Friday, August 07, 2009

A Personal Reflection On Why I Am A Jew.

I have been learning Rambam’s thought for many years now. I find his approach to Judaism extremely attractive and it has enhanced my innerand daily life tremendously. It is not Rambam’s supposed extreme rationalism as I am not a cold rationalist devoid of emotions and neither is Rambam. On the contrary, one has only to read the last chapters in Moreh Hanevuchim, the periodic emotional outbursts in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah and even more in Hilchot Teshuvah to appreciate the great internal fire that was burning inside the great man and Tzaddik. David Blumenthal even claims that Rambam had a mystical bend to him. I believe he misinterprets Rambam in some of the proofs he uses to make his point but there certainly is some truth to it. So why do I pick Rambam’s approach over others, say Ramban and his predecessor the Kuzari, Rabbeinu Sa’adyah, R. Chasdai Crescas and others?

It has to do with how Rambam understands the relationship of man to God. One of the great problems the traditional or to be more accurate, popular approach to religion has, is that it is seen as fantasy that makes people feel good rather than being the truth. When I am told that I have to believe in God, that He controls everything, directs everything that happens, that by doing Mitzvot I induce Him to make good things happen to me and to others and if they do not happen it is because I did not do the Mitzvah well enough, I get an urge to become an atheist. I see it as an escape for the helplessness we feel in our attempt to control our lives, as the opiate needed to calm our insecurities. I see prayer for the sick, Tehilim, Mi Sheberach et al, the way it is popularly understood, in the same vein. It is this distorted thinking, distorted in my view though it may work for others, that leads to the obnoxious and ridiculous explanation of the holocaust as punishment for lack of religiosity between the wars. It is this type of thinking that leads to the rejection of the State of Israel and all the nonsense we observe in our community including the latest Chilulei Hashem that keep on surfacing endlessly and that are so painful and difficult to observe. Unfortunately, these events are not surprising. The popular understanding of religion, unfortunately encouraged by our leaders, is responsible for the big discrepancy between the religious and ethical life of so many of our coreligionists. After all if I am zealous enough by observing every Chumra, I daven thrice daily, say a long Shemona Esreh and yell out Amen Yehei Shmei Raba with full force etc…, God must look at me with favor and no bad can befall me even if I steal, rob etc… especially from a goy! Isn’t there a mitzvah of Lo Techanem in their case?

This thinking is not exclusive to Judaism; it is the norm in all religions. The Richard Dawkins of this world have therefore a very good argument in their rejection of religion, seeing it as anti-science and a pure fantasy developed by fertile imaginations. According to my understanding of Rambam, he probably would agree (I am saying this tongue in cheek – it would be a travesty to place him in the same camp as Dawkins). Rambam’s understanding of Judaism is that it came into existence to reject and counter this kind of religion. Idolatry saw the gods as entities that when treated right would serve humankind. Give them the proper bribe and in return, your crops will flourish, sicknesses will be healed and all good things would happen. Judaism teaches that God is not in man’s service. Man is obligated to serve God. (See the second Parsha of Shema). Religion is the search for an answer to the ultimate existential questions, why are we here? Is there a meaning to our existence? Does humankind have a role to play in the whole of existence? If yes, what is it? What is good and bad? What is right and wrong? How do I, an individual, do what is right? What is our obligation to ourselves, to our surroundings, to the whole of existence and ultimately to God? In short, what is the ultimate Truth?

These questions can only be answered if we understand our environment and our part in it, how we came into existence, whether our existence is just there or was brought into being, if the latter, what entity was responsible for that and if yes, try to conceptualize that entity in the only way possible namely what He is not. The problem is that after answering the questions about our environment by learning the empirical sciences that describe how things work, the questions we confront do not have easy answers. There are no hard facts that can demonstrate what existed the split second before the Big Bang, the currently accepted theory of how things came into being, how the event was triggered, why at that moment or who was responsible for it. These questions are beyond physics and science. They belong to the realm of metaphysics which some will refer to as pseudo science. Notwithstanding these difficulties, how we answer these questions is very important because they will have a major influence on how we lead our life and our whole raison d’etre. How does one approach this without going off into a world of fantasy?

The central Mitzvah in Judaism is Talmud Torah, the learning of Torah. Torah in Rambam’s thought is not limited to religious texts and halachot but it includes all sciences and knowledge about our existence. Note the emphasis on the word Talmud – “learning”. There is a lifelong obligation of constantly “learning”, in other words, searching. The Rav Z”L has a beautiful shiur on tape in Yiddish where he defines Avraham Avinu as the ultimate searcher. He was searching for HKBH, for Truth, and found it by recognizing God, the definition of Truth. The Torah is full of admonitions to search. We just heard one of those admonitions in last week’s Parsha –

כט וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמָצָאתָ: כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ. 29

But from there you will seek the LORD your God; and you will find Him, if you search after Him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim 4:29)

This is not only an individual’s lifelong search but multi-generational throughout human history. That is why the concept of Yemot Hamashiach is so important in Judaism and is one of its dogmas. It is a paradigm for this continuous search and what it hopes to accomplish. Unlike other Rishonim who accepted Kabbalah, Rambam sets strict limits to the human ability to acquire knowledge. We can only know the physical world we live in and we can extrapolate back to a time after things came into existence. Before then and how the physical relates to the transcendental, the whole construct of the Mekubalim of Atzilut, Bria’ah and Yetzira, the process of emanation and all the rest of these theories are foreign to Rambam thought. He believes that humans do not have the ability to know these things and trying to do so is futile. By trying to understand our physical world, we have enough information that allows us to find the traces of God and get an understanding of how He wants us to act in His world. That is the Truth that we are seeking and that the Torah and Mitzvot are there to help us get in a proper, correct and true perspective.

ב] העובד מאהבה, עוסק בתורה ובמצוות והולך בנתיבות החכמה--לא מפני דבר בעולם, לא מפני יראת הרעה, ולא כדי לירש הטובה: אלא עושה האמת, מפני שהוא אמת; וסוף הטובה לבוא בכלל

One who worships for the sake of love, is involved with Torah and Mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom, not because he fears the bad or so that he can enjoy the good or for any other reason in the world. He acts the Truth because it is true, and the good will generally come eventually. (Hilchot Teshuvah 10:2)

We expect nothing. All we want to do is to “act the Truth” because it is Truth. Note how it is not “find” or “contemplate” or “connect” but “act” the Truth – Osseh Ha’emet. In other words, finding the Truth is not an intellectual exercise but a necessary exercise to know how to act responsibly emulating God’s ways, the understanding we acquire in this continuous search.

In this worldview, the Mitzvot that are regulated by Halacha, are only one part of the whole Torah. They are the tool, the exclusive and obligatory tool a Jew has, to insure that he really searches for Truth. It prompts him to do so and then teaches him how to act, keeps him focused on the goal, disciplines and perfects him so that he remains objective and leads him on the path to Truth. Judaism is thus divided into two parts, the practical and the theological, where the first is the tool necessary to acquire the second, which in turn allows man to emulate his Creator by acting responsibly towards the whole of Creation including humanity.

It is this understanding of our religion that speaks to me. I see it as a guide and a teaching, as the word Torah implies, challenging us to express our full potential by living a life of responsibility. It is not an opiate but a challenge.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. I'm reminded of how Rav Hirsch, in his teshuva on aggadah (Hebrew original, English translation), says that he's never really wondered much whether magic and astrology are true, nor has he wondered much about reward and punishment or Olam ha-Ba. In the end, he says, he has his duties, and that's all that matters. Throughout his writings, Rav Hirsch explains s'khar mitzvah mitzvah and s'khar averah averah as meaning not its p'shat meaning of mitzvah/averah goreret mitzvah/averah, but rather as meaning s'khar mitzvah/averah hi hi ha-mitzvah/averah atzma.

    I'm also reminded of what Rabbi Emanuel Rackman says in "Orthodox Judaism Moves with the Times: The Creativity of Tradition", Commentary June 1952, quoted here:
    Soloveitchik regards as altogether too simple the popular notion of religious experience as one preeminently pleasing and soothing-a stream of delight and relaxation and an asylum from the frustrations of life. This conception of religion Rabbi Soloveichik deems a fraud, the result of a surrender on the part of religious thinkers to the desire of the mass of men to lose themselves in states of bliss. It also echoes Rousseau in his flight from reason, and much subsequent romanticist thought. Religion's invitation has been misinterpreted to say: "If thou cravest peace, if thou cravest integration, make the leap of faith." In the flight from reason and the rejection of objective truth, Rabbi Soloveichik sees the cause of the moral deterioration of contemporary man. He would prefer to see religion wedded to a cold objectivity and rationality, even though faith and reason may at times appear to conflict with one another, rather than derive religion from man's instinctual longings.
    {End quote}

    Regarding Avraham Avinu: Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz, in his Eyes to See (Urim), has an entire chapter devoted to the fact that Avraham's distinguishing mark was his perspicacity; Rabbi Schwarz determines from this that one of the defining characteristics of a Jew is an empiricism that accepts nothing without proof.

  2. Aren't you bothered by the Rambam's focus on knowledge?

    First, because it follows Aristotle's provably broken psychology that poor decisions are always attributable to insufficient knowledge. And yet, we've all made choices we knew were wrong as we were making it because that chocolate looked oh so good, or that pillow was just too inviting. The entire concept of emotions, desires and the unconscious doesn't enter into the picture of decision-making upon which the Rambam builds his edifice.

    It's not that desire and negi'os (subjectivism based on self-interest) creep in where people don't have sufficient knowledge, it's that people are willing to know that which leads them to satisfy their desires -- be they base or lofty goals. Aristo didn't have anything
    like a subconscious in his psychology.

    Thus, the Rambam has a union of thought, emotion and desire that subsequent research in psychology has proven false.

    Second because it makes it difficult to argue that G-d is just. Someone with less intellectual capacity goes through life with greater challenges than someone who can follow this blog. However, since he will never understand as much about G-d, or more precisely about what G-d isn't, the Rambam would also relegate his soul to a lower place in heaven. (As the father of a son with Downs, I find this totally unpalatable.)

    Third, because his concept of eternal life through knowledge of G-d has to do with the Aristotilian model of knowledge as inFORMation. IOW, as creating a copy of the Form of the known in one's mind. Thus, G-d's eternity gets recreated within the soul. It's not a physics that we take much truck in.


  3. MD - Thank you for your comment and references.

    R. Micha,

    Your first point - Aristo did not understand modern psychology nor did Rambam,however how do you explain Rambam's take on Pare'oh that consequences of wrong choices in an advanced stage is the almost impossibility of changing one's ways? Isn't that to be understood phenomonlogically if not theoretically as desires superceding thought? On the contrary I find Rambam's approach to Toracize so to say Aristo very appealing. It tells us to do the same with our contemporary science and is the approach that we should take adding the ontological aspect to our current scientific knowledge.I believe it was the way of all the Rishonim and got derailed later because of historical and other factors too long to discuss in a comment. The specific of Rambam's thought is therefore important to understand how he dealt with the information he had so that we can emulate and do the same with ours.

    Re your second point, I do not claim to have all the answers and the problem of a less intellectual individual is one of those difficulties that I have discussed many times with chaveirim. Just a few pointers, Rambam does not dispute that Kol Ysrael Yesh Lahem... He also does not dispute that only certain deficiencies take away (24 of them in hil teshuvah)Olam Haba. If you will note in the same hil Teshuvah the word is Ha'omer not Ham'amin. So I see Rambam had a position on this though I have not yet figured it out like so many other things I have not figured out yet - BTW my brother has a son with CP and I witness his struggle with similar issues you bring up.

    Your third question - the issue of mind-body relationship has not been resolved in human thought. The question of Sechel, muskal, maskil belongs to that category. For our purposes I think I understand Ramabam's view, though I have not resolved how to handle the question of individuation. In other words if the mind connects with the "knowledge" or sechel hapoel that is out there and becomes one with it, how does the individual remain separate or does he not. Of course the answer touches on Ayin Lo Ra'ata... I do not think that Rambam sees it the way you describe it because in hil teshuvah 8:3 he refutes that by stating Kol nefesh ha'amura... At least that is the way I read this.

    R. Micha thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  4. Nice Post David,
    Re: Dawkins, James Watson and Francis Crick, the two discoverers of DNA structue are atheists or agnostics. I have the feeling that for them as well their rejection of 'religion' or 'G-D' is a straw man, and it is unfortunate that they are unaware of what true religion is all about.

  5. David

    As you say, the popular understanding of our religion, as encouraged by our leaders, is often at variance with Rambam.

    Why do you think our gedolim revere Rambam in halachic matters but not in hashkofo?

    And how do we as individuals decide on the correct hashkofo to follow if the generally accepted view of the gedolim in many instances e.g. hashgocho pratis, does not follow Rambam? Do we follow our own enquiry and investigation of the primary sources and follow Rambam if his view appeals to us more? If so, where do we draw the line? Do the same criteria apply to halocho as well?

  6. Dawid: Nice post. Anyone can read Moreh NevuHim, and see the absolute brilliance it contains. I agree with what you described, in terms of the superstitious tendencies of today’s modernity, in terms of how they create new ideas that control, explain and cushion. The undeniably neurotic tendencies of those who “add and subtract from Torah” - in order to win the “Humrah of the week” contest – can be frightening. Many have taken hold as “indisputable” - in the minds of the masses. If you are not on board… forget it! However, we know these concepts were not original or authentic to Torath Moshe.

    About influencing G-D, we also agree (for the most part). However, I do seem to recall examples in TaNaKH where HaShem did DEAL with men in our Torah. BEFORE YOU JUMP ME, I think that most serious students of RaMb”M (and logic itself) certainly recognize that the purpose of prayer is NOT to change or influence (deal with) HaShem. On the contrary, it is to increase our cleaving to him (and perhaps to transform/ better ourselves). The secondary byproduct (result) of connecting to HaShem through meaningful prayer DOES bring out more Shifah (divine protection) – even according to RaMb”M. But that is not the reason we pray. Rabbi Seth Kaddish covers this pretty well in a book called Kavanah. As you might say, too many people pray for the wrong reasons. On that, we can certainly agree. Of course HaShem knows best. How could anyone assume to know better than him, as to what is needed in our lives? So we agree on that.

    I may have to disagree with you about the Shoah. I know it is a touchy subject. But the pashat meaning of Torah speaks of grave punishments for not obeying the teachings. The Neviim also cover this in very specific detail. So I don’t see how we can get around that. Perhaps you speak of the improper use of this belief by our flock? As much as I also (am bothered) by modernity, I still see that as a core concept.

    David, I must tell you something. Because of what I do, I have a great deal of contact with true koferim (al fi Torah - MT). Many of them have studied authentic Torah (MT), and than bolted (in a very hostile way) against RaMb”M and all rabbinic versions of the Oral and Written law. So while it may be cute for us to discuss these things on line, please don’t imagine that they are not studying it, and whoring it into their own koferisms. I know for a fact that they study sites like this. It’s very disturbing indeed.

    Ergo: Perhaps it is time we looked at hashkofo through our own eyes; rather than being exclusively confined to the opinions (or hidushes) of modern "gedolim". Please keep in mind that the RaMb”M never intended MN to be a legal work. Whereas the MT (in addition to TaNaKH & Talmud) was the only book one needed to understand the law. So there is no conflict between the RaMb”M’s MN and MT. The MT is the definitive record of the law. Honestly, I do not understand your point at all. You say that the Gedolim revere RaMb”M. But those same “gedolim” than turn around, and ignore the halaHa that he records. That sounds like lip-service, not reverence. Anyway, Dawid answered that. Many ignore the haskafah of RaMb”M, because of flawed legal concepts they unknowingly maintain. These have a direct effect on what we believe. I mean, if I also believed in a “god” that came in multiple ruling pieces or a multiplicity of reining emanating powers (halilah) or that men should be the object of interceding prayers, I might have also ignored or dismissed the RaMb”M’s hashkafo as broken Aristotle-ism.

  7. While some areas like Astronomy MAY need clarification in his works, I’d strongly suggest that the skeptics take another, more serious look at the RaMb’M’s hashkafo. Only this time, empty your mystical cups and remove all post-medieval liquid. Start fresh. How can you truly learn - if the entire time you are trying to reconcile RaMb”M with what you already think you know. I know from experience that this takes reprogramming, and some mental discomfort. But I promise, the rewards are out of this world!

    At the end of the day, it's more important to learn halakha.

  8. I usually do not comment but I think this time I must state my opinion. There are times that I struggle with the same problem, and I feel uncomfortable with having Gedolim dissagree with me. I believe that the question you must ask yourself is,like the title of the post, why are you jewish. When you think about existential questions do you really want to base it on trust or base it on values? Do you want to be Jewish simply because it is how you were raised?
    The Raavad argues with the Rambams anti-corporeal stance. He goes as far as saying that people greater than the Rambam had that view. In my opinion he is copmletely off base. By what standard does he judge greatness? By intelligence? By physical dimensions?
    I judge greatness by my values. Any corporealist does not subscribe to my values, and therefore I would not attribute to him any greatness. To say they are greater than the Rambam is absolutely ludicrous.
    The Gedolim of today diferring with The Rambam will not have me throw away my values. There are many things that makes them great and those things I will take in. Any anti-rationalism I must say I will not. I will never agree that dishonesty is a virtue. The Rambams unwavering indebtedness to honesty,I believe is the way, and the only way. To what extent am I expected to sell out?

  9. >Why do you think our gedolim revere Rambam in halachic matters but not in hashkofo?

    Ergo- there isn't one godol that does not use Rambam as the starting point. They may not touch MN but MT is learned from beginning to end including sefer hamada. Which mashgiach ignores hilchot Teshuvah? Thjey work into him their own opinions and read him wrong, misinterpret him callously, but never ignore him. Why do you think they do that if they did not know that halacha kemoto bechol makom? Chabad too did a similar job as did most thinkers among the chassidim.

    I will choose to stick with the original and learn from him how to deal with our reality from the way he dealt with his.

  10. Anonymous 2 -

    Why do you buy into the canard of Gedolim? Could you please direct me in all of halacha including Shulchan Aruch where it says one has to listen to anyone besides the Rav that one accepts? And that is limited to Psak halacha on matters one cannot honestly figure out on their own by thorough analysis of the sugya.

    The mitzvat Asseh #6 in sefer hamitzvot, lhidabek bachachamim does not tell us either to follow them blindly. It tells us to learn from them so that we understand and do the correct thing by emulating them. That does not stiffle the search for truth.

  11. Yeshivish (formerly anon2) - I reread my earlier comment and I want to clarify that I agree with your comment 100%. I just want to point out that your struggle with the problem should be in making sure that we are honest with ourselves, not because a 'godol" so ruled.

    BTW, in my experience the real leaders do not impose, they suggest. It is their followers who distort and come out with bans and promulgations.

  12. A more cynical answer to the questoin posed in the title of your post "Why I am a Jew" is, because you were born a Jew.

  13. >because you were born a Jew

    You just defined the Mitzvah of Yediat Hashem. One starts searching because they are born Jewish and are taught all the correct believes as Mesora, but then, they are obligated to understand them rationally. They threfore learn the Torah and arrive at a mature understanding of that same Mesora. The Torah is confident that if you learn it in depth, its Truth will become evident, if you are honest with yourself. But first comes the hard part - learning - and not just arriving at half baked cynical conclusions.

  14. Micha,

    The psychological theory you attribute to Aristotle is actually that of Socrates, who considered all ethical transgressions to be the result of imperfect knowledge of the good. Aristotle differed with Socrates and recognized the role that emotional weakness plays in moral failings.

    As a psychologist by training, though, I would say that there is truth to the perspective of Socrates nonetheless.

    A person who is wooed by the attractiveness of the chocolate accepts, even if only for a moment, that the pleasure of enjoying it is a greater good than his long term health. Aristotle clarifies the picture somewhat by showing that this cognitive error has its roots in emotional weakness and is not purely intellectual; however, the very fact that we rationalize even the poorest choices is evidence of the veracity of Socrates' claim.

  15. It is quite possible I misidentified the Rambam's source.

    However, someone noted the similarity of the point I was making to the point attributed to R' Yisrael Salanter on pp 46-48 of Prof Marc Steiner's article Rabbi Israel Salanter as a
    Jewish Philosopher
    in Torah uMadda Journal, 9/2000.

    Prof Steiner in passing makes the same point R' Meroof does. Still, whether the Rambam's focus on yedi'ah is Aristotilian or not, I stand by my critique of a derekh that defines man's goal in cerebral terms.


  16. BTW, initial reading seems to say that Socrates blames akrasia on ignorance, Aristo blames opinion, and explicitly denies the cause being appetite.

    More when I really read up on the subject, unless that takes so long I lose track of where this conversation was.


  17. About David Guttman's post of 8/11/2009 6:07pm: Ergo- there isn't one godol that does not use Rambam as the starting point. They may not touch MN but MT is learned from beginning to end including sefer hamada.

    Actually, study of MT usually begins with Yesodei haTorah ch. 5, skipping the piece of Yesodei haTorah that reads like MN. Just shy of "beginning to end".


  18. LQ"Y

    Shabbath Shalom Hevra...

    SUBJECT: RaMb"M learning announcements
    FROM: A member of

    Our new maslul (cycle) of RaMBaM HAS JUST BEGUN with TWO physical classes here at our humble center in Ramat Bet Shemesh: one Mishneh Torah class for children and another for adults.

    ALL ARE ALSO WELCOME TO LEARN IN TANDEM WITH US FROM AFAR. Our goal is to complete the M"T in 4 years by learning 5 chapters per week. However, in order to EASE the children into the learning GRADUALLY, we are starting slow and picking up speed:


    Week of parashath Shelahh Lekha: the haqdamah (Introduction) only

    Week of Qorahh: Yesode ha-Torah 1,2 (two peraqim)

    Week of Huqqath: Chapters 3,4, (two peraqim)

    Week of Balaq: 5,6,7, (three peraqim)

    Week of Pinehhas: 8,9,10, (three peraqim)

    Matoth-Mas`e: De`oth 1,2,3,4 (four peraqim)

    Davarim: 5,6,7 Talmud Torah 1 (four peraqim)

    Waeth'hhanan onwards,5 CHAPTERS WEEKLY, be`ezrath HaShem.

    > > >
    > > > * A children's Mishneh Torah Shabboth class (Hebrew only) from 4:00 to 5:00 pm (ages 10 and up)
    > > >
    > > > * An adult beginner's Mishneh Torah class (narrated in English) Tuesday evenings from 7 to 8:30.

    Our regular hilkhoth Shabboth shi`ur, which has been going strong for two years, continues from 5:00 to 6:30 pm.

    For those who cannot make it (that's most of you), we invite you to learn with us in tandem. Of course most of us have been through these first books, many of us a number of times. Regardless, for the sake of the children, I have no choice but to begin a new cycle.