Tuesday, June 30, 2009

וְזוכֵר חַסְדֵי אָבות - He Remembers The Merit of The Patriarchs (Avot)

In a discussion of the reason for the Festival of Sukkot Rambam writes in MN 3:43 –

“We shall thereby [sitting in Sukkot] remember that this has once been our condition, "I made the children of Israel to dwell in Tabernacles…" (Lev. 23:43). From this we went over to dwell in richly ornamented houses, in the best and most fertile place on earth, by the kindness of God, and because of His promises to our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, inasmuch as they were perfect people in their opinions and in their moral character. For this too is one of the pivots of the Law, the belief that every benefit we have received and ever will receive of God, is owing to the merits of the Patriarchs, who "kept the way of the Lord to do justice and judgment" (Gen. 18:19).”

It is not only Sukkot but also daily, three times in our prayers, we remind ourselves about the merits of the Avot and we invoke it constantly. What is the meaning of this constant reminder? If we read this segment carefully, we see that Rambam refers again to that famous verse in Breishit 18:19 –

יט כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה
אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָהלעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט--לְמַעַן, הָבִיא יְהוָה עַל-אַבְרָהָם,
אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר, עָלָיו.

19 For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him.'

As I have explained many times, “keeping the way of the Lord” or in short emulating Him can only come about once we understand the role that God set out for us, humans, in the universe. And that can only happen if we understand our true reality and the world we live in. The Avot starting with Avraham were completely focused on creating a nation that will lead humanity in that quest for knowledge. What we are today, “every benefit we have received and ever will receive of God”, is a result of the path upon which the Avot have set us. We are not the same people we were then, our beliefs have evolved and changed, our science is totally different, but all that we are is an evolution of what was started by the Avot several millennia ago. We get lost in the mundane of the day to day and our goals become a little confused in our minds. Remembering and bringing the Avot and the goal they had in mind, back into focus constantly, reminds that we are supposed to seek truth and reality and try to understand it and our role in it as one more responsible component of God’s universe.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Science and Metaphysics Are TORAH.

Professor Israel Ta-Shema discovered a book, the Sefer Hamaskil, written in 1294 by Rabbi Shlomo Simcha of Troyes, a descendant of Rashi. In Da’at 32-33 (1994), Professor Gad Freudenthal wrote an article describing in detail the philosophy this author lays out and shows how it is based on a Stoic understanding of science and the cosmos. It is on this basis that R. Shlomo Simcha believed that the cosmic air is God. I am using this extreme case to illustrate how interconnected theology (Hashkafah) and the understanding of sciences are. It is only when we know the true makeup of the universe that we can know what God is not. A wrong notion of the universe will result in a fictitious sense of what God is.

The GRA (R. Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman - 1720-1797) held that science is the handmaiden of Torah for Torah cannot be properly understood without knowing the world. Rambam goes much further than that. In a side remark[1] in a discussion of why Pessach has seven days he writes –

For the Law always tends to assimilate itself to nature, perfecting the natural matters in a certain respect. For Nature is not endowed with thought and understanding, whereas the Law is the determining ruling and the governance of the deity, who grants the intellect to all its possessors. This, however, is not the theme of the present chapter: let us return to our subject.” (MN3:43)

The Torah is an active participant in nature – “perfecting the natural matters in a certain respect”. It participates by teaching people to understand their role in nature and act in ways that are necessary for the universe to continue existing. Humanity is not just a parasitic user of one of the worlds in a greater universe but an important element that has to play a role in the long-term survival of that universe. Torah is a very broad subject where the Mitzvot are only one component. Sciences, physics and metaphysics and what we call Torah, the written and oral Law, and Mitzvot all together make up what I will refer to as “TORAH”.

In Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:11 and 12 Rambam explains that Sciences and Metaphysics make up a part of Talmud which is a component of Limud Hatorah. (I am lazy to translate the whole segments so I will only do so with the sentences that prove my point).

וחייב לשלש את זמן למידתו: שליש בתורה שבכתב; ושליש בתורה שבעל פה; ושליש
יבין וישכיל אחרית דבר מראשיתו, ויוציא דבר מדבר, וידמה דבר לדבר, וידין
במידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן עד שיידע היאך הוא עיקר המידות והיאך יוציא האסור
והמותר וכיוצא בהן מדברים שלמד מפי השמועה--ועניין זה, הוא הנקרא תלמוד.

And this [analyzing the acquired information] is called Talmud.

And a little further –

כיצד: היה בעל אומנות--יהיה עוסק במלאכה שלוש שעות ביום, ובתורה תשע:
אותן התשע--קורא בשלוש מהן, בתורה שבכתב; ובשלוש, בתורה שבעל פה; ובשלוש,
מתבונן בדעתו להבין דבר מדבר. ודברי קבלה, בכלל תורה שבכתב הן; ופירושן,
בכלל תורה שבעל פה; והעניינות הנקראין פרדס, בכלל התלמוד.

And the matters referred to as Pardes are a part of Talmud.

So far, we see clearly that “Pardes” [literally an orchard] is a part of TORAH more specifically the section called Talmud. But what is Pardes?

In Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 4:13

וענייני ארבעה פרקים אלו שבחמש מצוות האלו--הם שחכמים הראשונים קוראין אותן פרדס, כמו שאמרו ארבעה נכנסו לפרדס

The subjects {physics and metaphysics] covered in the above four chapters [Yesodei Hatorah 1-4] that are included in these five Mitzvot [(i) Know God, (ii) not think that there is another god besides God, (iii) declare His uniqueness, (iv) to love Him, (v) to fear Him] are what the sages refer to as Pardes…

The first two chapters of Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah present Rambam’s understanding of metaphysics followed by two chapters that explain the world based on Aristotelian Physics. These subjects need to be known to adequately perform the five Mitzvot Asseh I enumerated[2].

Rambam then proceeds to put all this into its proper perspective.

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 explanation of what is forbidden and permissible and other such matters in the other [in addition to the five discussed here] 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[3]. 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.

The Rambam I am quoting here and its implications are extremely broad and a thorough discussion would require many posts and I hope one day to do that, but I want to stay on subject. Basically, we read that there are five Mitzvot Asseh that we are required to perform but cannot do so correctly before we have acquainted ourselves with “the forbidden and permissible”. It also tells us that “the forbidden and permissible” is a tool given to humankind for it to be able to develop and acquire Olam Haba[4]. The acquisition of Olam Haba however can be had only after acquainting oneself with the whole TORAH, which includes Pardes. Clearly, Pardes, namely science and metaphysics, are part of TORAH and in fact are a goal that one has to aspire to grow into being able to apprehend correctly by keeping the Mitzvot – “the forbidden and permissible”. The Mitzvot are thus a stepping-stone to prepare us to have a correct understanding of our world which is the ultimate goal. Sciences are not a handmaiden for Torah but the other way around; “the forbidden and permissible” – what we routinely refer to as Torah, are tools for us to learn the sciences and metaphysics so that we know the whole of TORAH.

[1] To appreciate the importance of side remarks in Moreh Hanevuchim see Rambam’s introduction – In studying each chapter, do not content yourself with comprehending its principal subject, but also to grasp every word mentioned therein, even if that word does not belong to the intention of the chapter.

[2] Although the Aristotelian model has been shown to be wrong, the approach that our world functions by scientific rules and is not controlled by supernatural forces is still very relevant.
[3] The discussion of Abaye and Rava is an example of the Halachik discourse which makes up “the explanation of what is forbidden and permissible”. Rambam is saying that one must first know the Halacha before entertaining theology.
[4] See Hilchot Teshuvah chapter 9 for how this works.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Response To Another Self-Hating Jew.

This is a letter written by a friend to the New York Times regarding Tony Judt's Op Ed piece this past Monday here.

Jun 2009 12:28:28 +0000 (UTC)
Subject: Tony Judt's "Fictions on the

To the Editor:

Tony Judt's nostalgia for the kibbutzim of the sixties and judgment of American-Israeli relations was contradicted by a historical fact that he failed to mention.

Article 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which explicitly prohibits the annexation of land consequent to the use of force, and Article 2 (4) of the United Nations Charter that reaffirms it restated the ancient legal principle that one should not profit by committing a crime or injustice.It applied to Pompey and the Roman legions forceful and unjust occupation of the Jewish Kingdom for the Roman Empire two thousand years before it applied to contemporary Israeli policies and American-Israeli relations.

Israel's aggressive policies to reclaim the lands that belonged to the Tribes of Israel, the Second Jewish Commonwealth, and the Jewish Kingdom are facts that Judt conveniently forgot in his judgment of "Fictions on the Ground." The rule of law and reason is an ideal that is contradicted at peril to the moral political goals of contemporary nations that are based on it. It was violated in ancient times and is violated at present by those who judge Israel for wanting it upheld in interfaith and international relations.

Rabbi Selwyn G. Geller
Ch. Col. USAF (Ret.)
1388 Cabernet Court
Toms River, NJ

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Goal of the Torah and The Mitzvot.

This series of posts which I started back in April here was inspired by questions about why we keep the Torah and Mitzvot and the restrictions that come with it. I have shown that Rambam sees human existence is a part of the whole of existence and that it has a special role to play in that whole. The Torah and Mitzvot therefore are seen as a tool to guide humanity in understanding and fulfilling that role correctly. If we adopt this perspective, I believe that the religious enterprise takes on a realistic, practical and important role in our life. This understanding of a role for humanity in creation, crystallized in my mind while I was working on my article on Divine Providence and subsequently on the article on idolatry both published in Hakirah here and here. In that first article I wrote -

The paradigm of people who have tapped into Divine Providence and lived their lives fully in accordance with their apprehension, are Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and Moshe (Yehoshua is also included in one quote). Their goals were broad in the sense that they influenced as many as they could during their lifetime. They were also acting with a long-term outlook in the sense that they were creating a nation that has as its goal the full development of the human intellect. It also has as its mission to spread that goal across humanity.

Consider how the action of Divine Providence is described in reference to every incident in the lives of the patriarchs, in their various activities and even in their acquisition of property and what they were promised in consequence of providence accompanying them.(MN3:18)

I think these four reached that high degree of perfection in their relation to God, and enjoyed the continual presence of Divine Providence, even in their endeavors to increase their property, feeding the flock, toiling in the field, or managing the house, only because in all these things their end and aim was to approach God as much as possible. It was the chief aim of their whole life to create a people that should know and worship God. (MN3:51)”

As an introduction to the Torah and the Mitzvot that come with it, the Torah tells the story of the Patriarchs – the Avot – and sets them out as paradigms of the type of people it intends to develop with the ultimate goal that the whole of humanity will follow in their footsteps. I believe I have convincingly shown in many of my posts on this blog that “to know God and worship Him”, means to get to know our existence and the processes that give it continuity. God can only be known through the results of His actions and that is the universe we live in. It is this way of thinking that fosters scientific advances and knowledge. I always see Newton as the prime example of how science advances because the underlying quest was God – see my post here, here, here and here. Not all scientists who discover new insights and revolutionize human knowledge follow Newton’s example but ultimately it is the quest for God – the Unique God – and spurning the myths of idolatry that allowed for scientific advances. If we look at the Avot from this perspective, it becomes clear that they were struggling to break the hold that these idolatrous myths had over humanity. It is only through the correct understanding of the world that humanity will be able to fulfill its intended role and play a role in its survival which is summarized in these verses -

כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ

And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and conquer it.

Conquering the earth is the ultimate goal, to take control of the environment and insure its eternal continuity, the intended “very good” of creation.

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד

And God saw every thing that He had made, and behold it was very good.

Thus, when we say that the Avot’s main goal was to “create a people that should know and worship God” we are saying that they wanted to bring about a people that would see reality as it is. When the Rabbis extol Avraham’s proselytizing efforts, they are broadening his goal to the whole of humanity. In other words, the intent is to have all of humanity focused on understanding reality and the Jewish people as the conduit for this teaching.

The problem is that this idea of understanding reality and knowing how to act responsibly to fulfill humanity’s role is not an easy thing to do. It is especially difficult when people have to make decisions and act on matters that affect things in the future sometimes several lifetimes in the future. These decisions cannot always be arrived at objectively. I understand the description the Torah gives of Yaakov’s doubts at every major decision in his life as an example of this problem. Yaakov always questioned whether his decision to join Lavan at the beginning of his life journey or to join Yosef at the end of it was correct. What effect would these decisions have long term on his descendants and how will they affect his goal of creating a God worshipping people?

The Torah teaches us to reject the world of fantasy that idolatry promotes. It teaches to look at the world realistically knowing that it exists and operates within a system of wisdom and science, not spirits and other such fantasies. It also regulates our behavior training us to think about others not just of our narcissistic needs. It wants us to take control of our natural urges and channel them into productive areas. It is only after we become perfected human beings that we can trust our decision making to be unbiased and realistic.

The Torah’s goal of developing a perfect human being is rooted in reality. It realizes that the goal will take millennia to accomplish, that it is a developmental process that will not always go in a straight line. It is a long and incremental process with many twists along the way. It also has start from the ground up. A society that is peaceful and prosperous is needed to allow for intellectual growth.

The general object of the Law is twofold: the well-being of the soul and the well-being of the body… The well-being of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This we can attain in two ways: first by removing all violence from our midst: that is to say, that we do not do every one as he pleases, desires, and is able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes towards the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state… For it has already been found that man has a double perfection: the first perfection is that of the body, and the second perfection is that of the soul… It is clear that the second and superior kind of perfection can only be attained when the first perfection has been acquired; for a person that is suffering from great hunger, thirst, heat, or cold, cannot grasp an idea even if communicated by others, much less can he arrive at it by his own reasoning… The true Law, which as we said is one, and beside which there is no other Law, viz., the Law of our teacher Moses, has for its purpose to give us the twofold perfection. It aims first at the establishment of good mutual relations among men by removing injustice and creating the noblest feelings. In this way, the people in every land are enabled to stay and continue in one condition, and every one can acquire his first perfection. Secondly, it seeks to train us in faith, and to impart correct and true opinions when the intellect is sufficiently developed.” (MN 3:27)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Torah and its Mitzvot and the Role of Humanity in Creation.

In this previous post, we discussed Rambam’s definition of the two words Chesed and Tzedakah. He defines the third word in the verse in Yirmyahu, Mishpat, in very few words –

The noun Mishpat, it means judgment concerning what ought to be done to one who is judged, whether in the way of conferring a benefit or a punishment.” (MN3:53)

Rambam in his discussion of Divine Providence earlier in the Moreh, spent many chapters explaining the system of cause and effect through which the world functions. All systems that we refer to as physics, biology, chemistry and general sciences operate under this law of cause and effect. It also extends to human behavior where the underlying “science” is freedom of choice. How a person chooses to act has an effect on not only him but also all those he affects by his actions through time and even generations. That system is what the prophets call Mishpat – judgment. [For a thorough treatment of the subject, see my article Divine Providence - Goals, Hopes and Fears כי כל דרכיו משפט ].

The words חֶסֶד מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה thus encompass all of creation. Chesed is how we interpret existence per se, Tzedakah is how we refer to the availability of the necessary resources to each being according to its capacity to use them and Mishpat is the system that we operate under that brings about continuity.

Accordingly, He is described as Chasid [one possessing loving-kindness] because He has brought the whole into being; as Tzaddik [righteous] because of His mercy towards the weak – I refer to the governance of the living being by the means of its forces; and as Shofet - judge because of the occurrence in the world of relative good things and great calamities, necessitated by judgment that is consequent upon wisdom.” (MN 3:53)

We are commanded to emulate God. Translating these three divine attributes into human actions is not an easy task. As I discussed earlier, the first one, Chesed – perfect altruism is most difficult. If everything we do has a cause and effect, it is very difficult to find ways to act that do not affect us personally. To take oneself out of the equation when deciding on an action is very difficult. It requires a really perfected human being. The Torah sets out a list of Mitzvot that are meant to train us in perfecting this trait and that fall under the general rubric of Gemilut Chassadim.

The fourth class includes precepts relating to charity, loans, gifts, and the like, as for instance estimations and anathemas, the laws concerning loans and slaves, and all the laws enumerated in the book of Zeraim.” (MN3:35)

But that alone is not enough. Behavior modification works to an extent but there also is a need to change the way we think. To understand morality as it affects others – Tzedakah – we need to work towards containing our natural narcissisms. We have to get a correct ontological understanding of our existence to be able to act responsibly within Mishpat – the system of cause and effect under which we live. The decision how to act responsibly in emulating God and play our role in creation is not always clear and reached objectively. Subjectivity plays a great role in that decision process and requires perfection for it not to be biased and slanted towards narcissism.

It now starts to become clear that humanity needed to abandon the myths of ancient times which clouded the way the world was looked at. More than that humanity needed to be directed towards understanding its role and obligations as part of the universe created by God. That is the goal of Judaism and the Mitzvot of the Torah. It is an all-encompassing system that affects every aspect of life. It makes one think, take stock and learn to do things with purpose. Its goal is not just to change us, the Jewish people, but through us the whole of humanity. That is the concept of Yemot Hamashiach – the messianic Era. Rambam in Hilchot Melachim Umilchamotehem 11:11 writes -

וכל הדברים האלו של ישוע הנוצרי, ושל זה הישמעאלי שעמד אחריו--אינן אלא
ליישר דרך למלך המשיח, ולתקן את העולם כולו לעבוד את ה' ביחד "

All these matters of Jesus the Christian and this Ishmaelite, who followed after him, are only to prepare the way for the Messianic king and to perfect the whole world to serve God in unity.

Rambam sees what we call western culture as a stepping stone in the process of leading humanity to fulfill its role – serve God by fulfilling the “very good” that He saw when He created man –

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד

And God saw every thing that He made and behold it was very good.

Clearly, this approach towards the reason for Mitzvot sees them as a tool rather than an end in itself. There is however a shift where they are no longer just a tool but become intrinsically Avodat Hashem – service of God. I will leave that for a different discussion.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

For Israel is not widowed, nor Judah, of his God, - כִּי לֹא-אַלְמָן יִשְׂרָאֵל וִיהוּדָה, מֵאֱלֹהָיו- (Yirmyahu 51:5)

I spent a few days in Milan, Italy last week. This was not my first trip there but came after a hiatus of several years. I was advised by a local acquaintance to stay at the Marriott which is close to the Jewish neighborhood and that I would find minyanim for Shacharit and Mincha - Maariv daily at Josef Tehillot - the Lebanese shul. I was taken completely by surprise. The first day we came in for Mincha and found a beit hamidrash with talmidei chachamim sitting in groups learning with members of the community gemara be'iyun. Next morning at 6:30AM we came in for Shacharit and two members of the community were discussing in Italian the difference between a kinyan and chazaka. Apparently about ten years ago a Kolel was started named after the Safra family. It has flourished into a community of Jews who take their religion seriously. It was extremely heart warming to see Torah flourish in Italy. Every time I go there and read the names of the towns on the highway signs takes me back to those times when so much Torah came from that part of Europe - Fano, Cremona, Venezia, Mantua, Trani etc...

Jewish life in general seems to have come back to life in Milan. We frequented a Kosher restaurant nearby, Re Solomone, which was well patronized by the locals which is always a sign of a healthy community that does not stray to the more appealing non-kosher offerings, especially the famed Italian food. The food was in fact very tasty though leaning more to the middle eastern than Italian.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Man Emulating God- Righteousness and Loving-Kindness

As discussed in the previous post, Rambam understands the verse in Yirmyahu 9:23

כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, עֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה בָּאָרֶץ
כִּי-בְאֵלֶּה חָפַצְתִּי, נְאֻם-יְהוָה

…that I am the LORD who exercises loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD

to be an admonition for man to emulate God by doing loving-kindness, judgment and righteousness. Rambam spends a whole chapter, MN 3:53, defining these three words - חֶסֶד מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה - how they relate to God’s actions and consequently how to emulate Him.

Rambam understands the word חֶסֶד to mean –

In the prophetic writings, the term Chesed occurs mostly in the sense of showing kindness to those who have no claim to it whatever. For this reason, every benefit that comes from Him is called Chesed: "I will make mention of the loving-kindness [Chasdei] of the Lord" (Isa. 63:7). Hence, this reality as a whole – I mean that He has brought it into being – is Chesed.” (MN 3:53)

Chesed as defined here would be better translated as “perfect altruism”. “Perfect” because in general, human altruism contains an element of self-interest and self-satisfaction while in the case of God, that is not possible for there are no feelings or emotions in a transcendental entity. We see this altruism in the act of Creation in general, not necessarily only as related to human existence. The simple existence of our reality is a mystery that can only be understood as “perfect altruism” as far as God is concerned. For humans to emulate God in this way is quite difficult if not impossible. Note that when God describes the greatness of Avraham who teaches his descendants to emulate God, he ignores Chesed.

יט כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה
אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה
לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט

19 For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice. (Breishit 18:19)

Apparently, perfect altruism cannot be transmitted but must be self-taught and can only be properly understood once one reaches stages of great perfection, where self-interest is completely sublimated.

The word צְדָקָה is defined as righteousness and as a derivative of justice.

“The word Tzedakah is derived from Tzeddek which means justice. Justice is the granting to everyone who has a right to something that which he has a right to, and giving to every being that which corresponds to his merits.” (ibid)

While Chesed dealt with existence per se, Tzedakah deals with how things are being run especially as it relates to sentient entities. Justice comes in two forms: payment of a debt or granting a merited reward. Repaying an obligation is justice and rewarding someone for a good deed is justice too. As obligation is not conceivable as far as God is concerned therefore, justice can only be from the perspective of the recipient receiving what he merits. Even though etymologically Tzedakah should apply to both kinds of justice, it is not used by the prophets, when performed by men in the fulfillment of an obligation.

“In the books of the prophets, however, the expression Tzedakah is not used in the first sense, and does not apply to the payment of what we owe to others. When we therefore give the hired laborer his wages, or pay a debt, we do not perform an act of Tzedakah.” (ibid)

When we speak about a person getting what he naturally merits, from his perspective justice was done to him. He therefore ascribes justice to God who put this system in place where people get what they merit. When we help someone that we owe nothing to, why is that seen as us doing justice? We are not consciously doing it because it is just, but because we have a moral obligation to help the needy. The recipient of our help may perceive it as just and well deserved but are we consciously doing justice?

“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… For when you walk in the way of the moral virtues you do justice unto your rational soul, giving her the due that is her right”. (ibid)

As I discussed many times, human intelligence when used exclusively for self-survival is no different from any animal trait. Just like a gazelle can run fast to help it survive so too can man think to help himself. It is when humans use their intelligence for the furtherance of all of existence, only then do they fully use their potential. This is the basis of morality. That is why moral thinking and behavior does justice to the potential that intelligence affords to us. This concept is the foundation of Avraham Avinu’s teachings. Avraham Avinu as he was developing his understanding of God and how he runs the world, understood that to lead humanity to the fulfillment of its role in creation, he needed to create a core of people around which this ideology can be developed and spread.

ה וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה, וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּט-נָא
הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים--אִם-תּוּכַל, לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם
וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ.

5 And He brought him forth abroad, and said: 'Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them'; and He said unto him: 'So shall your seed be.'

ו וְהֶאֱמִן, בַּיהוָה; וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ, צְדָקָה.

6 And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness. (Breishit 15:5-6)

This understanding and undertaking of Avraham Avinu was seen as him doing justice to his rational self.

“And because every moral virtue is called Tzedakah, it says, and he believed in the Lord, and it was accounted for him as Tzedakah. (Breishit 15:6). I refer to the virtue of faith.” (ibid)

I want to point out that the idea of doing Tzedakah – Justice in this sense is rather subjective and it is not easy to act with confidence that one is doing the right thing especially as was the case with Avraham Avinu who was trying to influence many generations in the future. There has to be some form of conditioning and training before one can learn how to act correctly along these lines. Narcissism and personal bias have to be curbed and kept under control. Let us keep this in mind as we move along.

I will address the word Mishpat in the next post on this subject.