Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Does a Non-philosophical Person Gain Rights to the World To Come (Olam Haba)? Ethics and Morality in Judaism (Part 4 in a series)

Ethics and Morality are accepted norms in civilized societies. Much has been written about ethics all the way back to the Greek Philosophers and it is still a much-discussed topic in philosophy. For an excellent overview, see here . Rambam has what I believe to be a unique understanding of ethics from a Torah perspective. In MN 3:27, one of the introductory chapters to his discussion of Ta’amei Hamitzvot, he addresses what the goal of Mitzvot is.

“The Law as a whole aims at two things: the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body. As to the welfare of the soul, it consists in the multitude’s acquiring correct opinions corresponding to their respective capacity… As for the welfare of the body, it comes about by the improvement of their ways of living one with another. This is achieved through two things. One of them is their abolition of wronging each other. This is tantamount to every individual among the people not being permitted to act according to his will and up to the limit of his power, but being forced to do what is useful to the whole. The second thing consists in the acquisition by every human individual of moral qualities that are useful for life in society so that the affairs of the city may be ordered.” (MN3:27)

Focusing first on the second aim, the welfare of the body, the description seems to be of a utilitarian system which promotes a healthy and well-ordered society. In this presentation, ethics and morality are seen as self-serving quid pro quo systems thus resulting in every member of that society living in peace with each other. In other words, ethics are ultimately self-serving. By being good to your neighbor, you can expect reciprocity. But Rambam does not stop there. The goal of an ordered society has a much loftier purpose than mere egotistical interest. It is to allow for the flourishing within it of perfect people, those who are concerned with the welfare of their soul.

His [man’s] ultimate perfection is to become rational in actu, I mean to have an intellect in-actu; this would consist in him knowing everything concerning all the beings that it is within the capacity of man to know in accordance with his ultimate perfection. It is clear that to this ultimate perfection, there do not belong either actions or moral qualities and that it consists only of opinions toward which speculation has led and that investigation has rendered compulsory. It is also clear that this noble and ultimate perfection can only be achieved after the first perfection [ethics] has been achieved. For a man cannot represent to himself an intelligible even when taught to understand and all the more cannot become aware of it of his own accord, if he is in pain or is very hungry or is thirsty or is hot or is very cold. But once the first perfection has been achieved it is possible to achieve the ultimate, which is indubitably nobler and is the only cause of permanent preservation [after death – Olam Haba – DG].” (MN3:27)

Rambam’s ethics, though at first directed towards developing a well-ordered society, have as their ultimate goal to allow for the development of the perfect human being. That is a knowledgeable person who can focus on his own self-improvement, the acquisition of knowledge and thus get to know all creation and through it God. Once a person gets to know all he can about God and His ways, he understands and wants to emulate Him by partaking in His actions.

“The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired--as far as this is possible for man--the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired the knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God. We have explained this many times in this treatise.” (MN 3:54)

The ethics of the perfected man take on a completely new aspect. They no longer are self-serving, insuring a well-ordered society so that he can dedicate himself to contemplation, but rather understanding God’s ways, emulating Him and partaking in His work. Thus the same ethical act, the same Mitzvah, is performed in different contexts by different people, depending on their level of sophistication. We will return to this important point later in the discussion, but what is important now is to understand that Rambam’s ethics have an ultimate goal that goes beyond the egotistical. Giving alms to a pauper will have different meaning to different people. Some will do it because they see themselves in the same spot and want to be treated similarly hoping that others will emulate them should they be in need, while others do it because it makes them feel good to help another. Some feel guilty having so much while another lacks everything. Others do it because their religion promises good things in exchange. Rambam’s Jew does it because it is part of the process that is necessary to allow for the development of a person that knows God, who will then do the same act with the understanding and deep knowledge that giving this Tzedakah IS emulating Him. In Rambam’s Judaism, everything we do is with that goal in mind.

“What I have here pointed out to you is the object of all our religious acts. For by [carrying out] all the details of the prescribed practices, and repeating them continually, some excellent men may attain human perfection. They will be filled with respect and reverence towards God and know who it is that is with them, and as a result act subsequently as they ought to. He [God] has explained that the end of the actions prescribed by the whole Law is to bring about the passion of which it is correct to be brought about, as we have demonstrated in this chapter for the benefit of those who know the true realities. I refer to the fear of Him and the awe before his commands.” (MN 3:52)

As this last quote indicates, all Mitzvot have the same objective. I have focused first on ethical Mitzvot because they are easier to contrast with general ethics but the same goal is for all Mitzvot. All have the ultimate objective to bring us to know God to the best of each one’s ability. I think that we can start getting a glimpse of why Mitzvot are Truth and doing them is doing Truth. I will however flesh these concepts out further in upcoming posts.

I would like to end this post by pointing out that in the first quote from MN3:27, indeed in that whole chapter Rambam omits any mention of personal self-improvement other than in a societal context. Anyone who reads Rambam knows that one of the important traits needed for a correct understanding of God and His ways, is perfected Midot. Someone who is steeped in material needs and urges cannot acquire true knowledge according to Rambam. He makes that clear right in the second chapter of the Moreh.

“You appear to have studied the matter superficially, and nevertheless you imagine that you can understand a book which has been the guide of past and present generations, when you for a moment withdraw from your lusts and appetites, and glance over its contents as if you were reading a historical work or some poetical composition.” (MN1:2)

What happened to that whole segment of Mitzvot that deal with self-improvement to allow for apprehending correct notions?


  1. I'm still waiting for the end of this, because li nir'eh the Rambam is based on Aristo's theories of akrasia (why people's knowledge and actios don't match), a psychological model that went almost as obsolete as his physics.

    Basically, Aristo taught that akrasia is caused by pathos, which we would call ta'avah (which he called pathos without an adjective) and ka'as (the pathos of anger). But it only occurs when the person's "knowledge" is really only held at the level of opinion. Bad decisions thus are preconditioned on ignorance.

    Hume, Freud or Rav Yisrael Salanter would vehemently disagree. Instead today we discuss what aspect of the mind knows; cerebral knowledge vs gut knowledge, or something of the sort. Then there's the whole concept of unconscious, or as R' Yisrael called it the dunkel (darkness). (R' Hillel Goldberg notes that RYS's klar vs dunkel is following Kant.)

    None of this complex model of psyche enters the Rambam's worldview.


    (Side-note: the word "crazy" comes from "crazed", meaning factured and cracked, and has nothing to do with the word akrasia, despite what some might have guessed.)

  2. Err... Waiting for the end, meaning: waiting for you to answer the question in the subject line. I truly believe the Rambam's answer is "No, a non-philosophical person does not have rights to the world to come." That a minimum knowledge, the 13 ikkarim, gets you a minimum of WtC, and more philophical knowledge gets you more. He even argues that it's knowledge of G-d that creates aspects of His Form (Tzelem E-lokim) in one's mind -- including His Eternity! The Rambam gives a causal link directly from knowing G-d to surviving into the WtC.

    He places moral knowledge below philosophical knowledge, based on the fact that it took the eitz hadaas to lower us into dealing on that plane.

    And the Rambam's term for the less intelligent or less informed who can't follow a subtle argument is the Arabic translated as "small souled".

    So at part 4, I'm getting impatient for you resolution showing otherwise. (As you intimated in a reply to an earlier comment.)


  3. R. Micha,

    Re your first comment, please keep in mind that Rambam accepted Aristo only as it pertains to "below the Galgal Hayare'ach". When it comes to yesh Me'ayin he argues that Nevuah trumps it as it cannot ever be proven with the sechel itself. The same applies to Olam Haba which is "A'yin lo Ro'ata Elokim Zulotecha" as in end of Hil Teshuvah.

    Re your comment on MN1:1 and 1:2 - Tov and Ra there describes the human condition where laws and great effort has to be made to protect humanity from itself because of the needs and urges of the chomer. However the ending of the Moreh the same acts (chessed, Tzedakah and Mishpat) done in the context of Derech Hashem are the ultimate goal. Do you still see Tov and Ra as the lesser or is this Tov Verah the ultimate perfection? Rambam does not accept a life of contemplation but rather of action. Contemplation and the consequent yediah is only a transition to acting in concert with Derech Hashem.

  4. 1. I find the premise underlying Micha's comment bewildering. Should we not be a little more curious about the model of the soul of Rambam? Could this model not be of great benefit in understanding the Mesorah as presented in MT?

    2. David can you explain

    ג אין לך מצוה בכל המצוות כולן שהיא שקולה כנגד תלמוד תורה, אלא תלמוד תורה כנגד כל המצוות כולן--שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה. לפיכך התלמוד קודם למעשה, בכל מקום: [ד] היה לפניו עשיית מצוה ותלמוד תורה--אם אפשר למצוה להיעשות על ידי אחרים, לא יפסיק תלמודו; ואם לאו, יעשה המצוה ויחזור לתורתו.

    ד [ה] תחילת דינו של אדם, אינו נידון אלא על התלמוד, ואחר כך, על שאר מעשיו; לפיכך אמרו חכמים, לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה, אפילו שלא לשמה--שמתוך שלא לשמה, בא לשמה.

  5. Rabbi Sacks,

    In your #2, what problem do you see?

  6. Hagyan

    The Halacha is unclear to me.

    TT (contemplation) is spoken of as prior in excellence to actions

    אין לך מצוה בכל המצוות כולן שהיא שקולה כנגד תלמוד תורה

    Yet then TT seems to be mere instrument to action

    שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה

    But then it becomes prior in being to action once again. TT is done at the expense of Mitzva with the exception of if the public needs it. Also ones development is measured in terms of TT not action.

    היה לפניו עשיית מצוה ותלמוד תורה--אם אפשר למצוה להיעשות על ידי אחרים, לא יפסיק תלמודו; ואם לאו, יעשה המצוה ויחזור לתורתו.

    ד [ה] תחילת דינו של אדם, אינו נידון אלא על התלמוד, ואחר כך, על שאר מעשיו;

  7. Rabbi Sacks,

    please define for me שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה

    It does not say that one cannot do without knowing how to, but rather that Talmud brings about action.

  8. I would say that means מביא לידי מעשה means that contemplation, seeking abstract formulae or "meanings" that are "true" in the sense of being nikkar in the derech of particular things we identify in the world around us, is the cause of a soul calaculating his own particular circumstance as an instance of the aforementioned "truth".

  9. RJS & RDG,

    I presumed people would understand that when I said "li nir'eh the Rambam is based on Aristo's theories of akrasia", it wasn't because I prejudged the Rambam based on having already read Aristotle. In fact the reverse -- I learned Aristo on the subject only because there were too many Aristotilian terms in Shemoneh Peraqim and the third section of the Moreh. I couldn't believe I would understand either without seeing how Aristo used the concepts. Turns out there is little to no gap.

    And RJS, I wasn't referring to MN 1:1-2, but to 3:27. I would also assert that the whole topic of section III is the relationship between mitzvos and personal redemption, so that's really the place to look.

    Another source is his commentary on "Ratzah HQBH lezakos es Yisrael, lefikhakh hirba lahem Torah umitzvos." The amount of Torah and mitzvos is defined as a zekhus because it gives us so many opportunities to have that moment of epiphany. His take on "mitokh shelo lishmah bah lishmah" is similar -- that "qoneh olamo besha'ah achas" is that moment when he finally gets that understanding.

    Our host concluded in part 3 of this series that "we see Rambam clearly telling us that Olam Haba is not dependent on intellectual apprehensions but rather a result of keeping the practical Mitzvot. There is however a caveat, not here but in Hilchot Teshuvah, where Rambam conditions proper actions on correct ideas." I obviously disagree.

    Here's what the Rambam says in MN 3:31, "But the truth is undoubtedly as we have said, that every one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits. All this depends on three things: opinions, morals, and social conduct." But what is the purpose of morals and social conduct? They aren't primary values, their value is derived -- they are the gateway to being able to know. The Rambam discusses this in the next couple of chapters, after he discusses the first categories (inculcating truth and removing falsehood).

    Again, throughout his works the Rambam calls the more intelligent "larger souled". The quantity of soul is the quantity of intellect.

    More on Aristotilian akrasia: Notice the Rambam's halakhos on living a life of what we call "middos tovos" is called "dei'os". He identifies middos as coming from yedi'ah, knowledge.

    This is worth my investing enough effort to get organized and blog about on Aspaqlaria.


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  11. R. Micha


    I assumed that when we were talking about Rambam, we were talking about how to implement a derech ha-chaim in accordance with the Baal Ha- Mesorah's instruction. I do not notice that Rabbenu instructs his student to find the "source in Aristotle" for what he says about the soul in Shemone Perakim in order to enter a dialectical debate with his student.

    Rather, I notice that Rabbenu offers the model of the soul as a prescription to his student/patient who is seeking hadracha in how to apply the mussar in the Mishnayot of Pirkei avot. To me this would involve seeing how the Mussar applies to diseases of the soul as I see them in myself.

    I am curious R. Micha,did you try to see if there were any signs of the soul, as Rabbenu describes it, in your own experience?

  12. Fine, than ignore all the comparisons to what I feel is his source -- the science of psychology as it existed in his day. His source doesn't really matter in assessing his position. The fact that his position on how decisions are made and thus how to refine that process is identical to one that psychologists and acharonim wouldn't hold of can be assessed whether or not I invoke Hume's rejection of Aristotle.

    It still remains that I gave plenty of evidence to indicate that according to the Rambam, the path to G-d and the purpose for which He created us is through the intellect. Morality and ethics are handmaidens to intellect, leshitaso. And since in the ideal, had Adam not eaten from the eitz hada'as, they wouldn't be plagued with moral uncertainty, the Rambam believes that that whole plane of decisionmaking is inferior to that of Truth vs Falsehood.

    Do you share the Rambam's disdain for an emunah peshutah? Do you believe that the person with Downs is guaranteed a lower place in heaven and has a smaller soul? (Or do you believe (as I believe do most contemporary O Jews) that HQBH judges each person based on how well he faced the challenges of his own life? Do you think that poor decisions come from imperfect knowledge rather than a lack of moral development?

    Also, see the haqdamah to Igeros Mosheh. Would you agree with RMF that the pursuit of truth is of more value than obtaining the truth? Would the Rambam?


  13. R.Micha

    Mi-Moshe ad Moshe lo kam Ki-Moshe. With all due respect to contemporary Jews, Achronim and ordinary folk alike, if one of the greatest of the Baalei Mesorah instructs me to explore my psyche in a certain way, I would do so first,and ask questions after.

  14. sorry but was very busy this short Friday. R. Micha please explain

    התשובה מקרבת את הרחוקים: אמש היה זה שנוי לפני המקום, משוקץ ומרוחק ותועבה; והיום הוא אהוב ונחמד, קרוב וידיד

    How does one change momntarily? Or is this only for a philosopher who has erred? See especially the rest of that Perek 7 in Hil teshuvah.

  15. Rabbi Sacks: "... instructs me to explore my psyche in a certain way"

    Where do you read this "instruction"? The Hakdama to Avot? Is there a halacha in MT that you believe instructs you to do this?


  16. Hagyan

    I was referring to the Shemone Perakim, Rambam's introduction to Avot.It is not time to refer to this issue in Halachic terms yet.

    It never ceases to baffle me why people find it so difficult to experiment with Rambam's model of the soul. We as Jews spend so much time on obligatory actions. We usually have very little understanding what they are about.

    Why would anyone not want to recognize the soul, these actions were made to heal? Wouldn't that stand to reason?

  17. RJS,

    Is the Rambam presenting the Torah's model of the soul (as he understands it) and how to use it to serve G-d? Or is he giving a route to serving G-d given what the science of his day had to say about the human psyche?

    In any case, an understanding of the soul based on R' Bachya and Rabbeinu Yonah is no less authentic and actually bears correspondence to how we today relate to our own psyches.

    RDG: Recall that in the Rambam's Negative Theology, love in the sense used between people doesn't work. He instead defines love in terms of knowledge, a desire to know Him. E.g. Yesodei haTorah 2:1.

    Which is, as I've been saying, leshitaso -- since to the Rambam, everything boils down to yedi'ah. Morality is of derived value. As per the end of the Moreh, as discussed already.


  18. R. Micha

    Is the Rambam presenting the Torah's model of the soul (as he understands it) and how to use it to serve G-d? Or is he giving a route to serving G-d given what the science of his day had to say about the human psyche?

    How could a Baal Hamesorah do anything but present the Torah's model of the soul, as he understands it?

    Consider R. Micha. When Rambam says that the Mitzvot are intended to heal the soul, as he describes it. The issue is not which description of the soul is more comfortable to me as a modern. The issue is which description is instrumental to receiving the MesorAH.

    Do you think that Rambam didn't check his description of the soulout, on his knowledge of the Taryag as he actually saw them operating in his soul?

    I for one a very curious to see how the soul looks through the preception of one, whose thought encompassed taryag as Rambam's did. Disregarding the uniqueness of Rambam as a baal ha-mesorah for a moment. The soul, as Rambam presents it gives new access to the MT, the only known presentation of Taryag in its entirety. This is a unique gift of Mesorah.

    Do either of the Rabbonim you mention have a MT I gain access to via their description of the soul?

  19. RJS,

    Take the time to learn the Moreh's take on the secrets of Maaseh Bereishis. It needn't be involved, just Moreh 2:30. Then come back to me about how much the Rambam was about understanding Torah within the context of an accepted science.

    And what is so non-mesoretic about the idea? Is it any different than R' Dr Abraham Twerski charting a way of serving G-d using 12 Step and Human Potential ideas?

    The Rambam takes contemporary theories of psychology for granted, and then tells you how then to acheive the Torah's goals with that mechanism.

    Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pequda and Rabbeinu Yonah also give paths to perfect one's soul and serve Hashem, ones that don't presume a model of the psyche that is different than our experience. And happens to coincide with discredited ideas from then-contemporary science.

    From a strategic point of view, there are other rishonim whose theories of akrasia actually fit contemporary experience. Why seek the Rambam, even if you think his similarity to Artisto's psychology is coincidental?

    The notion that intellect is a handmaiden to morality, that vehalakhta bidrakhav is the essence of life, not a tool to knowing Him, has roots older than the Rambam. The Rambam, however, was of a different school.


  20. Rabbi Berger,

    IF, hypothetically, you met an intelligent, thoughtful Jew tomorrow who testified thus: "I have found the propositions of the רמב"ם about the soul to be empirically true about myself." ... might your conviction in your position be affected?


  21. Rabbi Berger,

    If I might, I'd like to ask a second question, since you've obviously read extensively on the subject.

    In light of books like The Halakhic Mind, do you think the Rav believed that my hypothetical Jew could exist?

  22. I might terll that person to go for it -- whatever works.

    But since his self-perception is at odds with both psychology and tenu'as hamussar, I think his experience would be very atypical. I would also wonder to myself about his ability at hislamdus and self-awareness.

    My objection to the Rambam comes from three places:

    1- The Rambam's focus on intellect means that my son Shuby, who has Downs, as less potential in the world to come as well as in this one. I find that conclusion repugnant. (Not saying I should or should not feel that way, just that I do.)

    2- I aspire to restore many of the elements of the Mussar Movement. Therefore, don't be surprised that I find the precursors more compelling than the Rambam. I already mentioned Chovos haLvavos and Rabbeinu Yonah. I find the Ran's and the Ikkarim's model (it's rebbe and talmid, pretty much a single model) of the soul and the psyche more compelling than the Rambam's as well.

    3- When I learn the machashavah works of rishonim, I look around for how they fit into the zeitgeist, and where they contrast to it. This requires some exposure to Aristo, Plato, the Kalam (the Islamic philosophers), etc... You can see quite blatantly that the Rambam isn't saying anything Aristo didn't. And in the secular world, later philosophy and then once it split off psychology, discredited Ariso's model.

    I don't stick to the Rambam when it comes to geocentrism, the planets being embedded in spheres, or their having intelligence. These are notions of his produced by explaining Torah within Aristo's science. Science has moved on.

    And BTW, Aristo's notion of what is intellect goes into both that concept of the spheres having intellects. As does his notion of a chain of intellects from the Creator's Thought to the Active Intellect to the spheres to physical existence. Much of the Rambam's notion of how to approach G-d via knowledge is based on that chain. IOW, not buying into the Rambam's astronomy actually weakens his anatomy of the soul, his explanation of why humans sin, and the purpose of our existence.


  23. Rabbi Berger,

    F.Y.I.: Since we were posting simulaneously I hadn't seen your response when I posted my second question. I'm just starting to think about your answer now.


  24. Rabbi Berger,

    Could you imagine a Rosh Yeshiva, pulpit rabbi, etc., who shared your convictions, advising my hypothetical Jew to seek psychiatric treatment?


  25. Woah! Where do you get the notion that someone who uses an inaccurate model of himself is mentally ill? How well does anyone really know their inner workings?

    I often quip, mostly not as a joke, that the reason why the RBSO invented marriage is so that there will be one person in the world who truly knows you. Single people unfortunately lack that mirror.

    So someone who on an intellectual level has a model that I feel doesn't stand up to reality isn't inherently mentally ill for it. After all, Aristo and everyone else who didn't have the concepts of unconscious and preconscious to work with thought the model was pretty good.

    We, however, do have the concept of "neshamah shenasata bi teshorah hi". Not only unconscious negative motives, but an aspect of our psyches that remains pure no matter how much we might shmutz up our conscious selves. We therefore have baalei mesorah who talk in terms of unconscious and side-motives well before Kant introduced the dunkel to the western world.

    I think RYBS would equally believe the person was mistaken. RYBS's central goal is amazingly Novhardok-esque -- it's about deveiqus with Hashem, but defined in terms of being whole enough to be in contact with that in ourselves which is already nidvaq. Or maybe it's not so amazing. If you give a kid a background in Chabad chassidus and yet have him grow up in the heart of Litvisher life in every other way, I guess this synthesis of deveiqus to Hashem and sheleimus ha'adam is a logical outcome.

    Halachic man internalizes halachic ideas and ideals into the emotional level. It's not about knowledge as an end in itself. It's being able to see the extra beauty of the sunset that accompanies ne'ilah. (As RYBS tells us his father did.) It's feeling the anticipation of Shabbos of the "erev Shabbos Jew".

    As for what I would tell him, I touched on that already (correcting my typo): I might tell that person to go for it -- whatever works.

    A well-used inaccurate model is better than swimming around in the dark without a framework to give life structure and meaning.


  26. Rabbi Berger,

    Thank you for your answers.

  27. Rabbi Berger,

    Since I really haven't ever had contact with תנועת המוסר, I found your talk on "Birchos haTorah", particularly your discussion of התלמדות following 34:55, very interesting.

    It left me curious to know: Is the דרך תבונות of the רמח"ל part of the תנועת המוסר "curriculum"? This is interesting to me because I have spent quite a lot of effort on the מסילת ישרים.