Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Fear Of Heaven, Ethics And Morality.

It is always fascinating to me how Rambam can be read many times and each time a new insight is gained. This applies not only to Rambam but also with many of the great amongst the Rishonim and Acharonim. This Shabbat I was reading Rambam MN 3:36 and noticed an interesting presentation. I will quote the Kafieh, Schwartz as well as Pines translations because it is important to note the nuance. (Friedlander missed the whole point.)

Rav Kafieh edition:

ופשוט הוא כי גם התשובה מן הקבוצה הזו, כלומר: מן ההשקפות אשר לא תהא סדירה מציאות אישי התורתיים 12
כי אם בסבירתה, לפי שאי אפשר לאדם, שלא יחטא ויטעה, אם שטעותו בהחשיבו השקפה או מידה שאינן חשובים באמת, או בהתגברות תאווה או כעס

Michael Schwartz Edition:

ברור שגם התשובה10
בקבוצה זאת, כלומר, שהיא מן הדעות שבלעדי האמונה בהן לא תסתדר מציאותם של אנשים בני-תורה11,
מפני שבהכרח אדם טועה ונכשל, או שמתוך בורותו הוא מעדיף דעה או מידה שבאמת אינם עדיפים, או שתאווה או כעס גוברים עליו.

And Shlomo Pines English translation:

It is manifest that repentance also belongs to this class, I mean to the opinions without the belief in which the existence of individuals professing a law cannot be well ordered. For an individual cannot but sin and err, either through ignorance – by professing an opinion or a moral quality that is not preferable in truth – or else because he is overcome by desire or anger.

The statement that caught my attention is – “by professing an opinion or a moral quality that is not preferable in truth”. What does being “not preferable in truth” mean? It implies relativity namely that an opinion - השקפה or דעה as well as a moral quality – מידה – may at times be considered wrong under certain circumstances.

Rav Kook in a new collection of his notes published recently – the Shemona Kevatzim (page 21) – writes[1] -

אסור ליראת שמים שתדחק את המוסר הטבעי של האדם, כי אז אינה עוד יראת שמים
טהורה. סימן ליראת שמים טהורה הוא, כשהמוסר הטבעי, הנטוע בטבע הישר של
האדם, הולך ועולה על פיה במעלות יותר גבוהות ממה שהוא עומד מבלעדיה. אבל
אם תצוייר יראת שמים בתכונה כזאת, שבלא השפעתה על החיים היו החיים יותר
נוטים לפעול טוב, ולהוציא אל הפועל דברים מועילים לפרט ולכלל, ועל פי
השפעתה מתמעט כח הפועל ההוא, יראת שמים כזאת היא יראה פסולה.

Yra’at Shamayim – fear of heaven – may not supplant the natural sense of morality of a person, for in that case it is not a pure Yra’at Shamayim. The signpost for a pure Yra’at Shamayim is when the natural sense of morality that is extant in the straightforward nature of man is improved and elevated by it more than it would have been without it. But if one were to imagine a kind of Yra’at Shamayim that without its input, life would tend to do well and bring to fruition things that benefit the community and the individual and furthermore, under its influence less of those things would come to fruition, such a Yra’at Shamayim is wrong.

I believe that Rav Kook is saying the same thing Rambam is. The Mitzvot are a training tool to bring us to proper Yra’at Shamayim. They have no meaning other than that. They are however clearly defined and regulated by Halacha unlike the Yra’at Shamayim they are meant to inculcate in us. The Mitzvot bring discipline into our life and focus us on thinking about our reality and our relationship with God who gave us the Mitzvot. This process is supposed to change the way we do things, making us less narcissistic and self-serving by enhancing the altruistic moral and ethical instinct we all have in us. We get used to doing things, not because they bring us physical benefits but because they are right. However once we leave the world of defined Halacha we enter the realm of the subjective. Moral and ethical decisions have a tendency to go beyond the prescribed Halacha. Real life is full of surprises and new situations that require us to make decisions that are not clearly prescribed. We know that they are correct if they are in harmony with our deep instinctual feeling of what is right and wrong. When we act in ways that do not meet this criterion, we are “professing an opinion or a moral quality that is not preferable in truth”.

Several years ago, I was present at a festive meal for the writing of a new sefer Torah. It took place at the “court” of one of the Rebbes who shall remain unnamed. The waiters were kids who obviously were not Chassidic, some wearing Kippot Serugot while others leather Yarmulkes and very few had Peyot behind their ears. The Rebbe was concerned that they not touch the wine that was being served and would not let them serve. The kids were made to stay in a separate room during the whole time. I kept on thinking about how these kids must have felt - ostracized and unnaccepted by a supposedly holy man. The Rebbe’s Yra’at Shamayim was clearly false; it was not Yra’at Shamayim but self-serving superstition. It went against the natural human instinct of what is right and wrong. His punctiliousness with Mitzvot had warped his instinctual sense of ethics and morality instead of enhancing it.

Rambam in one of the chapters (3:52) in MN where he clearly lets his emotions come through writes –

“We do not sit, move, and occupy ourselves when we are alone and at home, in the same manner as we do in the presence of a great king. We speak and open our mouth as we please when we are with the people of our own household and with our relatives, but not so when we are in a royal assembly. If we therefore desire to attain human perfection, and to be truly men of God, we must awake from our sleep, and bear in mind that the great king that is over us, and is always joined to us, is greater than any earthly king, greater than David and Solomon. The king that cleaves to us and embraces us is the Intellect that influences us, and forms the link between God and us.”

Note that the king in whose presence we must see ourselves at all times is not God but the “Intellect that influences us, and forms the link between God and us”.

“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 few pious men may attain human perfection. They will be filled with respect and reverence towards God; and bearing in mind who is with them, they will perform their duty. God declares in plain words that it is the object of all religious acts to produce in man fear of God and obedience to His word-the state of mind which we have demonstrated in this chapter for those who desire to know the truth, as being our duty to seek.”

Note that the “religious acts” are not “fear of God and obedience to His word”, but rather the tools that bring us to that state.

[1] Quoted recently by Marc Shapiro at

1 comment:

  1. It is always fascinating to me how David Guttmann can be read many times and each time a new insight is gained.