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.


  1. I remember seeing this idea from the Rav a few years ago and being struck by the "v'nahapoch hu" aspect of it. The Alter Rebbe, a chassid, stresses in Tanya that a relationship to G-d springs from intellectualism, achdus maskil and muskal. RYBS, a Litvak, stresses that the relationship stems from a shared emotional bond of love.

  2. R. Chaim,

    I know but a litvak bleibt a litvak! A chossid would have said that through the Rebbe a simple person connects with the Ribbono Shel Olam!

  3. Here is my tentative take on the drasha.

    Rabbi Soleveitchik draws unjustified conclusions from a more or less incomprehensible idea. The Rambam was offering a scientific or metaphysical theory, not a poetic metaphor. The Rambam is concerned with a knowledge that enables a person to merge with the active intelligence, an idea that today is almost incomprehensible our astronomy is so different. If I know that it is raining today here in Evanston I don’t merge and I am not identical with either the sentence or the proposition or the rain or anything. If I know it is raining, and I tell you, so now you also know, even when we concentrate on this state of affairs we are far from one. I am in Evanston, you in NY; we have different lives and are different people. If we both know the truths of arithmetic, the same deal.

    RJBS goes from
    (1) If a=c & b=c then a=b, which is a mathematical identity and true, to
    (2) Two knowers whose minds are concentrated on the same object are united, which I believe is false, to
    (3)They cannot long remain strangers, to (4) They cannot be indifferent to each other, which are also false. We both can know the contents of endless books and yet be strangers if we never met. We can be in same university department studying the same subject and be intensely competitive. And if we meet and get to know one another, we will cease being strangers even if we share few common specialized beliefs. (Most of humanity shares some beliefs; a lot of good it does).

    What is true is (5) Wherever there is unity of thought, purpose and commitment, there is also personal unity. If we are Communists or Satmar Chasidim we are united in common goals, etc. But we still are separate people in all other respects.So if I, a finite being become acquainted with God’s revealed word, I still remain finite certainly while I am on this world, and He remains infinite. This bringing together of transience and eternity means I read and believe in a book written by God, no more, no less. God can go on and on and do infinite other tasks having nothing to do with me. Knowing and obeying the will of an eternal God does not make me eternal or there would be no undertakers.

    I wouldn’t go through this exercise if I weren’t upset with the last part of RJBS’s drasha. Love can be strengthened, deepened, and turned into a more spiritual bond by having a child. But all these qualities are an addition to the sexual love between two people, not its prerequisite or essence. A childless couple can be very much in love, a couple with many children can hate each other. Jacob never loved Leah more than Rachel. Jonathan loved David, God loved David, David loved Saul, Israel loves God, not a baby or a woman in sight. Ve-dawvack be-ishto, the clinging refers to sexual intercourse, erotic or not, as does Adam knew Eve. The devikus is not referring to a simultaneous cooing over a crib, and the knowing is not about sharing a geshmake vort.

    Here is the punch line: When I, a male, love God figured as a male we have an example of male-male homoeroticism and bonding, which is in fact the core religious position. What RJBS and MANY others have done to avoid this uncomfortable position is interpose a female figure, the Torah and intellectualize the love. The Talmud being less litvish calls it the shechina. Wisdom literature thinks in terms of wisdom and the logos. God and the worshiper now both love the same woman. "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 her." So all becomes sanitized...the Torah is loved by God like a daughter.(God doesn't have a daughter or an obvious wife))We love Torah as (not like) our mother.Is God our maternal grandfather, the ancient of days sitting on high? And who is our father, the Torah’s husband? He could have said, as many others have including our liturgy that we are married, a bridegroom to the Torah, in which case God would be like our shver, so to speak.

    If I had the space I would spell out what it means to regress from being a lover to having a pre –Oedipal symbiotic relation with our mother (the "cannot distinguish...") as another consequence of this family comedy. Bekitzur, in order to suppress the recognition of male-male bonding and our feminization klapei a stronger male, we now love not a male figure but the Torah our mother. But oops we are now committing incest. Solution, make us infants and toddlers, suckling at the breast and trying to separate from our mother, innocence personified, or maybe not depending on who you read. It all doesn’t wash...we either end up in a more compromising sexual space than the initial direct male bonding or totally infantilized, incapable of using own reason and understanding. (It is interesting how RYBS keeps alternating these active and passive positions. In Ish Halacha we all are yonek from the shechinah but the Brisker lamdan is creatively mechadesh new torah. Lomdim regain the full potency of their masculinity, baalei batim remain davuk to the mother.)

    I’ll leave you with one this day and age can a drasha like this be considered serious thought without a detailed interrogation and justification of all these metaphors?

  4. Of course this is not about the Rambam. I am sure you know that the concept of Habad (Chochma, Bina, Daat) as sefirot is vastly different than the Rambam's formulation of אבל הבורא--הוא ודעתו וחייו אחד, מכל צד ומכל פינה

    This is of course what allows the Alter Rebbe to propose the idea of mitzvot being agents of clinging to the divine. Chochma being simply the highest form of clinging to the divine through the top three sefirot while the mitzvot utilizing the bottom 7.

    In other words, The Alter Rebbe is using the Rambam but is advocating an idea the Rambam would never agree with, and then comes R' Soloveitchic and tries to import the idea into brisker thought. Its like three levels of kilayim :)


    I don't understand your comment. Of the parts I do understand, they are mostly red herrings. Of course there are many forms of Love, where does R' Soloveitchic deny this? And why bring in the whole homoerotic bit?? The Rambam would object to such imagry and the Alter Rebbe would mostly relate to the Shchina which is percieved as feminine in any case.

    I would suggest you read R' Naor's (short) essay (printed here: on erotic immagry in the thought of the Alter Rebbe and R' Abulafia to see more on this.

  5. >an idea that today is almost incomprehensible our astronomy is so different.

    I am not sure you are so right. It has nothing to do with astronomy as in fact Rambam tells us in Yesodei Hatorah 4:7 that there is no such thing as Tzurot without matter but is just a concept. Active intellect is a tzura without matter thus is just a concept. Rightfully so because it is knowledge and information in their abstract form. It has more to do with the body-mind problem than astronomy. That issue is unresolved and probably will remain so.

    The metaphor of male and female is an old platonic one and the idea is that matter takes on form only after the intended "form" is appended to it, the more materialistic of two entities is always male and the lesser female. That is why they sometimes change sex depending on the context.

    RYBS is saying that when one acquires knowledge it becomes one with the personality. Itf it is of the sort that deals with eternity the human mind has ventured into eternal matters and the imaginative component triggers emotions that result from eternal matters. In a simplistic way it gives us a glimpse, though tenuous, of what OH is. He uses the love of a common idea about eternity as the connector between these two entities. The emotional urge to keep and learn Torah because we believe that will help us understand eternal matters, that emotion and acceptance of eternity is a sliver of OH though even more tenuous than the more intellectually understood.

    It is not necessary to get into the nitty gritty of scientific analysis. This is not a scientific fact about physics but rather about metaphysics and as long as it does contradict physical reality and does not go off into imaginings that try to explain reality, it is legitimate and necessary in the religious experience.

    Chardal, although apparently the Rav ztl was well versed in torat chabad, i don't think he meant here to equate with the alter rebbe to the detail. He was just talking about the general idea and was saying that not only cold litvaks understood Sechel hapoel this way.

  6. I apologize for putting out so many ideas at one time, and as a result not being readilly comprehensible. It is Rabbi Soleveitchik who introduced these daughter/mother/father triangles and I said what I said. To the narrower pt., the Rambam does not grant immortality to everyone however pious. He only grants it to those who have scientific and metaphysical knowledge. You have used this thesis to beat up on mystical and fanatic Jews. RJBS eliminates scientific knowledge and requires only knowledge of Torah and then says love of Torah will suffice. If you accept this latter thesis you should rewrite half your blog. Why do I need to study science or even Torah? I can love Torah velomdehaw and play tennis and go to the movies in my spare time.I'll put it as a question.Why can't you or RJBS say a Jew who loves God gains immortality, end of story,no intermediaries; simply God rewards those who love him with eternal existence.(BTW I am shocked that you accept even as a simile such anthropomorphisms as God has a daughter, while objecting to the Zohar's ideas on what happens when sexual intercourse is done al taharas hakodesh.)

    Whether the Rambam is committed to Ptolemic ideas in order for him to even state the unity of knower and known is something I thought we had already agreed on in earlier posts. Apparently not...maybe some other time in detail.Also my memory says the medievals always saw the female as matter, and the male as form.

    chardal...Thanks.I will certainly read your reference, since sexual triangles in theology is a topic I think about.

  7. >RJBS eliminates scientific knowledge and requires only knowledge of Torah and then says love of Torah will suffice.

    You always forget that Torah to any serious thinker is composed of Sinaitic revelation but also all scientific knowledge!

    >I can love Torah velomdehaw and play tennis and go to the movies in my spare time

    True but the hasaga that knowledge is important, that alone elevates you to a level that is above the ones who get no olam haba at all. That knowledge is eternal in a sense and it is that insight that is OH.

    OH is not outside a person nor a gift but an intellectual attainment. It is an attainment however little it is!

    That is how I understand the Rav.

    >Also my memory says the medievals always saw the female as matter, and the male as form.

    I thought I said that but matter is in itself seen as relative to form. IOW there is matter that is closer to form EG fire is closer to form than earth. In that relationship fire would be male and earth female. (I think I am right though I cannot at the moment put my finger on a source).