Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Does a Non-philosophical Person Gain Rights to the World To Come (Olam Haba)? How? (Part 1 in a series)

One of the difficulties people have is how to understand Olam Haba for the non-philosophical according to Rambam. Rambam describes Olam Haba in his Hilchot Teshuvah chapter 8 and in many other places as a result of the correct understanding of HKBH. He interprets all the seemingly physical rewards such as the Leviathan Feast, the crowns on the heads of the Tzadikkim etc… as metaphors for intellectual apprehension of the Deity (Hilchot Teshuvah chapter 8). That being the case how does a plain non-philosophical believer gain access to this unique and fabulous experience? In fact, some who study Rambam felt that although Rambam did not say so openly, Olam Haba was reserved for the elite philosopher only. The problem is that we have a Mishna at the beginning of the 10th Perek in Sanhedrin that says that ALL of Israel has a part in Olam Haba except for certain heretics who are precluded from it. Rambam subscribes to it and in fact uses that Mishna to launch a long dissertation on the 13 Ikkarim which include Olam Haba as dogmatic beliefs that one must have. In Hilchot Teshuvah chapter3:5 he legislates the Mishna as Halacha. It is inconceivable therefore, that he had an “esoteric” position on the matter. I would like to address this issue in a series of posts and hopefully it will also clarify Rambam’s Olam Haba which seems to be a little confusing to some, to say the least. (I have already touched on the issue of Olam Haba, to be found under the Olam Haba label on the sidebar, but have never devoted posts to a systematic study of the subject.)
There is a famous Mishna in Massechet Makot at the end of the third Perek that is well known because it is repeated at the end of public Shiurim before the Kaddish Derabanan is recited.

ג,יז [טז] רבי חנניה בן עקשיה אומר, רצה הקדוש ברוך הוא לזכות את ישראל; לפיכך הרבה להן תורה ומצוות, שנאמר "ה' חפץ, למען צדקו; יגדיל תורה, ויאדיר" (ישעיהו מב,כא).

Rabbi Hananya ben Akashya says, as HKBH wanted to warrant merit to the Jewish people, He provided them with a plethora of Torah and Mitzvot as Yeshayahu says, “God wished, for his [servant’s] righteousness' sake, to make the teaching great and glorious.” (I translated the verse as understood by Targum Yehonatan and to agree with this drash. There are however other interpretations.)

Rambam comments as follows:

פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת מכות פרק ג
יז] מיסודות האמונה בתורה שאם קיים האדם מצוה משלש עשרה ושש מאות מצות כראוי וכהוגן ולא שתף עמה מטרה ממטרות העולם הזה כלל, אלא עשאה לשמה מאהבה כמו שביארתי לך, הרי הוא זוכה בה לחיי העולם הבא, לכן אמר ר' חנניה כי מחמת רבוי המצות אי אפשר שלא יעשה האדם אחת בכל ימי חייו בשלימות ויזכה להשארות הנפש באותו המעשה. וממה שמורה על היסוד הזה שאלת ר' חנניה בן תרדיון מה אני לחיי העולם הבא, וענהו העונה כלום בא לידך מעשה, כלומר האם נזדמן לך עשיית מצוה ראוי, ענה לו שנזדמנה לו מצות צדקה בתכלית השלמות האפשרית, וזכה בה לחיי העולם הבא. ופירוש הפסוק ה' חפץ לצדק את ישראל למען כן יגדיל תורה ויאדיר.

It is one of the Law’s fundaments of faith, that if an individual had executed [even] one of the 613 precepts of the Law, in a proper and satisfactory manner, without associating with it some mundane designs at all, but did it for its own sake, as [an act of] love … that person has gained the rights to the life in Olam Haba. Rabbi Hananya teaches that the great variety of precepts ensures that during the entire course of one’s life one would have had the opportunity to perfectly fulfill [at least] a single precept thereby gaining the right for the soul to remain. The question [and answer] of Rabbi Hananya ben Tradyon (TB Avodah Zara 18a) points to this fundament. He asked whether he has [rights] to the life in Olam Haba. The answerer [r. Yossi ben Kisma] said to him, “did you do any act?” Meaning, did you perform a Mitzvah satisfactorily?” He answered that he had the opportunity to perform the Mitzvah of Tzedakah in the most complete [perfect] way possible, and therefore gained the right to the life in Olam Haba. The meaning of the verse is; God wants to bring righteousness to the Israelites He therefore made the Law great and glorious.

According to Rambam, the Mishna is teaching that the purpose of all the precepts is so that a person has the chance to fulfill at least one Mitzvah in his lifetime in a “proper and satisfactory” manner. He defines “proper and satisfactory” not as punctiliousness in its performance, but with the proper intent: “without associating with it some mundane designs at all, but did it for its own sake, as [an act of] love”. What exactly does that mean? As usual, the answer can be found elsewhere in Rambam’s works. “Associating with it some mundane design” is defined in Hilchot Teshuvah 10:1:

אל יאמר אדם הריני עושה מצוות התורה ועוסק בחכמתה, כדי שאקבל הברכות הכתובות בתורה או כדי שאזכה לחיי העולם הבא; ואפרוש מן העבירות שהזהירה תורה מהן, כדי שאינצל מן הקללות הכתובות בתורה או כדי שלא איכרת מחיי העולם הבא.
A person should not say that, “I do the Mitzvot of the Torah and learn its wisdom so that I will receive the blessings written in the Torah or so that I should gain the right to the life in Olam Haba. I will keep away from the transgressions the Torah warned against so that I am saved from the curses that are written in the Torah or so that I am not cut-off from Olam Haba”.

Blessings and curses written in the Torah are matters that deal with our physical day-to-day existence such as health and wealth. We can easily accept that we are not supposed to do the Mitzvot for practical reasons. That we should not do them so that we become perfected and get Olam Haba is much more difficult to digest! After all Rambam just finished the whole chapter 8 describing Olam Haba as basking in the knowledge of God, the ultimate truth.

ומה הוא זה שאמרו, ונהנין מזיו השכינה--שיודעין ומשיגין מאמיתת הקדוש ברוך הוא, מה שאינן יודעין והן בגוף האפל השפל

What did the Rabbis mean when they said [describing the Tzadikkim in Olam Haba] “and they bask in the shine of the Shechinah”? It means that they know and apprehend [something] of the truth [essence] of HKBH, something that is impossible while they are in this dark and lowly [physical] body.

The answer lies in the nuance. There is a difference between seeking the truth itself for its own sake and seeking the truth because one gets pleasure from knowing it. Olam Haba is the resulting pleasurable state that one is in once the truth is attained. To seek the truth for the sake of experiencing that state of pleasure must not be the goal of the perfect person.

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.

A person that worships [God] for the sake of love, is not involved in Torah and Mitzvot nor following the paths of wisdom, because of anything else in the world, not fear of bad things happening nor to gain good things. The only reason he does Truth is that it is Truth. The good things will generally come at the end.

Note that three things, Torah, Mitzvot and paths of wisdom are all Truths. In this context, being involved in Torah and Mitzvot should be read in the popular sense, in that Torah is the ontological understanding as well as it contains the practical laws while Mitzvot means following them and acting according to these laws, the 613 Mitzvot. What exactly does Rambam mean when he says that Mitzvot ARE Truth? As I have discussed many times in past posts, Rambam seems to see the Mitzvot as utilitarian, a tool to help us reach our goal of knowing God, rather than Truth itself. Rambam already presented this idea in his introduction to Chelek, the 10th Perek of the tractate Sanhedrin.

פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת סנהדרין פרק י
שלא יעשה תכלית הלמוד לא שיכבדוהו בני אדם ולא רכישת ממון, ואל יעשה תורת ה' פרנסה, ואל יהא אצלו תכלית הלמוד אלא ידיעתו בלבד, וכן אין תכלית האמת אלא לדעת שהוא אמת, והמצות אמת ולכן תכליתם קיומם

one should not make the goal of learning so that people will respect him nor should he do so to gain wealth, one should not make a living from the Torah of HKBH. The goal of learning should be only to know it [the subject]. So too, the goal of Truth is to know that it is Truth and as the Mitzvot are Truth, therefore their goal is to perform them…

This is a partial quote in a lengthy exposition on the subject, which I plan to work on separately in future posts. For our purpose here, we find Rambam repeating this idea that Mitzvot are Truth and he adds one more concept; “therefore, their goal is to perform them”. In other words by keeping Mitzvot one acts the Truth. What exactly does this mean?

There is one more term that Rambam uses in the Halacha from Hilchot Teshuvah quoted above - העובד מאהבה – A person that worships [God] for the sake of love. How are we to understand this love? What does it mean?

I plan to deal with all these questions and others that will crop up as we follow this line of thought, in upcoming posts.


  1. I wonder if you could clarify the place of the Rambam's focus on pleasure as the aim of Talmud Torah in the Sefer Ha-Mitzvot which at first glance would seem to contradict your idea of Lishma David.

    המצווה השלישית
    היא הציווי שנצטווינו על אהבתו יתעלה, והוא: שנתבונן ונסתכל במצוותיו וציווייו ופעולתיו, כדי שנשיגהו ונתענג בהשגתו תכלית התענוג - וזוהי האהבה המצווה עלינו
    ולשון ספרי:
    ו"לפי שנאמר 'ואהבת את ה' אלוקיך' (דברים ו, ה
    יודע אני כיצד אהב את המקום
    תלמוד לומר: 'והיו הדברים האלה אשר אנכי מצוך היום על-לבבך'
    שמתוך כך אתה מכיר מי שאמר והיה העולם
    הנה ביארנו לך, שבהשתכלות תבוא לידי השגה, וימצא לך תענוג ותבוא האהבה בהכרח.

  2. Rabbi Sacks, That is an excellent question but that joy is not olam haba as it is present while we are still in our physical body. Rambam's enjoyment in olam haba describes it after leaving the physical -מה שאינן יודעין והן בגוף האפל השפל

    I will discuss this enjoyment in sefer hamitzvot which is also mentioned both in Hil Yesodei hatorah and teshuvah and what it means in a follow up post.