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.

1 comment:

  1. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the posts on this vitally important topic. Thank you!