Friday, March 27, 2009

The Idea Behind The Majority Rule - Rove.

I am learning Hilchot Chametz Umatzah and dealing with the halachot about Chametz that goes astray after Bedikat Chametz in Rambam Chapter 2. Some of the cases involve the Halacha of “Rove” – majority rule. Here is an interesting explanation of the rule suggested by Rav Gedalia Nadel A”H that I would like to share. It is an example of how technical Halachik thinking is consistent with and supported by theology.

There is a Halachik rule that we follow the majority. This rule applies in different situations. The primary case is that when a Sanhedrin debates an issue, the final ruling is based on the opinion of the majority. It is based on Shemot 23:2 – אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים—לְהַטֹּת – which is used by the Rabbis exegetically as meaning that the opinion of the majority of a Beit Din prevails (see the first Mishna in Sanhedrin).

The same rule applies, with a variation, in the famous two cases of the nine stores in Pessachim 9b. There are nine stores in town selling kosher meat and one non-kosher. A person purchased meat from one of them but cannot remember from which of the ten. In this situation, the meat is forbidden because we do not rely on the majority. We assume that there is a 50% chance that it is non-kosher. The reasoning is that - כל קבוע כמחצה על מחצה - when the doubt is on something fixed we consider it as even (literally half-and-half). However if in the same town a piece of meat is found in the street it is permitted to eat it as the majority of the stores from which this meat could have come from are kosher. What is the rationale for this difference between the two cases? What makes the “fixed” doubt stronger? The difference between the two cases is based on a deduction from a Torah ruling in a capital case, a Gezeirat Hakatuv. Does that preclude us from understanding it logically?

Rav Gedalia Nadel has an interesting take on this issue of “Rove” – majority rule. Clearly, the rule cannot be based on probability, as there is no mathematical difference between the two cases. There are other peculiarities about the rule such as Ruba De’Leissa Kaman, which further demonstrate that the mathematical probability explanation cannot be the reason, but for simplicity, I will not discuss those proofs here. (For the original article of RGN as transmitted by Rav Sheilat, go here at page 43.)

Before suggesting a logical reason, RGN explains that Gezeirat Hakatuv does not mean that there is no logical basis for a ruling. On the contrary, there are strong logical reasons for two opposite rulings which put the legislator in a bind. The Torah breaks the deadlock. It is therefore incumbent on us to find the underlying opposing arguments so that we apply the Gezeirat Hakatuv correctly in each particular case that is presented.

RGN then proceeds to propose that the rule of Rove is based on human perception. For example, a rice dish that contains vegetables will be referred to as rice as long as the rice makes up the majority of the dish. It does not mean that the vegetables are considered as if they are not there but rice is the dominant feature of the dish. There is therefore a good argument to be made either way; see it as a rice dish or see it as a mixed vegetable-rice dish.

In the case of Sanhedrin where 36 rule one way leaving the rest in a minority, a strong argument can be made that truth, which is the objective of a Beit Din, is not majority dependent. The outcome would therefore be similar to a hung jury and no definite ruling should be made relying on the rules of Safek (see Hil Mamrim 1:5). Gezeirat Hakatuv, אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים—לְהַטֹּת tells us that the Torah wants us to come out with a definite ruling and follow our perception that the majority prevails and is representative of the Beit Din position. It may not be the objective truth as in most cases, a subsequent Sanhedrin, whose majority adopts the opposite ruling, will change the law but the Torah, for societal reasons wants us to be decisive.

Similarly, a piece of meat that was found in a city, where the majority of the butchers are kosher, we say that all unidentified meat is kosher. Just as with the Sanhedrin there no longer is a Safek – a doubt – so too here we say that undoubtedly this meat is kosher based on our perception. That works for meat that is found outside the stores because we can look at the stores and perceive them as one kosher entity just as the Sanhedrin that ruled can be seen as a unified entity. However, when the meat is still in one store and the question arises into which store the person entered to take it, we are breaking up the unified perception. We are questioning “which” store was frequented. We no longer perceive all the stores as one unit. The perception of unity has been shattered. We cannot therefore apply the Gezeirat Hakatuv that tells us to follow our perception and decide accordingly. Doubt lingers in the mind of the questioner whether he entered the non-kosher store and the rules of Safek are applied. RGN adds a psychological insight. In a town where there is one non-kosher store, everybody is aware of it and has a built in caution not to go there. The fact that one can have a doubt that he may have gone there shows a breakdown of that built in caution which is the basis for lingering doubt. (Of course, this would apply only if the non-kosher store was known as such at the time he took the meat while the rule applies when it was not known at the time. Now that I mention it, I am no longer 100% sure that it is the case, but am too lazy to verify.)

The idea that human perception is the basis for Halachik reasoning is used by RGN in many other instances. Rav Sheilat reports that he once asked him whether he was basing his thinking on Kantian thought. He replied that without Kant, we have to look at the Torah as a tool to perfect us. It therefore is finely attuned to human nature.

For the full article, go here. It is very worthwhile.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Dangers Of Undisciplined Speculation - Avodah Zara.

In my previous post, I showed how Rambam, as I understand him, interprets the first two of three verses in Shemot 24:9-11. Here is how he interprets the third one.

יא וְאֶל-אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ; וַיֶּחֱזוּ, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאכְלוּ, וַיִּשְׁתּוּ.11

And upon the nobles of the children of Israel, He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink.

As I explained based on Rambam, this group of intellectuals was speculating about the relationship between God, a transcendental entity, and Materia Prima, the first material existence in the chain of cause and effect that is at the root of our own physical existence. The verse starts with a negative connotation - וְאֶל-אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ - And upon the nobles of the children of Israel, He laid not His hand – intimating that they deserved a punishment. In MN1:4 Rambam explains the words וַיֶּחֱזוּ, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים - and they beheld God – as follows:

The three verbs raah, hibbit, and ḥazah, which denote "he perceived with the eye," are also used figuratively in the sense of intellectual perception… The same explanation applies to ḥazah. It denotes to view with the eye, as: "And let our eye look (ve-taḥaz) upon Zion" (Mic. iv. 11). Also figuratively, to perceive mentally: "which he saw (ḥazah) concerning Judah and Jerusalem" (Isa. i. 1); "The word of the Lord came unto Abraham in a vision" (maḥazeh) (Gen. xv. 1). In this sense ḥazah is used in the phrase, "And they beheld (saw) (va-yeḥezu) God" (Exod. xxiv. 11). Note this well.”

By ending with “Note this well”, Rambam is calling our attention to what he feels to be very important. Not all Rishonim agreed with Rambam that it is impossible to physically see a transcendental entity. For example Ramban, on Breishit 18:1, insists that Avraham saw angels with his physical eyes because angels exist in an ephemeral form, somewhere between the transcendental and the physical. Rambam will not accept that at all. He therefore makes a point that seeing, whenever it deals with a transcendental entity, is an internal mental and intellectual experience. Thus, these intellectuals, in their metaphysical speculations, developed a mental image of God, each to his own ability וַיֶּחֱזוּ, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים - and they beheld God. Unfortunately, the nobles [princes] developed an erroneous idea of God. They confused Materia Prima with God himself. It is very easy to see God in the forces of nature, the forces that cause the physical effects we see and perceive, while they themselves are known to us only by induction and deduction.

But "the nobles of the Children of Israel" were impetuous, and allowed their thoughts to go unrestrained: what they perceived was but imperfect. Therefore it is said of them, "And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet," etc. (Exod. xxiv. 10); and not merely, "and they saw the God of Israel"; the purpose of the whole passage is to criticize their act of seeing and not to describe it. They are blamed for the nature of their perception, which was to a certain extent corporeal--a result which necessarily followed, from the fact that they ventured too far before being perfectly prepared. They deserved to perish, but at the intercession of Moses, this fate was averted by God for the time… The nobles of the Children of Israel, besides erring in their perception, were, through this cause, also misled in their actions: for in consequence of their confused perception, they gave way to bodily cravings. This is meant by the words, "Also they saw God and did eat and drink - וַיֹּאכְלוּ, וַיִּשְׁתּו ".” (MN 1:5)

Confusing God with His creations is the main issue of Avodah Zara. It is falsehood and is at the root of types of worship that focus on the physical. At the Egel, which this misunderstanding was its precursor, we also see a similar kind of worship.

וַיַּשְׁכִּימוּ, מִמָּחֳרָת, וַיַּעֲלוּ עֹלֹת, וַיַּגִּשׁוּ
שְׁלָמִים; וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם לֶאֱכֹל וְשָׁתוֹ, וַיָּקֻמוּ לְצַחֵק

6 And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry. (Shemot32:6)

Metaphysical speculation in a vacuum, without proper intellectual preparation and perfecting oneself morally and ethically, leads to erroneous concepts and ideas about God.

In this earlier post I quoted Rambam in Shemona Perakim, “On the other hand, when he sees him only from the back, although he does recognize him during that sighting, he will eventually have doubts and confuse him with another.” I believe that this report about the “nobles of the children of Israel” is an example of to “confuse him with another”.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Achdut - The Unity Of The Jewish People Is Its Strength

Another scary diatribe

Why Jews Control The World.

God and Materia Prima - Cause and Effect.

There is a fascinatingly cryptic report in Shemot 24:9-11 –

ט וַיַּעַל מֹשֶׁה, וְאַהֲרֹן--נָדָב, וַאֲבִיהוּא, וְשִׁבְעִים, מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

9 Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadav, and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel;

י וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר.

10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.

יא וְאֶל-אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ; וַיֶּחֱזוּ, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאכְלוּ, וַיִּשְׁתּוּ.

11 And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink.

After three days of intense theological and philosophical teaching, the defining event at Sinai occurred. All the people were able to apprehend, each according to his ability, the concept of the existence of a unique transcendental God. Most people went back to their daily life and affairs while a select few continued with this speculation, trying to get a better understanding of the relationship between the transcendental God and our physical existence. This type of speculation is metaphorically referred to as going up or rising.

The two words [Alah and Yarad] are also applied to intellectual processes, namely, when we reflect on something beneath ourselves we are said to go down, and when our attention is raised to a subject above us we are said to rise.” (MN1:10)

The first verse above is therefore telling us that after transmitting and writing down the Ten Commandments, repeating them to the people and sealing with them the covenant, Moshe and Aharon led a group of intellectuals in further theological speculation. As we discussed many times, the only way that we humans can apprehend anything about God, is indirectly by studying our existence which we see as effects that were ultimately caused by Him, the First Cause. The idea of a caused effect is described metaphorically as feet.

Another signification of the word [Regel] is "cause"; "And the Lord hath blessed thee, I being the cause" (leragli) (Gen. 30:30), i.e., for my sake; for that which exists for the sake of another thing has the latter for its final cause. Examples of the term used in this sense are numerous. It has that meaning in Genesis 33:14, "Because (leregel) of the cattle that goes before me, and because (leregel) of the children." Consequently, the Hebrew text, of which the literal rendering is: "And his feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives" (Zech. 14:4) can be explained in the following way. "And the things caused by him (raglav) on that day upon the Mount of Olives”, that is to say, the wonders which will then be seen, and of which God will be the Cause or the Maker, will remain permanently."” (MN1:28)

The first part of the second verse, וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, thus means that they followed the trail of cause and effect to arrive back all the way to the first thing caused by HKBH. If I were to put this in practical terms, I would say that they followed how one thing is the cause of another up to the limits of physicality. That in our parlance would include things like energy, gravity, and other physical forces that we know exist by deduction and induction but cannot physically touch. I am not a physicist so I may be a little inexact and I beg forgiveness for that, but I think I am getting the gist of my idea across. Metaphorically, that is referred to as כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר – as the work of the whiteness of the sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness. (Note: Rambam translates לִבְנַת – whiteness while JPS translates stones or bricks thus paved work)

What they (the nobles of the children of Israel) perceived was therefore the Materia prima, whose relation to God is distinctly mentioned, because it is the source of those of his creatures which are subject to genesis and destruction, and has been created by him.” (MN1:28) “This led me to explain the words, "And under his feet as the work of the whiteness of the sapphire" as expressing that the nobles of the children of Israel comprehended in a prophetical vision the nature of the earthly Materia prima.” (MN 2:26).

Though necessary, there is great risk in this type of speculation. Not, as it is feared in the general orthodox community nowadays, because one may stray off the Derech and end up with questions, but rather because one may misinterpret what one apprehends and end up worshipping a figment of the imagination. Without adequate intellectual preparation and care, one may confuse the material and the transcendental. That is the meaning of the next verse which I will discuss in my next post.

I already touched on this here and here.

Note: I am experimenting with shorter but more frequent posts. I am therefore limiting each post to one or two ideas, sometimes leaving the conclusions to other postings. It allows me to expand more in depth on each idea. Let me know if this works better or if you prefer that I revert to longer and more complete posts.

This Is Really Scary -

An alarming video every Westerner should see

Scary Stuff

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Uninterrupted Speculation And Prayer.

In the previous post I pointed out that in our lifelong search for HKBH, constancy is crucial. The search has to be ongoing and the more a person can train himself to focus on understanding the world in context of it being Gods’ creation, the better are the chances of finding Him. As I discussed at the beginning of my series on prayer, Rambam’s Sefer Ahavah, the second of the 14 books of MT, deals with Mitzvot that are meant to train us to be always focused on this issue. In fact, Sefer Ahavah is introduced with a verse in Tehilim 119:97

מה אהבתי, תורתך:
כל היום, היא שיחתי

O how love I Thy Torah! It is my meditation all the day.

The Mitzvot in this sefer are a tool to train us to meditate all day about Torah. Torah in this context includes all sciences and metaphysics, in addition to what is traditionally considered Torah namely Halacha. (Read carefully Hil Talmud Torah 1:11-12. I will discuss this in a separate post).

“I will now commence to show you the way how to educate and train yourselves in order to attain that great perfection.The first thing you must do is this: Turn your thoughts away from everything while you read Shema or during the Tefilah, and do not content yourself with being devout when you read the first verse of Shema, or the first paragraph of the prayer. When you have successfully practiced this for many years, try in reading the Law or listening to it, to have all your heart and all your thought occupied with understanding what you read or hear. After some time when you have mastered this, accustom yourself to have your mind free from all other thoughts when you read any portion of the other books of the prophets, or when you say any blessing; and to have your attention directed exclusively to the perception and the understanding of what you utter. When you have succeeded in properly performing these acts of divine service, and you have your thought, during their performance, entirely abstracted from worldly affairs, take then care that your thought be not disturbed by thinking of your wants or of superfluous things. In short, think of worldly matters when you eat, drink, bathe, talk with your wife and little children, or when you converse with other people. These times, which are frequent and long, I think must suffice to you for reflecting on everything that is necessary as regards business, household, and health. But when you are engaged in the performance of religious duties, have your mind exclusively directed to what you are doing.
When you are alone by yourself, when you are awake on your couch, be careful to meditate in such precious moments on nothing but the intellectual worship of God, namely to approach Him and to minister before Him in the true manner which I have described to you--not in hollow emotions. This I consider as the highest perfection wise men can attain by the above training.”
(MN 3:51)

Prayer thus is seen as training for meditation as is “reading the Law or listening to it”. It is however not just meditation at intervals but training for uninterrupted speculation about God and His ways trying to come as close as possible to the paradigm of human perfection, Moshe Rabbeinu.

But I think there is much more to it. After introducing the Tefilah (when I use “Tefilah” here I refer to the Amidah- the 19 Berachot of the Shemona Esreh) with the three blessings of praise, we enumerate all the daily human endeavors, whether personal or communal. The idea is to acknowledge and remind ourselves when we do things in our material existence that they ultimately can be traced back to HKBH, the First Cause. It tells us to act with that in mind trying to see everything we do in context of the bigger picture, as it fits into God’s world and how we understand it operates according to His will, to the best of our knowledge. Our religion is action oriented and even metaphysical speculation has to be translated into practical acts. We therefore are supposed to operate on two parallel tracks – meditation and responsible actions. The problem is that just as difficult as finding God is, so too is it difficult to know how to act to fulfill His will. Self-doubt and constant reevaluation is the lot of someone who wants to serve HKBH by being a responsible component of His universe. Thus, the first Bracha of Supplication, the fourth Bracha of the Shemona Esreh, acknowledges that our human mind is Gods’ gift to us followed by an acknowledgement of its limitations and the need for constant reevaluation, namely repentance. One has to constantly question his actions and look at them to make sure they are correct. Unfortunately, we humans never know for sure what is correct. Our outlook is so short term. A lifetime is short term in the eternal context as are many lifetimes. We therefore acknowledge that and ask to be forgiven if we erred looking towards repairing our mistakes. It is only after this mindset that we can deal with our daily life, redeeming, healing, feeding, independence, justice etc…

To me this is what meaningful prayer is. The real difficulty is to take this with you for the rest of the day when we act. Even with the three daily prayers, reminders of all these ideas, how many times do I think about these things when I act? Far too few.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Moshe Not Losing Sight Of God's Back -

In the previous post, I discussed Rambam’s understanding that metaphysical speculation leads to insights that are fleeting and can be compared to flashes of light. Considering that the essence of God, in fact the whole concept of transcendental existence cannot be fathomed by the human mind, what do these flashes of insight consist of?

I will give you in this chapter some illustrations, in order that you may better understand the propriety of forming as many negative attributes as possible, and the impropriety of ascribing to God any positive attributes. A person may know for certain that a "ship" is in existence, but he may not know to what object that name is applied, whether to a substance or to an accident. A second person then learns that the ship is not an accident. A third, that it is not a mineral. A fourth, that it is not a plant growing in the earth. A fifth, that it is not a body whose parts are joined together by nature. A sixth, that it is not a flat object like boards or doors. A seventh, that it is not a sphere. An eighth, that it is not pointed. A ninth, that it is neither round-shaped nor equilateral. A tenth, that it is not solid. It is clear that this tenth person has almost arrived at the correct notion of a "ship" by the foregoing negative attributes. It is as if he had exactly the same notion as those have who imagine it to be a wooden substance which is hollow, long, and composed of many pieces of wood, that is to say, who know it by positive attributes. Of the other persons in our illustration, each one is more remote from the correct notion of a ship than the next mentioned, so that the first knows nothing about it but the name. In the same manner, you will come nearer to the knowledge and comprehension of God by the negative attributes. But you must be careful, in what you negate, to negate by proof, not by mere words, for each time you ascertain by proof that a certain thing, believed to exist in the Creator, must be negated, you have undoubtedly come one step nearer to the knowledge of God.” (MN 1:60)

When we look at the universe we live in - the only reality we know - we see that it operates on a system of cause and effect. We conclude that there must be, “exist”, one entity that is non-contingent, the cause of everything without being effected by anything else – a self-standing independent entity. (For a concise and clear exposition of this idea, see my earlier post here). Just like a person who has never seen a ship but knows that one must exist because he knows that people and products can be shipped across oceans, so too do we know from our own existence that there must be a non-contingent First Cause. Unlike a ship, which we can construct and eventually observe and touch, this non- contingent entity, by definition, cannot even be conceived by our minds. We therefore cannot describe it in positive terms. All we can do is explain what it is not, what makes it different from everything else. It is a much more cumbersome process, because we have to know and understand everything else that exists and conceptualize why this entity cannot be any of those things. If we were to take the same approach with the ship, we eventually would get to know and understand what a ship is, and even build one. However, we will never be able to even conceive anything about the makeup of this non-contingent entity which we call God. On the other hand, the more we know and understand why God is different from anything else that we know and understand, the better can we construct a vague sense in our minds about this entity whose traces we see in everything. That vague sense is metaphorically described as ““and you shall see my back”. As we develop more knowledge about our universe, we keep on expanding our knowledge of what God is not and the vague sense we develop, though closer to the truth, is different from the one we experienced before. That is how I understand Rambam in Shemona Perakim that I quoted here On the other hand, when he sees him only from the back, although he does recognize him during that sighting, he will eventually have doubts and confuse him with another”. As these insights are vague and come in flashes, there is a lack of continuity as new information is processed and new insights develop. Is it the same entity I sensed during the last experience or was I wrong then? Am I wrong now? The only resolution of this dilemma is to maintain constancy in the process so that there is a continuous flow of insights that are built on each other and thus connected. It is like when someone catches fleeting sight of the back of a person he is following and does not let his eyes stray from that person, although he does not know how that person looks, he knows that he is following the same person he first saw from the back. Should he however lose sight for a second, he will never be sure that it is the same person he is following now. Moshe Rabbeinu was the paradigm of the person who never loses sight of Gods’ back once he caught a glimpse of it. Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 7:14 -

ובזה הבטיחו האל, שנאמר "לך, אמור להם: שובו לכם, לאוהליכם. ואתה, פה עמוד עימדי"
הא למדת שכל הנביאים, כשהנבואה מסתלקת, חוזרין לאוהלם, שהוא צורכי הגוף
כולן כשאר העם; לפיכך אינן פורשין מנשותיהן. ומשה רבנו, לא חזר לאוהלו
הראשון; לפיכך פירש מן האישה לעולם ומכל הדומה לה, ונקשרה דעתו בצור
העולמים, ולא נסתלק ההוד מעליו לעולם וקרן עור פניו, ונתקדש כמלאכים.

It is this that God promised him saying, “Go tell them [the people] return to your tents whilst you stand here with me”, teaching that all prophets return to their tents, namely their material lives, after prophecy ends, just as the rest of the people do, remaining with their wives. On the other hand, Moshe Rabbeinu never returned to his original tent, [his material life], separating from his wife and all similar matters forever. His mind became entwined with the rock of the worlds, the grace never lifted from him, the skin of his face shone and he became sanctified like the angels.

One of the outstanding features of Moshe was that once he caught sight of God’s back he never let go. It is true that he never was able to “see God’s face” and therefore, should he have taken his eyes off even for a short moment, he could doubt if he reconnected with the same entity. He however never took his eyes off the ball. I believe this explains the apparent contradiction between Rambam in Shemona Perakim and Mishne Torah that I discussed here.

How this affects our own religious life and the implications this has to prayer and Mitzvot will be discussed in upcoming posts.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Lightning Flashes As Metaphor.

This post is a continuation of this earlier one.

In the Moreh, Rambam addresses the issue of Moshe’s apprehension of God in several places. In the introduction to MN, Rambam discusses what a person can expect to apprehend in metaphysics.

Do not imagine that these most difficult problems can be thoroughly understood by any one of us. This is not the case. At times, the truth flashes so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night. On some, the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day. This was the degree of prophetic excellence attained by (Moses) the greatest of prophets, to whom God said, "But as for thee, stand thou here by Me" (Deut. v. 31), and of whom it is written, "The skin of his face shone," etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 29)… The degrees in the perfection of men vary according to these distinctions.”

The metaphor for apprehension used here is flashes of light. In moments when a person is able to distance himself from his “nature and habits”, from his personal physical needs and existence, he acquires a fleeting apprehension of the transcendental. That apprehension is so tenuous that it cannot be retained for more than a few moments. However, a trace of that insight is retained for “we return to darkness almost as dense as before”. When the next flash arrives, we start from a different level but we still “find ourselves in the thickest darkness of the night”. In other words, we cannot retain the full insight we gained. It flashes in front of our eyes and disappears just like a dream. It is the intensity and constancy of these flashes that defines the different levels of perfection attained by the various seekers. Moshe, the paradigm of perfection, never stopped having these flashes with great intensity, one after the other. However even to him these insights were only “flashes”. There was a fleeting quality to them but their constancy made it seem as if he was in a “continuous light”.

Rambam puts this idea into practical terms in MN 3:51. He first discusses the need to have the proper intellectual preparation and development when dealing with apprehension of God. He warns that one must beware from confusing God with figments of one’s imagination. After having acquired sufficient intellectual knowledge, one focuses the mind on trying to grasp all that is possible about God. It is at those times that the “flashes of light” that he spoke about in the introduction occur. Here he presents in practical terms how these insights must be handled.

You must know that even if you were the wisest man in respect to the true knowledge of God, you break the bond between you and God whenever you turn entirely your thoughts to the necessary food or any necessary business. You are then not with God, and He is not with you: for that relation between you and Him is actually interrupted in those moments.”

He then describes a process of training that one must undergo over years, to retain this focus at all times. One starts with the daily prayers, concentrating on what we are saying, each time more and longer to the point that even after prayer is finished, we are still thinking about God. One then develops self-control and discipline to limit the times one deals with worldly affairs to a minimum leaving more time for the focus on God. He then again cautions:

When you are alone by yourself, when you are awake on your couch, be careful to meditate in such precious moments on nothing but the intellectual worship of God, to approach Him and to minister before Him in the true reality which I have described to you and not by way of affections of the imagination. This I consider as the highest perfection wise men can attain by the above training.”

Here we are talking about a person that has attained intellectual knowledge sufficient to meditate about God must always be vigilant against straying into the imaginary. I understand that to mean that as these insights come in flashes that are fleeting, the next insight may not be properly anchored in the earlier understanding which is only a trace by now, especially if time has elapsed. That is the meaning of Rambam in the introduction, “We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night”. The “darkness of night” is the result of “you break the bond between you and God whenever you turn entirely your thoughts to the necessary food or any necessary business”. Here is however how Moshe is depicted:

“It is only when we have acquired a true knowledge of God, and we rejoice in that knowledge in such a manner, that whilst speaking with others, or attending to our bodily wants, our mind is all that time with God. It is only when we are with our heart constantly near God, even whilst our body is in the society of men. It is only when we are in that state which the Song on the relation between God and man poetically describes in the following words: "I sleep, but my heart wakes: it is the voice of my beloved that knocks" (Song v. 2). Then have we attained not only the height of ordinary prophets, but of Moses, our Teacher, of whom Scripture relates: "And Moses alone shall come near before the Lord" (ibid. xxxiv. 28); "But as for thee, stand thou here by me" (Deut. V. 28)”.

This is the practical presentation of “On some, the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day”, which is how Moshe was described in the introduction. The constancy of the insights, these flashes coming uninterrupted, assures that the imaginative does not distort the proper apprehension. The traces of the insight that we retain tend to weaken as time goes on and the longer the interval the less remains of them. The resulting apprehension may therefore be inconsistent. To Moshe the flashes of insight were uninterrupted and therefore he was able to attain a level of apprehension no one else could or would.

The problem is that Rambam always cautions us that we can never apprehend the essence of God. So what kind of apprehension are the fleeting flashes?

I will discuss this in upcoming posts.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Idea Behind Formulaic Prayer

In my last post, I discussed daily prayer, as presented by Rambam, until the time of Ezra. It was an entirely personal process that had a preset formula for content namely praise, supplication and thankful acknowledgment, however the exact wording was left to the individual. Although there was an obligation to pray on a daily basis, there was no limits set nor preset times for when this obligation was to be performed. When we returned from Bavel at the time of Ezra, a new reality had to be dealt with.

כיון שגלו ישראל בימי נבוכדנאצר הרשע, נתערבו בפרס ויוון
ושאר האומות, ונולדו להם בנים בארצות הגויים; ואותן הבנים נתבלבלה שפתם,
והייתה שפת כל אחד ואחד מעורבת מלשונות הרבה. וכיון שהיה מדבר, אינו יכול
לדבר כל צרכיו בלשון אחת אלא בשיבוש, שנאמר "ובניהם, חצי מדבר אשדודית,
ואינם מכירים, לדבר יהודית--וכלשון, עם ועם" (נחמיה יג,כד).
ומפני זה, כשהיה אחד מהן מתפלל, תקצר לשונו לשאול חפציו או
להגיד שבח הקדוש ברוך הוא בלשון הקודש, עד שיערב עימה לשונות אחרות.
וכיון שראה עזרא ובית דינו כך, עמדו ותיקנו להם שמונה עשרה ברכות על הסדר.

Once the Jewish people were exiled during the times of the evil Nebuchadnezzar, they mixed with the Persians, Greeks and other nationals, having children with them in the foreign lands. [Rambam is saying that intermarriage was common[1]]. Those children’s language became confused. The language of each of them became suffused with many idioms and when speaking, they would express themselves erroneously as it says, “Their children, half spoke the language of Ashdod and the language of those various people, not knowing how to speak Judean”. For that reason, when one of them would pray, his vocabulary was lacking and would not allow him to express himself to ask for his needs or to praise HKBH in the Holy Language (verbatim: Language that emanates from the Holy) without mixing in other idioms. When Ezra and his Beit Din saw this, they instituted for them the Eighteen Blessings in their proper order.

Rambam, in his Pirush Hamishna Sotah 7:1 on the Mishna that allows one to pray in any language, limits that latitude to public prayer. For private prayer, one should endeavor to use Hebrew[2]. He does not legislate this in Mishne Torah. The sense I get here is that the objection is for mixing languages. Be it as it may, the old process of spontaneous prayer became obsolete and a new way of performing the Mitzvah of Tefilah as Avodah had to be put in place. Clearly though, spontaneity is the preferred method and formulaic prayer was only instituted in reaction to circumstances.

It is important to always keep in mind that according to Rambam all Mitzvot that require action to perform them are concessions to our humanity. The preferred method of worship is intellectual without any physical expression. We as humans cannot reliably perform this type of worship and we need to have ways of expressing our intellectual apprehension and the resulting emotions and feelings that we experience. Leaving this to each one of us is dangerous as our imagination takes over and inevitably we will find ourselves worshipping in ways that will lead to idolatry and the belief in the supernatural. Practice has a way of reflecting back onto the intellect and misleading it. That is what happened to humanity historically and is the source of all the myths invented by early man. The Torah recognizes this human trait and strictly regulates how one can express these feelings. It however has to walk a fine line between regulation and the risk of killing off spontaneous worship. It is in this spirit that prayer was formulated as praise followed by supplication and finally acknowledgement. The wording however was left to the individual until that became problematic. Using languages other than Hebrew allows for nuances that compromise the proper way of thinking about God and may lead to erroneous theology. That is how Meiri[3] explains the Gemara Shabbat 12b that says that Mal’achei Hasharet, angels do not know Aramaic. Angels are a metaphor for the human intellect. Using an unknown language in worship distorts the meaning and eventually will reflect back onto the intellect. The Rabbis therefore felt that it was not enough to regulate the content in general terms but there was also a need to develop a formula that would address the praise section followed by a broad enough formula to cover many possibilities in the supplication section. This was done at the risk of dampening spontaneous expression. In fact deviating from the formula now is seen as an error. To be continued…

[1] Rav Kafieh in his notes on this Halacha disagrees. I find his argument apologetic.
[2] Based on the Gemara Sotah 33a.
[3] Chibur Hateshuvah page 510.