Monday, April 27, 2009

Justice and Altruism - Tzeddek and Tzedakah

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a comment on my previous post referred to Rambam in MN 3:53 and over Shabbat I had the opportunity to read it again carefully and as usual I encountered new insights. Here is my understanding of that segment. As the language is crucial, I will use Professor Schwartz Hebrew version and Friedlander’s English translation with edits from the Pines edition where I think it is necessary.

In this chapter, Rambam is defining three terms, Chesed, Tzedakah and Mishpat which are going to be the central theme of the next chapter based on a verse in Yirmyahu 9:22-23. In this post, I will only address Rambam’s definition of Tzedakah.

הביטוי צדקה גזור מן צדק, והוא "אלעדל
צדק הוא לספק לכל מי שיש לו זכות את מה שמגיע לו, ולתת לכל נמצא מן הנמצאים בהתאם למה שהוא ראוי לו

“The term Tzedakah is derived from Tzeddek, which means justice. Justice denotes the act of granting to every one who has a right to something, that which he has a right to and giving to every being that which corresponds to his merits.”

Rambam is giving two definitions for the word Tzedakah. Justice can mean giving something that one owes someone such as repaying an obligation. It also could mean giving someone what is due him not because he did something for you but because he deserves it.

אך בספרי הנבואה, החובות המוטלות עליך כלפי זולתך - כאשר קיימת אותן –
אינן קרויות צדקה בהתאם למשמעות הראשונה, מפני שאם אתה משלם לשׂכיר את
שׂכרו או פורע את חובך אין זה נקרא צדקה

“But in the books of the prophets, fulfilling the duties imposed upon you with regard to others is not called Tzedakah in conformity with the first sense. When we therefore give the hired laborer his wages, or pay a debt, this is not called Tzedakah”.

The word Tzeddek, which is the root of Tzedakah, means justice and is used generally in the first sense. The word Tzedakah however is only used by the prophets in the second sense where there is no interpersonal obligation to pay or make good.

אבל החובות המוטלות עליך כלפי זולתך בגלל מידת אופי טובה, כגון איחוי
שִברו של כל בעל שבר, הן קרויות צדקה. לכן אמר על החזרת הפיקדון: ולך תהיה
צדקה (דברים כ"ד, 13), מפני שכאשר אתה נוהג מנהג מידות האופי הטובות, אתה
נוהג בצדק כלפי נפשך המדברת7,
מפני שאתה נותן לה את המגיע לה

On the other hand, the fulfilling of duties with regard to others imposed upon you on account of moral virtue, such as remedying the injuries of all those who are injured, is called Tzedakah. Therefore, it says with reference to the returning of a pledge: And it shall be Tzedakah unto you. For when you walk in the way of moral virtue, you do justice unto your rational soul [nefesh], giving her the due that is her right.”

The verses Rambam is referring to in Devarim 24:12-13 are –

יב וְאִם-אִישׁ עָנִי, הוּא--לֹא תִשְׁכַּב, בַּעֲבֹטוֹ.

12 And if he be a poor man, you shall not sleep with his pledge;

יג הָשֵׁב תָּשִׁיב לוֹ אֶת-הַעֲבוֹט כְּבוֹא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ
, וְשָׁכַב בְּשַׂלְמָתוֹ וּבֵרְכֶךָּ; וּלְךָ תִּהְיֶה צְדָקָה, לִפְנֵי
יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ

13 You shall surely restore to him the pledge when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his garment, and bless you; and it shall be Tzedakah unto you before the LORD thy God.

One has a debt to collect from a poor man and receives from him a household object to hold until payment is made. One must make sure, by law, that if it is an object that the poor man requires at night, for example a pillow, it must be returned to him before nightfall. The same would apply for an object that he needs for his work during the day, for example, a tool. It being an obligatory law, it is surprising that it is referred to as Tzedakah when Rambam has just told us that in the books of the prophets it is not used when there is an interpersonal obligation. Furthermore, the way it is presented, “and it shall be Tzedakah unto you”, rather than doing what is right unto the poor man, is puzzling.

Rambam explains that this Mitzvah, besides the interpersonal and obligatory component, has an additional purpose namely self-improvement. Developing our altruistic traits and suppressing our narcissistic tendencies affects our rational soul letting it see clearly how God’s ways are with His creation and allows us to emulate them. Our personal tendencies affect the way we think and cloud our perception of reality. That is also the meaning of “before the LORD thy God”. In the preceding chapter, MN 3:52 Rambam writes:

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.”

When we “walk in the way of moral virtue” and “do justice unto your rational soul”, we are standing before HKBH and give our nefesh “the due that is her right”.

Rambam addresses another two verses in the same context. I will address that later in this series of posts, as I develop the theme further. I also plan to develop further altruism in the context of emulating God.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Natural Morality

Before I continue with the discussion about purpose and goals, I would like to explain my statement in the last post “He makes it clear that this proper behavior is not limited to Torah and Mitzvot but is moral behavior universally accepted by all philosophers”. This is extremely important because many hold that morality and ethics have no meaning without Torah.

I want to focus here on the issue of morality only and address the issue of ethics at another time. For this post, I define morals as setting limits to self-indulgence. In the introduction to Pirush Hamishna, I quoted in my earlier post, Rambam writes:

רצוני לומר: "החכמה
לצייר בשכלו אמיתות הדברים כפי שהם עליו, ולהשיג כל מה שאפשר לאדם להשיגו
ו"המעשה" - הוא תיקון ויישור הדברים הטבעיים, ושלא יהיה שטוף בתענוגים,
ושלא ייקח מהם אלא מה שיהיה בו תיקון גופו ותיקון מידותיו כולן

When I say [a perfected man is one who has] “knowledge” I mean one who can picture in his mind the reality of all things as they are and to apprehend everything a man can[1]. “Action” means: (i) - The perfection of natural things [using the scientific knowledge acquired to make things better]. (ii) - Not indulging in physical pleasures. One should not indulge in them more than the necessary for bodily needs. (iii) – Perfecting all of one’s traits.

But then Rambam surprisingly adds -

וזה הדבר לא נודע מאת הנביאים בלבד, אבל חכמי האומות החולפות, ואשר לא
ראו הנביאים ולא שמעו חכמתם, כבר ידעו גם הם, שאין אדם שלם, אלא כשיהיה
כולל החכמה והמעשה. ודי לך בדברי החכם המפורסם בפילוסופיה שאמר: "חפץ האל
ממנו להיות נבונים-חסידים". שהאדם כשיהיה חכם ונבון, אבל מבקש תאוות –
אינו חכם על האמת; שתחילת החכמה מחייבת, שלא ייקח אדם ממעדנים הגופניים
אלא מה שיש בו תיקון צורך גופו.

This is not something we were taught only by the prophets. The wise of the ancient nations, who never saw prophets nor heard their wisdom, already knew that a person is not complete unless he encompasses knowledge and action. The philosopher’s statement “God wants us to be intelligent and righteous” says it all; for a man who is wise and intelligent but a pleasure seeker is not truly wise. The basic premises of wisdom compel a person to not indulge in physical pleasures more than the basic needs of his body.

There is a natural morality that all wise men acknowledge exists. A narcissistic person, whose only goal in life is to indulge in as much pleasure as possible, even if that person is the greatest genius and has acquired all knowledge, is not a perfect human being. Knowledge is a very powerful tool and narcissism is the underlying cause for misusing that power, allowing it to be used destructively. Setting limits to self-interest and developing traits that promote altruistic behavior is crucial. The problem is that judging if the behavior promoted by knowledge is correct is subjective and we must develop criteria that allow us to measure it objectively.

I quote from Rav Kook’s recent sefer, Shemona Kevatzim (page 21) –

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 לכלל ולפרט ועל פי השפעתה מתמעט כח הפועל ההוא יראת שמים כזאת היא יראה פסולה

Fear of heaven (Yra’at Shamayim) may not supersede a man’s natural morals, for in that case it is not pure Yra’at Shamayim. Pure YS is recognizable as such when the natural morality that is implanted in the correct [proper] nature of man is elevated by it to levels that are higher than it would be without it. A hypothetical YS that without its influence on life, there would be a stronger push to do good by bringing to fruition things that contribute to the welfare of the public and the individual, while under its [YS] influence this would be diminished, such a YS is wrong [false].

Yra’at Shamayim, a subjective by-product of knowledge, can be narcissistic too, becoming counter-productive. To judge its legitimacy we must look at the practical results thereof. So too must we judge knowledge. If it causes one to act in ways that enhance the public and the individual, that knowledge is legitimate. Otherwise, that person is “not truly wise”. This brings us back to the subject of purpose and goals.

[1] It is worthwhile to note the language that gives a sense of limitation to what a man can know.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Human Aspirations - Metaphysical Speculations Lead to Actions -

I am sure that I have already touched on what I am about to write at different times on this blog but I do not think that I have addressed it comprehensively and systematically. The question that I want to address is what is the purpose of this whole enterprise of Torah and Jewish religion? Why do we keep Mitzvot? Why do we live with so many restrictions? Why do we accept them and what do we hope to accomplish? As I have discussed many times, our lifestyle, our learning Torah to know how to implement the required lifestyle are all tools to bring us to know HKBH. Why is it though so important to know Him? Why not just accept an existential philosophy where we live here our few years on earth and we strive to make them as pleasant and happy as possible? If answering the existential questions makes one happy, make it into a voluntary hobby. Why establish this quest as our whole raison d’etre with all the responsibilities and restrictions that come with it? In fact, there are many ethical and good people who live with an existential life philosophy and they are very happy. Why complicate our lives?

Here is the question from the mouth of the prophet Malachi (3:14)

יד אֲמַרְתֶּם, שָׁוְא עֲבֹד אֱלֹהִים
; וּמַה-בֶּצַע, כִּי שָׁמַרְנוּ מִשְׁמַרְתּוֹ, וְכִי הָלַכְנוּ
קְדֹרַנִּית, מִפְּנֵי יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת

14 You have said, 'It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge, and that we have walked mournfully because of the LORD of hosts?

Although Malachi is asking the question in a much narrower context but it fits the broader question I am posing.

Rambam starting with his early works of Pirush Hamishna followed by Mishne Torah and Moreh Hanevuchim addresses this question in different ways and from different perspectives culminating with the last few exhilarating and exciting chapters of MN. There is also disagreement among Rambam’s students, both classical traditional commentators as well as among the more modern scholars, what his position on the final goal is. I will try to trace Rambam’s discussion of the subject and the different ways of understanding him and demonstrate what I believe to be his position, in a series of upcoming posts.

Right at the beginning of his first major work, the Pirush Hamishna, in the introduction, in a discussion about the purpose of existence, Rambam writes:

והאדם קודם שישכיל וידע, הוא נחשב כבהמה, ולא נבדל משאר מיני החיות אלא
בהגיון: רצוני לומר: בהגיון שהוא מציר לנפשו המושכלות. והנכבד שבמושכלות –
לציר לנפשו אחדות הקדוש ברוך-הוא, וכל-הנלווה לעניין ההוא מהאלוהיות. ששאר
החכמות אינן אלא להרגילו בהן עד שיגיע לדעת החכמה האלוהית

And a man before he learns and knows is considered as an animal, as intelligence is the only attribute that differentiates man from other living species. By intelligence, I refer to his ability for abstract thought. The most advanced abstract thinking is to depict in one’s mind God’s uniqueness and all the metaphysical knowledge that accompanies it, for all other knowledge [science] is only a tool to prepare one for metaphysical knowledge.

Rambam then continues the discussion by adding that this knowledge must be accompanied by balanced behavior where a person limits his quest for physical pleasures. He makes it clear that this proper behavior is not limited to Torah and Mitzvot but is moral behavior universally accepted by all philosophers. He then makes a surprising statement. Although an ignoramus can never be a perfect person even if his behavior is balanced, he is preferable to a misbehaving savant.

שהאדם כשיהיה חכם ונבון, אבל מבקש תאוות - אינו חכם על האמת; שתחילת החכמה
מחייבת, שלא ייקח אדם ממעדנים הגופניים אלא מה שיש בו תיקון צורך גופו

For a man who is wise and smart but a pleasure seeker is not truly wise. The basic premises of wisdom compel a person to not indulge in physical pleasures more than the basic needs of his body…

וכן אם יהיה האדם כמו כן עובד ונזיר ומרחיק המעדנים - לבד ממה שיצטרך
לתיקון גופו - והולך במנהגים הטבעיים כולם על קו המישור, ומחזיק בנועם
המידות כולן, אבל אין לו חכמה - גם זה חסר השלמות, אבל הוא יותר שלם מן
הראשון. מפני שמעשיו אלה אינם מתוך ידיעה ברורה והכרה יסודית

And so too, if a man is God fearing, ascetic and limits his pleasures to his physical needs, naturally following a balanced path with good traits, but is an ignoramus, though at a higher level than the first [the wise satyr],he lacks perfection. That is so because he acts without clear and deep knowledge.

If we think about this carefully, we face a paradox. On the one hand, Rambam tells us that metaphysical abstract thought is the ultimate goal of a human being but he also tells us that it must be accompanied by resulting proper behavior and actions. How does metaphysical speculation lead to “clear and deep knowledge” of balanced behavior? What relationship does morality which is another way of describing balanced behavior have with metaphysics?

Rambam, at the outset of his discussion of this important issue already hints at the important discussion he has at the end of his last major work, the Moreh Hanevuchim. Metaphysical speculation’s ultimate goal is not pure intellectual speculation but, as we will see, to know how to act responsibly. It is a task that humanity must perform if it is to play its intended role in existence. But we need to clarify some basic issues before we can deal with that in depth.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Standing In Front Of God.

כיצד היא הכוונה--שיפנה ליבו מכל המחשבות, ויראה עצמו כאילו הוא עומד לפני השכינה

Where does one direct his attention [during Shemona Esreh]? He should clear his mind from all [other] thoughts and picture himself as if he is standing in front of the Shechinah. (Rambam Hil Tefilah 4:16)

What is the meaning of “standing in front of the Shechinah”?

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 were. The king that cleaves to us and embraces us is the Intellect that overflows towards us, and forms the link between God and us. We perceive God by means of that light that He sends down unto us…” (MN 3:52)

We use our minds in our search for God by trying to understand the world we live in of which He is its First Cause. When we do that, we connect with and absorb into our minds the “knowledge” that is out there and underlies our existence. That “knowledge” is the closest link we, humans, can have with God. It is the linkage between the transcendental and the physical. When we say we are in the presence of God, we are saying that our minds are speculating about our existence and the causes that brought it about all the way back up the chain of cause and effect that ends, or rather begins with God, the First Cause. That awareness of His existence is what we refer to metaphorically as Shechinah. The emotions of awe and fear that we feel as a result of this process are similar to the emotions we would feel were we to stand in front of a monarch that has our existence in his hands. But there is more.

וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן, מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו, ויירא ויפחד ויידע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה, עומד בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות

When he thinks about these matters [physics and metaphysical speculation], he immediately steps back [awed], and he is fearful and scared knowing that he is a small lowly and obscure creature with a deficient and small mind, who stands in front of the perfect mind. (Hil Yesodei Hatorah 2:2)

Our insignificance in contrast with all the knowledge and wisdom that goes into our own existence is glaring and at the same time makes us aware of the greatness of the One who is the cause of all that. Whenever we think about this, we are standing in front of God. It is the frame of mind that we must have when praying.