Friday, December 25, 2009

Mesorah According To Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol

While learning Massechet Negaim I came across a fascinating Pirush Hamishna. There are different types of Negaim – skin abnormalities – that can cause Tume’ah and each has its peculiar rules. A Nega (Baheret) that appears within a wound or a burn becomes Tameh if after a week of segregation, it expands within the wound or if it grows a white hair. If it remains stationary and does not grow a white hair the person is sent home and is Tahor. Furthermore, the expansion must be within the wound. If it expands outside the wound into healthy skin, it does not count. The Mishna 9:3 posits a situation where there is a wound and a Nega within it, covering completely the wound both as large as a sela, located in the palm of a hand. Hair does not grow nor can expansion matter as it would have to be outside the wound as the Nega covers the whole wound. At first blush, it would seem that this kind of Nega could not ever become Tameh. Rabbi Eliezer was asked what the Halacha would be in such a case. To segregate the person for a week to see if any change may occur does not seem to be practical as there apparently is no possibility of Tume’ah. He answered that you do segregate that person for observation. At their surprise, he explained that it is possible that after a week, the Nega would shrink and the person would be sent home and a few days later the Nega would increase in size. Such a case makes the person a definite Tameh (Vaykra 8:35-36). They then asked him what if the wound and the Nega were exactly a Griss (a smaller size, the minimum size of a Nega) in which case shrinking would mean no Nega at all. A further enlargement back to a Griss would be seen as a new Nega and keep the person in limbo without ever becoming a definite Tameh. And here things become interesting –

אמרו לו, והלוא מקומה כגריס. אמר להן, לא שמעתי.

They said to him [Rabbi Eliezer] what if its size is a Griss? He answered I did not hear.

A little background is needed here. Rabbi Eliezer was the greatest pupil of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, the leader of the Sanhedrin during the destruction of the second temple. RE was a survivor of the war and took part in the immense effort organized by RYBZ to collect and organize the whole Masorah of Torah up to their time. They foresaw the spiritual upheavals facing the nation and worked to protect our spiritual heritage. RE had a brilliant memory and never forgot anything (Avot 2:8). He also claimed that he never said anything that he did not hear from his teachers. (Much has been written about the meaning of this statement see Rav Reuven Margulies in his Olelot and recently Professor Gilat published a book on R. Eliezer where he addresses the issue). His answer here therefore is quite meaningful.

אמר לו רבי יהודה בן בתירה, אלמד בו. אמר לו, אם לקיים דברי חכמים, הין.

Rabbi Yehudah Ben Beteira offers “Alamed” [to use logical and exegetical tools] to deduce the Halacha for this case. RE responds that if it will support the Chachamim yes, go ahead.
Rambam in his Pirush Hamishnah comments – (my translation/paraphrase)

When RE said I did not hear, he meant that he did not hear a good reason why the person in this case should be segregated. When RYBB suggested that he would give a reason, he told him that if, his reasoning will support segregation and explain the logic for it, to go ahead. However, should he reinforce the question and give more reasons why he should not be segregated, RE did not want to hear it. RE had a kabala that in this case the person has to be segregated but did not know what could happen at the end of the segregation for a conclusive Tume’ah to be decided.

Not being able to think of a reason why a Halacha should be so is not enough to reverse a Mesora of a Halacha. I am not sure to what category of kabala this belongs to, whether the Pirushim Hamekubalim from Sinai or some later Takanah or Gezeirah. The reason I place this Halacha in one of these two categories and not as a precedent decided by an earlier Sanhedrin based on the hermeneutic rules of logic, because those can be reversed by later Sanhedrin. In any case, this gives us a clearer picture of what RE meant when he said he would not say things that he did not learn from his teachers. He meant that he would not second-guess an authentic Mesora and even if he could not figure out the reasoning and come up with a plausible application, he would not amend it. In fact, RYBB came up with a possibility that made sense of the Halacha.

אמר לו, שמא ייוולד לו שחין אחר חוצה לו, ויפסה לתוכו. אמר לו, חכם גדול אתה, שקיימת דברי חכמים

RYBB pointed out that it is possible for the segregated Nega to expand beyond the wound it was covering to an adjoining one that may spring up during the segregation period. That would satisfy the requirement of expansion within a wound as opposed to healthy skin. I am not sure, why this was so far fetched that Rabbi Eliezer could not come up with it, but be it as it may, it is an interesting insight into his thinking. It is also notable, the effusive praise RE gave RYBB for coming up with this possibility, calling him Chacham Gadol.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rambam and Aristotles - A Complex and Nuanced Relationship. - Creation From Nothingness - The Creation of Time. (Part two of a series)

Stephen Hawking in a lecture about creation from nothingness makes the following statement:

“The problem of whether or not the universe had a beginning was a great concern to the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. He felt there were logical contradictions, or Antimonies, either way. If the universe had a beginning, why did it wait an infinite time before it began? He called that the thesis. On the other hand, if the universe had existed forever why did it take an infinite time to reach the present stage? He called that the anti thesis. Both the thesis, and the anti thesis, depended on Kant's assumption, along with almost everyone else, that time was Absolute. That is to say, it went from the infinite past, to the infinite future, independently of any universe that might or might not exist in this background.

This is still the picture in the mind of many scientists today. However, in 1915, Einstein introduced his revolutionary General Theory of Relativity. In this, space and time were no longer Absolute, no longer a fixed background to events. Instead, they were dynamical quantities that were shaped by the matter and energy in the universe. They were defined only within the universe, so it made no sense to talk of a time before the universe began. It would be like asking for a point south of the South Pole. It is not defined.” (For the whole lecture, see here )

In MN 2:13 Rambam has the following discussion:

Even time itself is among the things created; for time depends on motion, i.e., on an accident in things which move, and the things upon whose motion time depends are themselves created beings, which have passed from non-existence into existence. … For time is undoubtedly an accident and according to our opinion one of the created accidents like blackness and whiteness. It is not a quality, but an accident connected with motion. This must be clear to all who understand what Aristotle has said on time and its real existence…. We consider time a thing created: it comes into existence in the same manner as other accidents, and the substances which form the substratum for the accidents. For this reason, viz., because time belongs to the things created, it cannot be said that God produced the Universe in the beginning…. Consider this well; for he who does not understand it is unable to refute forcible objections that are raised against the theory of Creatio ex nihilo. If you admit the existence of time before the Creation, you will be compelled to accept the theory of the Eternity of the Universe. For time is an accident and requires a substratum. You will therefore have to assume that something [beside God] existed before this Universe was created, an assumption which it is our duty to oppose.”

I am not a historian of medieval philosophy and I do not have the expertise to know whether this insight of Rambam about time was accepted generally in his time. From the presentation (including the pieces I skipped), it would seem that Rambam considered his opinion as novel in his time. This however is very important in Rambam’s thinking and has major implication in our ongoing discussion. In the previous post, I explained that although Rambam bases his thinking on Aristotelian physics, when it comes to metaphysics he deviates strongly and disagrees with Aristotles. It is not because he can prove that Aristotle is wrong but rather because Aristotle cannot prove his position nor is there a possibility that anyone will ever be able to do so.

“Everything produced comes into existence from non-existence. Even when the substance of a thing has been in existence, and has only changed its form, the thing itself, which has gone through the process of genesis and development, and has arrived at its final state, has now different properties from those which it possessed at the commencement of the transition from potentiality to reality, or before that time… It is therefore quite impossible to infer from the nature which a thing possesses after having passed through all stages of its development, what the condition of the thing has been in the moment when this process commenced; nor does the condition of a thing in this moment show what its previous condition has been. If you make this mistake, and attempt to prove the nature of a thing in potential existence by its properties when actually existing, you will fall into great confusion: you will reject evident truths and admit false opinions.” (MN2:17)

We extrapolate how things were based on the nature we know and the science we develop to explain it. That is based on the world we know. It is however impossible to extrapolate from the present state of our existence to how it was before everything we know came into existence. Therefore, Rambam argues that Aristotle when he talks about things that are beyond or before our existence is only conjecturing and trying to argue for what he considers the most likely, not truly what it was. In other words, Aristotle when he talks about creation is talking about something no one can ever know based on science and factual evidence.

The important thing that we have to take away from this is that Rambam believes that a scientific answer to how the Universe came into existence will never be demonstrated. We live in this universe, the physical one and we will never be able to extrapolate and definitely prove how it was before existence came to be. It is with this preamble in mind that we read Rambam in (MN2:25)

“Owing to the absence of all proof, we reject the theory of the Eternity of the Universe; and it is for this very reason that the noblest minds spent and will spend their days in research. For if, the Creation had been demonstrated by proof, even if only according to the Platonic hypothesis, all arguments of the philosophers against us would be of no avail. If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions. I have thus shown that all depends on this question. Note it.”

Many have picked on these words of Rambam that he had an esoteric position that Aristotle was right. Some even made him out to be a hidden heretic, a precursor of Spinoza. But if read in the proper context it is clear that Rambam rejects Aristotle’s position and even Plato’s Materia Prima theory as conjectures that can never be proven. The answer to the question is therefore relegated to religion and revelation. It is a matter of accepting a position taught by prophecy without worrying that it can ever be disproved. We can confidently accept it.

Clearly, this confirms Rabbeinu Avraham rejection of those who accused Rambam of being an Aristotelian. In an upcoming post, I will discuss and show how Rambam was cautious and when it came to a matter that Aristotle believed to be scientific while Rambam felt that science might one day find a different explanation, he was extremely cautious and accepted Aristotle for lack of a better explanation.

Before I leave this, Hawking in his presentation does not necessarily accept that creation from nothingness was a result of God’s will. He conjectures a merging of Einstein’s relativity and quantum physics as the explanation of how things came into being from nothing. That will still only be a theory and will also leave us with the question: was this a spontaneous singularity or a willed one. I am confident that a scientific answer is impossible.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rambam and Aristotles - A Complex and Nuanced Relationship.

Rambam is accused of explaining Judaism in a way that adapts it to Aristotelian philosophy, the physics and science of his time. He is accused of this, not only by modern scholars, but also by many traditional great Jewish thinkers such as Ramban – many times in his writings – and Gra in Yoreh Deah Hilchot Avodah Zara. This accusation and misunderstanding of Rambam has taken root. It is why many people, especially the Bnei Hayeshivot nowadays consider Rambam’s philosophy as passé and to be ignored accepting the more mystical approaches that clearly differentiate between religion and science, giving primacy to the former. This approach keeps us deep in Galut (a subject worth talking about at some future time) and is a hindrance to our religion’s ultimate goal of bringing its light to all the nations of the world.

A well-educated person must develop a split personality to accept the contemporary popular understanding of religion as a way of life while acting and thriving in society and the world. This disconnect between religion and daily life has compelled the “really religious” to remove themselves into their segregated communities and spend their life sitting in Beit Hamidrash, never acting on what the Torah teaches them. Torah is no longer “Chukei Chaim”, laws of living. In fact, many teachings of the Torah are distorted to fit this misguided understanding of what is required of us. It is also at the root of the unethical and immoral behavior we witness almost daily in our community. That Torah, especially when it deals with daily life in society, is for learning not living is a conclusion that results from this way of thinking.

At the end of Rambam’s life (died 1204), controversies about his teachings began and continued uninterrupted for decades and centuries after his death. The first Maimonidean opposition was led by great Rabbis of Southern France and Northern Spain, among them such luminaries as Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (near Barcelona died 1263) and Rabbeinu Shlomo Min Hahar (Montpellier in Provence). Rabbeinu Yonah was a Chaver and relative of Ramban who penned the famous letter which starts with “Terem A’aneh Ani Shogeg” (page 336 in Chavel’s Kitvei Haramban), defending Rambam and castigating Rambam’s detractors. Of course, we all know that Ramban did not see eye to eye with Rambam on many theological issues but he was great enough to dissent gracefully and with respect with the great thinker. This controversy ended in 1233 with the first burning of Jewish Sefarim, the books of Rambam, by the monks who could not pass such a great opportunity. This began the tragic cycle of burning Shas and all Sifrei Yisrael in France and subsequently all over Europe, leaving only two original reliable manuscripts of Shas for later printers. Rabbeinu Yonah it is said had great misgivings about his earlier stand and as repentance undertook not to openly disagree with Rambam in his Halachik writings after that time.

Rambam’s son Rabbeinu Avraham, when he heard about the controversy and its consequence, penned a letter named Milchamot Hashem, which Rav Reuven Margulies edited and published. Rabbeinu Avraham addresses the accusation that his father was misled by Aristotle the Greek. The following is my translation:

“The fools who lack intelligence, were not satisfied with their lack of thought and knowledge to the point that the prophet refers to such people - יִִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַע, עַמִּי לֹא הִתְבּוֹנָן - but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider. They also decided in their foolishness that anyone that is interested in knowledge is a Min and Kofer in the Torah and anyone that studied philosophy has acquired the beliefs of the philosophers. [That is incorrect] for they [the philosophers] believe the world to be eternal without a beginning while we disagree with them based on the belief promulgated by the torah. We bring arguments against the philosophers to clarify the Torah belief that the world is new and created and that there is only One eternal entity that is First and Last, and that is HKBH… That is how the sages told us (in Avot 2:16), “be steadfast to learn Torah and know how to answer an Apikores”. We do the same with all their other beliefs which do not agree with Torah’s beliefs. This [disagreement on specific subjects] does not compel us to disagree with their [the philosopher’s correct] beliefs that agree with Torah, such as that God is unique and True, He is not a body nor has features. However, we do disagree with these [Rabbis] who have a faulty theology about the uniqueness of God claiming in their mistaken and erroneous thinking that God is in a place, sits on a throne, because it is a belief that is proven to be wrong.”

I believe it is important to understand what Rabbeinu Avraham is telling us as it has practical implications to how we must deal with the sciences of our time and our religion.
Rambam makes a clear distinction between scientific facts and metaphysics. In medieval science, that distinction was not clear. Science was based on what were considered philosophical truths rather than empirical evidence. For example, it was believed that the planets have a circular orbit because that is a perfect movement. The universe strives for perfection, thus the orbits must be perfect. Observations to the contrary had to be explained away using complicated formulae that fit the underlying philosophy. Rambam accepted the observations and the explanations given with a grain of salt. Here are two (amongst many) of his comments on the subject where his skepticism comes across clearly.

“The theory of Aristotle in respect to the causes of the motion of the spheres led him to assume the existence of Intelligences. Although this theory consists of assertions which cannot be proved, yet it is the least open to doubt, and is more systematic than any other, as has been stated by Alexander in the book called The Origin of the Universe.” (MN 2:3)

“For as regards the things in the sublunary world, his [Aristotle] explanations are in accordance with facts, and the relation between cause and effect is clearly shown. It can therefore be assumed that everything is the necessary result of the motions and influences of the spheres. But when he treats of the properties of the spheres, he does not clearly show the causal relation, nor does he explain the phenomena in that systematic way which the hypothesis of natural laws would demand.” (MN 2:19)

The sense we get is that Rambam confronted the difficulties presented by observations and had to live with the best explanation he could find until a better one could be found. That is so with clear observations that needed explaining and he could not do so with the tools he had at hand without resorting to Metaphysical theories. He had to be tentative because he had a sense that future generations may come up with better explanations.

How did he deal with matters that could never be explained by science such as the eternity of the world, creation from nothingness, whether the universe was willed into being or is it the result of some singularity? Aristotle addressed these questions and tried to answer them rationally. Rambam points out that if we read Aristotle carefully we can see that his theories in this area were very tentative.

As to the proofs of Aristotle and his followers for the Eternity of the Universe, they are, according to my opinion, not conclusive; they are open to strong objections, as will be explained.” (MN2:16)

In fact, the way Aristotle presents his ideas on the subject of Eternity show that he had doubts about how conclusive his own thinking was.

“In this chapter I intend to show that Aristotle was well aware that he had not proved the Eternity of the Universe. He was not mistaken in this respect. He knew that he could not prove his theory, and that his arguments and proofs were only apparent and plausible… He says in his book Physics (8, chap. 1.) as follows: "All the Physicists before us believed that motion is eternal, except Plato, who holds that motion is transient; according to his opinion the heavens are likewise transient." Now, if Aristotle had conclusive proofs for his theory he would not have considered it necessary to support it by citing the opinions of preceding Physicists, nor would he have found it necessary to point out the folly and absurdity of his opponents. For a truth, once established by proof, does neither gain force nor certainty by the consent of all scholars, nor lose by the general dissent.” (MN 2:15)(This whole chapter is worth reading. You can find it here )

As I want to keep posts to an acceptable length, I will discuss Rambam’s approach to these matters that cannot be proven scientifically in an upcoming post. We will also see on what basis subjects belong to this category.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Does a Non-philosophical Person Gain Rights to the World To Come (Olam Haba)? Nomenclature(Part 5 in a series)

Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah 8:4 lists the different terms the prophets used when referring to Olam Haba.

ד] וכמה שמות קראו לה דרך משל: הר ה', ומקום קדשו, ודרך הקודש, וחצרות ה', ואוהל ה', ונועם ה', והיכל ה', ובית ה', ושער ה'

If we look at the verses where these terms for Olam Haba are used, we find that the term refer to different types and levels of apprehension and knowledge. The first two in the above Halacha are found in Tehilim 24:3.

ג מִי-יַעֲלֶה בְהַר-יְהוָה; וּמִי-יָקוּם, בִּמְקוֹם קָדְשׁוֹ.

3 Who shall ascend into the mountain of the LORD? And who shall stand in His holy place?

ד נְקִי כַפַּיִם, וּבַר-לֵבָב
אֲשֶׁר לֹא-נָשָׂא לַשָּׁוְא נַפְשִׁי; וְלֹא נִשְׁבַּע לְמִרְמָה.

4 He that has clean hands, and a pure heart; who has not taken My name in vain, and has not sworn deceitfully.
Ethical behavior allows entry into “God’s mountain and holy place”.

The next term, way of holiness, is found in Yeshayahu 35:8, in the context of not being impure but at the same time even fools have a place in it; they will not stray on that path.

ח וְהָיָה-שָׁם מַסְלוּל וָדֶרֶךְ, וְדֶרֶךְ הַקֹּדֶשׁ יִקָּרֵא לָהּ--לֹא-יַעַבְרֶנּוּ טָמֵא, וְהוּא-לָמוֹ; הֹלֵךְ דֶּרֶךְ וֶאֱוִילִים, לֹא יִתְעוּ.

8 And a highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called the way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those; the wayfaring men, yea fools, shall not stray therein.

The next term is found in Tehilim 92:14. All these terms seem to be referring to a level of Olam Haba that is attained through ethical and moral behavior.

The next grouping of three is found in Tehilim 27:4.

ד אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-יְהוָה-- אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ:
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה, כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי;
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה, וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ.

4 One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the graciousness of the LORD, and to visit early in His temple.

Here theological excellence seems to be the theme. It would take many posts to analyze thoroughly each term and its uses in Tanach and seeing how consistent they are when the same term is used in more than one place. But I think this will suffice to establish that the terms relate to different kinds and levels of apprehension.

Reading the famous parable Rambam uses in MN 3:51 to describe the different levels of apprehension and knowledge that are needed in the search for God, I was struck how similar the parable is to this Halacha. Here is the parable with my interpolations from the above Halacha in parentheses. Note that I am just suggesting the comparisons and have not done so with a rigorous analysis.

A king is in his palace, and all his subjects are partly in the city, and partly outside the city [הר ה', מקום קדשו]. Of the former, some have their backs turned towards the ruler’s habitation, and their faces in another direction. And some are desirous and zealous to reach the ruler’s habitation,[היכל ה'] seeking "to inquire in his temple," [ וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלו ] and to minister before him, but have not yet seen the wall of the habitation. Of those that desire to go to the palace, some reach it, and go round about in search of the entrance gate [שער ה']. Others have passed through the gate, and walk about in the antechamber [אוהל ה']; and others have succeeded in entering into the inner part of the palace, and being in the same room with the king [בית ה'] in the royal palace. But even the latter do not immediately on entering the palace see the king, or speak to him; for, after having entered the inner part of the palace, another effort is required before they can stand before the king--at a distance, or close by--hear his words, or speak to him [נועם ה' ]. I will now explain the simile which I have made. The people who are abroad are all those that have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition… Those who desire to arrive at the palace and to enter it, but have never seen it [דרך הקודש] are the mass of religious people, the multitudes that observe the divine commandments but are ignorant. Those who arrive at the palace, but go round about it, [חצרות ה'] are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law. They believe traditionally in true principles of faith, and learn the practical worship of God, but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the principles of the Law, and do not endeavor to establish the truth of their faith by proof. Those who undertake to investigate the principles of religion have come into the antechamber [אוהל ה]; and there is no doubt that these can also be divided into different grades. But those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything that can be proved, who have a true knowledge of God, so far as a true knowledge can be attained, and are near the truth, wherever an approach to the truth is possible, they have reached the goal, and are in the palace in which the king lives.
My son, so long as you are engaged in studying the Mathematical Sciences and Logic, you belong to those who go round about the palace [חצרות ה'] in search of the gate[שער ה'] . Thus, our Sages figuratively use the phrase: "Ben-Zoma is still outside." When you understand Physics, you have entered the hall; and when, after completing the study of Natural Philosophy, you master Metaphysics, you have entered the innermost court, and are with the king in the same palace. You have attained the degree of the wise men, which include men of different grades of perfection.”

Clearly, a person committed to the search for God, though not yet in the innermost chambers, partakes in some form of Olam Haba. Once a person points himself in the right direction, he is on the path towards developing his inborn Sechel in potentia. A small step in that direction immediately creates a nefesh that can remain forever. The search for HKBH must be focused on His ways, the only real trace of Hashem that we humans can apprehend, and emulating those ways. Torah and Mitzvot are some of those ways of HKBH given to us through tradition as a marker on the way to a deeper and personal understanding.

True that Rambam bases his understanding of the soul on Aristotelian thought, he however invests it with the Torah thinking where the wish alone to purify oneself starts the process of Olam Haba. The key to understanding Rambam’s Olam Haba I believe is the same as his explanation of creation ab nihilo. There are things that the Torah and Neviim tell us that scientific investigation cannot ever prove. These traditions have to be evaluated in light of the scientific reality we know and only accept them if they do not violate or contradict that reality. Whether the world is eternal or created from nothingness will never be proven by science. Nevuah teaches that it was created at the will of God. It does not contradict scientific facts. It must therefore be accepted. Olam Haba cannot be proven scientifically. The body-mind connection conundrum cannot be solved by science. Abstract knowledge has no physical existence but affects greatly the physical world we live in. That knowledge however exists and can be made personal when discovered and understood. What happens to that personal knowledge after the person’s passing is a matter of speculation which will never be resolved by science. The Neviim tell us that it remains. We will never understand what that means while in this physical existence.

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 מתאווין

It is impossible to apprehend and know the great good that the nefesh will experience in Olam Haba, while we are in this world. For in this world we know only material good and it is what we crave. (Hilchot Teshuvah 8:11)

These last Halachot in the chapter that discusses Olam Haba are I believe the key to how Rambam understands it. See them here .

Before I end this series I want to expand a little on this last point in future posts.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

My Father In Law A"H and Deveikut.

Rambam explains that a person is born with a שכל בכוח – a mind in-potentia – and the lifetime goal is to develop oneself so that one has a שכל בפועל – an in-actu mind. It is that developed mind that makes a person into what he is, it is the essence of a man and that is what differentiates man from all other living creatures. The manifestation of that mind in-actu is the ability to comprehend the מושכלות – abstract thought and knowledge and the highest and most advanced level of that type of knowledge is the apprehension of God.

When a person acquires knowledge, that knowledge becomes one with him. The brain, the physical entity that gives man the ability to think, absorbs that knowledge and in that process, it becomes a part of the person. It is through knowledge that the knower and the subject that is known become one. In the same sense, when one apprehends God, at whatever level of sophistication that apprehension is achieved, that apprehension becomes part of the person. That state is metaphorically referred to as Deveikut – attachment or bonding with HKBH.

The problem with human beings is that their need to take care of their physical and material needs clouds their thinking and distracts them from their goal. This is metaphorically referred to as the dividing curtain – Massach Hamavdil. The goal of Torah and Mitzvot is to help a man overcome that weakness and train him to keep these material needs in their proper perspective, dealing with them only as needed. However, the human condition is such, that even the greatest of men, Moshe Rabbeinu, could only achieve the ultimate apprehension at the time of death. For as life ebbs, material needs slowly diminish. It is only at those times that a clear apprehension of the non-material can be accomplished. Rambam explains that that type of death is referred to as Al Pi Hashem, or as the Rabbis call it metaphorically Mitat Neshikah – death by a kiss.

I had the privilege to attend to my father in law ע"ה during the last ten days of his life. He came back to my brother in law’s house from the death trap that is Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, (more on that in a separate post), in terrible shape. Because of the mistreatment in the hospital, he had developed a fungal infection that had flayed his entire lower back. In addition to his body being riddled with cancer, he also had a pathological fracture in his arm. He had to be moved every few hours notwithstanding the excruciating pain every small movement elicited. Washing and cleaning up in the morning was pure torture. It was a testament to the fine gentleman he was that after suffering excruciating pain to the point of crying during the process he would not fail to thank the aide and everyone that helped move him or clean him. As he was crying out from pain, I held his hand and told him that we were cleaning him up so that he could daven. Hearing that, he would temporarily become stoic. One touching moment was when after one of these painful episodes he spontaneously made a Bracha with Shem and Malchut –

ברוך אתה ה"א מלך העולם שהכל ברא לכבודו

On another occasion, after another painful episode, he suddenly insisted on immediately making a mitzvah. As he had difficulty consuming the Ensure that was his nourishment, I suggested he have some and make a Bracha. He did so with alacrity and began eating.

But the most touching was when I davened with him after the cleanup. I would ask him whether he was ready to wash his hands and start davening. At that stage, he had difficulty talking and would nod his head in acquiescence. I held his hand and said Birkat Hatorah starting with Al Netilat Yadayim and Asher Yatzar, at which point he squeezed my hand and you could see his complete concentration. We then said Birchot Kryat Shema and the Shemona Esreh holding hands. He kept on nodding off because of the painkillers and arousing himself to continue davening. While Davening you could see his face light up, and I felt how he was connecting with HKBH. I have never before experienced such an intense davening. He was so thankful that I gave him this opportunity to serve HKBH that he started kissing my hand. There are no words to describe the emotions that I experienced. As he had lost his appetite, I told him after davening that to continue serve HKBH, one has to stay alive which requires eating. He immediately forced himself to take in nourishment.

The last day of his life, when his breathing was already quite labored and he had lost the ability to communicate verbally, I still had the great Zchut to daven with him. He kept up with the davening crunching his eyes and squeezing my hand at the appropriate parts of the Shema and Tefilah. He passed away surrounded by his family, children, grandchildren and great grand children, after partaking in Mincha and Ma’ariv Betzibur. I learned in these few days more about Deveikut and what it means to become attached to HKBH than in my whole life. I think about these ten days as my personal Asseret Yemei Teshuvah.

One does not arrive at this level of Deveikut without a lifetime of preparation. My father in law was a person that did not waste a minute. Though he was a businessperson all his life, he never missed a day that he would not be in the Beit Hamidrash way before dawn. He would give Shiurim in Gemara and Ohr Hachaim and would prepare for them intensely. I never attended a shiur but I heard from participants that he was very clear and his Shiurim were well attended. After retirement, the last 14 years of life were spent in the Beit Hamidrash from before dawn to night, learning with Chaverim and preparing and giving Shiurim.

He was a great medakdek in Mitzvot all his life. He was very attached to the Mitzvah of Tzedakah. He would not turn away a poor man and treated everyone with dignity. He considered himself as the secretary to his wife, my mother in law Tibadel Lechaym, who is the president and one of the founders of the Satmar Bikur Cholim. He was also involved in the founding of Tomchei Shabbat in Boro Park.

During his last days, he made sure to show how much he loved all his children and grandchildren. His face would light up when one of them would visit. Although he was an authoritarian figure when healthy, all that melted away at the end and all that was left was love and affection. We will all miss him very much.

יהי זכרו ברוך.

Friday, November 27, 2009

אָבַד חָסִיד מִן הָאָרֶץ, וְיָשָׁר בָּאָדָם אָיִן

My Father in Law

הרב החסיד יוסף שלום בן הרב שמחה יעקב הלוי מארקוויטש זכרונו לברכה

was niftar yesterday, the 9th of Kislev.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Be Exceedingly, Exceedingly Humble - An Insight In The Torah's Understanding Of Human Nature.

In a private communication with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, we touched on Rambam in Hilchot De’ot that deals with Anavah, the virtue of humbleness or humility. I decided to interrupt the current discussion to address this, as it is very important and also is relevant to the subject that I am dealing with.

Rambam in Hilchot De’ot 1:10-11 –

ט כל אדם שדעותיו כולן דעות בינונייות ממוצעות, נקרא חכם; [ה] ומי שהוא מדקדק על עצמו ביותר ויתרחק מדעה בינונית מעט לצד זה או לצד זה, נקרא חסיד.
י כיצד: מי שיתרחק מגובה הלב עד הקצה האחרון, ויהיה שפל רוח ביותר--נקרא חסיד; וזו היא מידת חסידות. ואם נתרחק עד האמצע בלבד, ויהיה עניו--נקרא חכם; וזו היא מידת חכמה. ועל דרך זו, שאר כל הדעות.

Whoever observes in his disposition the mean is termed wise. Whoever is particularly scrupulous and deviates somewhat from the exact mean in disposition, in one direction or the other is called a Chassid. For example, if one avoids haughtiness to the utmost extent and is exceedingly humble, he is termed a Chassid, and this is the standard of Chassidus. If one only departs from haughtiness as far as the mean, and is humble, he is called wise, and this is the standard of wisdom. And so it is with all other dispositions. (Translation, courtesy of A Maimonides Reader by Isadore Twersky).

Rambam explains that a Chassid is one who is working on himself to improve his Midot [disposition] while a Chacham is one who has perfected himself to the point that he can be exactly on the mean and needs no further improvement. The Chacham is therefore the paradigm of perfection.

ומצווין אנו ללכת בדרכים אלו הבינוניים, והם הדרכים הטובים והישרים, שנאמר "והלכת, בדרכיו

“We are commanded to follow these middle paths as they are good and correct [and also the paths of God] as it says “and you should walk in His paths”.

As an example of a Chassid Rambam portrays someone who “is exceedingly humble” and a Chacham as “one who only departs from haughtiness as far as the mean, and is humble”. The clear implication is that humility is the preferred disposition and “exceedingly humble” is perfection in the making.However, in the second chapter of Hilchot De’ot Rambam presents a different picture.

ויש דעות שאסור לו לאדם לנהוג בהן בבינונית, אלא יתרחק עד הקצה האחר--והוא גובה הלב, שאין הדרך הטובה שיהיה האדם עניו בלבד, אלא שיהיה שפל רוח, ותהיה רוחו נמוכה למאוד. ולפיכך נאמר במשה רבנו "עניו מאוד" (במדבר יב,ג), ולא נאמר עניו בלבד. ולפיכך ציוו חכמים, מאוד מאוד הוי שפל רוח.

There are some dispositions in regard to which it is forbidden merely to keep to the middle path. They must be shunned to the extreme. Such a disposition is pride. The right way in this regard is not merely to be meek, but to be humble-minded and lowly of the spirit to the utmost. And therefore, it is said of Moshe that he was “exceedingly humble”. Hence our sages exhorted us, “Be exceedingly, exceedingly lowly of spirit”.” (Translation as above)

The contradiction is glaring and it is obvious that Rambam is not in the habit of contradicting himself. However, as usual, Rambam is very subtle and one has to read thoroughly all his discussions on a subject in its various contexts. In his introduction to Avot, the Eight Chapters, Rambam has a lengthy discussion about perfecting one’s disposition. In the fourth chapter, he discusses the idea of how to go about changing an inborn disposition. While he summarized in Hilchot De’ot, he expands this discussion in the Eight Chapters. In chapter 4 he describes the process of changing the natural disposition of individuals by moving away from the mean in the opposite direction of one’s natural disposition. For example, one whose natural disposition tends towards haughtiness should be scrupulous and be extremely humble for a while until he can slowly move back to the mean of humility. The same goes for all dispositions. At the end of a lengthy discussion, Rambam then makes a few revealing statements.

וזאת התורה השלמה המשלמת אותנו, כמו שהעיד עליה יודעה:
תורת ה' תמימה, משיבת נפש,
עדות ה' נאמנה מחכימת פתי (תהלים י"ט, ח')
לא ציוותה דבר מעין זה. ואין כונתה אלא שיהיה האדם טבעי, הולך בדרך האמצעי:
יאכל מה שיש לו לאכול בשווי,
וישתה מה שיש לו לשתות בשווי.
ויישב המדינות ביושר ובאמונה.
לא שישכון במערות ובהרים,
ולא שילבש השער והצמר,
ולא שיטריח גופו ויענה אותו.

“And this perfect Torah whose mission is to perfect us as one who knew her [David] testified,” God’s Torah is whole, it soothes the soul, God’s testament is reliable, it enlightens a fool”, did not command any of this [self-flagellation]. Its mission is for a person to be natural and follow the mean path; eat and drink a balanced diet and inhabit lands with correctness and honesty. Not that he should in mountainous caves or wear hair shirts or punish his body.”

In other words, the Torah’s goal is to develop people so that they become perfect and follow the middle path. That is however a utopian goal. The human condition will not allow such perfection. As the Torah deals with real human beings and is the tool that will bring people as close to perfection as possible, its laws are NOT the mean. They are always a little to one side or the other depending on the disposition.

וזה, שהתורה
לא אסרה מה שאסרה, ולא צוותה מה שצוותה, אלא מפני הסיבה הזאת. רצוני לומר: כדי
שנתרחק מן הצד האחד יותר על דרך ההרגל. שכן איסור "המאכלות האסורים" כולם, ואיסור
הביאות האסורות, והאזהרה מן הקדשה, וחיוב כתובה וקידושין, ועם כל זה לא תהיה מותרת תמיד, אלא תיאסר בעתות הנידה והלידה, ועם זה סייגו חכמינו למעט התשמיש, והזהירו מזה ביום, כמו שבארנו בסנהדרין - הנה לא צווה אלוהים אלא כדי שנתרחק מקצה "רוב התאווה" ריחוק רב, ונצא מעט מן המיצוע אל צד "העדר הרגשת ההנאה", עד שתתיישב בנפשותינו תכונת הזהירות

The law did not lay down its prohibitions or enjoin its commandments except for just this purpose, namely, that by its disciplinary effects we may persistently maintain the proper distance from either extreme. For the restriction regarding all the forbidden foods, the prohibitions of illicit intercourse, the forewarning against prostitution, the duty of performing the legal marriage rites – which nevertheless does not permit intercourse at all times, as, for instance, during the period of menstruation and after childbirth, besides its being otherwise restricted by our sages and entirely interdicted during the daytime, as we have explained in the tractate of Sanhedrin- all of these God commanded in order that we should keep entirely distant from the extreme of inordinate indulgence of the passions, and, even departing from the exact medium, should incline somewhat toward self-denial, so that there may be firmly rooted in our souls the disposition for moderation.”

The Torah is not for the perfect utopian individual but rather for the human being who is working his way towards perfection. It is realistic about human frailties and allows for them setting the rules with that in mind. These rules are a little off the mean, tending a little to one or the other side depending on the type of disposition and the tendency of the majority of humanity towards that disposition. In the case of haughtiness, even a perfected person such as Moshe Rabbeinu cannot feel safe and must be exceedingly humble to counteract the human tendency to self-aggrandizement. A similar disposition is anger where too the human disposition tends towards it and that tendency has to be counterbalanced. Rambam in the first chapter of Hilchot De’ot describes the utopian perfected human being the Torah’s has as a goal to develop. In Chapter 2, he explains the method the Torah uses and points out that certain human traits can never be completely overcome. Haughtiness and anger are two such traits where even the most perfected person must be wary about recidivism.

It is important to note that to Rambam, a person that follows the Torah and does the Mitzvot is embarked on the path to perfection; he is on the right track in his quest for the perfect disposition, a necessary and integral ingredient in the search for God and His ways.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Does a Non-philosophical Person Gain Rights to the World To Come (Olam Haba)? Ethics and Morality in Judaism (Part 4 in a series)

Ethics and Morality are accepted norms in civilized societies. Much has been written about ethics all the way back to the Greek Philosophers and it is still a much-discussed topic in philosophy. For an excellent overview, see here . Rambam has what I believe to be a unique understanding of ethics from a Torah perspective. In MN 3:27, one of the introductory chapters to his discussion of Ta’amei Hamitzvot, he addresses what the goal of Mitzvot is.

“The Law as a whole aims at two things: the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body. As to the welfare of the soul, it consists in the multitude’s acquiring correct opinions corresponding to their respective capacity… As for the welfare of the body, it comes about by the improvement of their ways of living one with another. This is achieved through two things. One of them is their abolition of wronging each other. This is tantamount to every individual among the people not being permitted to act according to his will and up to the limit of his power, but being forced to do what is useful to the whole. The second thing consists in the acquisition by every human individual of moral qualities that are useful for life in society so that the affairs of the city may be ordered.” (MN3:27)

Focusing first on the second aim, the welfare of the body, the description seems to be of a utilitarian system which promotes a healthy and well-ordered society. In this presentation, ethics and morality are seen as self-serving quid pro quo systems thus resulting in every member of that society living in peace with each other. In other words, ethics are ultimately self-serving. By being good to your neighbor, you can expect reciprocity. But Rambam does not stop there. The goal of an ordered society has a much loftier purpose than mere egotistical interest. It is to allow for the flourishing within it of perfect people, those who are concerned with the welfare of their soul.

His [man’s] ultimate perfection is to become rational in actu, I mean to have an intellect in-actu; this would consist in him knowing everything concerning all the beings that it is within the capacity of man to know in accordance with his ultimate perfection. It is clear that to this ultimate perfection, there do not belong either actions or moral qualities and that it consists only of opinions toward which speculation has led and that investigation has rendered compulsory. It is also clear that this noble and ultimate perfection can only be achieved after the first perfection [ethics] has been achieved. For a man cannot represent to himself an intelligible even when taught to understand and all the more cannot become aware of it of his own accord, if he is in pain or is very hungry or is thirsty or is hot or is very cold. But once the first perfection has been achieved it is possible to achieve the ultimate, which is indubitably nobler and is the only cause of permanent preservation [after death – Olam Haba – DG].” (MN3:27)

Rambam’s ethics, though at first directed towards developing a well-ordered society, have as their ultimate goal to allow for the development of the perfect human being. That is a knowledgeable person who can focus on his own self-improvement, the acquisition of knowledge and thus get to know all creation and through it God. Once a person gets to know all he can about God and His ways, he understands and wants to emulate Him by partaking in His actions.

“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 the knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God. We have explained this many times in this treatise.” (MN 3:54)

The ethics of the perfected man take on a completely new aspect. They no longer are self-serving, insuring a well-ordered society so that he can dedicate himself to contemplation, but rather understanding God’s ways, emulating Him and partaking in His work. Thus the same ethical act, the same Mitzvah, is performed in different contexts by different people, depending on their level of sophistication. We will return to this important point later in the discussion, but what is important now is to understand that Rambam’s ethics have an ultimate goal that goes beyond the egotistical. Giving alms to a pauper will have different meaning to different people. Some will do it because they see themselves in the same spot and want to be treated similarly hoping that others will emulate them should they be in need, while others do it because it makes them feel good to help another. Some feel guilty having so much while another lacks everything. Others do it because their religion promises good things in exchange. Rambam’s Jew does it because it is part of the process that is necessary to allow for the development of a person that knows God, who will then do the same act with the understanding and deep knowledge that giving this Tzedakah IS emulating Him. In Rambam’s Judaism, everything we do is with that goal in mind.

“What I have here pointed out to you is the object of all our religious acts. For by [carrying out] all the details of the prescribed practices, and repeating them continually, some excellent men may attain human perfection. They will be filled with respect and reverence towards God and know who it is that is with them, and as a result act subsequently as they ought to. He [God] has explained that the end of the actions prescribed by the whole Law is to bring about the passion of which it is correct to be brought about, as we have demonstrated in this chapter for the benefit of those who know the true realities. I refer to the fear of Him and the awe before his commands.” (MN 3:52)

As this last quote indicates, all Mitzvot have the same objective. I have focused first on ethical Mitzvot because they are easier to contrast with general ethics but the same goal is for all Mitzvot. All have the ultimate objective to bring us to know God to the best of each one’s ability. I think that we can start getting a glimpse of why Mitzvot are Truth and doing them is doing Truth. I will however flesh these concepts out further in upcoming posts.

I would like to end this post by pointing out that in the first quote from MN3:27, indeed in that whole chapter Rambam omits any mention of personal self-improvement other than in a societal context. Anyone who reads Rambam knows that one of the important traits needed for a correct understanding of God and His ways, is perfected Midot. Someone who is steeped in material needs and urges cannot acquire true knowledge according to Rambam. He makes that clear right in the second chapter of the Moreh.

“You appear to have studied the matter superficially, and nevertheless you imagine that you can understand a book which has been the guide of past and present generations, when you for a moment withdraw from your lusts and appetites, and glance over its contents as if you were reading a historical work or some poetical composition.” (MN1:2)

What happened to that whole segment of Mitzvot that deal with self-improvement to allow for apprehending correct notions?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Does a Non-philosophical Person Gain Rights to the World To Come (Olam Haba)? (Part 3 in a series)

At the end of the first four chapters in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah where Rambam give a concise summary of Physics and Metaphysics from a Jewish theological perspective, he legislates –

ואני אומר שאין ראוי להיטייל בפרדס, אלא מי שנתמלא כרסו לחם ובשר; ולחם ובשר זה, הוא לידע ביאור האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן משאר המצוות. ואף על פי שדברים אלו, דבר קטן קראו אותם חכמים, שהרי אמרו חכמים דבר גדול מעשה מרכבה, ודבר קטן הוויה דאביי ורבא; אף על פי כן, ראויין הן להקדימן: שהן מיישבין דעתו של אדם תחילה, ועוד שהן הטובה הגדולה שהשפיע הקדוש ברוך הוא ליישוב העולם הזה, כדי לנחול חיי העולם הבא. ואפשר שיידעם הכול--גדול וקטן, איש ואישה, בעל לב רחב ובעל לב קצר.

And I say that one should not promenade in the Pardes only once one has filled his stomach with meat and bread. Meat and bread is a metaphor for knowing the clarification of what is forbidden and permissible and other such matters about the other [in addition to the five discussed here earlier] Mitzvot. Although the sages refer to these matters as a small thing, for the sages said “great matter is the workings of the chariot” and a small matter is the discussion of Abaye and Rava, they still should come first. They settle a persons mind and additionally they are the great good that HKBH bestowed to the inhabitants of this world, for them to inherit Olam Haba. All, adult and child, man and woman [note: woman too], a person with a broad mind or one with a limited one, can know it.

I have discussed this Halacha in the context of the preceding ones here . In the context of the current discussion, I would like to focus in on Rambam’s ontological explanation of “what is forbidden and permissible and other such matters about the other Mitzvot”. From a human perspective, they are “meat and bread” but from an ontological one they are “the great good that HKBH bestowed to the inhabitants of this world, for them to inherit Olam Haba.” The placement of this Halacha is quite interesting too, at the end of the first chapters of MT that deal with Mitzvot that are intellectual rather than practical and presents as an introduction and transition to the practical Mitzvot that follow in the rest of MT. It says that knowing how to do the Mitzvot well [clarification of what is forbidden and permissible] (and I assume doing them), can be accomplished by all [adult and child, man and woman] thus, they all will inherit Olam Haba. Again, we see Rambam clearly telling us that Olam Haba is not dependent on intellectual apprehensions but rather a result of keeping the practical Mitzvot. There is however a caveat, not here but in Hilchot Teshuvah, where Rambam conditions proper actions on correct ideas. In Chapter 3 he discusses the process of divine judgment, Halachot that I find very difficult to understand though I hope to one day, and after a lengthy detailed exposition, he ends as follows: (Translation courtesy of Jonathan Baker. The translation is not ideal but will have to do for my purpose here).

שכל ישראל יש להן חלק לעולם הבא, אף על פי שחטאו--שנאמר "ועמך כולם צדיקים, לעולם יירשו ארץ" (ישעיהו ס,כא); ארץ זו משל--כלומר ארץ החיים, והוא העולם הבא. וכן חסידי אומות העולם, יש להן חלק לעולם הבא.

For every Jew has a share in the World to Come even if he sinned, for it is written, "Your people also shall be righteous; they shall inherit the land for ever". The word `land' here refers to the Land Of Life, namely the World to Come. Similarly, pious gentiles also have a share in the World to Come.

Thus, even those that divine justice found guilty and therefore do not expect longevity in this physical world, do retain a part in Olam Haba as long as they are not one of those enumerated in the next Halacha.

יד [ו] ואלו שאין להן חלק לעולם הבא, אלא נכרתין ואובדין, ונידונין על גודל רשעם וחטאתם, לעולם ולעולמי עולמים: המינים, והאפיקורוסים, והכופרים בתורה, והכופרים בתחיית המתים, והכופרים בביאת הגואל, והמשומדים, ומחטיאי הרבים, והפורשים מדרכי ציבור, והעושה עבירות ביד רמה בפרהסיה כיהויקים, והמוסרים, ומטילי אימה על הציבור שלא לשם שמיים, ושופכי דמים, ובעלי לשון הרע, והמושך עורלתו.

The following types of people have no share in the World to Come, and are cut off, destroyed and excommunicated for ever on account of their very great sins and wickedness. An infidel; a heretic; one who denies the Torah; one who denies that there will be a Resurrection; one who denies that there will be a Redemption; one who converts from Judaism; one who causes a lot of people to sin; one who withdraws from communal ways; one who publicly sins in a defiant way like Yehoyakim did; an informer [against Jews]; one who instills fear in the congregation but not in the Name of God; a murderer; one who relates lashon Harah; and one who pulls back his foreskin [in order to cover his brit Mila].

It would be interesting to analyze in detail the commonality, if there is one, of those listed as forfeiting their Olam Haba. However looking at the list we get a clear sense that they relate to incorrect ideas about either God, society or the Jewish people. The striking thing however is the presentation. Rambam, basing himself mainly on the Mishna in Sanhedrin, does not say that one who believes in x, y and z will attain Olam Haba. The presentation takes a negative stance. One who has incorrect ideas whose actions under regular circumstances would be seen as righteous in the eyes of the divine judgment, is now found wanting. That again confirms that the Mitzvah act itself, as long is it is not based on an incorrect notion, is enough to warrant Olam Haba.

To understand the relationship of doing a Mitzvah with Olam Haba, we must first discuss the different categories of Mitzvot and their goal, how and why ethical and moral Mitzvot are different from general ethics and morality and finally the relationship of Olam Haba and our own physical existence. As you can see, this subject is far from exhausted and I plan to develop these ideas.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Does a Non-philosophical Person Gain Rights to the World To Come (Olam Haba)? Obsessive Love (Part 2 in a series)

I ended the previous and first post in this series asking what worshipping for the sake of love means. Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvot Asseh 3 lists a specific Mitzvah, a commandment, to love God. How can one be commanded to love? Love is a natural emotion? How can love be induced?

המצווה השלישית
היא הציווי שנצטווינו על אהבתו יתעלה
שנתבונן ונסתכל במצוותיו ופעולתיו, כדי שנשיגהו ונתענג בהשגתו תכלית התענוג - וזוהי האהבה המצווה [עלינו].

The third Mitzvah is that we were commanded to love Him. [Meaning] that we should contemplate and look into His commandments and His actions so that we apprehend Him, thus experiencing [lit: enjoying] the ultimate enjoyment through that apprehension of him. That is the love that we were commanded.

And to clarify, Rambam, after citing a series of verses, continues,
הנה ביארנו לך, שבהשתכלות תבוא לידי השגה, וימצא לך תענוג ותבוא האהבה בהכרח.

We have thus clarified to you that apprehension comes through contemplation which in turn affords pleasure which brings about love inevitably.

This Mitzvah requires a systematic process, starting with contemplating God’s commandments and his actions. The apprehension that results from that first step gives one so much pleasure that it inevitably triggers a feeling of love for the source of that pleasure. Once a person experiences the pleasure brought about by the quest for and apprehension of that knowledge, he wants to repeat the experience constantly and becomes obsessed with the quest. This addictive quality of a human being is thus used in a positive way. That resulting obsessive love is described at the end of Hilchot Teshuvah 10:3

ה [ג] וכיצד היא האהבה הראויה: הוא שיאהב את ה' אהבה גדולה יתרה רבה, עזה עד מאוד, עד שתהא נפשו קשורה באהבת ה', ונמצא שוגה בה תמיד--כאלו חולי האהבה, שאין דעתם פנויה מאהבת אותה אישה שהוא שוגה בה תמיד, בין בשוכבו בין בקומו, בין בשעה שהוא אוכל ושותה

And what is the proper love? One should love God with such a very great and extremely intense love to the point that his mind [soul] is bound with the love of God becoming immersed in it at all times. It is like one of those who are lovesick, whose mind cannot free itself from the love of the woman he is immersed in at all times, while at rest and awake, while eating and drinking.

The emotional feeling of love in this process is triggered by a rational experience. The experience of learning and apprehending a difficult and elusive matter produces such intense pleasure that the person wants to continuously experience it and therefore cannot stop thinking about God and the quest for Him. That knowledge however is elusive in our physical existence and becomes a constant quest. At its extreme level, the level of Moshe Rabbeinu, that obsessive quest reaches a point where the mind [soul] wants to free itself from its physical shackles. The Rabbis metaphorically describe this state as “death by kissing” based on Shir Hashirim 1:2, which [Shir Hashirim] is seen as a metaphor for this intense obsessive love of God.

ב יִשָּׁקֵנִי מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת פִּיהוּ, כִּי-טוֹבִים דֹּדֶיךָ מִיָּיִן. 2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth--for thy love is better than wine.

Rambam in MN 3:51 describes this experience by Moshe, Aharon and Miriam.

The more the forces of his body are weakened, and the fire of passion quenched, in the same measure does man's intellect increase in strength and light; his knowledge becomes purer, and he is happy with his knowledge. When this perfect man is stricken in age and is near death, his knowledge mightily increases, his joy in that knowledge grows greater, and his love for the object of his knowledge more intense, and it is in this great delight that the soul separates from the body…. The meaning of this saying is that these three died in the midst of the pleasure derived from the knowledge of God and their great love for Him. When our Sages figuratively call the knowledge of God united with intense love for Him a kiss, they follow the well-known poetical diction, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth" (Song 1:2). This kind of death, which in truth is deliverance from death, has been ascribed by our Sages to none but to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The other prophets and pious men are beneath that degree: but their knowledge of God is strengthened when death approaches.”

The same pleasure that was so necessary while the person is in his physical state to trigger this obsessive love becomes eternal at death. Of course, we cannot fathom what that experience means, just as we cannot apprehend anything about God’s essence while in this physical existence. This pleasurable experience therefore has two components to it. While in physical existence, it is a necessary tool to help induce this intense and obsessive love of God and the quest for Him. As that experience of intense pleasure becomes eternal at death, it is now no longer a tool but an eternal reward.

In a comment on the earlier post, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks questioned my understanding of what it means to perform a Mitzvah in a “proper and satisfactory” manner. Our goal in our physical existence is to apprehend to the best of our ability as much as we can in our quest for God and His ways. That can only be accomplished through the systematic approach described above which includes the pleasurable experience that comes with apprehension. Our addictive attachment to that pleasurable experience is a necessary step in developing the obsessive love for God and the quest for Him. That same pleasurable experience, once it becomes eternal, is no longer a tool but a resulting reward. Worship that has that eternal pleasurable experience as a goal is not “proper and satisfactory”. That I believe is how one must understand Rambam quoted earlier which is to me, the essence of Judaism.

העובד מאהבה, עוסק בתורה ובמצוות והולך בנתיבות החכמה--לא מפני דבר בעולם, לא מפני
יראת הרעה, ולא כדי לירש הטובה: אלא עושה האמת, מפני שהוא אמת; וסוף הטובה לבוא
A person that worships [God] for the sake of love, is not involved in Torah and Mitzvot nor following the paths of wisdom, because of anything else in the world, not fear of bad things happening nor to gain good things. The only reason he does Truth is that it is Truth. The good things will generally come at the end.

In upcoming posts, I would like to explore the meaning of Mitzvot as Truth.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Did Rambam's Attitude To Aggadah Evolve? - A review of Professor Loberbaum Article (Conclusion).

Rambam in MN 1:70 discusses the word Rochev – to ride – when used by the prophets to describe God. He explains that just as a rider controls the beast he is riding upon, so too God is the Mover of the spheres. The idea is that all physical existence is subject to motion. In Aristotelian science, motion underlies all physical existence. In their view, the four basic elements mix in various combinations resulting in all the different components of the world below the sphere of the moon. That mixing is caused by motion which originates in the circular orbit of the outer sphere which in turn was first put into motion by the First Mover at the dawn of existence. As motion has to be induced, God, the First Mover, caused that original spherical motion. When we say that motion was caused by another body, we imagine one body impelling another, by transferring force from one to another. To dispel us from this imagery, the prophets saw God as the rider of the spheres. Just like a rider controls the animal without transferring anything physical, the animal moves of its own volition as ordered by the rider, so too God set the sphere in motion without transferring anything from Himself. Rambam shows how this concept is found in the prophetic writings and both in the Talmud and Midrashim. He shows how the Rabbis in their cryptic way were teaching these metaphysical truths in Breishit Rabah 68:10 (pages 777-778 in the Theodor-Albeck Edition), Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 18 and the Gemara in Hagigah 12b. (I plan to write a separate post explaining this Rambam). In the middle of the chapter Rambam comments–

“Consider how these excellent and true ideas, comprehended only by the greatest philosophers, are found scattered in the Midrashim. When a student who disavows truth reads them, he will at first sight, deride them as being contrary to the real state of things. The cause of this is because our Sages spoke of these subjects in metaphors: they are too difficult for the common understanding of the people, as has been noted by us several times.” (MN1:70)

In the following chapter, MN 1:71 Rambam addresses why these deep truths are so rare in the Talmud and Midrashim. He explains that the political status of the Jewish people, the influence of foreign conquerors, eradicated all that knowledge which was orally transmitted. The little that remained was scattered in the Talmud and Midrashim in a very esoteric form.

This was the cause that necessitated the disappearance of these great roots of knowledge from the nation. For you will not find with regard to them anything except slight indications and pointers occurring in the Talmud and the Midrashim. These are as it were, a few grains belonging to the core which are overlaid by many layers of rind, so that people were occupied with these layers of rind and thought that beneath them there was no core whatsoever.” (MN 1:71)

He then continues to explain that the few philosophical writings that we do find amongst the Geonim as well as the Karaites (!) were not based on tradition but rather developed by those people by adapting contemporary non-Jewish philosophy.

Professor Loberbaum in his article reads this Rambam out of its context, focusing on the above quote and arguing that “a few grains belonging to the core which are overlaid by many layers of rind” clearly indicates that the Rabbinic Midrashim were not reliable because of “the disappearance of these great roots of knowledge from the nation.” He concludes that Rambam held that the Talmud and Midrashim were not philosophical/scientific texts and that most Rabbis were not philosophers.

I really do not see that at all in reading the Rambam in context. All he is doing is explaining why these philosophical discussions are rare and why they are so well hidden behind metaphors and allegories. After all he just finished showing us in the preceding chapter how one should read a series of rabbinic Aggadot and Midrashim that complement prophetic writings and see in them deep metaphysical truths. This is clearly the case in view of the comment I quote earlier from MN 1:70, “Consider how these excellent and true ideas, comprehended only by the greatest philosophers, are found scattered in the Midrashim….”

But now YL, in his concluding remarks, makes a faux pas that shocked me. Here is a translation of his words.

“Rambam explained here- so too in chapter 59 – that what is found in the Talmud is at most a few philosophic/scientific statements, that are covered by “many rinds” namely a vast collection of Aggadot that have in them “rubbish and such perverse imaginings”. The rinds in the Talmud are so many that “people were occupied with these layers of rind and thought that beneath them there was no core whatsoever”. (Emphases in the original).”

This statement is a perversion of everything we read so far in the above quotes of Rambam.
“People were occupied with these layers of rind and thought that beneath them there was no core whatsoever”, because the ideas were well hidden and not because there are so many other statements in the Talmud that have only rinds, as implied by YL. But to make matters worse when we turn to chapter 59 from where “rubbish and such perverse imaginings” was lifted and transplanted here, we see that Rambam was talking about Piyuttim and not Aggadot and Midrashim of the Rabbis. In that chapter, Rambam tells us that it is not permissible to develop our own attributes for God especially when we pray. We must limit ourselves to what the Rabbis have taught us based on their readings of the prophetic writings.

We cannot approve of what those foolish persons do, that are extravagant in praise, fluent and prolix in the prayers they compose, and in the hymns they make in the desire to approach the Creator. They describe God in attributes which would be an offence if applied to a human being, for those persons have no knowledge of these great and important principles, which are not accessible to the ordinary intelligence of man. Treating the Creator as a familiar object, they describe Him and speak of Him in any expressions they think proper; they eloquently continue to praise Him in that manner, and believe that they can thereby influence Him and produce an effect on Him. If they find some phrase suited to their object in the words of the Prophets they are still more inclined to consider that they are free to make use of such texts--which should at least be explained--to employ them in their literal sense, to derive new expressions from them, to form from them numerous variations, and to found whole compositions on them. This license is frequently met with in the compositions of the singers, preachers, and others who imagine themselves to be able to compose a poem. Such authors write things which partly are real heresy, partly contain rubbish and such perverse imaginings, so that they naturally cause those who hear them to laugh, but also to feel grieved at the thought that such things can be uttered in reference to God.” (MN1:59)

Need I say more? Since when are medieval Paytannim the authors of Midrashim and Aggadot? YL shows the weakness of his arguments when he has to resort to obvious distortions that can be verified by simply turning to the source, in order to prove his point.

That being the case, why do I read articles by scholars? Why did I spend a series of posts disagreeing with Professor Loberbaum? The answer is simple. One learns from everybody even when someone is at best misguided, at worse dishonest in his or her reading of the great medieval thinkers. One is forced to go back to the source and reread it with the latest reading in mind. Inevitably, new insights are gleaned and a better understanding is reached. I also learn a lot from good scholarly work. Unfortunately, the pressure to publish and be innovative leads many to stray from the purported quest for the truth. But there are “a few grains belonging to the core” amongst “many layers of rind”, following YL’s way of reading.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Does a Non-philosophical Person Gain Rights to the World To Come (Olam Haba)? How? (Part 1 in a series)

One of the difficulties people have is how to understand Olam Haba for the non-philosophical according to Rambam. Rambam describes Olam Haba in his Hilchot Teshuvah chapter 8 and in many other places as a result of the correct understanding of HKBH. He interprets all the seemingly physical rewards such as the Leviathan Feast, the crowns on the heads of the Tzadikkim etc… as metaphors for intellectual apprehension of the Deity (Hilchot Teshuvah chapter 8). That being the case how does a plain non-philosophical believer gain access to this unique and fabulous experience? In fact, some who study Rambam felt that although Rambam did not say so openly, Olam Haba was reserved for the elite philosopher only. The problem is that we have a Mishna at the beginning of the 10th Perek in Sanhedrin that says that ALL of Israel has a part in Olam Haba except for certain heretics who are precluded from it. Rambam subscribes to it and in fact uses that Mishna to launch a long dissertation on the 13 Ikkarim which include Olam Haba as dogmatic beliefs that one must have. In Hilchot Teshuvah chapter3:5 he legislates the Mishna as Halacha. It is inconceivable therefore, that he had an “esoteric” position on the matter. I would like to address this issue in a series of posts and hopefully it will also clarify Rambam’s Olam Haba which seems to be a little confusing to some, to say the least. (I have already touched on the issue of Olam Haba, to be found under the Olam Haba label on the sidebar, but have never devoted posts to a systematic study of the subject.)
There is a famous Mishna in Massechet Makot at the end of the third Perek that is well known because it is repeated at the end of public Shiurim before the Kaddish Derabanan is recited.

ג,יז [טז] רבי חנניה בן עקשיה אומר, רצה הקדוש ברוך הוא לזכות את ישראל; לפיכך הרבה להן תורה ומצוות, שנאמר "ה' חפץ, למען צדקו; יגדיל תורה, ויאדיר" (ישעיהו מב,כא).

Rabbi Hananya ben Akashya says, as HKBH wanted to warrant merit to the Jewish people, He provided them with a plethora of Torah and Mitzvot as Yeshayahu says, “God wished, for his [servant’s] righteousness' sake, to make the teaching great and glorious.” (I translated the verse as understood by Targum Yehonatan and to agree with this drash. There are however other interpretations.)

Rambam comments as follows:

פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת מכות פרק ג
יז] מיסודות האמונה בתורה שאם קיים האדם מצוה משלש עשרה ושש מאות מצות כראוי וכהוגן ולא שתף עמה מטרה ממטרות העולם הזה כלל, אלא עשאה לשמה מאהבה כמו שביארתי לך, הרי הוא זוכה בה לחיי העולם הבא, לכן אמר ר' חנניה כי מחמת רבוי המצות אי אפשר שלא יעשה האדם אחת בכל ימי חייו בשלימות ויזכה להשארות הנפש באותו המעשה. וממה שמורה על היסוד הזה שאלת ר' חנניה בן תרדיון מה אני לחיי העולם הבא, וענהו העונה כלום בא לידך מעשה, כלומר האם נזדמן לך עשיית מצוה ראוי, ענה לו שנזדמנה לו מצות צדקה בתכלית השלמות האפשרית, וזכה בה לחיי העולם הבא. ופירוש הפסוק ה' חפץ לצדק את ישראל למען כן יגדיל תורה ויאדיר.

It is one of the Law’s fundaments of faith, that if an individual had executed [even] one of the 613 precepts of the Law, in a proper and satisfactory manner, without associating with it some mundane designs at all, but did it for its own sake, as [an act of] love … that person has gained the rights to the life in Olam Haba. Rabbi Hananya teaches that the great variety of precepts ensures that during the entire course of one’s life one would have had the opportunity to perfectly fulfill [at least] a single precept thereby gaining the right for the soul to remain. The question [and answer] of Rabbi Hananya ben Tradyon (TB Avodah Zara 18a) points to this fundament. He asked whether he has [rights] to the life in Olam Haba. The answerer [r. Yossi ben Kisma] said to him, “did you do any act?” Meaning, did you perform a Mitzvah satisfactorily?” He answered that he had the opportunity to perform the Mitzvah of Tzedakah in the most complete [perfect] way possible, and therefore gained the right to the life in Olam Haba. The meaning of the verse is; God wants to bring righteousness to the Israelites He therefore made the Law great and glorious.

According to Rambam, the Mishna is teaching that the purpose of all the precepts is so that a person has the chance to fulfill at least one Mitzvah in his lifetime in a “proper and satisfactory” manner. He defines “proper and satisfactory” not as punctiliousness in its performance, but with the proper intent: “without associating with it some mundane designs at all, but did it for its own sake, as [an act of] love”. What exactly does that mean? As usual, the answer can be found elsewhere in Rambam’s works. “Associating with it some mundane design” is defined in Hilchot Teshuvah 10:1:

אל יאמר אדם הריני עושה מצוות התורה ועוסק בחכמתה, כדי שאקבל הברכות הכתובות בתורה או כדי שאזכה לחיי העולם הבא; ואפרוש מן העבירות שהזהירה תורה מהן, כדי שאינצל מן הקללות הכתובות בתורה או כדי שלא איכרת מחיי העולם הבא.
A person should not say that, “I do the Mitzvot of the Torah and learn its wisdom so that I will receive the blessings written in the Torah or so that I should gain the right to the life in Olam Haba. I will keep away from the transgressions the Torah warned against so that I am saved from the curses that are written in the Torah or so that I am not cut-off from Olam Haba”.

Blessings and curses written in the Torah are matters that deal with our physical day-to-day existence such as health and wealth. We can easily accept that we are not supposed to do the Mitzvot for practical reasons. That we should not do them so that we become perfected and get Olam Haba is much more difficult to digest! After all Rambam just finished the whole chapter 8 describing Olam Haba as basking in the knowledge of God, the ultimate truth.

ומה הוא זה שאמרו, ונהנין מזיו השכינה--שיודעין ומשיגין מאמיתת הקדוש ברוך הוא, מה שאינן יודעין והן בגוף האפל השפל

What did the Rabbis mean when they said [describing the Tzadikkim in Olam Haba] “and they bask in the shine of the Shechinah”? It means that they know and apprehend [something] of the truth [essence] of HKBH, something that is impossible while they are in this dark and lowly [physical] body.

The answer lies in the nuance. There is a difference between seeking the truth itself for its own sake and seeking the truth because one gets pleasure from knowing it. Olam Haba is the resulting pleasurable state that one is in once the truth is attained. To seek the truth for the sake of experiencing that state of pleasure must not be the goal of the perfect person.

ב] העובד מאהבה, עוסק בתורה ובמצוות והולך בנתיבות החכמה--לא מפני דבר בעולם, לא מפני יראת הרעה, ולא כדי לירש הטובה: אלא עושה האמת, מפני שהוא אמת; וסוף הטובה לבוא בכלל.

A person that worships [God] for the sake of love, is not involved in Torah and Mitzvot nor following the paths of wisdom, because of anything else in the world, not fear of bad things happening nor to gain good things. The only reason he does Truth is that it is Truth. The good things will generally come at the end.

Note that three things, Torah, Mitzvot and paths of wisdom are all Truths. In this context, being involved in Torah and Mitzvot should be read in the popular sense, in that Torah is the ontological understanding as well as it contains the practical laws while Mitzvot means following them and acting according to these laws, the 613 Mitzvot. What exactly does Rambam mean when he says that Mitzvot ARE Truth? As I have discussed many times in past posts, Rambam seems to see the Mitzvot as utilitarian, a tool to help us reach our goal of knowing God, rather than Truth itself. Rambam already presented this idea in his introduction to Chelek, the 10th Perek of the tractate Sanhedrin.

פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת סנהדרין פרק י
שלא יעשה תכלית הלמוד לא שיכבדוהו בני אדם ולא רכישת ממון, ואל יעשה תורת ה' פרנסה, ואל יהא אצלו תכלית הלמוד אלא ידיעתו בלבד, וכן אין תכלית האמת אלא לדעת שהוא אמת, והמצות אמת ולכן תכליתם קיומם

one should not make the goal of learning so that people will respect him nor should he do so to gain wealth, one should not make a living from the Torah of HKBH. The goal of learning should be only to know it [the subject]. So too, the goal of Truth is to know that it is Truth and as the Mitzvot are Truth, therefore their goal is to perform them…

This is a partial quote in a lengthy exposition on the subject, which I plan to work on separately in future posts. For our purpose here, we find Rambam repeating this idea that Mitzvot are Truth and he adds one more concept; “therefore, their goal is to perform them”. In other words by keeping Mitzvot one acts the Truth. What exactly does this mean?

There is one more term that Rambam uses in the Halacha from Hilchot Teshuvah quoted above - העובד מאהבה – A person that worships [God] for the sake of love. How are we to understand this love? What does it mean?

I plan to deal with all these questions and others that will crop up as we follow this line of thought, in upcoming posts.

Col. Kemp, An Impartial Observer VS a Traitor of Our Own, Goldstone YS.

Of course this was kept secret while Goldstone got all the publicity.

Hat tip to Rabbi Arie Folger.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Did Rambam's Attitude To Aggadah Evolve? - A review of Professor Loberbaum Article (Part 5).

Professor Loberbaum proceeds to try to prove his thesis that Rambam lost respect for Aggadot, as he grew older. Rambam in his introduction to the Moreh describes the metaphors and allegories found in the prophetic texts. He first quotes a Midrash from Shir Hashirim Rabah where the Rabbis describe the processes Shlomo Hamelech used in his metaphors.

Again, Solomon begins his book of Proverbs with the words, "To understand a proverb and figurative speech, the words of the wise and their dark sayings" (Prov. 1:6); and we read in Midrash, Shir Hashirim Raba, 1:1); "To what were the words of the Torah to be compared before the time of Solomon? To a well, the waters of which are at a great depth, and though cool and fresh, yet no man could drink of them. A clever man joined cord with cord, and rope with rope, and drew up and drank. So too Solomon went from figure to figure, and from subject to subject, till he obtained the true sense of the Torah." So far go the words of our Sages. I do not believe that any intelligent man thinks that "the words of the Torah" mentioned here as requiring the application of figures in order to be understood, can refer to the rules for building Sukkot, for preparing the Lulav, or for the law of the four trustees.”

The Midrash presents Shir Hashirim as a prophetic parable. It is teaching us how to read the parable. It offers different metaphors which suggest that we need to be careful how we read these parables and how we decipher them. The metaphor in this segment of the Midrash describes how at times a systematic approach is required, where every component, the ropes and the cords are attached and by slowly following the clues in proper order, we can grasp the intended goal – the difficult and hidden idea. Rambam quotes another metaphor the rabbis use to describe how one reads a prophetic parable.

What is really meant is the apprehension of profound and difficult subjects, concerning which our Sages said, "If a man loses in his house a sela, or a pearl, he can find it by lighting a taper worth only one issar. Thus the parables in themselves are of no great value, but through them the words of the holy Law are rendered intelligible." These likewise are the words of our Sages; consider well their statement that the internal meaning of the words of the Torah is a pearl whereas the external meaning of all parables is of no value in itself. They compare the hidden meaning included in the literal sense of the simile to a pearl lost in a dark room, which is full of furniture. It is certain that the pearl is in the room, but the man can neither see it nor know where it lies. It is just as if the pearl were no longer in his possession, for, as has been stated, it affords him no benefits whatsoever until he kindles a light. The same is the case with the comprehension of that which the simile represents.”

Some prophetic parables contain filler which are unimportant and one should not try to explain every detail of it. The metaphor describes the relative value of the light and the pearl where one is a tool to find the other, the important item. Rambam adds a little to the Midrash by introducing the furniture that fills the room that is a co-conspirator with the darkness in hiding the valuable pearl. In other words although the candle lights up the room, one still has to clean away the valueless furniture before finding the pearl.

Rambam then describes a type of metaphor also found in the prophetic writings where there are dual meanings where both are important, though one may be of greater importance than the other may. In other words, once the reader has grasped what the parable is trying to teach, he may encounter a double meaning where the external teaches important matters but is only like silver in comparison to the gold found in the deeper meaning.

The wise king said, "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in vessels of silver" (Prov. 25:11). Hear the explanation of what he said: The word maskiyoth, the Hebrew equivalent for "vessels," denotes "filigree network"--i.e., things in which there are very small apertures, such as are frequently wrought by silversmiths. They are called in Hebrew maskiyyoth (literally "transpicuous," from the verb sakah, "he saw," a root which occurs also in the Targum of Onkelos, Gen. 26:8), because the eye penetrates through them. Thus, Solomon meant to say, "Just as apples of gold in silver filigree with small apertures, so is a word fitly spoken."
See how beautifully the conditions of a good simile are described in this figure! It shows that in every word which has a double sense, a literal one and a figurative one, the plain meaning must be as valuable as silver, and the hidden meaning still more precious: so that the figurative meaning bears the same relation to the literal one as gold to silver. It is further necessary that the plain sense of the phrase shall give to those who consider it some notion of that which the figure represents. Just as a golden apple overlaid with a network of silver, when seen at a distance, or looked at superficially, is mistaken for a silver apple, but when a keen-sighted person looks at the object well, he will find what is within, and see that the apple is gold. The same is the case with the figures employed by prophets. Taken literally, such expressions contain wisdom useful for many purposes, among others, for the amelioration of the condition of society; e.g., the Proverbs (of Solomon), and similar sayings in their literal sense. Their hidden meaning, however, is profound wisdom, conducive to the recognition of real truth.”

Clearly, Rambam is not talking here about the parable itself but about what was deciphered by either the reader or the prophet in describing his vision. He tells us that one must not stop at the first teaching one grasps because many times there are dual meanings, where a deeper ontological or metaphysical idea is also present.

For some reason YL sees these descriptions of prophetic writings as a criticism of how the Aggadot are different. He contrasts the “good simile” in the last example with the ones before where there is some fluff in the parable. He is confusing the description of a parable with a description of the result one gets once the parable is deciphered. Furthermore, YL somehow reads this whole discussion to refer to Aggadot, though a careful read of the quotations above clearly show they are ALL describing PROPHETIC parables. Rambam is at first quoting Midrashic metaphors that describe the prophetic parables and then quotes Shlomo Hamelech who describes the results of the deciphered parables as having more than one meaning – silver and gold. I reread the section several times and for the life of me cannot see what YL sees there. I leave it to the reader to decide.

z2There is one more purported “proof” that I will discuss before summarizing and opining.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Did Rambam's Attitude To Aggadah Evolve? - A review of Professor Loberbaum Article (Part 4).

In apparent digression, Rambam in MN 3:43, in the midst of discussing reasons for the different festivals and specifically the reason for taking the Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot, discusses a certain type of Midrashic exegesis. Professor Loberbaum uses it to further develop his theory about Rambam’s supposed change of opinion regarding Rabbinical Aggadot.
As regards the four species [the branches of the palm tree, the citron, the myrtle, and the willows of the brook] our Sages gave a reason for their use by way of Aggadic interpretation, the method of which is well known to those who are acquainted with the style of our Sages. They use the text of the Bible only as a kind of poetical language [for their own ideas], and do not intend thereby to give an interpretation of the text. As to the value of these Midrashic interpretations, we meet with two different opinions. For some think that, the Midrash contains the real explanation of the text, whilst others, finding that it cannot be reconciled with the words quoted, reject and ridicule it. The former, struggle and fight to prove and to confirm such interpretations according to their opinion, and to keep them as the real meaning of the text; they consider them in the same light as traditional laws. Neither of the two classes understood it, that our Sages employ biblical texts merely as poetical expressions, the meaning of which is clear to every reasonable reader. This style was general in ancient days; all adopted it in the same way as poets [adopt a certain style]. Our Sages say, in reference to the words, "and a paddle (yated) you shall have upon your weapon" [azeneka, Deut. xxiii. 14]: Do not read azeneka, "thy weapon," but ozneka, "thy ear." You are thus told, that if you hear a person uttering something disgraceful, put your fingers into your ears. Now, I wonder whether those ignorant persons [who take the Midrashic interpretations literally] believe that the author of this saying gave it as the true interpretation of the text quoted, and as the meaning of this precept: that in truth yated, "the paddle," is used for "the finger, "and azeneka denotes "thy ear." I cannot think that any person whose intellect is sound can admit this. The author employed the text as a beautiful poetical phrase, in teaching an excellent moral lesson, namely this: It is as bad to listen to bad language, as it is to use it. This lesson is poetically connected with the above text. In the same sense you must understand the phrase, "Do not read so, but so," wherever it occurs in the Midrash.”

Rambam is referring to a series of Derashot recorded in Vaykra Rabah 30:8-16 about the reason for taking the four kinds – Arbe’a Minim. The first derasha explains how Etrog is connected with the words used to describe it in the Torah, Pri Etz Hadar, and the same for the remaining three. Thereafter, the Midrash discusses possible symbolism in the Mitzvot, such that the four Minim represent different aspects of God, the three patriarchs and Yosef, the four matriarchs and so on. All the Midrashim use the verse as an exegetical device for their ideas. All these references are far from Peshuto Shel Mikrah, the plain meaning of the text. Rambam explains that these types of Midrashic texts are recordings of sermons or sermon types of Aggadot that use a poetic type of presentation. The Rabbis wanted to teach how one should look at Mitzvot and use them for connecting with the transcendental, get in touch with Judaism’s basic tenets and in general teach Hashkafic and ethical concepts, using the text as a tool to impress or as a mnemonic device. The rabbis are not explaining the text but use it as a tool to make their point, which may have nothing to do with the text. As an extreme example, much more distanced from the text than the ones in Vaykra Rabah, Rambam quotes the one about stuffing your fingers in your ears when confronted with prohibited talk. Clearly, the verse is not talking about it and the Rabbis just used it as a device to make a totally unrelated point. Rambam uses this opportunity to describe and explain a certain common type of Midrashic text amongst many other types of such texts.

YL however wants to take this a step further. In the Pirush Hamishna in the introduction to Chelek Rambam also presented three opinions about Derashot: Those who insist on literalness, those who denigrate and the third group, the correct ones, those who see in them great depth and philosophical teachings. If we set them parallel with the three groups Rambam enumerates here, the third correct one is parallel to the ones who understand the exegetical method of teaching unrelated issues using the verse. YL contrasts Rambam’s description of the correct approach in Chelek as philosophical and of great depth while here he describes it as poetical and not the real meaning of the text. In other words in Chelek the Rabbis teach a deep and true concept as opposed to here, where they distort the true meaning of the text. Furthermore, Rambam describes them as “derashot”, public sermons, that are directed to the masses and not of great depth. He therefore claims that again we see a change of heart about Aggadah that is consistent with the supposed change in the introduction to MN we discussed in the previous post. YL does note that the presentation here is milder than the one in the introduction. There, according to YL’s understanding, Rambam was quasi insulting to the Rabbis while here he seems to praise their “poetical talent”. He therefore discovers a “Halachik” impact in these Derashot, which are the reason Rambam is more careful. He does not want to weaken our regard to Halacha! He is also trying to protect Halachik exegesis which when one would insist that it is the meaning of the text, would lose its legitimacy.

If I am correct, and I am convinced I am, that YL misread Rambam in the introduction to MN, as I have shown in the preceding post, this whole argument has no leg to stand on. In addition, my read of the Rambam above is unquestionably correct. Rambam, typical and true to form, sees the complexity of the Derashot. Aggadah is a term that covers many different non-Halachik writings of the rabbis. Some have deep philosophic import and teach very complex issues from observations about our universe and environment to the ontological and metaphysical. They however also contain many ethical and moral teachings; these probably make up the great majority of the Aggadic texts. Some of these were indeed public sermons and used different types of devices to impress upon the listeners. To impress and make sure the teaching is absorbed and remembered they used the text in a non-literal way. To insist that Rambam is monochromatic and his comments are generalized to all Aggadot is disingenuous. I believe that Professor Loberbaum’s reading of this Rambam is faulty and does not prove his point.

However, YL has still more proofs and I want to address them. At the end of this series, I plan a post to explain why I decided to address this article and a general comment on the importance of academic work on Rambam.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Did Rambam's Attitude To Aggadah Evolve? - A review of Professor Loberbaum Article (Part 3).

Professor Yair Loberbaum in his article turns to the Moreh in his attempt to show that Rambam’s attitude towards Aggadah changed drastically in his later years (Rambam wrote it in his fifties).

In his introduction, Rambam enumerates seven possible reasons why we sometime find contradictions in things we read and then proceeds to bring examples that fit each of these categories. The contradictions we find in Mishna and Braitot usually belong to the first category where two opinions are brought down without clarifying that they belong to two different people. The contradictions in Talmud fall either under the same category or under the second one where an author changes his mind and both opinions are recorded. The contradictions in the writings of the prophets fall under either the third where there is a mixture of metaphor and plain talk or under the fourth where certain conditions are omitted. If one does not discover the omission, one gets the impression that there is a contradiction when there really is not. (I plan to discuss this last issue at length on another occasion so forgive my skimming it superficially here (as per the fifth reason)).

As for the divergences occurring in the books of the philosophers, or rather those who know the truth, they are due to the fifth cause.”

The fifth cause for contradictions is pedagogical. Sometimes an easier subject has to be taught before the more difficult one, but cannot be comprehended without having a superficial understanding of the more difficult subject. The difficult subject is presented in a way that can be understood by the unsophisticated even if it is not exactly accurate. As the student progresses he will return and acquire a deeper and more accurate understanding of the matter.

On the other hand, the contradictions occurring in most of the books of authors and
commentators other than those we have mentioned are due to the sixth cause. Likewise, in the Midrashim and the Haggadah there is to be found great contradictions due to this cause. That is why the sages have said: No questions should be asked about difficulties in the Haggadah. There are also to be found therein contradictions due to the seventh cause.”

Professor Loberbaum reads the sixth cause as negative. It describes authors that write about deep matters and err because they have not figured out all the ramifications that result from their position thus taking a contradictory stand on a related matter. While philosopher’s contradictions are pedagogical, Aggadah is contradictory because it is wrong. Therefore, they should be disregarded – “No questions should be asked about difficulties in the Haggadah”. Contrast this with Rambam’s position in Pirush Hamishna that Aggadot are deep metaphors, clearly there is a change of heart from the young to the old Rambam.

As the discussion here focuses on the sixth cause, I quote it in full.

“The Sixth cause: The contradiction is not apparent, and only becomes evident through a series of premises. The larger the number of premises necessary to prove the contradiction between the two conclusions, the greater is the chance that it will escape detection, and that the author will not perceive his own inconsistency. Only when from each conclusion, by means of suitable premises, an inference is made, and from the enunciation thus inferred, by means of proper arguments, other conclusions are formed, and after that process has been repeated many times, then it becomes clear that the original conclusions are contradictories or contraries. Even able writers are liable to overlook such inconsistencies. If, however, the contradiction between the original statements can at once be discovered, and the author, while writing the second, does not think of the first, he evinces a greater deficiency, and his words deserve no notice whatever.”

Rambam explains that even amongst the greatest thinkers there is the possibility of not taking an idea to its ultimate conclusion. When that occurs, a contradiction may exist between two statements where one only becomes aware of it when that ultimate conclusion is reached. When the ultimate conclusion is easy to arrive at and obvious, the contradiction can only be because the writer has missed it through negligence or forgotten his earlier position. Such authors are not considered in this analysis. However, when the conclusion is not apparent and needs much thought and processing, such errors may occur amongst the best. It is however noteworthy that Rambam does not assume such a possibility in Halachik matters in Mishna and Talmud nor in the books of the prophets. He does however do so with “commentators”, which apparently include those who comment on Halachik subjects. Revelation cannot be suspected of not thinking through to the end, nor can a work composed by the many such as Mishna and Talmud be suspected of doing so. In metaphysics on the other hand, which is the subject of Aggadah, even the greatest may fall prey to such an error. Therefore, when we encounter such a contradiction we have to accept that is due to a contradiction that was not apparent to the author and questions stop there, thus “No questions should be asked about difficulties in the Haggadah”. There is no indication that they should be disregarded as YL reads it.

If we read it this way, it would agree with Rambam’s earlier position that there is great depth in Aggadah and should be taken very seriously. I did not see Rambam claim that there are no errors and the Rabbis were always right. In fact, Rambam many times questions the correctness of Tannaim and Amoraim when it comes to metaphysical and philosophical issues. Even the great Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanos, Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol, does not escape his critique. My reading finds support if the version Rav Kafieh mentions in note 28 is correct. “Divergences that are to be found in this treatise are due to the fifth, (sixth – according to the R. Kafieh versions) and the seventh.” I do not think Rambam would assign the sixth cause to himself if it had a negative connotation.

YL dwells on Rambam statement, “Likewise, in the Midrashim and the Haggadah there is to be found great contradictions due to this cause”. He tries to argue that “great contradictions” fall under the category of, “If, however, the contradiction between the original statements can at once be discovered, and the author, while writing the second, does not think of the first, he evinces a greater deficiency, and his words deserve no notice whatever”. He equates “Great contradictions” with “the contradiction between the original statements can at once be discovered”. I believe he is stretching here to make a point. “Great” in this context is more a matter of the subject, where a contradiction in an important matter is seen as great, not because it is obvious.

I do not think this proof is very convincing. However, there is more to come and I will look at those proofs too. I also plan to tackle these contradictions in a series of posts, the different way of reading prophetic writings and Midrash and Aggadah. As we all know, when one learns Rambam one has to be very careful with the words he uses, context, tone and the order in which things are presented.

Shabbat Shalom.