Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What is Man's Role and Purpose in Existence? The Ultimate Existential Question.

Thinking people have difficulty accepting revelation-based knowledge, knowledge that is transmitted from generation to generation without empirical supporting proof. Their difficulty is legitimate and the questioning is as it should be. In fact, it is exactly the thinking that revelation is intended to trigger and it is why Nevuah i.e. revelation is one of the Ikarim. A close friend of mine always comments when I go off on my theological musings that all my ideas are a posteriori, trying to understand preconceived dogma rather than starting from a tabula rasa position. I believe this question goes to the heart of the human condition and Judaism. The subject is quite lengthy and is an important component in trying to understand the purpose of Torah, Mitzvot and the whole enterprise we refer to as Yddishkeit and Avodat Hashem. I will try to address this in a series of posts. First, we must get a better picture of man, his hierarchical position in existence, how his mind works and his purpose as part of the whole.

Man is an interesting creature who from one perspective is no more than another component of a great universe, an insignificant species that struggles for survival just like every other creature and species. (See MN 3:13) From another perspective, he is the most advanced entity in the whole universe, the only one that can take his own fate into his hands and control everything. (See MN 3:25). The first perspective is how man is before he fulfills his potential; the second perspective is ideal man.

If we were to look at the whole of existence as one big living entity, each component would be seen as an important limb that contributes to the survival of the whole. Certain limbs are indispensable while others are optional; all contribute to the wellbeing of the whole of existence. Where does man find himself in that whole, what kind of limb is he?

Physically man is not impressive. Unlike other living things, he is not the strongest; he is much more sensitive to his environment for survival; he needs to put out much more energy to provide for his own sustenance. To compensate man has evolved into a thinking species that can use its mind to survive.

An animal does not require for its sustenance any plan, thought or scheme; each animal moves and acts by its nature, eats as much as it can find of suitable things, it makes its resting-place wherever it happens to be, cohabits with any mate it meets while in heat in the periods of its sexual excitement. In this manner does each individual conserve itself for a certain time, and perpetuates the existence of its species without requiring for its maintenance the assistance or support of any of its fellow creatures: for all the things to which it has to attend it performs by itself. With man it is different; if an individual had a solitary existence, and were, like an animal, left without guidance, he would soon perish, he would not endure even one day, unless it were by mere chance, unless he happened to find something upon which he might feed. For the food which man requires for his subsistence, demands much work and preparation, which can only be accomplished by reflection and by plan; many vessels must be used, and many individuals, each in his peculiar work, must be employed. It is therefore necessary that one person should organize the work and direct men in such a manner that they should properly cooperate, and that they should assist each other. The protection from heat in summer and from cold in winter, and shelter from rain, snow, and wind, requires in the same manner the preparation of many things, none of which can properly be done without design and thought. For this reason, man has been endowed with intellectual faculties, which enable him to think, consider, and act, and by various labors to prepare and procure for himself food, dwelling and clothing, and to control every organ of his body, causing both the principal and the secondary organs to perform their respective functions. Consequently, if a man, being deprived of his intellectual faculties, only possessed vitality, he would be lost in a short time.” (MN 1:72)

It is this same necessary trait that man evolved to survive that also is his uniqueness in that it allows him to use it for higher purposes other than personal survival. “The intellect is the highest of all faculties of living creatures: it is very difficult to comprehend, and its true character cannot be understood as easily as man's other faculties.”(MN 1:72). In the process of using his ability to think and develop ways of surviving man also delves into understanding how things work, how they came about and how this whole existence came into being. Understanding these existential questions leads him to try to understand the “mind” of the First Cause and what its purpose is in existence. He hopes that by doing that he will understand his own purpose and role in the whole of existence.

This idea of trying to understand his own role and purpose, the great existential question, is triggered by man’s self-awareness and contemplation of his own position in the whole of existence. The answer to this question is the most elusive and possibly unattainable by man. It deals with “pre” physical concepts, not necessarily “pre” temporally but “pre” hierarchically. Man as a physical entity cannot conceive of non-physical existence without going beyond the empirical. He may “know” that there must be a non-contingent Existent but that knowledge is indirect and deductive. Man can sense that there is such an Entity rather than having real empirical knowledge of its existence, existence itself being an equivocal term.

As hopeless as this quest may be, it lies at the center of all human thought. Our existence is senseless without the quest for the answer to that question. What is our purpose and role as a species and as individual components thereof? A thinking person realizes that this question cannot be answered by any one person in a lifetime, or a whole generation during its lifespan or even many generations over many life spans. It is a quest that may take an indefinite amount of time and generations, many millennia with the combined effort of all humankind and even then who knows? Is it a wonder that nihilism is such an attractive philosophy?

However, this question is more than just a conceptual exercise; it also has practical implications. Besides his own survival man seems to have a role in the survival of the whole of existence. It is after all inconceivable that the most evolved component of the universe has no other purpose than his personal survival. In fact, man’s role must be crucial to the survival of the whole of existence. It is only by finding the answer to the great existential question that man will know what his practical role really is.

The realization of the above I believe lies at the core of Judaism. It is what the whole enterprise of Torah and Mitzvot is meant to accomplish; to lead humankind in finding the answer to that question – what is man’s purpose and role in the existence of the whole? That is why the Torah starts with a synopsis of existence as it is and places man at the end of the process.

On this principle the whole Law of Moses is based; it begins with this principle: "And God saw all that He had made, and, behold, it was exceedingly good" (Gen. i. 31); and it ends with this principle: "The Rock, perfect is His work" (Deut. xxxii. 4). Note it.” (MN 3:25).

“When therefore Scripture relates in reference to the whole creation (Bereshit 1:31), “And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was exceedingly good,” it declares thereby that everything created was well fitted for its object, and would never cease to act, and never be annihilated. This is especially pointed out by the word “exceedingly,” for sometimes, a thing is temporarily good; it serves its purpose, and then it fails and ceases to act. But as regards the Creation it is said that everything was fit for its purpose, and able continually to act accordingly.” (MN3:13)

It is thus man that is seen as the final and most important component that insures the survival and continuity of the whole of existence. It is as if the Torah is giving us an introduction and a preface to what it is trying to accomplish – help man find his own role and purpose. The Torah is thus answering our question about man’s importance, what kind of limb he is. He is crucial and indispensable for the survival of the whole of existence. However to fulfill his role he must find and understand the “mind” of God, the First Cause, the Cause of the whole of existence. It is in this quest that the Torah is trying to teach man how to go about it. I will address this in an upcoming post.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Pessach In Mevasseret

I just got back from a fabulous Pessach in Israel with my children and grandchildren. We stayed in Mevasseret Zion and in a part of town populated by mostly Kurdish Jews. It was a different experience than staying at hotels in Yerushalaim and other larger cities. Here we were part of the general community and were able to experience living among the Israeli working class who have established themselves in the country. Our property owner was a simple Jew, a greengrocer in the Machne Yehudah Shuk. After talking to him a little, he disclosed that in the last six years he has not missed one day, except Shabbat, davening every morning at the Kotel.

I prayed at two local Shuls, both Sefardi. It was my first extensive experience among this friendly and warm group of our brethrens. I was impressed by the sincerity, simplicity, love and acceptance of each other. These were mostly hardworking people, taxi drivers, public employees and general workers that when met in the street would come across as secular. When they came into Shul they were transformed into sincere and dedicated Jews serving HKBH with all their soul and hearts. My Galut perceptions and sensitivities were completely shattered and I now understand the tremendous accomplishments of the Sefardi Rabbanim led by Rav Ovadyah Yosef. The voluminous Halachik compendium Yalkut Yosef, a compilation of ROY’s rulings written by one of his sons, is found in every home and Beit Knesset. It has been accepted as the Halacha by the whole population to an incredible level. His emissaries come periodically to each Shul and give short topical speeches and offer Shiurim. Our Chareidi leaders with their ridiculous and divisive pronouncements should take note and learn what Deracheiha Darchei Noam means.

It was an exhilarating experience and a great eye opener.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Acknowledging the Limitations of Man's Knowledge and Chag Sameach. (Subjects Unrelated ).

This will probably be my last post before I close shop for Pessach.

Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah (2:2), before he engages in the discussions of Ma’aseh Breishit and Ma’aseh Merkavah, legislates[1] as follows:

והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו, ויראתו: בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו

הנפלאים הגדולים, ויראה מהם חכמתו שאין לה ערך ולא קץ--מיד הוא אוהב ומשבח

ומפאר ומתאווה תאווה גדולה לידע השם הגדול, כמו שאמר דויד "צמאה נפשי

, לאלוהים--לאל חי"

ב וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן, מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו, ויירא

ויפחד ויידע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה, עומד בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים

דעות, כמו שאמר דויד "כי אראה שמיך . . . מה אנוש, כי תזכרנו"

What is the path to loving Him and fearing Him? When a person contemplates His deeds and the wonderful and great things that He created, thus apprehending His infinite and incomparable wisdom, immediately he loves, praises, aggrandizes and feels a great urge to know the Great Name. That is what David said, “my soul thirsts towards God – the living God.”

But when he thinks about the particular things themselves, he is immediately impelled backwards, he fears and trembles knowing that he is a small, lowly and dark creature, who stands with a lightweight mind in front of the most perfect of minds. That is what David meant when he said, “When I behold Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast established; what is man, that Thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that Thou think of him?” (Tehilim 8:4-5).

Note Rambam’s language carefully. Contemplating the sweep of God’s works and creation one is overwhelmed with awe. When one thinks about the particular workings themselves, one realizes one’s limitations; the macro is awe-inspiring, the micro is humbling. The micro of nature is humbling – trying to understand the laws of nature can be a humbling experience. Rambam acknowledges man’s limitations and before getting into the physics and metaphysics of our existence, he warns us that we must be aware that we cannot understand it all. There are areas we just have to humbly step back and acknowledge our limitations. Rambam is warning us that we are not to step over into areas we cannot know. I believe he is referring to the attempts of the Kabbalists to explain the Sefirot, the emanations and the transition from the transcendental to the physical. We may contemplate the mystery of that transition but not try to decipher the workings and details. Whatever we apprehend in that area is the fruit of our imagination and untrue.

Similarly, after presenting the summary of physics and metaphysics Rambam concludes –

בזמן שאדם מתבונן בדברים אלו, ומכיר כל הברואים ממלאך וגלגל ואדם וכיוצא

בו, ויראה חכמתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא בכל היצורים וכל הברואים--מוסיף אהבה

למקום, ותצמא נפשו ויכמה בשרו לאהוב המקום ברוך הוא; ויירא ויפחד משפלותו

ודלותו וקלותו, כשיערוך עצמו לאחד מהגופות הקדושים הגדולים, וכל שכן לאחד

מהצורות הטהורות הנפרדות מן הגלמים, שלא נתחברו בגולם כלל. וימצא עצמו,

שהוא ככלי מלא בושה וכלימה, ריק וחסר

Again, we are presented with a mixture of awe and humility. That dialectic, that tension between self-awareness of man’s great ability and also a realistic understanding of the limitations we are saddled with, keeps us thirsting for knowledge of Truth and an understanding of our existence. (I was too lazy to translate that last quote.)

I leave you with this thought and wish you all a Chag Sameach – Thank you for reading, learning and teaching me with your insightful comments.

[1] I use the word legislate every time I quote Rambam in MT. I believe that everything he wrote in the “Chibur” was legislation.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Rabbi Joshua Maroof is back! is back alive and well. Rabbi Maroof, of RJM fame in the blogosphere is going to give us some more of his insightful and well thought out posts. Just in time for Chag Hamatzot!

Divinity and Inerrancy of the Torah and the Dispassionate Scholar.

John Hobbins on his blog Ancient Hebrew Poetry has posted several discussions about the contrast between the scholarly approach to Biblical Study and inerrancy from the perspective of the Homo Religioso. On a recent post there is an interesting exchange between John and Alan Lenzi that I found fascinating and resonated very strongly for me. I have thought many times about the issue and for a time was quite interested in the historical and somewhat interested in the textual analysis of the Biblical corpus. I say “somewhat” regarding textual analysis because I do not have a natural affinity to that type of analysis. I have to force myself to pay more attention to the words as I am caught up in the sweep of the general concept and ideas. As time went by, I realized that Torah is not meant to be an historical literary document but a living educational tool. It was always to be read and interpreted so that it can talk to an individual in whichever era and culture he happens to live in. Torah has to be accepted. Its divinity and inerrancy have to be accepted rather than proven. For Torah to work as an educational tool towards the ultimate goal of knowing God and His ways, it has to be accepted fully as divine and inerrant. It is with that acceptance in mind that one then approaches it and interprets it with the traditional rabbinic perspective of “Shive’im Panim LaTorah” – there are seventy facets to the Torah - the various methods of analysis and interpretation among which are the textual and the historical analysis. From this perspective, that analysis is no longer an empirical approach, but rather interpretive with the view of how it will help teach the message that is pertinent to us in our own particular circumstances. True it had different meanings to the original society and peoples that received it, it also had different meanings to every individual reader since. If it does not talk to the individual, the masses and the society that accept it, at whatever era past and future, it will not have accomplished its intended purpose.

Inerrancy and divinity are only two aspects of the Torah that we have to accept for it to work its intended goal. With the freedom to interpret, restrictions have to be put in place to keep it focused and not allow imaginative deviants to take it into unintended directions. We therefore accept that along with the written text there is also a divine and inerrant oral Torah that is integral with the text. It teaches how to approach and read the text. It is the key to decipher the code. There are also foundational concepts about God that cannot be changed or questioned. Rambam in MN 1:35 lists foundational rules or accepted beliefs that all have to accept before embarking on a discovery journey towards God. They start with the existence of God and exclusive worship of only Him followed by belief that God is not physical, He is transcendent, His existence, life, knowledge are all equivocal statements (they are human concepts applied to a non-graspable entity for lack of better words). There is also no comparison between God and anything else that exists. These concepts are unshakeable and are the starting point for any analysis of text and learning. As Rambam puts it, when these foundational beliefs are accepted and deeply inculcated, one is now ready to confront the text and interpret it. In fact confronting the text, that at first blush seems to contradict these dogmas, forces us to bring clarity to our thinking.

Now, what about scholarly textual and historical analysis? Can a scholar and a religious person be objective? I think the question should be reversed. Can a non-religious scholar analyze the text and understand it correctly? I believe the answer is no! It is like using mathematics for the textual analysis of a literary work. It is applying the wrong discipline to the process. The results will be unintelligible and completely irrelevant. Let us say that we conclude that in the early centuries of Israel’s existence as a people, the concept of God was not the same as Rambam suggests it should be nor is it the same as the concept of a Rabbi during the late Hasmonean period. That probably would be correct. The text however had meaning to that early Israelite, a meaning that he geared to his cogitations, just as it has meaning to the later thinkers. The meaning may be different because of the different circumstances and state of knowledge of the times. But it is relevant to each one of these thinkers and directs all of them a step closer to the Truth the Torah was meant to teach. The messianic era is exactly that – the arrival of all of humanity at the ultimate Truth – knowledge of God. The Torah is the tool gifted to humanity to help it reach that goal. It is only a guide and a blueprint that has to be deciphered by all of us with that goal in mind. What then is the relevance of the historical or the textual other than in that context?

Accepting its inerrancy and divinity is crucial to accomplish the Torah’s intent. It is the inviolate and divine text confronting the perception of our reality, that dialectic, which impels us to a better understanding of our existence. It forces us to put our reality in a perspective that takes into account a greater Truth than our own physical existence. I do not see how the objective scholarly approach can help to accomplish this.

I know that what I write here will probably not resonate with the dispassionate scholar. I accept that. We do not talk the same language. We can cross into each other’s world for short periods and catch a glimpse of what each one of us is trying to accomplish, but we really cannot grasp what the other’s accomplishment means. We both see the other as missing the point. That is a reality we both have to live with.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Moshe Halbertal on Maimonides and Nachmanides and the Messianic Era.

Evanston Jew directed me to this excellent lecture by Professor Moshe Halbertal on the Messianic era.

It is an extremely worthwhile presentation and I highly recommend it. In general I find Moshe Halbertal's work very edifying and anyone who wants to get a clear picture of the two trends in Medieval Jewish thought, Kabbala and Rationalism, must read his work.

A side comment. Generally scholars come across as detached and I find this disconcerting when dealing with the works and thought of Rambam and Ramban. How can one understand them without trying to embrace their passion? It also has no connection with reality and life and is an exercise in futility. Moshe Halbertal is passionate and seems very much involved in the emotions and passion of the great Medieval Thinkers.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The immutable Oral Law.

When I grew up, went to yeshiva and for years after I always had this picture of Torah Sheba’al Peh – the oral law – as all encompassing. It covered everything from the early Mishna until the Halachik ruling of a current great Posek. Disagreeing with any of this large corpus was unthinkable. It created problems internally because it did not make sense that there is a body of such magnitude that is inviolate and sacred especially when many rules were irrational. I alternated between feeling guilty and stupid. I then realized that I was operating under a misconception and I should have felt guilty for being so ignorant and not for being rational. In this post, I will focus on a very limited aspect of the whole issue, trying to define the immutable part of the oral law, as I understand Rambam’s position.

In his introduction to the Pirush haMishna Rambam tells us that Moshe received the written law verbatim from God accompanied with detailed explanations of how each Mitzvah had to be implemented.

דע, כי כל מצווה שנתן הקב"ה למשה רבנו ע"ה, נתנה לו בפירושה: היה אומר לו

המצווה, ואחר כך אומר לו פירושה ועניינה, וכל מה שהוא כולל ספר התורה.

הנה לך משל: שהקב"ה אמר למשה, בסכות תשבו שבעת ימים (ויקרא כג). אחר כן

הודיע שהסוכה הזאת חובה על הזכרים לא על הנקבות, ושאין החולים חייבים בה

ולא הולכי דרך, ושלא יהיה סיכוכה אלא בצמח הארץ, ולא יסככנה בצמר ולא במשי

ולא בכלים, אפילו מאשר תצמח הארץ, כגון הכסתות והכרים והבגדים. והודיע

שהאכילה והשתייה והשינה בה כולו חובה, ושלא יהיה בחללה פחות משבעה טפחים

אורך על שבעה טפחים רוחב, ושלא יהיה גובה הסוכה פחות מעשרה טפחים.

וכן השש מאות ושלש עשרה מצות הם ופירושם: המצוות בכתב, והפירוש על פה.

For example, when God said to Moshe that you should sit in a Sukkah seven days he also told him that only males and not females are obligated, sick and travelers are exempt. He also told him that the covering should be only from plants of the earth, not from wool or silk. The covering could also not be made up of finished products even if they were made of plant, like pillows, covers or clothing. He was also told that eating and sleeping in the Sukkah is obligatory, that it has to have a space of seven by seven Tefachim and that it cannot be higher than twenty Amot.

So it went with all the 613 Mitzvot – the Mitzvah in writing and the explanation orally.

These explanations were memorized and transmitted from generation to generation as long as there was a gathering of scholars. We find these oral transmissions embedded in the Gemara and the Halacha. The last reliable source for this transmitted law is the Beit Din that sealed the Talmud (See Introduction to MT[1]). Rambam emphatically states that there never was any argument about these received and carefully transmitted explanations. (Discussion of this particular point covers many pages of commentators, critics and defenders).

Along with these explanations came a list of 13 hermeneutical rules to be used for extrapolating new applications of the basic law. During Moshe’s lifetime, the Sanhedrin convened almost constantly and new applications of the law were developed to address the circumstances as they arose. There were so many developed over the forty years that when Moshe died a small portion, three thousand, of these developed applications were forgotten. That gives us an idea of how many were developed during Moshe’s life - probably tens of thousands.

These new applications of the law were decided by the Sanhedrin using the hermeneutical rules. If there was a disagreement, the vote of the majority became law. These laws were not eternal and could be overturned by subsequent Sanhedrin if the majority of their era ruled differently.

The picture that emerges is that the oral law that is Sinaitic and immutable is limited to the ones that lay out the basic rule of how a Mitzvah is practiced. Any expansion of that explanation falls under a different rubric – a law established by Sanhedrin. That may change from Sanhedrin to Sanhedrin. The immutable corpus is thus quite limited. (Caution: I over simplified for coherence sake. There are categories within the corpus of laws developed by Sanhedrin that have different rules such as Gezeirot and Minhagim. Rules of precedent law differ in each category. I will leave this for another discussion.)

However, as times got bad and the Jewish people dispersed farther around the globe, Rebbi in his Mishna followed by Rav Ashi with the Talmud, collected and analyzed the rulings of the Sanhedrin and central Batei Din[2] up to their time. These laws, and only these laws, were now sealed and unchangeable until Sanhedrin return to us. Our law is built on that foundation. New applications and rulings that arise to deal with newly developing circumstances after the sealing of the Talmud, are only binding on each locality. There is no more universal law. [3]

The goal of Rambam in his Mishne Torah was to gather up in a systematic and organized format all the rulings found in the Mishna, Talmud and the corpus of sources that support them. Those were written in an argumentative style which makes it quite complicated to arrive at clear conclusions. Rambam undertook to present the conclusions in a clear and succinct presentation. These are the rulings that cannot be changed and are binding until Sanhedrin returns. (Of course, even here not everybody accepted Rambam’s conclusions. But that is so in a relatively few number of instances. This discussion is also not for here.)

In subsequent generations, codification of the subsequent rulings after the Talmud was attempted. The most famous ones were the Tur, the Shulchan Aruch and up to our times, this process continues with the Aruch Hashulchan and the Mishna Berurah. These are all-important works and are accepted in general by our communities. However, they are not inviolate and as anyone who learns knows, local custom and rulings supersedes these codes. They are more a collection of reliable rulings than conclusive codifications.

The point of this post is to respond to many comments and sometimes outraged ones, reacting to statements I made about laws being binding while at the same time suggesting that future Sanhedrin might change things. Because of the current state of affairs of the Jewish people, the discord, the attitude towards any “other”, paranoia about “kefirah” and other such aberrations, there is no possibility of a consensus for a Sanhedrin. We are therefore hobbled by our own fault, and many incongruous and unfortunate situations, some more painful than others, cannot be rectified. We desperately need some forceful and visionary leadership with a radical change in the general attitude.

אבל כל הדברים שבתלמוד הבבלי, חייבין כל בית ישראל ללכת בהם; וכופין[1]

כל עיר ועיר וכל מדינה ומדינה לנהוג בכל המנהגות שנהגו חכמים שבתלמוד,

ולגזור גזירותם וללכת בתקנותם.

לה הואיל וכל אותן הדברים שבתלמוד הסכימו עליהם כל ישראל,

ואותן החכמים שהתקינו או שגזרו או שהנהיגו או שדנו דין ולמדו שהמשפט כך

הוא הם כל חכמי ישראל או רובן, והם ששמעו הקבלה בעיקרי התורה כולה, איש

מפי איש עד משה רבנו.

[2] The Yeshivot in Bavel were considered as central Batei Din with authority similar to Sanhedrin in many areas.

[3] וכל בית דין שעמד אחר התלמוד בכל מדינה ומדינה וגזר או התקין או הנהיג

לבני מדינתו, או לבני מדינות--לא פשטו מעשיו בכל ישראל: מפני רוחק

מושבותיהם, ושיבוש הדרכים; והיות בית דין של אותה המדינה יחידים, ובית דין

הגדול של שבעים בטל מכמה שנים קודם חיבור התלמוד.

לג לפיכך אין כופין אנשי מדינה זו לנהוג במנהג מדינה אחרת,

ואין אומרין לבית דין זה לגזור גזירה שגזרה בית דין אחר במדינתו. וכן אם

למד אחד מן הגאונים שדרך המשפט כך הוא, ונתבאר לבית דין אחר שעמד אחריו

שאין זה דרך המשפט הכתוב בתלמוד--אין שומעין לראשון, אלא למי שהדעת נוטה

לדבריו, בין ראשון, בין אחרון.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Mila (Circumcision), Authority and the Historical Record.

In Rav Shailat’s edition of Rambam’s letters, (page 410) there is a letter to a simple Baghdad Jew, not a scholar. I already posted about a touching comment Rambam makes to this simple Jew . Here is another part of this letter that opens up quite a vista about how Rambam viewed Torah and Mitzvot. The particular subject the letter deals with in this segment is repeated in Rambam’s Pirush Hamishna Chulin 7:6. Here is a translation/paraphrase as usual.

You mentioned too, that people took exception with our statement that Mila (circumcision) was commanded by Moshe Rabbeinu and not our father Avraham. They argued that [I must be wrong] as the 13 covenants were made with Avraham. Whoever said this says a foolish thing and proves that he knows nothing about the foundations of the Law, while our statement is correct without a doubt. For among the 613 Mitzvot given to Moshe at Sinai, Mila and Gid Hanashe [the sciatic nerve which was forbidden based on the story of the fight between Yaakov and the angel] are included. It is as the Rabbis taught [in the Mishna Chulin 7:6], it was written in its place [as part of the story told in Chumash] but we follow the rule because it was given at Sinai that confirmed to us the prohibition of Gid Hanashe and [the mitzvah] of Mila which preceded it. As far as the 13 covenants mentioned at Mila [that apparently was the basis of the contention], it behooves to ask these blind people who are trying to compete with seeing men, the following question. Were those verses about the 13 covenants told to Avraham, written down and published by him and then Moshe Rabbeinu copied these verses and inserted them into the Torah as plagiarists do with the writings of others, or rather, the verses mentioned in the Torah were written by Moshe as he heard them from God? For anyone who does not believe that these verses including the whole Torah was told to Moshe from the mouth of God [literally – Hagevurah - the Power] is considered among those who claim the Torah is not from Heaven. How else would we know, and how did Moshe Rabbeinu know, what was told to Avraham when he was commanded to do Mila? We know it from Moshe at Sinai! Therefore, the source of this Mitzvah and its command is from Moshe Rabbeinu as are the 13 covenants, as told to him by God. This is obvious and is obscure only to one who has not learned the foundations of the law, wasting his days with the branches. There is no difference within parts of our Torah; the Torah commanded to us by Moshe, all of it comes from Moshe and Hashem. Everything that is in it that was given to an earlier person, such as the seven Mitzvot to Noach and Mila to Avraham we do not accept it because its earlier transmission but only because of the last command that was given to us, the community of Yaakov.”

Rambam offers a similar argument in his Pirush Hamishna on Chulin 7:6. Basically, the obligation that we have in keeping the Mitzvah of Mila stems from Sinai and not from the earlier command to Avraham. The same goes for the seven Noachide laws and Gid Hanashe, the obligation stems from Sinai and not the earlier revelation. The basis for this position is the Mishna in Chulin that sets this out regarding Gid Hanashe and Rambam extrapolates to all other similar Mitzvot. The theology underlying this is the uniqueness of Moshe’s prophecy and Rambam in MN 2:39 expands on it.

There were prophets before Moses, as the patriarchs Shem, Ever, Noah, Methuselah, and Enoch, but of these none said to any portion of mankind that God sent him to them and commanded him to convey to them a certain message or to prohibit or to command a certain thing. Such a thing is not related in Scripture, or in authentic tradition. … Men like Abraham, who received a large measure of prophetic inspiration, called their fellow men together and led them by training and instruction to the truth which they had perceived. … Abraham did not tell the people that God had sent him to them with the command concerning certain things which should or should not be done. Even when it was commanded that he, his sons, and his servants should be circumcised, he fulfilled that commandment, but he did not address his fellow men prophetically on this subject.”

I would also like to touch on two other rather revealing statements in this letter. When Rambam argues “Were those verses about the 13 covenants told to Avraham, written down and published by him and then Moshe Rabbeinu copied these verses and inserted them into the Torah as plagiarists do with the writings of others?” he rejects any possibility of a documentary basis for torah. IOW, according to him, he would have considered plagiarism were the Torah to quote an earlier source and not refer to it as such. Absent a clear reference[1], we must assume that the source was revelatory only. It does not negate the possibility of a written record by Avraham; it just does not accept it as a source. When Rambam asks “How else would we know, and how did Moshe Rabbeinu know, what was told to Avraham when he was commanded to do Mila?” he is saying that the Torah is telling the story its way and from its perspective. The historical record is much less important than the interpretation thereof.

The other comment I find fascinating is “This is obvious and is obscure only to one who has not learned the foundations of the law, wasting his days with the branches.” Rambam sees the Torah as a tree with roots, a trunk and branches. The roots contain the basic theology and the trunk is the corpus of philosophy and laws that grow out of those roots. How to perform the Mitzvot in detail are the branches. Focusing on the branches alone is like seeing the trees without the forest. (I know, at least I think I know, Rambam uses this metaphor “Shoresh and Anaf” in a similar context elsewhere. I, for the life of me, cannot think where. I could use some help.)

[1] יד עַל-כֵּן, יֵאָמַר, בְּסֵפֶר, מִלְחֲמֹת יְהוָה: אֶת-וָהֵב בְּסוּפָה, וְאֶת-הַנְּחָלִים אַרְנוֹן. 14 wherefore it is said in the book of the Wars of the LORD: Vaheb in Suphah, and the valleys of Arnon, (Bamidbar 21:14)

Sunday, April 06, 2008

A Questionnaire on Korbanot.

On Shabbat, we had a discussion in our learning group about Korbanot. The debate got quite interesting and the issue at hand was how to understand the return of Korbanot when the Beit Hamikdash is rebuilt. I would like to put out the question and try to get an honest answer from readers about their true feelings on the subject. The questions are as follows:

1. Do you believe Korbanot are going to be reinstated as they were during the times of the Beit Hamikdash?

2. If yes, can you see yourself inspired by the practice? Be honest with yourself and answer truthfully.

3. If no, why do you say “Vehashev et Ha’avodah Lidvir Beitecha” thrice daily? What do you have in mind when you say it?

I do not want to impose on anyone’s sensitivity to anonymity, but it would make it more interesting if you could include how you view yourself: Yeshivish, Chareidi, Dati Leumi, Chassidish, MO, Amorphous, etc (I am more interested how you view yourself – not how people perceive you.)

My answer? I promise I will post it after some time passes. I do not want to lead with an opinion.