Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Clarification On The Subject Of "Necessary Beliefs".

In the previous post, I argued that Rambam does not require people to believe in “untruths” for expediency’s sake although this is an almost universally accepted credo by Rambam’s traditional commentators and modern scholars. I showed that Rambam holds there are “ultimate end” Truths that we have to accept at first on faith and then work towards developing as deep an understanding as possible of these Truths. These Truths, when understood properly elevate us from in-potentia into in-actu human beings. To arrive at a correct understanding of these Truths, there are many other Truths, Intermediate Truths that need to be learned. These Truths are not only the sciences but also ontological observations about our existence. While the sciences deal with the physical world and the laws that underlie it, the ontological observations look for answers that explain the purpose and goal of our existence, deal with ethical and moral issues and generally encompass the world of ideas. Just like the sciences, these ontological observations that are part of the Intermediate Truths, have to be grasped rationally and arrived at through learning.

However, among these Intermediate Truths there are some that, for the sake of expediency, have to be accepted on faith even before we learn them and then convince ourselves rationally of their truth. One of these is Reward and Punishment. For a person to really understand the concept of long-term consequence to his actions, how everything we do may influence for good or bad things what may happen even long after we pass away, requires much learning and thought. It is only after having experienced repeatedly how our actions have consequences in the short term that we can slowly appreciate the medium and long-term effect they have. Many people do not even have the capacity for self-awareness and observation and will never develop an understanding that actions have consequences – they attribute every outcome to chance. To prevent the breakdown of an orderly society, the Torah presents this idea of consequences in a way that can be appreciated by all and requires us to accept it as a fundamental belief. It therefore tells us that if we act badly God will punish us and if we act properly, He will reward us. The psychological effect of such a belief coupled with a few experiences of short-term consequences to one’s actions, will convince most people to behave properly. It will take a thoughtful person to realize that what that means is that God created a world which is run on a system of cause and effect which translates to action and consequences when applied to people who have freedom of will. Just as we are required to accept on faith that God is unique and then develop an understanding of what that means, so too must we accept that God punishes the transgressor and then figure out what that really means.

Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah chapter 3 lists all those that do not partake in Olam Haba. As we know, Olam Haba in Rambam’s worldview is a state that a person experiences when he becomes a man in-actu and acquires a correct understanding of God. Those who do not partake are therefore those that either have developed erroneous opinions or have acted in ways that prevents them from acquiring the necessary opinions. The belief in reward and punishment is omitted. Clearly, it is not an opinion that when misunderstood would preclude one from partaking in Olam Haba.

I just wanted to clarify my earlier post as I believe it is important to correctly read Rambam on this issue. It has implication on the whole issue of Ikarim, which I hope to address at some future date.


  1. Thank you for the blog, and particularly for this post.