one sided relationship with Hashem. As a creation, ALL of Hashem's hanhagot towards me are chessed and rahamim. There is simply nothing I can give back, there is no symetry to the relationship - so from my perspective, all of Hashem's hanhaga in Hesed and Rahamim. Now, you are correct that when I attempt at looking at the world objectivly, either by simply reading the prophets or history, then I see many other hanhagot of Hashem. Din - Nekama, etc. The answer is that of course these middot have a place in creation as well!! Do you really belive that, in the words of John Lennon "all you need is love" ???

    That is a very christian belief. The question then becomes how do we learn from Hashem when the proper time to go to war. To take revenge. To be strict and ruthless. The gemara says in MK 16b עדינו העצני כשהיה יושב ועוסק בתורה היה מעדן עצמו כתולעת ובשעה שיוצא למלחמה היה מקשה עצמו כעץ
    or to quote the birds quoting kohelet "a time for love and a time for hate"

    The real question is, how do we learn from the middot of Hashem WHEN the correct time to imploy one of the more unpleasent midot has arrisen.

  15. I wish you would stop mistranslating 'sichli' as intellectual.

  16. Anonymous

    If you are referring to the quotes of MN I use friedlander's online edition. I hate it but it is convenient and when I have enough patience or more likely, when i think it is crucial, I will fix it using Pines. I suggest that anyone who has good hebrew should go to either R. Kafieh or Prof Schwartz hebrew editions available at (see my sidebar)

  17. IMHO neither understand what is being said - Prof Schwartz is embarrasingly off track - and both mistranslate. The only translation that is true to the Rambam is Ibn Tibbon, because he actually understood what the Rambam was saying. Sichli refers to the perceptive faculties of nefesh hasichlis, which is a soul way of seeing the world. You see the spiritual, the tzurah. So if a piece of meat is treif, you can see that. It is emes and sheker. That is a true rationalism. When this is lost as a result of the chet of odom harishon (of which we all have a part) you lose sight of the spiritual and only see a physical tasty piece of meat - tove vera. You can think about the meat as much as you like, but you will never discover whether it is treife or not, except by following the rules of Shulchan Oruch, which are set up to guide you when you can't see what is going on, and of course have the power to define reality in the process.

  18. I have no idea where you get your understanding of Sichli. Tibon in his dictionary does not address it but Rambam does with his usual economy of wirds. He starts shemona perakim with "nefesh ha'adam Achat Hi". These few words disprove your whole thesis. there is no outside "soul".

    Rambam does not accept that there is an inherent treif meat see his discussion of Tume'ah at the end of Mikva'ot. Many have tried to infuse Rambam with a mystical bias and have failed miserably.

  19. >You see the spiritual, the tzurah

    Tzurah exists only in men's mind see Yesodei Hatorah 4:7.

  20. Chardal ...I think we have some commonalities here. I said we know to look at the 13 midoth by a mesorah from chazal, (and you gave the source I was referring to), or from a general moral theory which covers cases where rachamim is not to the point. This theory could be some halachot or more general philosophical ideas about punishment and just wars, each person according to his outlook. My point is we learn which midot to emulate by reading it in a book, or by reasoning and conscience. God's actions in nature, history or tanach provide no lessons or the wrong lessons. I think you agree. Frequently we reason that what God caused or allowed to happen is precisely what we must try to prevent.

    We disagree on one point. I don't believe because there is a radical asymmetry in our relative power and because I can never adequately compensate God for his chesed (though that is not obvious since we are in a 2 sided covenant), then EVERYTHING He does counts as chesed. We do say baruch dayin emes. On your view the range is from tov and mativ and hachee tov umaitiv. God does punish and bring disaster on the people of Israel. Think of Auschwitz and the many disasters that preceded it. No one ever said it was chesed. You might want to say it is always justified, though you might be hard pressed to find an appropriate sin. It is one thing to say we cannot question because we are nothing, or it might produce some good consequences in the greater scheme of things. It is quite another to say the disaster is really a chesed to me in disguise or by definition.

  21. EJ

    I would like to address the comments you make about Chazal.

    First I do not even try to say that there is no more than one allegorical explanation to a Midrash as I believe there are many. Rambam himself gives three to Yakov's ladder! and that is a passuk!

    I also agree that the Rabbis when they made the derasha to their audience used language that fit their times. However just like the stories in Tanach, there were many more derashot than the once that were recorded for posteriority. The criteria that was used for recording was the same as the one used in tancah - Nevuah shene'amra ledorot nichteva" Only those that had eternal meaning were written. That at once tells us that the meaning it had at the time it was said is not important. For example what relevance has Yrmyahu's nevuah on reliance on Mitzrayim when that episode is long forgotten?

    The whole thing therefore has meaning to us only in the internal sense as to what it teaches us. It is completely irrelevant what it meant at the time. it is only relevant if it makes sense to us.

    So there may be an endless interpretation of a midrash and it will be subjective to waht makes sense to the reader and the circumstance he is in. One who insists on literalness or the historical context misses the point.

    EJ I commend you on your sensitivity and your respectful argumentation. I try to "emulate" you but am not always successful, so if I ever overstepped the boundaries of courtesy please forgive me. I really enjoy and respect your opinions.

    Your comments about the 13 midot and the idea of emulating God I will address in many of the upcoming posts. It is not an easy answer and rambam spent a big part of MN dealing with that. Tov and Rah, Schar Ve'onesh, Hashgacha, justice, are all very complicated and I believe I understand a lot of what Rambam tries to teach in that area. I also have many problems with many of his ideas. I have however learned to humbly persist and continue working on him. He is an incredible teacher!

  22. EJ,

    I didn't mean to this to turn to a discussion about theodicy. The question is not whether or not we SEE disaster as chessed (of course we don't). The question is how we generally see his hanhaga towards us. In the end, on a non-emotional level, everything is a matanat chinam. I just see no way of getting around that. and this mida is the one chazal use as the prototype which we should emulate. That does not exclude the other middot. Rav Kook, in his glosses on the SA (מצות ראיה א:א) makes a chiluk between middot which we should make a kinyan on in our nefesh and those which we should keep external to our nefesh.

    In the end we get to the old kabbalistik idea that hesed is a more primary mida than din. It is more essential to the actions of Hashem in this world. Now the theodicy questions which can rise out of this are interesting and at times troubling but they do not distroy the basic premise that chesed is the more primary midda.

    I have to disagree with your regarding the lessons we can learn from Hashem's hanhaga in history and tanach. Maybe it is because I reject both the manner that the chareidim and (many) modern academics read our texts; maybe its because I bring my own messorah (read spiritual baggage - in the possitive sense) to the reading of the texts; maybe its because many modern western sensibilities are abhorent to me. But in the end, I am not troubled by many of the ethical questions that trouble other people on the blogs.

    The approach I take to how we have evolved from the ethical/social constructs we find in the tanach to the ones we have today is best summed up by Rav Kook's remarkable essay למהלך האידיות בישראל which actually has been masturfully translated into english by R' Bezalel Naor in his book "When God Becomes History" (which I highly recommend if for nothing else, just for the footnotes!) You should really learn the Hebrew original but if R' Kook's style is too obtruse for you, the translation is very true to the core ideas.

  23. 'Tzurah exists only in men's mind see Yesodei Hatorah 4:7.'

    that's a very big mistake. read the words properly and you will see that the Zurah, and the Divine of which it is a part, is visible not to the physical eye, but it is visible to the eye of the 'heart', i.e. the soul. as long as you keep translating 'heart' as 'mind' you will not grasp what the Rambam is saying. Look in his 'Pirkei Hazlocho' (the relevant piece is quoted in the introduction to the GR'A's sidur) where he quite explicity speaks about hispashtus hagashmiyus and seeing the spiritual during tefila.

  24. Pirkei Hatzlocho is a fake. In the 14th century some pseudo Rambam writings appeared that claimed that in his old age he became aware of Kabbalah and saw the light. One letter even claims that he wishes he could rewrite his MN and MT. You go one step further and claim that he believed in Kabbalah Me'ikara!

    Rambam clearly rejects all spritual forces. Read my blog, R. Benny Buchman Umadua lo Yereitem (link on my sidebar).

  25. chardal...I hear what you are saying. Where can I find this essay? I'm in the middle of reading a 500 page dissertation on Rav Kook. Like many, I've never met a bibliography I didn't like.

    In regard to your idea that chesed is more primary, do you see this as an evolutionary development in Hashem's behavior towards us or has it been this way from the very beginning? I mean reading Sefer Bamidbar, God is certainly irritable and it takes very little for him to threaten to destroy the covenant and the people of Israel. There are many speeches in the Prophets where God rages away, in as angry a way as anything found in the tochecha. My favorites are Ezekiel 16 and 23.

    What am I missing?

  26. David Guttman...I have tried to respond in part to the first part of your comment in my last remark to chardal in your post of 1/28.

    At a personal level there is absolutely no reason to apologize for anything. I think of all of this as talking in learning.You have been exceptionally kind and welcoming.

    Perhaps with a little mazal we can get a virtual senior kolel going. (:

  27. >chardal...I hear what you are saying. Where can I find this essay? I'm in the middle of reading a 500 page dissertation on Rav Kook.

    Which dissertation?

    The hebrew is published in the standard printing of orot; look in the index for למהלך האידיות בישראל. the translation is in this book:

    regarding your question of whether Hashem's hanhaga has always been primarily chessed or whether His hanhaga "evolved", I can not say. The kabbalists are of course not talking of His chessed in the context of history but rather at the very fabric of creation. (in reality, the real debate is not between chesed in din which only exists in the lower sefirot but rather between keter and chochma in the higher sfirot, but they are of course paralel arguments)

  28. 'Tzurah exists only in men's mind see Yesodei Hatorah 4:7.'

    It's cute to say PH is a fake. Maybe, but the language is right. Don't know.
    However, to come back to you on this one. Tzurah is the nefesh (YHT 4:8). So according to your understanding the nefesh only exists in the mind? That is Spinoza.

    The Rambam writes in ShP1 about two kinds of doctors; a guf doctor and a nefesh doctor. In his medical works he writes about herbs having properties from the chomer and properties from the tzurah. All in the mind? I don't think so.

  29. Chardal...The thread on peshat/derash is already quite long and confusing. I have more to say but let's revisit this topic another time.

    My email is