Monday, March 31, 2008

My Grandfather A'H and Olam Haba.

My grandfather, my mother’s father, Reb Mendel Gottesfeld A’H, (see Rabbi Broyde’s article in Hakirah 3 ), was a Talmid muvhak of Reb Israel Hager of Viznitz. All his life he was a hard worker delivering bread by horse drawn carriage in Arad, Rumania. My Grandmother A’H used to complain that he did not bring home enough because he used to stop in the middle of the day to say Tehilim which he used to say all the time by heart. I do not remember if he finished it daily or weekly but I do know that Shabbat he used to say it loud from beginning to end. At 50, by now in London with grown kids, he decided to retire and dedicate his life to as he put it “arbetten oif oilom habu”. As it was anathema to him to receive money even from his children, he was the fire stoker in my uncle’s bakery, Woodbury Downs Bakery in Stamford Hill, going at 3 AM to light the fire. He also delivered Chalot for Shabbat on Fridays and that gave him enough to live on.

I was the first child in the family to be born after the war and was very much doted on. I got very close with my grandfather as my parents lived in Paris and used to send me for extended periods to my Zaidy in London. In fact, I learned Aleph Beis in Pfeffer’s cheder with the first group of survivor’s children.

My grandfather’s day revolved around davening and learning. It took him from the wee hours of the morning until quite late, the last minyan for Shacharit at Pinter’s Shul, to get ready for Tefilah. It involved learning, Mikvah, Tehilim and bodily functions to have a Guf Naki for Tefillin. When I questioned him about the latter, he showed me the Gemara about Elisha Ba’al Kenafayim and the Tosafot there. As I grew older, we talked about some of his struggles with himself as they related to Avodat hashem. He feared an Aveirah like the plague but he also struggled with understanding the deeper issues of schar ve’onesh and what happens at death and the meaning of life. He chose Massechet Archin as the tractate to learn and know thoroughly so that when he comes up to the Olam Ha’emet and they ask him what he learned he should at least have one Massechet in his pocket.

My grandfather was a character and stood out among all the older people, his contemporaries, by his idiosyncrasies, simplicity and lack of any self-consciousness about doing the things he understood to be right. The older cousins who knew him during this period, before his stroke, Parkinson’s and the decline at the end of his life, were all very strongly influenced by him and when we meet we reminisce and share our experiences. We all have assimilated some of his ways and they live within us.

I can only talk from my personal experience. He is always in my mind and there is not a day that I do not find myself thinking about him. I always understood the Midrash about Yaakov appearing to Yosef when confronted with the temptation of Potiphar’s wife, not that it worked for me as well as it did for Yosef – unfortunately. I have assimilated him and internalized him and I believe that in a certain sense he is still active even after having died over 30 years ago. My son Alex met him as a child and I know he still remembers him and we both told his children, my grandchildren, about him the past Shabbat. I know I will tell them more about him as they grow up. I also know that some of his values are ingrained in me and I passed them along to my two sons, whether they know it or not.

Why do I write all this? The question that I pose to myself is whether my grandfather fulfilled his role in the world? I believe he did. He has brought a family into existence that has since branched out all over Europe, America and Israel with the majority of his descendants dealing with their own responsibility to fulfill their role in life. Each one has some part of my grandfather in them as he, my grandfather, had parts and ideas of his father and grandfather in his transmission to us. He lives, not through us, but in us. We all assimilated him and made him part of us, whether we know it or not. What brought us all together with him was his love for God, His Torah and his strong conviction that a man has to serve God with all his strength. This is not exactly the personal Olam Haba that we all try to understand, the intellectual connection with the Active intellect and HKBH. It however certainly is a Chelek, a part in Olam Haba. My grandfather, whatever his personal OH meant to him, Massechet Archin or whatever else went through his mind, his love for Torah and the love to it that he inculcated in us, became part of our collective Olam Haba. He certainly had a Chelek in Olam Haba.

I believe this is what the Rav was telling us in the quote in my previous post. It is not only the ignoramus per se but the ignoramus in us all, the emotional part that the intellect triggers, that focuses all of us on a common idea and feeling, that gives us all this collective Olam Haba, the Chelek Le’olam Haba.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Olam Haba for Ignoramuses? An Insight from the Rav ZT"L

One of the issues that always bothered me and I had a difficult time understanding is how Rambam reconciles his idea of Olam Haba and the Mishna in the last[1] Perek in Sanhedrin that says that all Jews partake in it except for a list of extreme transgressors. As I mentioned many times in different contexts, Rambam holds that Olam Haba is a state that is the natural result of apprehension which connects the person with eternity. If that were the case, how would a righteous and religious ignoramus ever be able to experience Olam Haba without intellectual perfection?

I am reading an article by Professor Alan Brill titled “Elements of Dialectic Theology in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s view of Torah Study” printed in the collection “Study and Knowledge in Jewish Thought” available . One of the Rav’s ZT”L talks referred to in the article, Torah and Humility, can be found at and here is a segment that I think is illuminating to my question.

“How does the study of Torah unite man with God, the human being with his Maker? How can it bring together finitude and infinity, temporal transience and eternity? The Rambam develops the idea of "achdut hamaskil ve-hamuskal" (the unity of knower and known, the subject and the object of knowledge). This is not only found in the Moreh Nevuchim, but in the Yad Hachazaka as well (Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah, and, by implication, in Hilkhot Teshuvah). The Sefer HaTanya writes about this doctrine of the Rambam "all the sages of the Kabbalah have agreed with him." I will not go into the philosophical explanation of this principle now, but we may immediately draw one conclusion. If the knower and the object known are merged into one, then two “knowers” whose minds are concentrated on the same object are also united. If a=c, and b=c, then a=b. People with common thoughts cannot long remain strangers, indifferent to each other. Wherever there is unity of thought, purpose and commitment, there is also personal unity. The Rambam (Commentary to Avot) concludes that the highest form of friendship is the unity of knowledge - "Chaver ledei'a." In a like manner, when man becomes completely absorbed in God's thought, in His revealed WORD, then he is indeed united with God, there is friendship between man and God. The Tanya writes, "When a man understands with his intellect, and comprehends and digests the infinite and inscrutable will of the Almighty, there is the most marvelous unity between God and man." The link between man and God is thought. God is the originator of thought - man embraces it. This is the great bond uniting man and God, finitude with infinity.

But now there is a dilemma. Knowledge, all knowledge, is essentially esoteric; it is not equally available to all. What about the dull people, the sluggish people, the intellectually slow; are they to be denied the companionship of God? Religion cannot be esoteric. The experience of God, to hear His whisper, is a basic elementary right of every human being. Without religion, there is no salvation, without faith there is no redemption, and everyone is entitled to salvation. But if the link between God and man is the intellectual Torah gesture, how can the experience of God's companionship be achieved by all?

There is another doctrine of unity - achdut ha-oheiv ve-ha-ahuv (the unity of the lover and the beloved). To love means to share an identity, one common destiny. Now if the lover and the beloved are united, then two persons who are in love with a third thing are also united. The love between a husband and wife is strengthened and deepened with the birth of a child. In fact, love in common is a stronger bond than thought in common; the link of hearts is stronger than that of minds. On the verse, "He shall cleave to his wife and they shall be one flesh" (Breishit 2:24), Rashi explains that the "one flesh", the unity, is realized by the creation of a child. The love of the couple that originally was an erotic, selfish drive changes into a more spiritual, exalted love through a shared creation, a common goal. Unqualified love of a child unites the parents, brings them closer to each other. Their love becomes more truthful, more intimate and sincere. Two people, father and mother, are welded together into one, all their concerns and aspirations concentrated on a new center, which becomes the emotional bond linking both of them; indeed, it becomes the existential focus of their lives, about which everything revolves. Depressed by the absence of love from her husband, Leah responds to the birth of her first child by saying, "Now, my husband will love me." She hopes that a missing element in her relationship will be filled by the little baby.

God loves His word, crystallized in the Torah, as though it were His daughter. In Mishlei (the Book of Proverbs), the Torah is called the darling child with which God plays daily. "I shall be for Him a disciple, and I shall be an amusement every day, playing before Him all the time" (Mishlei 8:30). Man too can embrace Torah. Mishlei (2:3) calls Torah the mother of man - "Call understanding your mother" (Mishlei 2:3). We find the expression "baneha Shel Torah" (children of Torah) which does not refer only to scholars. The relationship between us and Torah is that between a child and his mother. We identify with Torah, we cherish her, we are committed to her, like a little child who identifies with his mother and cannot distinguish between his own identity and hers. In this way, a bond is created between God and man, not only between men who study, but also between all those who love Torah and feel awed by her.

The Bach explains that the Bracha we recite in the morning, "la'asok be-Divrei Torah" (to engage in the words of the Torah), is more embracing than "lilmod Torah" (to learn Torah). The Bracha, recited by all, including the great scholar, is not for the esoteric intellectual experience of Torah, but rather for the exoteric love of Torah and for the Kedusha that results. The entire Jewish community is a Torah community, and hence a holy one, including both the aristocrat of mind and spirit, and the simple anonymous individual. "Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehillat Yaakov." The Torah is the inheritance of the entire community of Israel.

This explanation fits well with the rest of the Mishna that enumerates those that do not have Olam Haba. They are those that deny the basic tenets of Torah. Rambam’s more comprehensive listing in Hilchot Teshuvah 3:6 is also composed of similar people who deny basic tenets and communal responsibility which is one of the intrinsic demands of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] , That is in the current editions of Mishna, Rambam placed it as the penultimate 10th Perek.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Holiness - Two Different Perspectives - Judaism and Christianity.

I have been following for a while the blog of John Hobbins – Ancient Hebrew Poetry. John is an erudite man of religion, a Christian, well versed in the Torah, the written Law. John’s specialty is textual analysis but he also reads it from a Christian perspective with a good knowledge of the rabbinic outlook and exegesis. I find it interesting to see how the same text can lead to such different ways of thinking. As we all know, everything we hear and read is assimilated by our mind and translated into a personal perception through the filter of our past experiences and the individual self thus created. I find the dichotomy between our two ways of looking at things illuminating.

In a recent post, John discusses purity and holiness. The post is a beautiful paean to diversity and a condemnation of zealotry and intolerance. John understands holiness and purity as an emotional experience of transcendence. It is also the understanding of many of our Jewish sources. However, I believe that it is not universally accepted by all our sources especially Rambam and the sources he points to. There is much more to it and I would like to explore it a little further.

Holiness – Kedusha – is a state that results from Taharah – Purification. Anything that is without any contaminants, that is pure, is Kadosh – Holy. There cannot be holiness without purification because they are the same. Purification is the act that creates or brings about the state of holiness – the result. Translated in human terms, it means developing the ability to maintain a perfect balance between satisfying our physical requirements needed to maintain our bodily health and wellbeing and developing our intellect. Just like the universe exists in a perfect balance, if the sun was a little closer to earth we would not be here, so too must we strive to maintain a perfect balance between our bodily needs and our intellectual growth. If we indulge one over the other, we are no longer holy. Rambam in Hilchot De’ot 1:5 legislates as follows:

ומצווין אנו ללכת בדרכים אלו הבינוניים, והם הדרכים הטובים והישרים, שנאמר "והלכת, בדרכיו"

כך לימדו בפירוש מצוה זו: מה הוא נקרא חנון, אף אתה היה חנון; מה הוא

נקרא רחום, אף אתה היה רחום; מה הוא נקרא קדוש, אף אתה היה קדוש

We are commanded to walk in these median paths, the good and straight paths, as it says, “You should walk in His paths” (Devarim 28:9). This is how our rabbis taught this Mitzvah: Just as He is gracious so be you gracious, just as He is compassionate so be you compassionate, just as He is holy so be you holy.

When we say God is holy, we are saying that when we observe the results of His actions, the creation of the universe, we see that it is perfectly balanced. As it is our objective to emulate Him, we too have to develop the ability to maintain a perfect balance between the two contradictory components of our makeup - the physical and the intellectual. That is accomplished by limiting our natural desire and ambition for physical satisfaction to the necessary and removing anything superfluous. That is purification. Holiness is thus not a transcendental experience but rather a state that results from a disciplined and balanced lifestyle. When we purify ourselves from superfluous desires and stop going after things that are not necessary for our physical survival, we become holy – Kadosh. (See the quote from Hilchot Shemita Veyovel in my previous post).

The contradictions between the two human components – the physical and the intellectual – is what makes a human being what he is. It is the core of humanity and it is the goal of the Torah to teach us how to make the most of it. That is the underlying rationale for all the Mitzvot that deal with prohibited foods, controlled sexual life and in general setting limits on indulging our physical cravings.

According to Sifra the words, "sanctify yourselves and be ye holy" (Vaykra 11:44), refer to the sanctification effected by performing the divine commands. As the obedience to such precepts as have been mentioned above is called by the Law sanctification and purification, so is defilement (Tume’ah) applied to the transgression of these precepts and the performance of disgraceful acts, as will be shown.” (MN3:33)

It is important to note that Rambam could have chosen God’s transcendence as the meaning of the word Kadosh and he deliberately ignored it. (See in Torah Shleima ad locum, Midrashim to that effect.) He chose a Sifra that interprets the verse that uses the word Kadosh in the context of prohibited foods – animals that are not permitted for consumption. Again, we see how Rambam chooses the practical, action and self-control, over the mystical and transcendental, when it comes to humans. The physical and transcendental do not mix. The ability of man to intellectually conceive of the transcendental, to apprehend abstract concepts he describes as follows:

As man's distinction consists in a property which no other creature on earth possesses, namely, intellectual perception, in the exercise of which he does not employ his senses, nor move his hand or his foot, this perception has been compared--though only apparently, not in truth--to the Divine perception, which requires no corporeal organ.” (MN1:1)

Holiness is thus not a meditative transcendental state but the description of a person whose physical cravings are kept in perfect balance. For us to be able to intellectually apprehend the transcendental we have to fine-tune this self-control so that we are not caught up in narcissistic pursuits and lose all perspective of what is important and what is not. From a purely practical standpoint, all the ills of the individual and society have their roots in this loss of perspective, the uncontrolled ambition for materialism.

It is well known that it is intemperance in eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse that people mostly rave and indulge in; and these very things counteract the ulterior perfection of man, impede at the same time the development of his first perfection, and generally disturb the social order of the country and the economy of the family. For by following entirely the guidance of lust, in the manner of fools, man loses his intellectual energy, injures his body, and perishes before his natural time; sighs and cares multiply; there is an increase of envy, hatred, and warfare for the purpose of taking what another possesses. The cause of all this is the circumstance that the ignorant considers physical enjoyment as an object to be sought for its own sake.” (MN3:33)

While John sees holiness as a transcendental state, he leaves out the practical aspect of it – the Mitzvot. “Salvation” to Jews, if there is such a thing, is something we have to go and get by perfecting ourselves and doing the Mitzvot. It is not something we get from the outside as a gift through faith. God does not serve us we serve God. God does not save humankind. Humankind saves itself by finding God through self-perfection. This is where the two religions, Christianity and Judaism, parted way.

(For an illuminating discussion see Professor Leibowitz article, “The Common Judeo-Christian Heritage”, page 256 in Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State.)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Chacham Faur on Newton, Rambam and Lord Keynes.

Over Shabbat, I read a fascinating article in the latest issue of Cross Currents by Chacham Professor Jose Faur. The article, Newton, Maimonides and Esoteric Knowledge, seems to be one of a series that Chacham Faur has been writing regarding the connections between Newton and Rambam. It is based on Lord Keynes (yes the economist!) who was a Newton scholar and researched the private diaries and letters. What comes out of this article is that Newton was a man of religion first and science was a tool for him on the path to understanding God. Chacham Faur shows that many quotations are sourced in Rambam’s writings either MN or MT. Here are some ideas that I found interesting.

Lord Keynes on Newton’s interests:

During these (the time he developed Principia) twenty-five years of intense study mathematics and astronomy were only one part, and perhaps not the most absorbing, of his occupations. Our record of these is almost wholly confined to the papers which he kept and put in his box when he left Trinity for London.

Lord Keynes’s description of Newton’s outlook:

…he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues that God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt to esoteric brotherhood. … By pure thought, by concentration of the mind, the riddle, he believed, would be revealed to the initiate.

He did read the riddle of the heavens. And he believed that by the same powers of his introspective imagination he would read the riddle of the Godhead, the riddle of past and future events divinely foreordained, the riddle of the elements and their constitution from an original undifferentiated matter, the riddle of health and of immortality.

Clearly, Newton and Rambam had a very similar understanding of prophecy. I also believe it gives an insight into the Maimonidean “active intellect” which seem to me to be somehow related to the “riddles” in Newton.

Chacham Faur explains the similarity of how Newton and Rambam understand the allegorical nature of the stories on Creation in Torah and the need to teach the theological perspective to persons that have not yet assimilated scientific truths.

Not long before his death, Newton said:

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

To Newton, the real Truth is to understand how the physical came into being and the non-contingent Existent that is the First Cause. This can only be apprehended through the reality of the world, the seashore. Venturing beyond that into the ocean of metaphysical knowledge is the ultimate goal of humankind in its search for a True understanding of its existence and objective. Is this the allegory of the water above the heaven in Breishit? Just a thought.

The Faur article is a worthwhile read and I hope the editors of Cross Current place it online, in full.

Ending, I just want to refer to Rambam in Hilchot Shemita Veyovel 13:11 which came to mind when reading this article –

ולא שבט לוי בלבד, אלא כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם אשר נדבה רוחו אותו

והבינו מדעו להיבדל לעמוד לפני ה' לשרתו ולעובדו לדעה את ה', והלך ישר כמו

שעשהו האלוהים, ופרק מעל צווארו עול החשבונות הרבים אשר ביקשו בני

האדם--הרי זה נתקדש קודש קודשים, ויהיה ה' חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי

עולמים "

Not only the tribe of Levi, but every man that passes through the world, whose spirit and intellect drove to separate him to stand before God to serve and worship Him, to know Him. Who also walked in the righteous path as God made him, removed the yoke of the many [extraneous] matters that men tend to seek out, such a person if considered holiest among the holy. God will be his legacy forever.

Newton apparently was such a man that passed through the world.

An anonymous commenter has directed us to the online version of the above article at

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Magnetism, Spirits and Science - A Potent Brew.

It is important to understand that there are two schools among the Rishonim about the basic understanding of our reality and existence that probably have their roots in the teachings of the Tannaim and Amoraim. One school represented by Rambam, has an understanding that existence consists of the physical realm we know and one non-physical transcendental Being who we know “exists”. There are no intermediate entities between the physical and the transcendental.

The other school represented by Ramban, believes that there are different levels of physicality that are somewhere between the pure transcendence of God and the physical world we know. These semi-physical existents play the role of executing the wishes of the transcendental God.

Both schools base their position on what they perceive to be reality. I like to demonstrate this from the following example. In a discussion about cause and effect, Rambam states that for a physical body to affect another it must somehow connect with it in the physical realm. It is not always apparent but there indubitably is a physical connection. As an example, Rambam gives the following:

“In Physics it has been shown that a body in acting upon another body must either directly be in contact with it, or indirectly through the medium of other bodies. A body that has been heated has been in contact with fire, or the air that surrounds the body has been heated by the fire, and has communicated the heat to the body; the immediate cause of the heat in this body is the corporeal substance of the heated air. The magnet attracts iron from a distance through a certain force communicated to the air round the iron. The magnet does therefore not act at all distances, just as fire does not act at every distance, but only as long as the air between the fire and the object is affected by the fire. When the air is no longer affected by the fire which is under a piece of wax, the latter does not melt. The same is the case with magnetism. When an object that has previously not been warm has now become warm, the cause of its heat must now have been created: either some fire has been produced, or the distance of the fire from the object has been changed, and the altered relation between the fire and the object is the cause now created.” (MN 2:12)

Rambam did not understand magnetism, we still do not have a full understanding of it even nowadays, but he knew that there is a physical phenomenon responsible for its action. There is no “spiritual” cause.

On the other hand, Rashba (1235 — 1310) the great pupil of Ramban writes in Teshuvah 1:413 -

זה באמת מה שלא יקבלוהו השכל כי באמת הדברים הפועלים בסגלה אין פעולתם בפלא מהם אלא בטבע מסגל, רצוני לומר בטבע לא ישיגנו עיון החכמים ואפילו החכם שבחכמים לרוב העלם הטבע ההוא מכלל המין האנושי מצד שהוא אדם, כסגלת אבן השואבת שהברזל קופץ עליה ויותר מזה מורגל בירדי הים באניות תוחבין מחט בחתיכת עץ צף על פני המים ומראין לו אבן וישוט על פני המים עד שיפנה אל פני הסדן ושם ינוח - ולא ישיג עיון טבע זה כל חכם שבחכמים אלו של חכמת הטבע.

This [that there is no power outside the physical realm] cannot be accepted rationally. For it is clear that, those things that work through Segulot have a spiritual nature that cannot be understood by human beings, even by the greatest scientist, because of the limits imposed by their humanity. For example, [it is impossible] to explain the property of the magnet that attracts iron or the practice of sailors to stick a needle into a piece of wood, place it in water, show it a stone and it will turn towards the rudder. (I am not sure what technique he is referring to and I am not sure that I got the translation right on the latter example.) This phenomenon cannot be explained by science!

Clearly, the argument that we hear nowadays about some kind of Mesora the Rabbis had about science did not hold with either of the two schools. They both accepted reality and tried their best to understand it and base their thinking on it. While Rashba argued that reality shows that magnetism proves that there is a “spiritual” world that powers our physical existence, Rambam understood the phenomenon otherwise. He deduced that the “spiritual” in reality must be physical. How else can we explain that the “powers” are dependent on the distance between the two objects?

When the great Rishonim of these two schools addressed Halachik issues, they looked at them from the perspective of reality. They both agreed that the objective of the whole Torah is to help us acquire the true knowledge of our world and through that its creator, God, with the idea of emulating His ways. Ramban’s school however was convinced that reality “proves” that there is a spiritual world out there that powers our physical existence. That being the case idolatry makes a lot of sense. The magic and astrology it is based upon is true and fact. Humankind on its own has no choice but to submit to those powers and try to influence them by currying their favors. However, there is a superpower, namely God that chose the Jewish people and gave them a Torah. By following this rulebook and keeping its Mitzvot, we are removed from the control of the subordinate powers and fall under the direct jurisdiction of the superpower, God. It is a state of consciousness that we can acquire through keeping the Mitzvot. From this perspective, there is a “spiritual” power in the Torah and the Mitzvot that goes beyond the physical reality. This way of thinking is still with us and is the basis for the supernatural element that our community still believes in. According to this thinking, Avodah Zara, idolatry, is forbidden because the Torah so orders not because it is nonsense. It is so important because rejecting idolatry means submitting ourselves to a different and an alternate power, the source of all power – God. The Mitzvot are utilitarian from a different perspective – they connect us through our submission to them, with the ultimate spirituality – God. That connection removes us from the vagaries and arbitrariness of the intermediate powers, the “spirits”.

Rambam considered this thinking as the foundation of idolatry. This “spiritual” world is the figment of a fertile imagination and is therefore falsehood. Belief in falsehood blinds us to reality, impedes our ability to think and stops us from advancing our scientific understanding of our world and existence. Without basing our search for God in true reality, the real physical world He created, the god we find at the end of this road is the fruit of our imagination. We can only find the true God through Truth, and the only Truth is our reality. Everything else is imagination. Man can never bridge the gap between him and transcendence. He can only deduce from his own existence that such a transcendent non - contingent entity as God “exists”. Any other understanding of God is false and therefore smacks of idolatry. Avodah Zara therefore stands for any “spiritual” imaginary power. There are none and therefore any belief in such falsehoods is idolatry. If we do not understand how things work and even after these few centuries of scientific advancement, there are still many such things in our world, we have to continue searching for a scientific explanation. That is the only way that humanity will make progress and reach the objective of performing its intended role in the continuity of existence. Believing in “spiritual powers” is counterproductive nay destructive. That is why Rambam legislates:

[טז] ודברים האלו--כולן, דברי שקר וכזב הן; והן שהטעו בהן עובדי עבודה

זרה הקדמונים לגויי הארצות, כדי שיינהו אחריהן. ואין ראוי לישראל, שהן

חכמים מחוכמים, להימשך בהבלים אלו, ולא להעלות על הלב שיש בהן תעלה:

שנאמר "כי לא נחש ביעקוב, ולא קסם בישראל" (במדבר כג,כג),

ונאמר "כי הגויים האלה, אשר אתה יורש אותם—

אל מעוננים ואל קוסמים, ישמעו; ואתה--לא כן, נתן לך ה' אלוהיך" (דברים יח,יד).

כל המאמין בדברים אלו, וכיוצא בהן, ומחשב בליבו שהן אמת

ודברי חכמה, אבל התורה אסרה אותן--אינו אלא מן הסכלים ומחסרי הדעת, ובכלל

הנשים והקטנים שאין דעתן שלמה. אבל בעלי החכמה ותמימי הדעת, יידעו בראיות

ברורות--שכל אלו הדברים שאסרה תורה, אינן דברי חכמה, אלא תוהו והבל שנמשכו

בהן חסרי הדעת, ונטשו כל דרכי האמת בגללן. ומפני זה אמרה תורה, כשהזהירה

על כל אלו ההבלים, "תמים תהיה, עם ה' אלוהיך"


And all these things [spiritual powers and magic] are lies and falsehoods. They are the things that the early idolaters used to fool the masses into following them. It does not behoove Jews, who are wise to be attracted by these nonsensical [practices] nor to even contemplate that they help… Anyone that believes in these and other such things, thinking in his heart that they are true and wise but the Torah forbade them, is a fool and mindless. He is like an uneducated woman or child. The wise and those who have perfected their minds, know unequivocally that all the things the Torah forbade are not wisdom but chaotic and empty that fools are attracted to, leaving the paths of truth for them. That is why the Torah says, when warning against such nonsense, “Be wholehearted with Hashem your God”.

In my next post on the subject I will show some quotes from Ramban where he directly addresses this Halacha, disagrees explaining why. I will also discuss some practical implications that developed based on these two different perceptions of reality.

BTW anyone that can get hold of the Dimitrovsky edition of the Sh”ut Harashba will enjoy a series of letter exchanges between R. Abba Mari in Provence and Rashba in Barcelona (in the Minhat Kenaot at the end of volume 3) on the use of an amulet shaped as a lion to cure some ailment. The whole discussion centers on the two different understandings of magic. What makes it more intriguing is that, R. Abba Mari, like many of his Maimonidean contemporaries, could not accept Rambam’s denial of astrology and tried to differentiate between that “science” and other magical ideas.

Simchat Purim to all.

Monday, March 17, 2008

A Rationale for the Detailed Rules in the Performance of a Mitzvah -

In my earlier post

I argued that all Mitzvot like Korbanot have no meaning to God. They are all concessions to the human condition. Some Mitzvot, those that deal with societal and interpersonal relationship issues are clearly to create a livable and peaceful environment and promote cooperation between people. It is only a peaceful and cooperative society that can have people dedicated to intellectual pursuits and thus help humankind fulfill its role and destiny. Clearly, the Mitzvot that belong to this category are utilitarian and have no direct religious value. I say directly because indirectly we are fulfilling God’s will of insuring the continuity of existence which is the meaning of “good”.

Other Mitzvot inculcate correct opinions about God and our perspective on our existence in this context. Those, like Shabbat and the Moadim, the holidays, have a more direct religious content. As they promote theological thinking, they eventually connect us with God. Mitzvot in this category include study and prayer which at first blush seem to be a religious devotional practice. Ultimately however even the latter are just concessions to our human nature and are necessary if we, as humans, want to attain the ultimate goal – know God and worship Him intellectually to our utmost capability. They are after all physical activities and can only help us come as close as possible to the transcendental God. The actions themselves are not directed at God, only at ourselves. The only possible if tenuous connection with God is intellectual.

The second perfection of man [the objective and principal, in context] consists in his becoming an actually intelligent being. He knows about the things in existence all that a person perfectly developed is capable of knowing. This second perfection certainly does not include any action or good conduct, but only knowledge, which is arrived at by speculation, or established by research.” (MN 3:27)

This human trait, the need to act and actualize our emotions and feelings of devotion, uses a variety of our faculties. In its natural unregulated form, the rational faculty might play a role at the early stages when a rationale for worship is developed. However, the imaginative is the central player in this process as we model our devotional action on how we revere and worship authority figures in our daily life. It is how idolaters developed their practices for worshipping their gods and idols. Those practices flourish and develop in the fertile imagination of the worshippers. One only has to read the books of antiquity that describe the practices in the temples of Greece and Rome and other idolatrous civilizations to see how fertile the imagination of men can be in developing these practices.

That however only works for gods that are the fruit of people’s imagination. The transcendental and unique God we worship is apprehended through the rational faculty. The imaginative has to always be under complete control of the rational faculty at all times while this intellectual quest is ongoing. That is why this quest is referred to as Yediat Hashem, the “knowledge” of God. The love and devotion one has to God is commensurate with the knowledge one has of Him. The imaginative faculty only plays a role in translating for us and to us what the rational perceives. It is also in a way a necessary concession to the human condition. There is therefore no place for a rampant imagination when we worship this transcendental but rational God. That is why the rules and regulations that direct Mitzvot are so detailed and strict. One has to be fully alert and aware of every little detail while performing the Mitzvah, the devotional worship. That keeps the rational faculty engaged all the time, but more importantly, it takes the imaginative out of the process and places emotions under the control of the rational mind. The need for practical devotion that springs from the emotions triggered by the apprehension of a great, powerful and fearsome [Hagadol, Hagibor veHanorah] God must be regulated and controlled.

I believe that this thought is what Rambam is trying to convey in what I always found to be a very difficult chapter in Moreh Hanevuchim. After discussing whether commandments must have rational reasons and concluding that they all have, including the ones called Chukim, (I plan to dedicate a post to this) Rambam proceeds to discuss a “wondrous[1]” Midrash.

What difference does it make to God whether animals are slaughtered by cutting the neck in front or in the back? Surely, the commandments are only intended as a means of purifying man; in accordance with the verse, "The word of God is purified" (Tehilim 18:31)… I will now tell you what intelligent persons ought to believe in this respect; namely, that each commandment has necessarily a cause, as far as its general character is concerned, and serves a certain object; but as regards its details we hold that they were given merely for the sake of commanding something. Thus killing animals for the purpose of obtaining good food is certainly useful, as we intend to show. The prescription, however, that the killing should be performed by having the upper and not the lower part of the throat cut and having the esophagus and the windpipe severed in a certain place is like other prescriptions of this kind, imposed with a view to purifying the people.” (MN3:26)

The details of how the Mitzvot have to be performed are exact and meticulous. Even when one can find a reason for the particular rule, and Chazal purposely picked one that had an apparent reason, the real impetus for the specificity of the detail is to “purify”. Although we can explain the need for a knife, the cutting of the neck and the location as practical and humane, that is not the real reason for the specifics. There could have been a similar rule that would have been just as practical and humane. The real reason is to “purify”. It is by harnessing the rational faculty through detailed rules and restraining the imaginative, that we differentiate this type of worship from idolatrous practices. “Purification” is having the rational faculty take over exclusively the process of worship. That is accomplished by setting specific and detailed rules. Rambam continues –

A more suitable instance can be cited from the detailed commandments concerning sacrifices. The law that sacrifices should be brought is evidently of great use, as will be shown by us but we cannot say why one offering should be a lamb, whilst another is a ram; and why a fixed number of them should be brought. Those who trouble themselves to find a cause for any of these detailed rules are in my eyes void of sense: they do not remove any difficulties, but rather increase them. Those who believe that these detailed rules originate in a certain cause are as far from the truth as those who assume that the whole law is useless.”

In this instance, there clearly is no reason for the choice of what type of animal should be sacrificed for a specific Korban. The choice is arbitrary but the rule is binding. There was the need to make a rule even if there was no rationale for the specific choice. Trying to find one is a waste of effort and time. The last sentence - Those who believe that these detailed rules originate in a certain cause are as far from the truth as those who assume that the whole law is useless - I believe is addressed to those who attempt a mystical explanation.

I believe that this understanding explains the underlying rationale for the importance we see in Sifrei Halacha to the details of how to perform a Mitzvah. Of course if the detail becomes an obsession, it is counterproductive but there is a need to define, limit and set boundaries on the performance of each Mitzvah. We now understand why Gra for example, frowned on the practices the early Chassidim introduced that was outside the minute rules laid down by Halacha. Ecstatic devotion that overflows the boundaries of Halacha smacks of idolatry.

[1] Pines translates strange. I chose wondrous based on an article by Prof. Avraham Nuriel.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Michael Heller on God

If we ask about the cause of the universe we should ask about the cause of mathematical laws. By doing so we are back in the great blueprint of God’s thinking about the universe, the question on ultimate causality: why is there something rather than nothing? When asking this question, we are not asking about a cause like all other causes. We are asking about the root of all possible causes. Science is but a collective effort of the human mind to read the mind of God from question marks out of which we and the world around us seem to be made. '

(Michael Heller)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Korbanot and Mitzvot: Defining the Issues.

There are two issues that I would like to address in upcoming posts. The first issue is the problem many Rishonim led by Ramban in this week’s commentary on Vaykra 1: 9 have with Rambam’s position that such a seminal part of Torah, Korbanot, could be just a concession. In fact, anyone learning Rambam in his Halachik writings comes away with the clear notion that all Mitzvot led by Korbanot are a-priori commandments not just concessions.

The second issue that I want to address is whether there is a rationale for a particular Mitzvah and the way it is performed. In other words if there is no intrinsic value to the practice is there any rationale to the particular form of worship that Mitzvot require? I am talking particularly about Mitzvot that do not have an impact on interpersonal or societal interactions.

Some of the things I write about on the topic I am still learning and developing as I go along. All input and help will be appreciated.

In my last post, I explained Rambam’s position on Korbanot in the context of his understanding of Avodah Zara. Ideally, worship of a transcendental God would be restricted to intellectual contemplation with no practical physical outlet. Korbanot are a concession to the human condition and have no intrinsic meaning per se. It is a way of expressing an emotion of devotion and dependence that comes from accepting and apprehending the existence of a revered and omnipotent God. The vehicle chosen was Korbanot because people historically did this as a form of worship to the gods. Instead of prohibiting an idolatrous practice, the Torah chose to allow it but redirect and surround it by strict rules and regulations restricting it into a narrowly defined process. Korbanot then became the paradigm for all Mitzvot. The idea is that Mitzvot have no intrinsic value just like Korbanot. God gets nothing from them nor do they influence any intermediate power because there is none other than God. Mitzvot, especially positive commandments, are merely a concession to the human need for expressing an emotion through practical worship. They are therefore strictly regulated and surrounded by rules and restrictions just like Korbanot.

What is interesting is that precisely because there were rules and regulations set out by the Torah for the Mitzvot, there was a shift and they were no longer seen as concessions. Rules coming from a divine Torah sanctified the Mitzvot and made them into a required a-priori form of worship. They became an obligatory expression of reverence and submission to the Divine command. This shift was also led by Korbanot, the paradigm for all Mitzvot. We already see that in the commentary on the Mishna in Avot I quoted earlier. As Rambam puts it, the world stands on Korbanot; they promote the continuity of the betterment of the world and its orderly existence in the best possible way. Once the Korbanot were regulated but more importantly, once they became a command, they became a-priori worship that the world depends on.

The Mishna Ta’anit 4:2 describes the Halacha of Ma’amadot where each city in Eretz Yisrael sent periodically a representation consisting of Kohanim and Levi’im to the Beit Hamikdash to serve there for a week. Those who remained behind prayed and fasted and as part of the rituals, they read in the Torah the Parsha of creation in Breishit. Rambam explains the reason for that reading as follows:

וקורין במעשה בראשית, כי שלמות המציאות היא העבודה, ואין עבודה אצלינו אלא עם הקרבנות, וכך אמרו אלמלי קרבנות לא נתקימו שמים וארץ

They read the narrative of creation because the perfection of existence is worship. The only worship we have is Korbanot. It is as the rabbis said, if not for Korbanot, heaven and earth could not have continuity.

Can there be a more a-priori obligation? How did this shift from concession to the most important obligation occur? Some of us may be satisfied with the simple answer that once it became a divine commandment it sanctified the Mitzvah. We just do the Mitzvah and thus perform an act of subservience to God. I think that it is a good argument and we can find something along that line in Rambam, as I will show. But I think there is much more to it. I do not think that explains how the continuity of the existence of the world depends on Mitzvot. [1]

I want to end this post by summarizing and defining what we know so far. We know that Mitzvot in general are a concession to our needs as human beings to express in action our devotion to God. Of course, I am not talking about the Mitzvot that deal with societal and interpersonal interaction. Those have obviously great utility just from a social aspect. I am talking about Mitzvot that have nothing to do with our fellow man, those that are acts of pure devotion to God. We also know that there are clearly defined rules on how these Mitzvot are to be performed. There are strict regulations limiting their performance within a very narrow set of rules. Creativity and imagination fueled by emotions is forbidden. All emotions are as if bottled up into a container and encouraged as long as they do not overflow and spill out. We also know that there is a shift where something occurred and moved Mitzvot from a concession to an obligation. They became so important that the existence of the world depends on them. How to understand this shift and the meaning thereof is the issue.

I think that in MN 3:26, the opening chapter of his discussion of Ta’amei Hamitzvot, Rambam begins to address this problem.

To be continued…

[1] I also cannot accept the other argument which reads this literally that God created man so that he should have creatures that serve Him. I can see it as a perspective to be lauded from our point of view but it certainly does not work from God’s. It is almost insulting C”V.

Monday, March 10, 2008

If You Want to Know What Really Happened in the Middle East - Watch

Korbanot as Paradigm for all Mitzvot.

On the Mishna Avot 1:2, that says that the world stands on three things, Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chassadim Rambam comments:

יאמר, שבחכמה, והיא התורה, ובמעלות המידות, והן

גמילות חסדים, ובקיום ציוויי התורה, והן הקרבנות - התמדת תיקון העולם

, וסידור מציאותו על האופן השלם ביותר

The Tanah Shimon Hatzadik says that Torah which stands for knowledge, Gemilut Chassadim for perfection of personal traits and Korbanot (note how he substitutes Korbanot for Avodah!) for keeping the commandments of the Mitzvot, all together, promote the continuity of the betterment of the world and its orderly existence in the best possible way.

I would like to focus here on the last comment where Rambam substitutes Avodah – worship – with Korbanot (fire offerings – sacrifices in the Temple) and even more surprisingly, sees them as a paradigm for keeping the Mitzvot.

In MN 3:32 Rambam explains that Korbanot are a concession. Idolaters understood worship of the many gods as the need to curry their favor. That was translated practically into bringing sacrificial offerings to those gods. This practice became so ingrained into the culture of the times that it was impossible to shake this habit cold turkey. The Torah on the other hand taught that there is only a unique transcendental God that we worship because He is Truth. Ideally, the worship of such a God would not require any physical or outward manifestation; it should be totally an internal intellectual and emotional experience. After all physicality has no meaning in His context. However, humans, even the more sophisticated, need a practical outlet for their devotion. At the more basic popular level, the idea that we need to do something to placate God when something bad happens is unshakable.

“ It would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble. That we should serve Him in thought and not by any action.” (MN3:32)

(It is noteworthy that Rambam sees prayer, fasting and seeking His help in time of trouble as a concession to human weakness! But that is a related but separate subject which I plan to address in another series of posts on prayer.)

With this in mind, there is really no intrinsic value in any specific physical worship. Action being only a concession, any action that somehow can be related to a particular emotion would be appropriate and satisfy the human need. Mitzvot that require certain acts have no meaning as far as God is concerned. Korbanot were an unshakable habit and the Torah indulged the people’s weakness by allowing them to continue the practice. However, it set very strict restrictions and limitations with minute details on how they should be performed.

This position of Rambam is famous and has been debated in every generation since it was written. Less has been done to try to understand his true position especially in light of what seems to be contradictory statements. The first statement that contradicts this idea is the one at the beginning of this post in the Mishna in Avot where he sees Korbanot as the paradigm for all worship and Mitzvot! There are several other seeming contradictions, as we will see. What is going on?

I believe that Rambam can be understood if Korbanot are seen in context of his understanding of Avodah Zara. In fact in MN3:32 he presents his position in that context. As I wrote in previous posts, AZ evolved into a religion where “specialists” devised ways of worship that flourished, fueled by the imagination of the priest. Just as the worshiped entities were the fruits of the priest’s imagination, so too was the worship. It was an unregulated worship resulting from emotions and imagination allowed to run free. The Torah accepted parts of that worship out of necessity but redirected it and repackaged it as service to a transcendent God that cannot be known nor imagined. Our knowledge of God is very limited and the worship of such a God has to be limited and restricted. Our emotions have to be controlled by our rational faculty, as is the outlet that we were allowed.

Because Korbanot were such a central worship of the Avodah Zara, they are the most regulated category of Mitzvot. Any slight deviation makes the Korban Passul – invalid. In truth though all Mitzvot have the same status of concession to human weakness. That is why they are also regulated and limited. If someone gets into an ecstatic moment and wants to serve God by shaking the Lulav in July, he contravenes the issur of Bal Tossef – one may not add to the Mitzvot of the Torah.

Interestingly, Korbanot that started as a concession to human frailty thus became the paradigm for all Mitzvot. All the Mitzvot that require action of any kind, and there are very few that do not, are surrounded by rules and regulations and one may not deviate. If not for the human condition, they would not be here. To remind us of that, to keep that in focus, our emotions have to be controlled by our rational mind. We have to learn those detailed rules, know them and keep them in mind while we act. Korbanot are the ultimate example of this as anyone that has learned Kodoshim can attest.

That is the meaning of the Mishna according to Rambam. He substitutes Avodah – service – with Korbanot, as they are the model for all Mitzvot, a concession to human needs. Korbanot are also extremely regulated and are therefore a model for the commandments of the Mitzvot. The world stands, its continuity is assured, if man fulfills his role in it. That can only come through accepting a unique transcendental God and rejecting all other “spiritual” powers. Worship of God through physical action contravenes this ideal unless it is regulated and controlled by the intellect. All Mitzvot are therefore modeled after the ones that needed the greatest concession and therefore are the most regulated – Korbanot. This interpretation fits exactly into Rambam’s understanding of Korbanot.

But there is a great shift in thinking. From being a concession suddenly, Mitzvot become a-priori required practice as we will see. How did this happen? To be continued.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Brad Burston of Ha'aretz Says it All

To the Westerner who 'understands' the terrorist

To the Westerner who "understands" the terrorist:

Spare us the explanations.

Spare us the learned, sociology-drenched justifications.

Spare us the reasons why you "get" Palestinians when they gun Jews down in cold blood.

Spare us the chapter and verse on how the plight of the Palestinians is at the root of Islamic terrorism the world over, and if the Palestinians were to receive full justice, Islamic terrorism would pass from the world.

Spare us.

You may well believe, with the blind faith of the hopeful and the fear-stricken, that when these people are through with the Jews, they won't come for you.

Think again.

Spare us the post-modernism and the radical chic and the guff.

Open your eyes.

When a gunman walks into a Jewish religious seminary at the main entrance to that part of Jerusalem which has been Jewish since 1948, and which was stolen from no one, pay attention.

When he opens fire on religious students hunched over books in a library, firing and firing until blood soaks holy book bindings and open pages of Talmud and the whole of the floor, pay close attention to the reactions of the self-styled people of faith who run Hamas.

Spare us the conclusion that the only reason Hamas kills Jews, and that its underlying motive for encouraging others to do the same, is to force Israel to agree to a cease-fire.

Spare us the "Israel's policies are responsible for the bloodshed" and "the seminary is, after all, an ideological bastion and symbol of the religious right" and all the other scholarly, arrogant, condescending and amoral ways of saying "they had it coming to them."

Spare us the understanding for the motivations of the mass murderer who kills with God on his lips. Spare us the understanding of the words of the Hamas official who says that after all the Israeli killings of Palestinians, the Jerusalem killings are "our only joy."

Spare us the sight of the thanksgiving prayers for the great victory, prayers that began in Gaza City mosques just after the slaughter of the Jews. Spare us the sight of the sweets being handed out by little children to motorists in passing cars in the Strip, sweets to celebrate the young Jews dead on the floor, the young Jews dead at their desks, the Jews killed for the crime of being Jews in that place of study and worship.

Spare us the righteousness of those who condemned Baruch Goldstein for entering a holy place with an assault rifle and murdering Palestinians, but who can understand why a Palestinian might do the very same thing,

Open your eyes.

Last week, when Israeli forces drove into Gaza, and some 120 Palestinians were killed, many of them were gunmen, but with children making up another sixth of the total, one grieving father spoke with quiet eloquence, saying "Other places in the world, when this happens, there is a great outcry. When this happens here, the world is silent. No one cares."

He's right. The world has grown content to let Palestinians die. The reason is not simple callousness. And it is not, as Hamas proclaims to its followers in Gaza, that the Jews control the world media and world finance, and thus Western government as well.

The reason is terrorism.

The world has grown weary of the Islamist's creed, that only the armed struggle can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the only proper resolution is the end of Israel.

Even the Israeli left, which for decades championed the Palestinian with courage and determination, has, in large part, had it with the Palestinians. The reason is terrorism. The reason is murder. The reason is that the rulers of Gaza are people who see an intrinsic value in the killing of Jews for the sake of increasing the number of dead Jews in the world.

The rulers of Gaza cannot bring themselves to accept the concept of sharing the Holy Land with the Jews.

The best that the rulers of Gaza can do, is to bring an end to hope among their own people and ours as well.

They believe that the Jewish state is temporary, and that they Jews will soon abandon it to Islamic rule.

After all this time, you'd think they'd know the Jews a little better.

This pretty much sums it up. It is worthwhile to have a look at the comments. They are heartbreaking! It is quite clear that the world has to be ignored and we have to do what we need to, to protect our people. We however need leaders who will take us to the next step. Unfortunately the current crop is pathetic!

(Hat Tip: John Hobbins at Ancient Hebrew Poetry)

Comments can be read at

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Is Oppression, Ignorance and Superstition - The Deadly Brew of Idoaltry - Still a Contemporary Malaise?

I got busy with several projects and now I am returning continuing with the Pirush Hamishna on AZ 4:7 where Rambam describes how idolatry developed and now addresses the practical negative impact it has on human society. What started as a mistake in thought becomes a political tragedy.

ואלה הדברים כולם נעשו לצרכים, וזה, שבזמנים שעברו אוחדו בהם המדינות

והוטעה בהם המון העם, ונאמר להם שתיקון ארצכם ומצביכם באלה הצורות,

ושתתקבצו לבתיהן, ותגדלו אלו הזקנים אשר ילמדו סודותיהן, והתקיימה בזה

המלכות, והאמינו שהוא דבר אמיתי, והיו אומרים, זה דבר כוכב פלוני וזה דבר

מזל פלוני, ויגדלו אותו וילכו אחריו ויאמינו בו, כמו שנאמין אנחנו בנביאים

עליהם השלום מן השלימות והמעלה. הלא תראה איך קראם הכתוב נביאי הבעל

ונביאי האשרה

All these were done for a specific purpose. In times past, these [beliefs] were used to unify nations, fooling the general masses. They were told that the welfare of their land depended on these idols [lit: forms] and they should therefore gather into their temples showing respect to the elders teaching their secrets. The government was thus maintained stable. They [the masses] believed that all this was true, saying that this is a matter that belongs to this star or that sphere. They aggrandized them and followed them. They believed in them just as we believe that our prophets are perfected and elevated individuals. Note how they are referred to in Scriptures – prophets of Ba’al and prophets of the Asheirah.

Now the real tragedy starts. All rituals require specialists who know the wishes of the gods and know how to satisfy them, deflect their attention or focus their attention as needed. They now lord it over their fellow man and a ruling elite comes to power eventually oppressing the populace. A religious movement based on superstition as opposed to one that adopts a positive outlook of acquiring knowledge and seeking truth will always degenerate into two groups: oppressors and oppressed. Using fear of the unknown as a tool, legitimizing supposed savants as saviors and protectors of that same unknown, a population is slowly thrown into slavery for the benefit of those few. It becomes a self-perpetuating system of sinking deeper and deeper into slavery that is difficult to break. Mind control and limits on open-minded thinking are imposed thus preventing anyone even trying to seek out the truth. Jewish history, starting with the Galut of Egypt is replete of these episodes and breaking the yoke of such slavery is an almost impossible task. It is always seen as miraculous.

It is not always obvious when a population falls into such a deep abyss. There are at times movements that seem innocent enough. They are based on philosophical ideas like those that are described by Rambam here with Enosh and his generation venerating God through His servants. That is why constant vigilance is needed. I do not want to be too controversial and enumerate the instances which are many, but we are witnesses in our own community in the last few years, to a drift towards this type of mind control and rejection of truth. There is no question in my mind that it is the result of the mystical bent traditional Judaism has taken. Tehilim clubs, the cursed “Mekubalim” and wonder Rabbis and their ilk are just a symptom of a deeper theological malaise. But the worst is the rejection of truth and the prohibition to seek it. The whole attitude of the community where even such watered down approaches to secular knowledge like TIDE and the Gra’s approach of science at the service of Torah are seen as fringe movements especially in the world of Yeshivot, is at the root of the problem. Rambam’s approach which is that knowledge of our environment is a goal because it leads us to knowledge of God which is the ultimate goal, and that Mitzvot are our God given tool to help us attain that knowledge, is totally ignored.

If we are honest with ourselves, we can discern how the belief in a spiritual world and the resulting superstition, is at the core of the problem. When confronted with existential mysteries, we do not try to understand them and thereby hope to control and deal with them, preventing them or protecting ourselves against them. We conveniently turn to the spirits, we blame unrelated behaviors as the cause of a tragic event both general and personal. The true scientific cause is not even sought out. After all truth is only incidental to the real powers. The angels and spirits (Ruchot) or as they translate this idea piously, God, are the real powers that make things happen.

God IS Truth. He created the universe with its laws which do not contain any spiritual forces. Those spiritual forces are Avodah Zara and falsehoods and lies! He left it to man, the most advanced sentient being He created to discover how those laws of nature work. It is only in his quest for truth, for the true nature of the universe, God’s creation, that man will find the ultimate Truth – God.

As long as we still seek out and believe in the “spiritual” powers and their representatives the men with “Ruach”, whichever type it is, to help us deal with our day-to-day problems, we have not yet absorbed the teachings of Torah and its rejection of Avodah Zara. Though we have come a long way, we are not there yet by a long stretch. The Mitzvot that are meant to distance us from Avodah Zara are very relevant to our contemporary society.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


A must watch - Dr. Wafa Sultan--An Arab-American Psychologist

What can I say more!

This woman tells so clearly and well what antisemitism is - plain jealousy and a lack of self respect!

She also so eloquently tells what religion is NOT!