Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Be Exceedingly, Exceedingly Humble - An Insight In The Torah's Understanding Of Human Nature.

In a private communication with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, we touched on Rambam in Hilchot De’ot that deals with Anavah, the virtue of humbleness or humility. I decided to interrupt the current discussion to address this, as it is very important and also is relevant to the subject that I am dealing with.

Rambam in Hilchot De’ot 1:10-11 –

ט כל אדם שדעותיו כולן דעות בינונייות ממוצעות, נקרא חכם; [ה] ומי שהוא מדקדק על עצמו ביותר ויתרחק מדעה בינונית מעט לצד זה או לצד זה, נקרא חסיד.
י כיצד: מי שיתרחק מגובה הלב עד הקצה האחרון, ויהיה שפל רוח ביותר--נקרא חסיד; וזו היא מידת חסידות. ואם נתרחק עד האמצע בלבד, ויהיה עניו--נקרא חכם; וזו היא מידת חכמה. ועל דרך זו, שאר כל הדעות.

Whoever observes in his disposition the mean is termed wise. Whoever is particularly scrupulous and deviates somewhat from the exact mean in disposition, in one direction or the other is called a Chassid. For example, if one avoids haughtiness to the utmost extent and is exceedingly humble, he is termed a Chassid, and this is the standard of Chassidus. If one only departs from haughtiness as far as the mean, and is humble, he is called wise, and this is the standard of wisdom. And so it is with all other dispositions. (Translation, courtesy of A Maimonides Reader by Isadore Twersky).

Rambam explains that a Chassid is one who is working on himself to improve his Midot [disposition] while a Chacham is one who has perfected himself to the point that he can be exactly on the mean and needs no further improvement. The Chacham is therefore the paradigm of perfection.

ומצווין אנו ללכת בדרכים אלו הבינוניים, והם הדרכים הטובים והישרים, שנאמר "והלכת, בדרכיו

“We are commanded to follow these middle paths as they are good and correct [and also the paths of God] as it says “and you should walk in His paths”.

As an example of a Chassid Rambam portrays someone who “is exceedingly humble” and a Chacham as “one who only departs from haughtiness as far as the mean, and is humble”. The clear implication is that humility is the preferred disposition and “exceedingly humble” is perfection in the making.However, in the second chapter of Hilchot De’ot Rambam presents a different picture.

ויש דעות שאסור לו לאדם לנהוג בהן בבינונית, אלא יתרחק עד הקצה האחר--והוא גובה הלב, שאין הדרך הטובה שיהיה האדם עניו בלבד, אלא שיהיה שפל רוח, ותהיה רוחו נמוכה למאוד. ולפיכך נאמר במשה רבנו "עניו מאוד" (במדבר יב,ג), ולא נאמר עניו בלבד. ולפיכך ציוו חכמים, מאוד מאוד הוי שפל רוח.

There are some dispositions in regard to which it is forbidden merely to keep to the middle path. They must be shunned to the extreme. Such a disposition is pride. The right way in this regard is not merely to be meek, but to be humble-minded and lowly of the spirit to the utmost. And therefore, it is said of Moshe that he was “exceedingly humble”. Hence our sages exhorted us, “Be exceedingly, exceedingly lowly of spirit”.” (Translation as above)

The contradiction is glaring and it is obvious that Rambam is not in the habit of contradicting himself. However, as usual, Rambam is very subtle and one has to read thoroughly all his discussions on a subject in its various contexts. In his introduction to Avot, the Eight Chapters, Rambam has a lengthy discussion about perfecting one’s disposition. In the fourth chapter, he discusses the idea of how to go about changing an inborn disposition. While he summarized in Hilchot De’ot, he expands this discussion in the Eight Chapters. In chapter 4 he describes the process of changing the natural disposition of individuals by moving away from the mean in the opposite direction of one’s natural disposition. For example, one whose natural disposition tends towards haughtiness should be scrupulous and be extremely humble for a while until he can slowly move back to the mean of humility. The same goes for all dispositions. At the end of a lengthy discussion, Rambam then makes a few revealing statements.

וזאת התורה השלמה המשלמת אותנו, כמו שהעיד עליה יודעה:
תורת ה' תמימה, משיבת נפש,
עדות ה' נאמנה מחכימת פתי (תהלים י"ט, ח')
לא ציוותה דבר מעין זה. ואין כונתה אלא שיהיה האדם טבעי, הולך בדרך האמצעי:
יאכל מה שיש לו לאכול בשווי,
וישתה מה שיש לו לשתות בשווי.
ויישב המדינות ביושר ובאמונה.
לא שישכון במערות ובהרים,
ולא שילבש השער והצמר,
ולא שיטריח גופו ויענה אותו.

“And this perfect Torah whose mission is to perfect us as one who knew her [David] testified,” God’s Torah is whole, it soothes the soul, God’s testament is reliable, it enlightens a fool”, did not command any of this [self-flagellation]. Its mission is for a person to be natural and follow the mean path; eat and drink a balanced diet and inhabit lands with correctness and honesty. Not that he should in mountainous caves or wear hair shirts or punish his body.”

In other words, the Torah’s goal is to develop people so that they become perfect and follow the middle path. That is however a utopian goal. The human condition will not allow such perfection. As the Torah deals with real human beings and is the tool that will bring people as close to perfection as possible, its laws are NOT the mean. They are always a little to one side or the other depending on the disposition.

וזה, שהתורה
לא אסרה מה שאסרה, ולא צוותה מה שצוותה, אלא מפני הסיבה הזאת. רצוני לומר: כדי
שנתרחק מן הצד האחד יותר על דרך ההרגל. שכן איסור "המאכלות האסורים" כולם, ואיסור
הביאות האסורות, והאזהרה מן הקדשה, וחיוב כתובה וקידושין, ועם כל זה לא תהיה מותרת תמיד, אלא תיאסר בעתות הנידה והלידה, ועם זה סייגו חכמינו למעט התשמיש, והזהירו מזה ביום, כמו שבארנו בסנהדרין - הנה לא צווה אלוהים אלא כדי שנתרחק מקצה "רוב התאווה" ריחוק רב, ונצא מעט מן המיצוע אל צד "העדר הרגשת ההנאה", עד שתתיישב בנפשותינו תכונת הזהירות

The law did not lay down its prohibitions or enjoin its commandments except for just this purpose, namely, that by its disciplinary effects we may persistently maintain the proper distance from either extreme. For the restriction regarding all the forbidden foods, the prohibitions of illicit intercourse, the forewarning against prostitution, the duty of performing the legal marriage rites – which nevertheless does not permit intercourse at all times, as, for instance, during the period of menstruation and after childbirth, besides its being otherwise restricted by our sages and entirely interdicted during the daytime, as we have explained in the tractate of Sanhedrin- all of these God commanded in order that we should keep entirely distant from the extreme of inordinate indulgence of the passions, and, even departing from the exact medium, should incline somewhat toward self-denial, so that there may be firmly rooted in our souls the disposition for moderation.”

The Torah is not for the perfect utopian individual but rather for the human being who is working his way towards perfection. It is realistic about human frailties and allows for them setting the rules with that in mind. These rules are a little off the mean, tending a little to one or the other side depending on the type of disposition and the tendency of the majority of humanity towards that disposition. In the case of haughtiness, even a perfected person such as Moshe Rabbeinu cannot feel safe and must be exceedingly humble to counteract the human tendency to self-aggrandizement. A similar disposition is anger where too the human disposition tends towards it and that tendency has to be counterbalanced. Rambam in the first chapter of Hilchot De’ot describes the utopian perfected human being the Torah’s has as a goal to develop. In Chapter 2, he explains the method the Torah uses and points out that certain human traits can never be completely overcome. Haughtiness and anger are two such traits where even the most perfected person must be wary about recidivism.

It is important to note that to Rambam, a person that follows the Torah and does the Mitzvot is embarked on the path to perfection; he is on the right track in his quest for the perfect disposition, a necessary and integral ingredient in the search for God and His ways.


  1. יא ומצווין אנו ללכת בדרכים אלו הבינוניים, והם הדרכים הטובים והישרים, שנאמר "והלכת, בדרכיו" (דברים כח,ט). [ו] כך לימדו בפירוש מצוה זו: מה הוא נקרא חנון, אף אתה היה חנון; מה הוא נקרא רחום, אף אתה היה רחום; מה הוא נקרא קדוש, אף אתה היה קדוש. ועל דרך זו קראו הנביאים לאל בכל אותן הכינויין, ארך אפיים ורב חסד צדיק וישר תמים גיבור וחזק וכיוצא בהן--להודיע שאלו דרכים טובים וישרים הם, וחייב אדם להנהיג עצמו בהן ולהידמות כפי כוחו.

    Anyone have a hypothesis to account for 'חכם', which is absent?

  2. See MN 3:54

    אפשר שחָכמה בעברית מורה7 על ההערמה והפעלת המחשבה, ויש שהערמה ותחבולה אלה תהיינה להשׂגת מעלות שׂכליות או להשׂגת מעלות אופי3 או להשׂגת מלאכה מעשׂית או לשם רעות ותועבות.

    I don't think that can be applied to God.

  3. Mr. Guttmann,

    Thanks. I got there with my concordance, but it's always nice to have confirmation.

    But then, which among 'דרכיו' are the ones which, "imitated", result in the 'חכם'?

  4. Hagyan

    Could you identify the pesukim that led to this contemplation?

  5. Rabbi Sacks,

    Nothing fancy. ספר המצוות cites 3 פסוקים, and I was struggling -- actually I've been struggling for a very, very long time -- to see the הלכה I cited (above) as a component of a "satisfying" פירוש of those.

  6. Where did the concordance come in?

  7. Rabbi Sacks,

    At that הלכה it seemed "conspicuous" (it's the רמב"ם, after all!) that 'חכם' was missing. Trouble is, a "heuristic intuition" like that only justifies a "direction of inquiry", not conviction. The question was the principle by which the רמב"ם defined his set of 'כינויין'. So I checked the concordance for usages of the term 'חכם' used as a predicate -- the same verification that Mr. Guttman accomplished with his "laser-beam" into the מורה. I just don't like to rely on my understanding of the מורה.

  8. Rabbi Sacks,

    On reflection, I think I gave you an awful answer. Nothing false, but borderline-useless.

    I'm not sure yet how to improve it.


  9. Rabbi Sacks,

    Here are two more bits ...

    1. I'm bracing for Mr. Guttman to hit me with a right hook, and that may help to gradually explain things dialectically.

    2. The "heuristic intuition" I mentioned came out of our e-mails about Einstein, etc. I was considering what kind of modern-Western-physicist's "אספקלריה" accounts for his self-described Spinozism. Somehow, he's fallen into -- or not escaped from -- a טעות about חכמתו.

  10. I must say, I am still unconvinced of the superiority of Chacham over Chassid theory. I only have a dim apprehension of the point about Chochma.

    It seems that Chochma makes reference to calculating material circumstances,therefore potentially being melacha and even Rah, as opposed to yediah of principles. Is this right?

    Chessed does not have this limitation it would seem.

    Assuming it is, wouldn't this material sense of Chochma, indicate the superiority of the chassid?

  11. Rabbi Sacks,

    You say: "It seems that Chochma makes reference to calculating material circumstances,therefore potentially being melacha and even Rah, as opposed to yediah of principles. Is this right?

    "Chessed does not have this limitation it would seem."

    Can you formulate your intuitions in a way that shows them "emerging upward" from the פסוקים? Specifically: there are themes like victory over our enemies, false prophets, etc. 'חכמה' "plays a part" IN these. And these themes involve our continuance as a unique type of עם, which is not our "right".

    Does this "resonate"?

  12. Rabbi Sacks,

    On extra bit: Do you have thoughts about why, "adjacent" to all 3 פסוקים, it looks like it's saying that והלכת בדרכיו is absolutely necessary above and beyond שמירת המצוות?

  13. Rabbi Sacks,

    Closely-related "themes" ...

    הלכות תענייות א,א vectors us right into the war theme, too, and the חצוצרות involve our unique national "chain of command".

    הלכות תפילה also involves a "chain of command" issue; in particular, our predisposition to resist it -- it's so "undemocratic", "elitist", etc.

  14. Hagyan

    When you say "emerging upward" I assume you mean "upward" in the sense similar to the analogy of a fruit emerging as a product of a tree?

  15. Rabbi Sacks,

    Seems like my משל doesn't work for you, and your משל doesn't work for me.

    By "emerging upward" I meant the characteristic "direction" of dialectical thought. But, as you can see, I'm just trading one משל for another.

    Here's another try: "The phenomena which I (could) see as they happen" are "low", whereas "the intelligible causes" of those phenomena are "high".

  16. RJS, I guess I will have to write about Chochma.

    You keep extending the life of my blog!

    Hagyan, Re tefila, the one in hilchot Ta'anyot is a separate one in sefer Hamitzvot - Mitzva 59.

    One has to do with Yediat Hashem the other with Teshuvah. If you follow my label Prayer on the sidebar, I believe you will find that I wrote about that a few times.

  17. The Earth with potential to nurture growth, is low.

    The fruit which is result of the Earth with seed, being watered and exposed to Sun is the result of what you call high.

  18. Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer (Even Haazel) has an approach to this "contradiction" that, I believe, can be interpreted as saying exactly as you do.