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.


  1. R. David,

    Terrific essay and I agree with your essential point. However, I do believe that the Rambam makes a distinction between the "concession" by korbanot and the "concsession" of all other Mitzvot.

    By all other Mitzvot they are there as a means for man's perfection (and it that way a concession to man) as Devarim says over and over again "Litov Lach". However, the concession by korbanot is not in its essence there to positivly perfect man (although once god established it he did it in a way that serves that purpose) but rather the system of Korbanot was created as a concession in the sense that if god didnt create the system of korbanot man would have been compelled (a by product of our pshyche) to create his own system of worship and this would obviously be avodah zara. So god made a "concession", (a means to stop man from certain sin) different from all other mitzvot and established the mitzvah of korbanot. It is this idea of "concession" that the Ramban vehemently argues against the Ramam.

    David W.

  2. David W.

    I agree and I am not sure I made it clear enough that Korbanot are only a model for other Mitzvot that are devotional such as Tefila for example. I want to discuss this eventually from a halacha standpoint. The Rav ZTL talks about a Matir for tefila, Rambam says Lecha Domya Tehilah - so there is much there to talk about.

  3. David,

    I just reread my response. I should have said "agree partially".

  4. Isn't it ironic that what helped cause "mainstream" halachik Judaism to shift from a more rational halchik centric world to a more mystical approach was the uber-rationalist that denied it all, the haskalah, the reform and the enlightenment.
    The fear of this new world, I believe may have shift mainstream traditional Judaism from being openly antagonistic to the mystical chasidic approach to partially embracing it. (perhaps without even realizing it)

  5. R. David,

    I look forward to your future writings on both this topic and others. You are a clear voice for the truth and chochma of Torah!

    Thank you.

    David W.

  6. In reading your new post I had a question.

    Is perception, seeing, hearing etc. part of the rational or imaginative faculty? When we see, we actually integrate data streams to form coherent images, a process not very different from imagination. Rationalists traditionally have downplayed the role of perceptual experience in comparison to reason. Is the Rambam any different? What does "established by research" mean?

    Suppose I dedicate my life, after performing the necessary mitzvot, to learning about the world by traveling far and wide. I go to the Arctic and Antarctica, the jungles and the mountains, underwater scuba diving and so on. All the time I gather impressions of the world and acquire knowledge and experience of the world. Is this a life where the rational or imaginative faculties dominate?

    Last time we spoke about this you said knowledge of God is quantum mechanics and the like. Why is abstract science privileged?

  7. EJ,

    The way i understand it is that for a proper understanding of the world and through it its creator - God - which is the ultimate objective, one needs to enlist all faculties including the imaginative. The imaginative as Rambam describes it is the memory of past experiences jumbled up and reorganized into sometimes impossible things (Rambam uses a boat of metal flying in the air as an example of an impossiblity !).

    The reason the abstract is the most important because it is the closest to what we imagine God is and we have to know that He is not that either! It is also how we know how things work and can therefore control things. Could there be space travel without Einstein's abstractions?

    So yes go scuba dive, travel and see the wonders of the world, develop an abstract concept that explains how all these things work and be overcome by the gadlus of its creator, you thus get an inkling of Him - and voila!

    For a good description of the mind read the first chapter in the Eight Chapters in the introduction to Avot.

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  9. I just want to be clear on how this bildungsroman is supposed to work. As I understand you the correct way after having learned the rules of Torah is to acquire knowledge of the world, including observations of the world, provided at some point I think of the world abstractly by learning some relevant scientific theories, and recognize that Hashem is not to be identified with these theories, and in fact can not be known in any way. What comes to mind is sort of an Orthodox Darwin. First I go to the Galapagos, look at the turtles, come home, and theorize how such diversity is possible.

    OTOH if I stay in Lakewood, study Talmud all day, and believe in the doctrines of the Nefesh Hachaim or one Ramban too many I am a mystic and have gone OTD.

    What am I missing here, this doesn't sound right?

  10. >What am I missing here, this doesn't sound right?

    Nothing at all and it does not sound right to you because you have been indoctrinated that dumbing down is avodat hashem!

    It is my opinion based on the ramban's I have learned that he agrees with Rambam on the whole issue of knowing the world as the objective and through that HKBH. However his understanding of the world and how it is composed was different. That forced him into accepting that there is a non scientific world out there. Would he change his mind knowing what we know nowadys? Yes! Definitely. See my next post . That is exactly the point.

    >OTOH if I stay in Lakewood, study Talmud all day, and believe in the doctrines of the Nefesh Hachaim or one Ramban too many I am a mystic and have gone OTD.

    Correct with the proviso that OTD is too strong. You would be on a path but You would have stopped short and missed out the next step, fulfilling the objective all this Lakewood Torah learning was supposed to bring you to.

    My experience with the smarter among the Rashey Yeshiva that they realize this and find themselves bound by peer pressure and do not have the courage to do something about it. Those who do are rejected by their community. It is the tragedy of our time.