Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Is The Purpose of Torah Law? A Cosmic Viewpoint.

There are certain times in our thinking that we know we had a crucial insight that answered many difficult questions that were lurking in our minds. These insights often open an entire new avenue of thought and understanding. Over the years, I had several such moments that changed and influenced my thinking going forward. I experienced such a moment recently when I was working on my article on Avodah Zara published in Hakirah 6. As I was rereading Rambam’s explanation of the word Tov mentioned so often in the description of creation, I realized that Tov Me’od which appears at the end of creation when man comes into existence addresses man’s purpose, goal and his part in the totality of existence. Rambam sees the whole of existence as an interconnected interdependent system, where each component has a built in mechanism that promotes self-survival and survival of the whole. All components however have very defined roles without any freedom of choice on how to act while humans are endowed with the potential for creativity, thinking and acting responsibly. It is that potential that differentiates man from all other components of the universe and it is that ability that informs him what his expected contribution to the survival of the whole is and therefore his goal in existence. Thus, creation was complete and Tov Me’od, a term denoting the permanent continuity of all that was created, could be used. Working towards understanding and fulfilling the potential of humanity is the responsibility of each individual, the community and all of humankind, generation by generation, over the millennia. For man to know how to fulfill his part in the whole of existence is not simple and straightforward. It cannot be known without understanding thoroughly how every component works, what its purpose is, where the whole enterprise of existence is going and the risks and challenges it all faces. That knowledge however is elusive. It has taken humanity thousands of years to even begin scratching the surface of the different sciences that try to explain how things work. We are just at the beginning of the process of deciphering the laws of physics, chemistry and biology etc… empirical knowledge that can be physically demonstrated. Ontological questions which have no empirically proven answers are the most elusive and may never be answered satisfactorily. However, for the ontological premises to make sense they have to be anchored in reality as demonstrated by the sciences but they also require personal perfection if they are to be the Truth and not just subjective conjectures.

It has been proved that moral conduct is a preparation for intellectual progress, and that only a man whose character is pure, calm and steadfast, can attain to intellectual perfection: that is, acquire correct conceptions. …For this science is, as you know, different from the science of Medicine and of Geometry, and, from the reason already mentioned, it is not every person who is capable of approaching it. It is impossible for a man to study it successfully without moral preparation; he must acquire the highest degree of uprightness and integrity…Therefore, it was considered inadvisable to teach it to young men; nay, it is impossible for them to comprehend it, on account of the heat of their blood and the flame of youth, which confuses their minds. That heat, which causes all the disorder, must first disappear; they must have become moderate and settled, humble in their hearts, and subdued in their temperament; only then will they be able to arrive at the highest degree of the perception of God, i.e., the study of Metaphysics, which is called Ma‘aseh Merkavah.” (MN 1:34)

The problem is that the push for survival is instinctual and present in each of us for our own selfish self-preservation even at the detriment of the other. It is not obvious to us that unless we act in a way that protects and promotes the survival of the totality of existence we will self-destruct. It is this instinct that is the cause of wars, environmental destruction and is at the root of many of humanity’s societal ills which hinder its development towards fulfilling its intended role. Furthermore, when faced with ontological questions that require a clear unbiased perspective, narcissistic tendencies cloud our thinking. When there is no concrete evidence to support an answer to an abstract question, we tend to pull in the direction that satisfies egotistical tendencies. This instinct therefore has to be channeled so that it allows us to find the true answers that will inform our actions.

That is where the Torah comes into play. The Torah through its Mitzvot teaches morality and ethics forcing people to look beyond their own selfish narcissistic needs and interests. The ritualistic commandments, those commonly referred to as Mitzvot bein Adam Lamakom, are needed to keep us focused at all times on the ontological questions while at the same time forcing us to go beyond our built in tendency of taking care and satisfying our physical needs. The societal Mitzvot teach us ethics, morality and the need to think of the other while also organizing society so that people live peacefully with each other. The Mitzvot are therefore tools to make us better people so that we can fulfill our raison d’etre and learn how to play a responsible role in the continuity of existence.

The general object of the Law is twofold: the welfare of the soul, and the welfare of the body. The welfare of the soul is promoted by correct opinions communicated to the people according to their capacity. … The welfare of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This is achieved through two things. One of them is the abolition of their wronging each other. That is to say, that we do not do, every one as he pleases, desires, and is able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes towards the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state. Of these two objects, the one, the well-being of the soul, or the communication of correct opinions, comes undoubtedly first in rank, but the other, the well-being of the body, the government of the state, and the establishment of the best possible relations among men, is anterior in nature and time.” (MN 3:27)

With this perspective, I believe most of the questions that plague us about the reasons for specific supposedly illogical Mitzvot vanish. For example, the laws of impurity generally seen as Chukim have no intrinsic value. Their primary purpose is to remind us that we are about to enter the places designated to make us focus on metaphysics and God, the Beit Hamikdash. The idea is to not make our presence there mundane and create an aura of holiness and restraint from physical matters. Its extended purpose is as Rambam says in Hilchot Tume’at Ochlin (16:14)

אף על פי שמותר לאכול אוכלין טמאים ולשתות משקין טמאים, חסידים הראשונים
היו אוכלין חוליהן בטהרה ונזהרין מן הטומאות כולן כל ימיהן; והן הנקראין
פרושים. ודבר זה קדושה יתרה היא, ודרך חסידות שיהיה אדם נבדל ופורש משאר
העם, ולא ייגע בהן ולא יאכל וישתה עימהן: שהפרישות מביאה לידי טהרת הגוף
ממעשים הרעים, וטהרת הגוף מביאה לידי קדושת הנפש מן הדעות הרעות, וקדושת
הנפש גורמת להידמות בשכינה, שנאמר "והתקדשתם והייתם קדושים, כי קדוש אני"

The idea is to create an aura of holiness and separation from day-to-day preoccupations and personal needs to allow the person that wants to focus on the existential issues to do so and arrive at correct conclusions that are not narcissistic and self-serving. The ultimate purpose of these laws is therefore to develop correct opinions and find the true ways of HKBH so that we can emulate Him. The laws of impurity are an important tool, one of many, in leading us to that understanding.

“We must bear in mind that all such religious acts as reading the Law, praying, and the performance of other precepts, serve exclusively as the means of causing us to occupy and fill our mind with the precepts of God, and free it from worldly business.” (MN3:51)

And what is the point of filling our minds with God and thinking about Him?

“The prophet thus, in conclusion, says, "For in these things I delight, says the Lord," i.e., My object [in saying this] is that you shall practice loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. In a similar manner, we have shown that the object of the enumeration of God's thirteen attributes is the lesson that we should acquire similar attributes and act accordingly. The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired--as far as this is possible for man--the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.” (MN 3:54)


  1. David,

    Excellent post. I have been trying to write the same idea, but have been having a difficult time.

    I thought about presenting the idea of tov through the words of the Rambam in the Moreh, but I decided to take a different approach: to begin with our intuitive concept of tov and develop it into the Torah's definition of tov. We all have an intuitive concept of tov as existence, but our idea of tov is skewed. It is a self-centered tov - or, more accurately, a psyche-centered tov - measured by what is good for my psychological existence (pleasure, dominance, greatness, immortality, etc.), not what is good for me as a nivra in the briah.

    I then plan to write another post on bechirah as choice between the “good tov” and the “bad tov,” and another post about hashgachah as the means by which God is meitiv. This would involve a discussion of the Rambam’s definition of tzedek at the end of the Moreh: להגיע כל בעל חוק לחקו, ולתת לכל נמצא מן הנמצאות כפי הראוי לו . This idea can only be fully appreciated through the framework of tov.

    Unfortunately, I have found it difficult to write about these concepts in a manner that doesn’t sound overly philosophical. It seems to me that these ideas should be perceived by the mind as real - not just as abstract, theoretical formulations. That is why I start with the intuitive idea of tov.

    I’ve taken a break from working on these posts, and I’m going to try again in a few weeks. If you have any suggestions or insights on this presentation, please share! And again, I really enjoyed the post.

  2. P.S. I must give hakaras ha'tov to Rabbi Sacks (, who taught me the true idea of tov.

  3. Thank you Matt. As you notice my posts are slower in coming as the subjects I have been addressing lately are very hard to write about in a cogent manner. I also have to work out some details that pop up as I write and that is the main reason for writing. Thank you again for the encouragement.

    As to your outline, it is excellent and I look forward to reading the posts. My only suggestion is to seek clarity and as much conciseness as possible when writing for it forces us to think things through.

  4. Hi my name is ernesto, i am in a Jewish Studies class and i wanted to know if you could help me. i have a question which asks "How is the Torah understood as both cosmic law which regulates the entire universe and the internal regulative system of th Jewish community? What principles arre used to extend the Torah to all spheres of life, producing halakhah." For the first question i was thinking that the Torah can be seen as cosmic law which regulates the entire universe because of the mitzvot. Since the mitzvot regulates all aspects of human life in relation to the universe, then the torah is therefore takes authority over the cosmos through us. Since we are the first creation of God, we witness the creation of the world through Torah's teaching. Is this right?

  5. Ernesto,

    I do not think that just because our behavior changes it effects a cosmic change in the universe. One could argue that if enough people changed their behavior for example not working one day a week, the effect on earth would be so great so as to affect the whole cosmos through a process of cause and effect. This seems to be your suggestion. You can take it a step further and argue that as the world is in reality controlled by "spiritual" forces, the impact a Mitzva has on the spiritual world changes the flow that emanates from it - a more Kabbalistic and mystical perspective. I buy into a more rational perspective, where human proper behavior promotes correct opinions in metaphysics and scientific understanding of the universe and our existence and place within it. That is the objective of humanity to find its role in the whole of existence and act accordingly. If you look at it as a distant cause, yes Torah can be seen as having a cosmic effect.

  6. Ernesto,

    "Since we are the first creation of God, we witness the creation of the world through Torah's teaching."

    What does this mean? Who says we are the first creation of God? How is Torah witness of creation? This sounds like mumbo jumbo to me.