Sunday, June 29, 2008

Why Belief in Resurrection Is Only Mentioned by Daniel During the Babylonian Exile?

Rambam in MN 3:32 discusses Korbanot explaining that they were necessary developmentally. As the Jewish people exiting Egypt, a culture that taught that there is a need to placate the gods with offerings to prevent them from harming us, the Korbanot were a method of weaning them from this dependency. By diverting the worship from idols to the one God and focusing their attention on Him, they eventually developed an understanding of Unity and transcendence. To drive home the point that, unlike the offerings to idols which were seen as bribes where the more the merrier, Korbanot were a very defined and circumscribed service or worship – Avodah. There are more rules on how to precisely bring and offer a Korban than for any other Mitzvah, where the slightest deviation may invalidate the offering. Korbanot became a paradigm for all Mitzvot, the positive commandments, which inherently have the same problem, especially those that are rituals – bein Adam lamokom. Our rituals cannot have an impact on a transcendental God and are meaningless from God’s perspective. Just like Korbanot, they are a form of service, defined and circumscribed by exacting rules that keep us focused on God, the source of the rules. These exact rules on how to perform them are necessary to remind us that they are not bribes but service and worship. We get not physical benefit in return when doing them other than the greatest good of all, a step closer to knowledge of God and hopefully, if we are diligent enough, an understanding of our role in His universe and how to fulfill that role of ours. Unlike idolatry, the Torah teaches that we cannot change God’s mind with our offerings nor can we change anything else in nature through manipulating the “spiritual” realm. We can try to understand God, try to discover His will and our role and act accordingly, making an impact on our physical existence. It is in the physical world that our actions have consequences. Those consequences are the “miracle” of reward and punishment – the blessing and curses – of the Torah.

This quest for understanding of God and our role in His world is not simple. It is quite complicated and difficult and people have had varying degrees of success in that endeavor. It involves not only understanding the world, the science that underlies it, it also entails knowing how to act on that knowledge and the impact those actions will have not only in the short term but also over time and generations. The most successful people, those who acquired this knowledge and acted responsibly, are referred to as prophets and their unique connection with the so to say, “mind of God”, the blueprint of existence, is called prophecy. Unlike the magical “knowledge” of the idol worshipper, this knowledge is based on reality and a realistic understanding of God and His world. It understands that everything operates according to laws of nature put in place by God, laws that are wisdom and not whimsy. This realization came first to Avraham Avinu and he transmitted it to his children and grandchildren. It was further reinforced (rather reintroduced) by Moshe Rabbeinu and the Torah and Mitzvot he gave us, whose aim it is to over time wean the Jewish people and through them the world, from the erroneous idolatrous beliefs. Those myths and beliefs are so deeply embedded in the human psyche that they are still present today, even in our community, even after several millennia of Torah. Clearly, this educational process is lengthy, drawn out and multigenerational.

As we can see, prophecy is central to this Torah worldview. It is through its medium that we can apprehend God’s will. One of the features of prophecy, indeed a test of its veracity especially when used to guide others, is its ability to foresee future events. Not only does it foresee normal natural sequences of events but also the anomalies in nature that I talked about in my last post. It is through this kind of insight, a result of deep study of the world and meditation on the metaphysical issues that pertain to its existence, that the prophets took advantage of these anomalies in what were seen as “miracles”, the same “miracles” that also demonstrate that God’s will was responsible for creation. The transition from believing that the vagaries encountered by man in his daily life are the result of magical forces to understanding a world run by God’s laws of nature and the ability of man to apprehend that and eventually acquire prophecy took a long time. Rambam in the Treatise on resurrections explains that at the time of Matan Torah, it would have been futile for God through Moshe to tell us about a future anomaly such as Techyat Hametim – the resurrection of some dead people - will occur at some point in the future. The people could not have accepted it and needed almost a thousand years of indoctrination before this concept could be accepted as plausible.

. ואיך יסופר למי שלא התבארה אצלו

הנבואה בדבר שאין ראוי עליו אלא האמנת הנביא, והוא גם כן נמנע אצלם לגמרי

לפי אמונתם בקדמות העולם,

כי לולי המופתים לא הייתה אצלנו תחיית המתים מכת


“Why would one tell someone who has not yet accepted prophecy, a subject that depends on belief in prophecy? Furthermore, [prophecy] was impossible according to their understanding that the world is eternal [a parte ante]. For without miracles [signposts] Techyat Hametim would not be possible in our minds. [See my last post for an in depth discussion of this statement].

It took years of educating and teaching, experiencing the great “miracles” the Torah teaches us, those that were signposts that HKBH created and willed this world, for this lesson to sink into the people’s psyche. It is only after this long process, at the time of Daniel, when the long-term consequences of the stubborn belief in idolatry brought them into exile again, that the prophet could predict the future anomaly of Techyat Hametim and be believed. It is only after going through short and long-term cycles of actions and their “miraculous” consequences, of “miraculous” anomalies that occurred at propitious times, that this revolutionary and new understanding really took hold.

וכאשר רצה השם יתעלה לתת תורה לבני אדם, לפרסם בהם מצוותו ודתו ואזהרתו על

ידי הנביאים בכל העולם, כמו שאמר "ולמען ספר שמי בכל הארץ". חידש המופתים

הגדולים הכתובים בכל התורה, עד שהתאמת בהם נבואת הנביאים וחידוש העולם. כי

המופת האמיתי ראיה ברורה על חידוש העולם כאשר בארנו ב"מורה הנבוכים

והתמיד העניין כן, עד שנתחזקו אלו הפינות והתאמתו בהמשך הדורות, ולא נשאר

ספק בנבואות הנביאים ובחידוש המופתים. ואחרי כן ספרו לנו הנביאים מה

שהודיעם ה' יתעלה מעניין תחיית המתים, והיה קל לקבלו

When God wanted to give Torah to humankind, to make His commandments, religion and warnings [that there are consequences to our actions] known in the whole world, as it says, “so that My name is told in the whole earth”, He brought about the great miracles [signposts] that the Torah reports. This verified that there is prophecy and the world is created. For the true “miracle” [signpost] is clear proof that the world is created as we explained in MN. This continued until this fundamental belief was strengthened and verified over generations so that there was no longer any doubt that prophecy exists and “miracles” [signposts] occur. It was only then that the prophets told us what God told them about TH, and they accepted it with ease.[1]

To summarize, Rambam sees TH as one more anomaly among many. These anomalies, when they occur under the conditions Rambam enumerated, are signposts that HKBH has will and willed this world into existence with wisdom and omniscience. They teach that this world has embedded in it a system of actions and consequences that is incumbent on humankind to learn and discover. In this process of discovery, humankind will understand what its role is in the promotion of continuity of the whole of existence as will each individual who takes his responsibility seriously find his own role in that great whole. This belief in TH is therefore one of the fundamental cornerstones of Judaism.

What I find exhilarating and beautiful about Rambam’s approach is that he gives us a great vision, an optimistic and positive vision, of what Torah’s goals are for the Jewish people and the whole of humankind. He shows us how all the pieces fit together and ultimately are stepping-stones in the fulfillment of that great goal. As we say in our daily prayer ותלמדם חוקי חיים – when God gave the Jewish people the Torah, He taught them the “laws of life”. To me these few words say it all.

[1] It is noteworthy that Rambam uses here the same justification he used for explaining the reasoning behind Korbanot. He compares it to the reluctance on the part of God to use a direct route from Egypt to Israel that ran through the land of the Philistines for fear of a war disheartening the newly freed slaves.

ואתה תמצא כמו התחבולה הזאת בעצמה עשה השם יתברך עם ישראל, אמר עליהם

ולא נחם אלהים דרך ארץ פלשתים כי קרוב הוא כי אמר אלהים" וגו'. ואם

הורגלו בענייני העולם מפני שחשש עליהם שישובו למצרים ויבוטל מהם המכווין

בהם, כן חשש עליהם עוד שלא יקבלו זה הדעת, רצוני לומר התחייה, ויבוטל בו

התכלית המכוון בהם ומהם

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Reward and Punishment in the Torah Teaches Humanity To Take Their Fate Into Their Own Hands.

In my last post, I discussed “miracles” and focused on those that are “naturally impossible”. Rambam also lists another category of “miracles” – the “naturally possible”. Examples are:

Occasional occurrences - the plagues of locust, hail and plague (dever) in Egypt

Common Occurrences –that can happen in all lands and times. Examples of such are the splitting of the altar while Yerovam was on it (Melachim 1:13:3) which is common for newly built structures. The torrential rains brought about by Shmuel during the harvest (Shmuel 1:12:17).The blessings and curses in the Torah.

As discussed in the last post, “miracles” are like flag posts that point out and teach a lesson. For common occurrences that are usually seen as normal and even occasional occurrences that are rarer, something more has to be added to make them stand out and teach something. They therefore have to have an additional component to make them stand out. They therefore have to have one or more of the following conditions:

They happen when predicted by a prophet, as was the case with Shmuel and Yerovam.

They come in exaggerated form, greater than usual such as the plagues in Egypt mentioned above לְפָנָיו לֹא-הָיָה כֵן אַרְבֶּה כָּמֹהוּ, וְאַחֲרָיו לֹא יִהְיֶה-כֵּן. (Shemot 10:14 also see Shemot 9:24 and 9:6).

They are constant as the blessings and curses in the Torah were.

The first condition, prediction of the prophet, is quite obvious. The second one, where the occurrence is in an exaggerated form, apparently also requires the first condition, the prediction of the prophet to make it stand out. Interestingly, the cases Rambam brings as examples, the plagues in Egypt, also had Moshe predict them. I cannot think of a case where the second condition alone was enough to make the occurrence stand out. (The locust at the time of Yoel was also predicted). But the third condition, the one that is generally referred to as Schar Ve’onesh - reward and punishment - needs to be fleshed out much more.

To really understand Rambam’s view of reward and punishment and its relationship with Torah we have to take a step back and look at humanity from an historical perspective. We live in an era where the scientific method is part of our normal thinking and there are very few who still question it. That was not so for much of human history. At the time Torah and Judaism came into existence, when Moshe Rabbeinu brought us the Torah, man was completely dependent on the vagaries of nature without any hope to take his fate into his own hands. He saw the world as populated by good and evil spirits who controlled the physical world and the only recourse was to placate them. It would take millennia to overturn this mindset. It is a gradual process that is still ongoing. It teaches that man has to learn and understand his environment and take his fate into his own hands. That is what the Torah teaches us. We can take control of our fate and there are consequences to our actions. It is the first commandment the Torah gives to humankind and sets it as its general goal and purpose.

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם

אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ

בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת


28 And God blessed them; and God said unto them, 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.'

The way for humanity to exit the dark ages of superstition and helplessness is a long process. It teaches man that there are no spirits, just one God, the First Cause, and that everything He caused into existence is logical and sensible imbued with a great wisdom that is incumbent on us to learn and discover. It is this revolution in thinking that slowly is taking humanity on the long road to

כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ, דֵּעָה אֶת-יְהוָה, כַּמַּיִם, לַיָּם מְכַסִּים.

For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. {S} (Yeshayahu 11:9)

This educational process includes the idea that there are consequences to our actions. They are not always immediately apparent. Some actions have an immediate impact others may take some time for results to be seen, but ultimately we are responsible for our own fate. Those are the blessings and curses of the Torah – reward and punishment. Rambam in Hilchot Ta’aniyot 1:2-3 teaches –

ודבר זה, דרך מדרכי התשובה הוא: שבזמן שתבוא צרה ויזעקו לה

ויריעו, יידעו הכול שבגלל מעשיהם הרעים הרע להן--ככתוב "עוונותיכם, הטו

אלה לכם, וזה הוא שיגרום להם להסיר הצרה מעליהם.

אבל אם לא יזעקו, ולא יריעו, אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם

אירע לנו, וצרה זו נקרוא נקרית--הרי זו דרך אכזרייות, וגורמת להם להידבק

במעשיהם הרעים, ותוסיף הצרה וצרות אחרות: הוא שכתוב בתורה, "והלכתם עימי,

בקרי. והלכתי עימכם, בחמת קרי" (ויקרא כו,כז-כח),

כלומר כשאביא עליכם צרה, כדי שתשובו--אם תאמרו שהוא קרי, אוסיף עליכם חמת אותו קרי.

This [type of prayer] belongs to the ways of repenting. When a disaster occurs and they cry out for it and blow trumpets, all realize that this came about as a result of their misdeeds as it says, “Your sins brought this about upon you”. This [realization] will cause the disaster to lift.

Should they not cry out or blow trumpets, saying that this thing happened in normal ways of the world, that this disaster is just a serendipitous occurrence, this [kind of thinking] is cruel for it encourages them to stick to their errant ways bringing more disasters. That is the meaning of the verse “should you walk with me serendipitously, I will walk with you in the wrath of serendipity”. In other words, when I bring down a disaster upon you, so that you repent, and you will attribute it to serendipity, I will add to you the wrath of that serendipity.

In a letter to the sages of Marseilles, which I quoted in the past, Rambam blames the destruction of the temple on the Jews turning to spirits rather than arming and defending themselves while engaging in diplomacy! Repentance in this context is making ourselves aware that it is up to us to figure out how to prevent a disaster. We have to accept responsibility for our actions or inactions and take our fate into our hands.

The “miracle” of the blessings and curses of the Torah are seen as teachings when they are constant. When the Jews followed the path of Torah, abandoned the ways of superstition and idolatry, acting on their convictions and consequently lived peacefully on their land, they taught humanity that our actions have consequences. They taught that unlike the other nations who rely on spirits and therefore are dependent on the vagaries of nature, we Jews take our fate into our own hands, because we believe that HKBH created the world with wisdom. It is up to us to understand it and act accordingly. Coming back to our treatise on Resurrection and the verse in Devarim 4:19, we read –

וכבר זכר בתורה שהוא מופת מתמיד, ר"ל תיקון העניינים

עם העבודה, והפסדם עם המרי. אמר "והיו בך לאות ולמופת ובזרעך עד עולם"

ומפני זה אמרו "אין מזל לישראל", רצו לומר שתיקונם והפסדם אינם לסבה טבעית

ולא על מנהג המציאות, אלא נתלה בעבודה ובמרי. וזה אות יותר גדול מכל אות.

וכבר בארנו שזה בדין צבור ובדין יחיד כמו שיראה מן המעשה ההוא והוא נאות

לאומרו ובזרעך עד עולם.

ומן המאמר המפורסם באומה "ראה אדם ייסורין באים עליו יפשפש במעשיו".

והוא העניין בעצמו הוא המכוון ג"כ באומרו "אשר חלק ה' אלהיך אותם לכל

העמים תחת כל השמים, ואתכם לקח ה'.. להיות לו לעם נחלה כיום הזה". ר"ל

שענייניהם אינם נוהגים עניין מנהג שאר האומות, אבל ייחדם השם בזה המופת

הגדול שיהיו פעולותיהם תמיד נקשרות בתיקון ענייניהם או בהפסדם.

It is already mentioned in the Torah that the fact that things work out [for the Jews] when they act [correctly] and do not work out when they transgress is a permanent sign [that we are not dependent on the vagaries of nature]. That is the meaning of the Rabbi’s saying “Yisrael do not depend on luck”. That is their well-being or mishaps do not depend on natural events or vagaries of existence but rather on their [correct] actions or transgressions. That is a greater sign than any other sign [that there are consequences to our actions]. We already explained that this applies to both the public and the individual. (I cannot translate the end of the sentence, as I do not understand it. See R. Sheilat in note 90 that he suspects the text is corrupt). That is also seen from the famous saying “When a person sees suffering coming upon him he should look at his deeds”. [IOW we are to blame for our own suffering and should not shift the blame to others]. That is also the meaning when he says “אֲשֶׁר חָלַק יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֹתָם, לְכֹל הָעַמִּים, תַּחַת כָּל-הַשָּׁמָיִם - which the LORD thy God has allotted unto all the peoples under the whole heaven –

וְאֶתְכֶם לָקַח יְהוָה - But you hath the LORD taken”. Meaning that their [the Jewish people’s] matters are not like those of other nations [who rely and depend on vagaries of nature]. God has particularized them with this great sign [teaching to others] that their actions are intimately tied to their well-being or the mishaps.

Rambam disagrees with commentators and Rishonim who read this verse as affirming that Jews are different and under the influence of HKBH while the rest of the world is under the auspices of the stars. He understands that Jews are a paradigm for the world as a people who understand that HKBH has given the world to humanity to conquer and thus control his fate. Unlike the beliefs of the nations who believed, that man depends on outside forces like the stars and the vagaries of fate.

This post is already much too long. I will come back to this in my next post.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"Miracles" as Anomalies in Nature - The Will of God at Creation.

Basing himself on the Mishna Avot 5:5, Rambam sees all “miracles” as anomalies in nature. When HKBH put in place the rules of nature, these rules had in them the possibility for rare phenomena to occur under certain conditions. As Rambam explains in his commentary, God created water with the possible ability for it to flow upwards, against gravity. What or who triggers this anomalous phenomenon? Does it require the input of an outside sentient catalyst? Or does it occur naturally when certain conditions serendipitously[1] come together? As I read him, Rambam opts for the latter but with a twist – God’s will.

The concept of will when attributed to God is very complicated. I have discussed it at length in my article on Miracles (link available on sidebar) and I refer the interested reader to it. Summarizing, if we say that God wills miracles as necessary, reacting to human needs, we are lessening His omniscience. We are saying that He does not have the ability to foresee problems and has to step in to adjust His universe as it goes along. We therefore limit will to one time only – at creation – where all future events that require will were willed. Of course, the terms “at creation”, “were willed” are all equivocal terms that we, as humans, use to express ourselves. God is not time bound and to Him past, present and future are the same. It is only from our perspective that we assign time and even the concept of will to HKBH. Taking this into consideration we can say that all natural anomalies and when they will occur, when the proper conditions will come together for any one of them to occur, has been willed and put in place by God at creation.

If anomalies are natural events, what is miraculous about them? This brings us back to our treatise. Rambam the great teacher that he is, discusses in the treatise concepts that at first blush seem to be side issues and superfluous to the present discussion. It is only after reflection that we realize that it is in fact an integral part of the whole presentation. It is in this vein that almost as a throwaway, Rambam ends the treatise with a section about what defines miracles. He divides miracles into two general categories: those that are “naturally impossible” and those that are “naturally possible”.

Examples of the “naturally impossible” are the transformation of the staff into a serpent, the sinkhole at the Korach rebellion and the splitting of the sea.

הוא שהנפלאות פעמים יהיו בעניינים הנמנעים בטבע, כהתהפך המטה לנחש ושקיעת הארץ בעדת קרח ובקיעת הים

It is noteworthy that of these three examples, two, the sinkhole and serpent are mentioned in the Mishna Avot 5:5 as having been created at dusk on Friday of Creation. The third, the splitting of the sea, Rambam explains in his commentary on the Mishna that it was put into the nature of water at creation[2]. The word טבע is therefore not just nature in this context. It means regularly occurring natural phenomena as opposed to rare anomalies. Anomalies are part of the fabric of nature but are seen as “impossible” because they occur very rarely and therefore unpredictable or “impossible” - הנמנעים בטבע.

So what makes them into miracles? It is the timing. When they occur at the proper time and can be taken advantage of by people, they are seen as miracles. The word miracle in Hebrew is נס which can also translate “flag”. Rambam in MN 3:24 in a related discussion about נסיון – test – explains that it is like bringing up a flag on a flagpole, teaching the whole world a specific lesson. When a natural anomaly occurs at the right time for people to take advantage of, it teaches that God willed it at creation and that it is not just a coincidence, thus a miracle – נס. It also teaches that God wills. It reminds us that God willed the world into existence. It did not exist eternally together with a First Cause that had no will. That is the rationale for the Mitzvot, such as Pessach, other Yamim Tovim and those that require Zachor that demand we remember the miracles.

Now we can understand that “miracles”, natural anomalies that occur at propitious times, are not caused by some outside sentient catalyst. We see them as willed by God at creation. This only works if we accept creation from nothing which was willed by God. In an eternal world, where God is concomitant with it and has no will, the only other possible explanation for a propitious anomalous phenomenon would be magic or trickery.

People at that time all belonged to the Sabeans who believed that the world is eternal. They believed that God is the “spirit” of the sphere as we explained in the Moreh. Their belief necessitates the denial of miracles ascribing them to magic or trickery.

For such events to be seen as “miracles” they cannot be long lasting or they will lose their status as anomalies. Rambam makes the point at length here in the treatise and in his discussion of this in MN 2:29.

I said earlier that the fact that these anomalies happen at a propitious time makes us see them as miracles. In my article, I also showed that the ability of a prophet to predict and take advantage of these anomalies, expecting their occurrence and counting on them through intuitive or whatever other prophetic quality that allows for that, is part of this concept of miracles.

Not only anomalies teach us about God’s will. “Naturally possible” miracles do too.

I will discuss this in my next post.

[1] I added serendipitously because of MN 2:29 - For although the rod was turned into a serpent, the water into blood, the pure and noble hand into a leprous one, without the existence of any natural cause that necessitated this. The way I read the underlined is that the conditions that came together to create the anomaly were not necessitated but serendipitous thus attributable to the will of God at creation.

[2] . Rambam bases this on the Midrash Rabah Breishit 5:5

אמר ר' יוחנן

: תנאין התנה הקב"ה עם הים שיהא נקרע לפני ישראל, הדא הוא דכתיב (שמות יד

וישב הים לאיתנו,

לתנאו שהתנה עמו

אמר רבי ירמיה בן אלעזר:

לא עם הים בלבד התנה הקדוש ברוך הוא, אלא עם כל מה שנברא בששת ימי בראשית, הדא הוא דכתיב (ישעיה מה):

אני ידי נטו שמים וכל צבאם צויתי

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Techyat Hametim - Resurrection of the Dead - A Prophesized Miraculous Event - Not a Reward!

The traditional idea of Techyat Hametim – Resurrection of the Dead – is that it is a reward to the righteous and a phase in a complex sequence of after death “judgments”. There are many variations describing the exact sequences of this system of judgments which I do not want to expand on here as most of us grew up with them. Although I am no expert in other religions, I have read enough to know that similar conjecture about after death experiences with variations exist in Christianity and Islam too.

Most go something like this. After death, the soul hovers around the body, eventually faces judgment and is sent to a holding place –if guilty to hell and purgatory for cleansing, if righteous to heaven or Gan Eden to await resurrection. During this time, things evolve on earth and Mashiach arrives and the Jews are ingathered to Eretz Israel. The bones of the dead also somehow gather and make Aliyah through underground tunnels and the souls reunite with their respective bodies. All these systems see Mashiach, TH and OH as different components of a complex system of rewards where those alive when those times arrive are joined by the righteous or the now cleansed dead for an eternal physical life. Anyone that does not accept nay questions this idea, that all righteous will resurrect and live physically forever, is seen as a non-believer, Kofer and Apikores. (For an attempt at a rational approach to this, see Rav Sa’adyah Gaon in his Emunot Vede’ot Sha’ar 7).

Rambam disagrees with this whole system. He cannot accept that physical life is a reward. After all perfection to him is when man perfects his mind and apprehends the transcendental and non-physical. Why would return to the physical, be seen as a reward, once the higher levels of apprehension have been attained? To the contrary, as we saw in the last post, Rambam sees OH as the ultimate attainment and therefore a non-physical existence. As usual, Rambam is clear in his categories and sees Mashiach, Olam Haba and Techyat Hametim as three distinct and unrelated concepts. Mashiach describes the evolution of humanity from barbarism to a utopian state of intellectual life. When man understands his role and what is expected of him, when emulating God becomes humanity’s main activity, Mashiach will have arrived. Nothing will change from the normal physical existence other than a perfected society of men. Olam Haba on the other hand, is a personal and intellectual achievement which we can all attain if we dedicate ourselves to understanding God and His ways. Techyat Hametim is a totally unrelated idea and has nothing to do with these two concepts. It is a belief that Rambam defines as a cornerstone of the religion and has to do with basic Jewish theology but not in the category of Reward and Punishment to which the other two belong. It belongs in the category of miracles. Explaining why he is not more expansive in Pirush Hamishna and in Mishne Torah on the subject of TH Rambam states:

אמנם תחיית המתים הוא אחד מהמופתים, ומבואר מאוד, שענינו מובן ואין שם אלא

להאמין בו לבד, כמו שבאתנו ההגדה האמיתית. והוא עניין יוצא חוץ לטבע

המציאות, ואין ראיה עליו מצד העיון. ואמנם ינהג מנהג הנפלאות כולם ויקובל

אין שם זולת זה. ומה היה לנו אפשר לומר בו או להאריך

TH is one of the miracles and is quite clear. The subject is well understood, as there is nothing else to do but believe it based on the true prophetic saying. [Rambam earlier wrote that the first mention of TH in Tanach is by Daniel, one of the last prophets. As we will see this is very important for understanding miracles.] It [TH] is something outside natural existence and cannot be logically proven. One can only treat as one treats all the wondrous things – accept it and nothing more. What was there for us to talk more at length about it?

Rambam thus believes that Daniel, the prophet who introduced first the idea of TH, was predicting a miraculous event that will happen at some time in the future where some dead will be resurrected. Daniel does not give a reason nor offers any context for this occurrence, just predicts a wondrous event.

וְרַבִּים, מִיְּשֵׁנֵי אַדְמַת-עָפָר יָקִיצוּ; אֵלֶּה לְחַיֵּי עוֹלָם, וְאֵלֶּה לַחֲרָפוֹת לְדִרְאוֹן עוֹלָם

2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence.

According to Rambam, the everlasting life or everlasting abhorrence in the verse will occur after these resurrected live a normal life and die.

Considering he has not added anything to what he already told us in his other writings, Rambam offers some additional points that may help understand this a little further. As we will see there is quite a bit of innovation in what he says and helps us understand his position on miracles.

First, he addresses the treatment of TH in Tanach. Besides the one verse in Daniel, there is no further unequivocal statement in Tanach that clearly states that the dead will be resurrected. All the verses state that once a person dies it is all over as far as the physical is concerned. Rambam answers this simply that all the prophets are talking about the natural way of the world. A person dies, his body returns to its elements. Daniel is predicting a future miraculous event. It has no impact in the normal day-to-day life of a person other than the need to accept the predictions of a prophet. Daniel predicted TH in context of his prophecy. However, denial of the possibility of miraculous events stems from not accepting the idea of creation from nothing. It assumes that God has no will and therefore the anomalies we observe in nature are not a result of His omniscience. That is why TH is considered a cornerstone of Jewish theology. I will come back to this later.

Secondly, he addresses the question, if TH is a cornerstone of Judaism, why does the Torah not mention it at all. Here Rambam makes a startling and counterintuitive point, at least to a contemporary reader.

והיו בני אדם כולם בזמן ההוא מכת הצאב"א, אומרים בקדמות העולם שהם היו

מאמינים שהשם רוח הגלגל, כמו שבארנו ב"מורה הנבוכים" ומכזיבים הגיע הנבואה

מאת השם לבני אדם. וכן יתחייב להם לפי אמונתם הכזבת המופתים, וייחסו אותו

לכישוף ולתחבולה.

People at that time all belonged to the Sabeans who believed that the world is eternal. They believed that God is the “spirit” of the sphere as we explained in the Moreh. [They believed that the First Cause and the world are concomitantly eternal. In other words, they denied that God created the world from nothing.] Their belief necessitates the denial of miracles ascribing them to magic or trickery.

The last sentence is fascinating. Those who believe in the eternal existence of the world are the ones who believe in magic. Those who accept creation from nothingness accept miracles and deny the existence of magic! What is the connection?

My next post will address this point and then I will return to the answer Rambam proposes to this second question.

On a personal note: I have read this treatise many times in the past. As with all Rambam’s writings I find that, every revisit inevitably brings a new insight. I never noticed the fascinating sentence I highlighted that says so much until yesterday morning as I was rereading it. The depth of thought of this great thinker is incredible. It is no wonder that it is an accepted rule that Rambam has to be read with just as much care as the Gemara. (Yad Malachi Kelalei Harambam 3 in the name of the Migdal Oz.) Rambam himself confirms that in this treatise:

ולו היה אפשר לי לשית התלמוד כלו בפרק אחד, לא הייתי משים אותו בשניים

Had I been able to put all of the Talmud in one chapter I would not have done it in two.

שכל חיבורינו אמנם הם קב ונקי, ואין כוונתנו להגדיל גוף הספרים ולא לכלות

הזמן במה שלא יביא אל תועלת. ולזה כשנפרש, לא נפרש אלא מה שצריך לפירוש,

ובשיעור שיובן לבד.

For all our writings are clear and clean. We do not plan to increase the physical size of the books nor waste time on things that will not bring any benefit. Therefore when we explain something, we will only explain what is necessary as explanation and only enough for it to be understood.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Olam Haba - the Coming Existence.

After lowering our expectations in his preamble and dissuading us from any hope that he will offer any great innovative explanation of Techyat Hametim, Rambam now addresses the issue. He differentiates between Olam Haba (hereafter OH) and Techyat Hametim (hereafter TH) – Resurrection of the Dead. OH is a natural outcome of a person’s development. As the person gains knowledge of HKBH and an understanding of His creations, something happens to that person’s mind and at death, when the bodily needs no longer exist, there is an integration of the knowledge and understanding one has attained during a lifetime with the Sechel Hapoel – the Active Intellect. This is the most mystical part of Rambam’s philosophy and is one of the underlying arguments of professor Blumenthal, who I have discussed in the past (see the labels), for rational mysticism. As I discussed many times, Rambam looks at the physical world as composed of matter and Form. I visualize it in my mind as Form being the science behind a thing, the concept that gives matter its physical attributes. The science that brought that thing into existence was there before it existed. That science when looked at it in the macro, the science that is responsible for the whole of physical existence, is how I understand the idea of the Active Intellect. God being the First Cause, the Active Intellect would be the closest thing to the transcendental God, the immediate source thereof. In a metaphorical sense, one could say it is the mind of God. As our minds grasp knowledge, it becomes absorbed and integrated with the Active Intellect, with the “mind of God” so to say.

OH is a concept that we can understand inductively but it cannot be grasped by our minds bound by physicality. As Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah (8:11-13) explains it, (excerpts – not the full text),

יא הטובה הגדולה שתהיה בה הנפש בעולם הבא, אין שם דרך בעולם הזה

להשיגה ולידע אותה, שאין אנו יודעין בעולם הזה אלא טובת הגוף, ולה אנו


אבל אותה הטובה גדולה עד מאוד, ואין לה ערך בטובות של עולם הזה

אלא דרך משל

There is no possibility, in this existence [traditionally: world but see below], to apprehend and know the great good that the mind [traditionally: soul but see below] will experience in the coming existence. For in our current existence we know only physical good and we strive for it. However, that good [the OH one] is very great and can only be compared allegorically to the current existences’ good.

(I have chosen to translate the word “Olam” as “existence” rather than the traditional “world”. I base it on the last Halacha quoted below. I have also chosen to translate “nefesh” as “mind” rather than “soul” based on the opening statement in Shemona Perakim –

דע, שנפש האדם אחת, ויש לה פעולות רבות, חלוקות, יקראו קצת הפעולות ההן, "נפשות"

Although I realize that it is a translation from the Arabic, I believe it to be how Rambam understands nefesh as opposed to Neshamah. But this is a subject for another day.)

כבר הודיעונו חכמים הראשונים שטובת העולם הבא אין כוח באדם

להשיגה על בורייה, ואין יודע גודלה ויופייה ועוצמה אלא הקדוש ברוך הוא לבדו

The early sages have already informed us that the good of the coming existence cannot be thoroughly apprehended by man. Only HKBH alone knows its greatness, beauty and awesomeness.

(Note the addition of על בורייה “thoroughly” apprehended in this context. Apparently as we grow in apprehension by studying the ideas of the early sages, we can get a sense of OH though not a real understanding.)

אבל טובת חיי העולם הבא, אין לה ערך ודמיון, ולא דימוה

הנביאים, כדי שלא יפחתו אותה בדמיון. הוא שישעיהו אומר "עין לא ראתה,

אלוהים זולתך--יעשה, למחכה לו

כלומר הטובה שלא ראתה אותה עין נביא, אלא עשה אותה האלוהים לאדם שמחכה

אמרו חכמים, כל הנביאים כולן לא נתנבאו אלא לימות המשיח, אבל העולם

הבא,עין לא ראתה, אלוהים זולתך

But the good [we experience] while living in the coming existence, cannot be valued or imagined. The prophets have not [described it] metaphorically [literally: imaginatively] so as to not lessen it in our imagination. That is Yeshayahu (64:3) saying “no eye has seen it besides God. It was made for those who wait for it.” Namely, the good that the eyes of a prophet have never seen, God has made for the person that waits for it. The sages said, all the prophets prophesized regarding the days of Mashiach, but the coming existence has not been seen by any eye except for God.

זה שקראו אותו חכמים העולם הבא, לא מפני שאינו מצוי עתה וזה העולם אובד

ואחר כך יבוא אותו העולם. אין הדבר כן, אלא הרי הוא מצוי ועומד, שנאמר "

מה רב טובך, אשר צפנת ליראיך" (תהילים לא,כ).

ולא קראוהו העולם הבא, אלא מפני שאותן החיים באין לו לאדם אחר חיי העולם

הזה, שאנו קיימין בו בגוף ונפש, וזה הוא הנמצא לכל אדם בראשונה.

The reason the sages refer to it as the “coming” existence is not because it does not exist now and it will come after our current world is destroyed. That is not so. It exists and stands now as it says in Tehilim (31:20) “how great is the good You have hidden for those who fear You!” They called it “coming” existence, because a person does not experience that life only after the life in this existence, which is composed of body and mind. A person has that too at first.

Clearly, OH is not a physical experience. To the contrary, it is only experienced once a person abandons physical existence.

My problem with this understanding of OH is the issue of individuation. If OH means becoming one with the universal Active Intellect, how is one person’s OH different from another’s’? But as it has been my experience with these issues, with time and thought, coming back to the problem repeatedly, eventually an insight moves me closer to a new understanding.

Be it as it may, OH as described above is a kind of ecstatic and transcendental experience that is eternal because it is not bound by matter and physicality thus the idea of time does not apply. On the other hand, Techyat Hametim, the Resurrection of the Dead, is a physical event. It is the idea that people who died somehow come back to life, to a physical existence that is also time bound. Rambam categorizes it as a miraculous event and does not necessarily see it as a reward for good deeds. I will address this and the concept of miracles in my next post.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Teaching the Masses - Was Rambam an Elitist?

I left off my last post with Rambam’s statement that in the Treatise on Resurrection he is not adding anything to what he already wrote on the subject because he intends it to be understood by the unsophisticated masses. At first blush, it would seem to be an elitist approach where the “masses” are discriminated against. As we will see this is far from the truth.

The word “knowledge” is not easy to define and is still a matter of discussion by philosophers. For our purpose, I will define it as the totality of information that a human can (theoretically) garner about existence. At a basic level, it is a practical quest for understanding. A person wants to know about his environment so that he can use it for his own, or for his specie’s survival. But there is a deeper need to satisfy a curiosity about everything that is out there and how it works, what made it come into existence and to what end. That curiosity has to be fostered and developed. It does not come naturally to most of us. Left to ourselves most of us would give the whole issue only passing attention. It is however an extremely important subject and is at the core of human existence. In Judaism’s view of the world, humanity has a role to play in the continuity of the whole of existence and it is up to humankind to discover that role and act on it at appropriate times. Discovering what that role is can only be accomplished if we question the reasons for our existence, how we came about and where all this is going. It also has to be a communal effort. The task is so daunting that a single individual alone in his short lifetime can never accomplish it. It is therefore crucial that as many human beings as possible during endless generations are made cognizant of this responsibility and are recruited to this great endeavor. That is the goal of Torah. It is supposed to teach us from childhood to focus on this quest. Although all human beings have to some degree the ability to embark on this quest, it is part of man’s nature that he has free will. For reasons known only to HKBH He wanted us to have that freedom, an apparently necessary trait for the fulfillment of our role and part in existence. Free will demands that we choose to pursue our destiny responsibly. Choice means we do not have to and our other natural tendencies drive us to focus on ourselves ignoring the existential questions that confront us. The Torah’s goal is to trigger us into thinking, questioning and searching for answers. How does it go about it?

One among much method is through the Mitzvah of Kryat Shema. The Halacha requires us to declare twice daily that God is unique – Hashem Echad. The saying of Shema is the first thing taught a Jewish child as soon as he acquires the ability to talk and is the last thing a person says at the time of death. It is so important that it is the only daily Torah obligation. There is no other Mitzvah that is a Torah mandated (as opposed to Rabbinic) daily obligation. When the child asks what the word unique in Shema means, he is told much more than just that God is unique.

For in the same way as all people must be informed and even children must be trained in the belief that God is One, and that none besides Him is to be worshipped, so must all be taught by simple authority that God is incorporeal. There is no similarity in any way whatsoever between Him and His creatures. His existence is not like the existence of His creatures, His life not like that of any living being, His wisdom not like the wisdom of the wisest of men. The difference between Him and His creatures is not merely quantitative, but absolute [as between two individuals of two different classes]. I mean to say that all must understand that our wisdom and His or our power and His do not differ quantitatively or qualitatively, or in a similar manner. For two things, of which the one is strong and the other weak, are necessarily similar, belong to the same class, and can be included in one definition. The same is the case with any other comparisons: they can only be made between two things belonging to the same class, as has been shown in works on Natural Science. Anything predicated of God is totally different from our attributes; no definition can comprehend both; therefore His existence and that of any other being totally differ from each other, and the term existence is applied to both as homonyms, as I shall explain.” (MN1:35)

Of course, Rambam is describing a long process of education where a child is taught the basic ideas and slowly progresses as he matures to a more advanced understanding. However all this is taught “by simple authority” without any logical proof or argument. When the maturing child confronts the new texts he is now learning, the contrast and apparent contradiction with this teaching about God’s uniqueness and the text itself, triggers a series of questions. That forces those that are more intelligent and have the mental capacity to think, venturing farther afield and thus deal with the existential questions.

That God is incorporeal, that He cannot be compared with His creatures, that He is not subject to external influence; these are things which must be explained to every one according to his capacity. They must be taught by way of tradition to children and women, to the stupid and ignorant, as they are taught that God is One, that He is eternal, and that He alone is to be worshipped. Without incorporeality, there is no unity, for a corporeal thing is in the first case not simple, but composed of matter and form which are two separate things by definition, and secondly, as it has extension it is also divisible. Persons having received this doctrine, having been trained in this belief are in consequence at a loss to reconcile it with the writings of the Prophets. The meaning of the latter must be made clear and explained to them by pointing out the homonymity and the figurative application of certain terms discussed in this part of the work. Their belief in the unity of God and in the words of the Prophets will then be a true and perfect belief.” (MN 1:35)

Rambam’s Torah does not suffer of an inferiority complex. On the contrary, it challenges man to question and search for Truth. When man understands rationally the meaning of uniqueness (unity) as applied to God, the idea of transcendence, omniscience, omnipotence etc… and his own place and status in that context, he truly understands the words of the prophets. The prophets teach man about his responsibility and need to discover his role in existence. The prophets teach that man has to try to understand God, His deeds and emulate Him in creation. The Torah defines this goal of humankind in the story of creation.

כו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם

בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ; וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף

הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָאָרֶץ, וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ, הָרֹמֵשׂ


26 And God said: 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.'

The prophets continue this teaching and apply it to practical day-to-day behavior.

Of course, Torah is not one-dimensional. Shema is only one Mitzvah among many. There are many more Mitzvot that permeate our daily life and force us to constantly confront the question of why we are doing them. The search for an answer invariably leads us back to thinking about God, the lawgiver who is also the Creator and First Cause. Thus, all Mitzvot have the same goals – turn us into thoughtful human beings in search of God and our role in His universe.

Rambam believes that when the Torah and that includes the Prophets and the rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud, teach theology through direct edicts or through stories and metaphors, they use a multi-level language. It is a language that can be understood by the beginner child as well as by the sophisticated philosopher. They both will have an understanding that will trigger further thought at their respective level of apprehension. It is this dialectic between the written text and the “simple authority” at first and the logical understanding and conviction as the person progresses, that induces the person to question it and promotes thoughtfulness. When Rambam is telling us that he is not adding anything more than he has said in the past on the subject so that the masses understand him, he is emulating the way he understands Torah teaches. He will repeat and elaborate on what he has already said, without revealing more, expecting the reader according to his level, to question further and find the answer. He sees the masses, the women and children as he many times refers to them, as the beginners where each has the ability, if properly directed, to gather a deeper understanding of life and their role in it. They thus can contribute to the great mission of humanity; to know God and His ways and emulate Him doing good which is synonymous to promoting continuity of existence in Rambam’s parlance, as we have discussed many times.

I have digressed a little from my discussion of the verse in Devarim 6:19 and I will do so a little more in my next post to discuss Rambam’s presentation on Techyat Hametim and touch a little on the issue of miracles. Please indulge my wandering thoughts.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Those who "Think They Are Sages of Israel, While in Reality They Are the Greatest Fools Among Men".

Rambam wrote the Ma’amar Techyat Hametim – Treatise regarding Resurrection of the Dead – in the latter years of his life, in response to criticism of his treatment of the issue in Mishne Torah. He writes with an underlying tone of frustration and annoyance directed at the more learned of his audience who do not seem to get it. He introduces the treatise by explaining that he felt the need to write about philosophical issues in his Halachik compositions (Chiburim). Here are his words in the Hebrew translation followed by my English paraphrase/translation. (The English will be based on the Sheilat edition while I cut and pasted the Ibn Tibon one which explains the slight differences).

וכאשר נחלצנו לזה, ראינו שאינו מן הדין לדון למה שנרצה, רצוני לומר לבאר

ולקרב סעיפי הדת ולהניח שורשיו נעזבים שלא אבארם ולא אישיר אמיתותם. וכל

שכן שכבר פגשנו אדם שהיה נחשב שהיה מחכמי ישראל, וחי השם יודע היה דרך משא

ומתן במלחמתה של תורה לפי מחשבתו מנעוריו, והוא היה מסופק אם השם גשם, בעל

עין יד ורגל בני מעיים, כמו שבא בפסוקים, או אינו גוף. אמנם אחרים שפגשתי

מאנשי קצת ארצות, פסקו לגמרי שהוא גוף, והחזיקו לכופר מי שהיה מאמין

חילופו, וקראוהו מין ואפיקורוס. והבינו דרשות רבות על פשוטיהן. וכיוצא בזה

שמעתי על קצת אנשים שלא ראיתי.

וכאשר ידעתי באלו האובדים לגמרי שהם מוקצים, וחושבים שהם חכמי ישראל,

והם הם הסכלים שבבני אדם ויותר תועי דרך מהבהמה. וכבר נתמלא מוחם

משיגעונות הנשים הזקנות, ודמיונם הנפסדות כעיוורים וכנשים, ראינו שצריך

לנו לבאר בחיבורינו התלמודיים עיקרים תוריים על צד הסיפור לא על צד הביא

ראיה. כי הבאת הראיה על השורשים ההם צריך למהירות בחכמות רבות, לא ידעו

התלמודיים דבר מהם, כמו שבארנו במורה הנבוכים.

ובחרנו להיות האמיתות

מקובלות אצל ההמון לפחות

As we got ready to do this, [write Halachik books] we realized that it is not proper and will not fulfill our goal if we were to organize and gather the branches of the religion while ignoring the principles [literally – roots], leaving them unexplained and incorrect. This became more so when we met a person considered to be one of the sages of Yisrael, who I swear knew the arguments of the Law, according to his understanding of them, but was unsure whether God is corporeal, having eyes, hands, feet and intestines as is the plain reading in the verses or not. Furthermore, I met others from several countries who decided that God is corporeal and anyone that denies it is a Kofer labeling him a Min and Apikores. They read the Aggadot in Massechet Berachot literally. I heard similar things about others I have not met. These are complete losers [Rambam means this literally. Their soul is lost] who mature thinking they are sages of Israel, while in reality they are the greatest fools among men, misdirected worse than animals, their heads filled with oldwife tales and mistaken imaginings of children and women. We therefore felt that there is a need to include in our Talmudic compositions, theological principles of Torah in a decision format without proofs. For to bring proofs regarding these principles [and understanding them], requires familiarity with many different types of knowledge that Talmudic scholars know nothing about, as we explained in the Moreh Hanevuchim. We therefore chose to [at least make sure] that these truths be known [and accepted] to the masses.

This is a fascinating preamble. Rambam sees the Talmudic scholars, the supposed sages, as being responsible for hindering the masses from accepting basic principles. He certainly talks plainly seeing them as less worthy than animals! Rambam comes to the rescue of the masses by including these principles in a format that can be understood by all, within the corpus of Law that he has prepared. That work will be used by all and therefore all will know the Truth. The scholars who think they know their own truth may ignore and disagree but will no longer keep it from the masses! Rambam foresaw the future. It was the Talmudic scholars of his and the following generation(s), who tried to eradicate Rambam’s work by having it burned. It is the masses led by the real sages, those that understood Rambam that saved it.

Rambam then continues to list some of the theological principles that he inserted in his Halachik compositions in a decision format without elaborating the underlying proofs so that –

וזכרנו בו ג"כ כל העניינים עיקרים התוריים והתלמודיים, וכיוננו בזה שיהיו

אלה הנקראים תלמידי חכמים, או חכמים, או גאונים, או כמו שתקראם, בונים את

סעיפיהם על שרשים תלמודיים, ותהיה תורתם סדורה על פיהם, ותלמודם במסילה


וכל זה נבנה על עיקרים תוריים, ולא ישליכו ידיעת השם אחרי גוום, אבל

ישימו השתדלותם הגדול וזריזותם על מה שישלימם ויקרבם אצל בוראם, לא על מה

שיביא בהם השלמות אצל ההמון

We also mentioned all the principles found in the Torah and Talmud. Our purpose was so that those that are called Talmidei Chachamim, Chachamim or Geonim or whatever other name title they may have, should build their branches on Talmudic principles. That way their Torah will be organized and their learning will be set on the correct path. Having built all this on Torah principles, they will not leave the knowledge of God behind their back, but will put their efforts on matters that will perfect them and bring them close to their Creator and not to things that will make them look good to the masses.

The underlying theme here is that those learning Torah without knowing the fundamental theological principles are like the Emperor wearing imaginary clothes. The masses respect them for their great erudition while they in reality are empty shells. (Rav Sheilat in his notes contends that when Rambam uses the words Talmudic he is referring also to Halachik principles. I think he has a point. However, I would add, that as anyone who has analyzed Rambam’s Halachik works knows, the underlying Halachik and theological/philosophic principles of any Halacha are one. They are interdependent and entwined.)

Rambam then retells all the letters and criticisms he received on the subject of his treatment of Techyat Hametim after the publication of the Mishne Torah (MT) and his various responses. Before Rambam deals with the meat of this treatise, he makes a very important statement –

ומהנה אתחיל בזיכרון זה המאמר: דע אתה המעיין שכונתנו בזה המאמר היא לבאר

מה שנאמינהו בזאת הפינה אשר נפלו בו דברים בין התלמידים, והיא תחיית

המתים. ואין בזה המאמר דבר נוסף כולל על כל מה שאמרנוהו בפירוש המשנה

והחבור, אבל יש בו כפל עניינים והארכה המונית ותוספת ביאור יבינוהו הנשים

והסכלים לא זולת זה

I will now begin this treatise. Know that our goal in this treatise is to clarify our belief in this cornerstone that is the subject of discussion among the students namely Techyat Hametim [Resurrection of the Dead]. There will be nothing in the treatise that we have not already said in the Pirush Hamishna and the composition (MT). The Treatise contains repetitions, expansion for the masses and additional clarifications so that it can be understood by women and the fools, nothing more.

This statement is extremely important in understanding the Treatise, so important that Rambam repeats it several times at key points, making sure that we keep this in mind. In my next post I will define exactly how Rambam defines what the masses must know and how theological matters have to be presented to them.

Friday, June 06, 2008

An Interesting Comment on the Previous Post

An email comment on my last post that I thought worthwhile enough to publish. (With permission and slight editing).

On a micro level- Galgalim (spheres) or nature, seem to have Bechira. An atom can split on its own but for some reason doesn't without us causing it. The more we study science the more we yet have to explain the rules of science but we are always left with a question on why it chooses to work this way instead of another. As soon as we think we figure it out, we find another aspect that seems to be random. This will be a process that will always exist in man’s search for an explanation or understanding how things work. This choosing of nature to work one way versus another or randomness is what the Rambam calls Bechira. This is a much higher level than we are because at the end of the day it is doing solely the Ratzon hashem. Moshe was much closer to that level because whatever Moshe did was in fact Ratzon hashem. Even though on a micro when Moshe hit the rock or the mitzri it seemed like it was his decision and choice and that G-d may seem to have been angry at Moshe (when he hit the rock). The end result was that he did Ratzon hashem. When the water flooded the world in the Mabul or the sea split for the Jews may seem as nature choosing a dif direction. The end result is Ratzon hashem.

At the end of the day the macro is only Ratzon hashem and on the micro what we interpret as Bechira whether in nature or in ourselves is also Ratzon hashem. The difference is that in nature it is more difficult to see Bechira (on a micro level) unless you study science or are a theologian. That is why it is on a higher level than Bechira of man. Moshe was closer to that level of Bechira.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Heaven's Freedom of Choice.

We say that someone has freedom of choice when he has the freedom to choose between two actions or between action and inaction. It is also dependent on will, for without will there is no action. We have to will ourselves to act. Therefore, action that is caused by will is seen as resulting from choice – the choice or decision to will. So what about nature? Can we assign will and choice to forces of nature? Medieval philosophers, detecting a tendency in laws of nature to be constructive by promoting survival of the whole of existence, saw that as a kind of will – the will to survive. Although the forces of nature are unchanging and static, the survival pattern that is detected in them, allowed the philosophers to say that they have a will and choice. Of course, it is nothing like human choice and will but equivocally the same terms may be used.

To make sense of this way of thinking we have to differentiate between nature and forces of nature. The philosophers differentiate between Chomer and Tzura – Matter and Form. Everything we know and can touch and feel is composed of both Matter, which is the physical component and Form, which is the underlying concept of that object. Matter is the physical component of existence and the forces of nature that make the physical come into being are the Form. When the philosophers say that the spheres have a mind, will and choice, they say so because they see them as the distant cause or the underlying concept behind all the Forms that make up our physical existence. They are the distant cause for all Forms that interact with Matter because they are the source of movement and change. I am not knowledgeable enough in Physics to translate this into a contemporary scientific presentation but from the little I do know from general readings on the subject, I can visualize it in my mind, and I think I can make sense of it. Commenters that are more knowledgeable are welcome to enlighten us further. Anyone that feels like elaborating is welcome to propose a guest post on the subject.

I also see all this as a way of looking at things rather than an empirically provable fact. The interesting thing about this outlook is that it is only a small step away from a “spiritual” understanding of what moves things. Going from concepts that seem to underlie existence as having a tendency and therefore a will, to semi-physical entities that are the underlying cause of everything is no more than crossing a fine line. Crossing that fine line however is idolatry, “the core of Avodah Zara” Rambam is talking about and discussed in the preceding post.

We have already explained that the term "angel" is a homonym, and is used of the intellectual beings, the spheres, and the elements: for all these are engaged in performing a divine command. But do not imagine that the Intelligences and the spheres are like other forces which reside in bodies and act by the laws of nature without being conscious of what they do. The spheres and the Intelligences are conscious of their actions, and select by their own free will the objects of their influence, although not in the same manner as we exercise free will and rule over other things, which only concern temporary beings… These passages show that angels are conscious of what they do, and have free will in the sphere of action entrusted to them, just as we have free will within our province, and in accordance with the power given to us with our very existence. The difference is that what we do is the lowest stage of excellence, and that our influence and actions are preceded by non-action; whilst the Intelligences and the spheres always perform that which is good, they contain nothing except what is good and perfect, as will be shown further on, and they have continually been active from the beginning.” (MN 2:7)

The fact that the “intelligences” and spheres perform only what is good, that in itself is considered to be a choice and in poetic language, they are choosing to follow God’s will. This is the meaning of the Birchot Kryat Shema at Shacharit “Vekulam Mekablim Aleihem Ol Malchut Shamayim” – they [God’s servants or tools – the forces of nature] all accept upon themselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven - and the rest of the Bracha.

Scripture supports the theory that the spheres are animate and intellectual, i.e., capable of comprehending things. They are not, as ignorant persons believe, inanimate masses like fire and earth, but are endowed with life, as the philosophers assert, and serve their Lord, whom they mightily praise and glorify… The opinion of Aristotle, that the spheres are capable of comprehension and conception, is in accordance with the words of our prophets and our theologians or Sages. The philosophers further agree that this world below is governed by influences emanating from the spheres, and that the latter comprehend and have knowledge of the things which they influence. This theory is also met with in Scripture [the stars and all the host of heaven] "which the Lord thy God hath allotted them to all the peoples" (Deut. iv. 19), that is to say, the stars, which God appointed to be the means of governing His creatures, and not the objects of man's worship.” (MN 2:5)

If we were to read this last quotation without the preamble of the earlier one, it would seem that Rambam is assigning a “spiritual” kind of quality to the spheres and stars. He however, very subtly, shows us that although the plain poetic text would seem to suggest such a possibility, it in reality means no more than how the philosophers understood the forces emanating from the heavens. It is in this context that we meet again the verse in Devarim 6:19 as an example of how one has to read such a text. Rambam again reiterates his understanding that it refers to the stars being the cause and source of all physical occurrences, the natural force that moves the physical world and not spiritual forces as understood by many.

Next, I will analyze the last Rambam I know that addresses this verse in his Iggeret Techyat Hametim.