Monday, December 20, 2010

The Conundrum of Korbanot - Part 1 - Introduction.

Rambam’s explanation of the reason for the Mitzvot related to Korbanot has been discussed for generations from the famous Ramban at the beginning of Vaykra followed by almost every Maimonidean scholar and commenter, classic or modern, since. To complicate the matter even more is the apparent inconsistency in Rambam’s own position between the different places in his writing where he addresses the issue. (He addresses the issue in every one of his books, whether directly or implicitly. I will try to address all of them as we go along.)

For the contemporary Jew, Korbanot is a major problem. It is contrary to our whole understanding of right and wrong to sacrifice living things just to ask forgiveness or placate God. The idea itself of placating God, though still acceptable in many circle, goes against the sensibilities of a more sophisticated understanding of a transcendent God. In truth, even the prophets, found the idea of Korbanot to be incongruous. We read in the Haftorah before Tisha Be’av, where Yeshayahu 1:11 declares –

יא  לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר יְהוָה, שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים; וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים, לֹא חָפָצְתִּי.
11 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? says the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.

And Yirmyahu (11:22) declares in an astounding denial –

כב  כִּי לֹא-דִבַּרְתִּי אֶת-אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם, וְלֹא צִוִּיתִים, בְּיוֹם הוציא (הוֹצִיאִי) אוֹתָם, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם--עַל-דִּבְרֵי עוֹלָה, וָזָבַח.
22 For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices;

So how are we to understand the centrality of Korbanot in Jewish Halacha? Besides the extensive detailed precepts we find in the written Torah, in fact, it is the most regulated ritual of all, in addition we have a whole section in the Gemara – Seder Kodashim – discussing just those rules in addition to there being discussions scattered all over Shas. Rambam in his MT dedicates two of the 14 Books to Korbanot – Sefer Avodah and Sefer Korbanot. Our daily prayer is modeled after Korbanot and we pray constantly for their return once the Beit Hamikdash is rebuilt. How is a contemporary thoughtful Jew supposed to deal with this whole corpus of ritual?

I believe a discussion based on Rambam’s many writings on the subject can bring us closer to a resolution and a better understanding of how to deal with this dilemma. As a continuation of my earlier posts on Ta’amei Hamitzvot, I will dedicate a few posts to this subject.

As I have discussed many times, Rambam does not accept the idea that Mitzvot have any intrinsic worth. In other words, a Mitzvah does not influence God nor does it change His supposed opinion of us. All Mitzvot are meant for us, either to teach us a proper theology, or to help us change our behavior and improve ourselves or to establish and maintain a properly functioning society. It is in this vein that Rambam begins his discussion of Korbanot in MN 3:32. Interestingly it is here that he elaborates on the idea that Mitzvot are fine-tuned psychologically to help us change our way of thinking. He starts by giving a lesson in the natural evolution and adaptation to the environment of all living things.

If you consider the divine actions – I mean to say the natural actions – the deity’s wily graciousness and wisdom, as shown in the creation of living beings, in the gradation of the motions of the limbs, and the proximity of some of the latter to others, will through them become clear to you.

He then continues to detail how every limb and part of living things are so perfectly calibrated to function with each other, be protected from a hostile environment and generally the intelligent way all biological things are made. He then continues –

Many things in our Law are due to something similar to this very governance on the part of Him who governs…”

The Mitzvot according to Rambam are tailored to the physical world we live in. They are tailored to work with our human biology and psyche. Unlike many thinkers who saw the Mitzvot as a way of influencing higher powers, changing the way “shefa” – the flow - comes to us; Rambam sees them as intended to influence our behavior and thought process.

For a sudden transition from one opposite to another is impossible. And therefore, man, according to his nature, is not capable of abandoning suddenly all to which he was accustomed. As therefore God sent Moshe our master to make out of us a kingdom of priests and a holy nation- through the knowledge of Him…..”

Human beings cannot change their behavior or their thinking in one leap. They require a gradual process of education and learning, training oneself to react differently and to think rationally. Mitzvot are intended to help us accomplish that and bring about a change in our behavior and thinking. They accomplish that gradually. The goal of Mitzvot is to transform the primitive human being into a sophisticated thinker, one who is consumed with daily physical survival into an intellectual devoted to understanding existential matters. That goal is multi-generational and evolves over millennia. For it to work, the Torah had to be tailored so that it puts a person on a path to development, starting with the state he is in currently and advancing with him as he grows intellectually. All Mitzvot are therefore only tools necessary for us to reach our goal of intellectual development.

“… and that similarly all the actions prescribed by the Law – I refer to the various species of worship and also the moral habits that are useful to all people in their mutual dealings – that all this is not to be compared with the ultimate end and does not equal it, being but preparations made for the sake of this end.” (MN3:54)

As we will see in upcoming posts, Korbanot are a paradigm for all Mitzvot, demonstrating very succinctly this idea of Mitzvot. That is why the Rambam in his Pirush on the second Mishna in Avot –

הוא היה אומר, על שלושה דברים העולם עומד--על התורה, ועל העבודה, ועל גמילות החסדים.
ב] יאמר, שבחכמה, והיא התורה, ובמעלות המידות, והן גמילות חסדים, ובקיום ציוויי התורה, והן הקרבנות - התמדת תיקון העולם, וסידור מציאותו על האופן השלם ביותר.

The word Avodah refers to Mitzvot and the paradigm for them is Korbanot. The Mishna is telling us that the physical world owes its continuity and existence – de facto and not in a mystical way – on three things:

Torah – which includes ALL knowledge including the sciences namely Chochma.

Gemilut Chassadim – which represent all the social laws, being they are reciprocal.

Avodah – refers to all the ritualistic laws that are represented by Korbanot.

They all have as purpose to bring us to search for the existential meaning of our existence and the goal and responsibilities we have as part of HKBH’s world. It is only then that we can act responsibly and insure continuity -- התמדת תיקון העולם, וסידור מציאותו על האופן השלם ביותר .

To be continued.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Uncertainty and Knowing God and His Ways.

Responding further to Evanston Jew’s (EJ) questions in a comment thread earlier this month:

You say the Torah is the mind of God. How does God have a mind? He doesn’t have a body. Is God more than the mind of God?

Since God has no body, He therefore cannot have a mind as EJ points out. The only way we human can try, and I emphasize, “Try” to decipher God’s overall blueprint for our existence, is by contemplating our environment and ourselves and try to make sense of it. From our perspective, we say that we are searching for God’s mind. We know rationally that God does not “think”, want, wish, have thoughts, emote or do any of the things we humans do, as that would indicate change, qualities that cannot exist in a unique transcendental entity. We however cannot imagine that the results we observe could come about from any entity that does not “think” the way we do; we therefore refer to it as the “mind” of God or Chochmato in philosophical discourse.
This brings us to the next question:

How does love of God equal knowledge of science and/or God? What is knowledge of God?

Love is a feeling that results from intimacy. We love a loved one because we know that person intimately. That differentiates love from lust between man and woman. We cannot try to know God, who does not exist in the sense we know existence, except by observing the results of His actions. Recognizing that there is a First Cause, a non-contingent entity, there is only one way to get some inkling about that entity, by understanding to the extent we can, the results of His actions by observing these results. Understanding our environment and ourselves, the results of His actions [please remember “action” is a human term for how these kinds of results can come about], is the only hope we have of getting to know God. This is not easy and requires discipline, personal self-improvement to overcome our natural narcissistic tendencies and developing our capacity for objectivity. As we acquire more and more knowledge, we become more intimate with God and love develops.

האל הנכבד והנורא הזה--מצוה לאוהבו וליראה ממנו, שנאמר "ואהבת, את ה' אלוהיך

ונאמר "את ה' אלוהיך תירא

והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו, ויראתו: בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו הנפלאים הגדולים, ויראה מהם חכמתו שאין לה ערך ולא קץ--מיד הוא אוהב ומשבח ומפאר ומתאווה תאווה גדולה לידע השם הגדול, כמו שאמר דויד "צמאה נפשי, לאלוהים--לאל חי"
(Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 2:1)

Do we become one with knowledge by knowing the sum total of true beliefs or only a subset, like all true mathematical sentences? What about knowing the names of our children? Optional?

Medieval thinkers understood that knowledge becomes one with the mind and the mind with knowledge. We have a different understanding of how our brain works. However, we still believe that knowledge transforms the human mind from potentially knowing to in-actu knowing. That transformation is described as becoming one with knowledge. Maybe knowing the names of our children is not transformational, but knowing them certainly is.

Do you believe istakel beoraisa oobaraw almaw? [translation: He looked into the Torah and created the world]. Do you accept oraisa vehakadosh borachhoo chad hoo [translation: Torah and God are one] and ditto for yisrael veoraisa [translation: Yisrael and Torah are one]?

These quotes are Zoharic and like all Midrashim cannot be taken literally. These are concisely presented statements of medieval thinkers such as Ramban and Rambam, told in a metaphoric language and these contain a lot of thought in few words. Accepting the idea that Torah encompasses all knowledge [not only Halacha, as contemporary Yeshivot want us to believe], it is not far fetched when Torah is seen as God’s blueprint. It being God’s blueprint makes it one with God whose mind cannot be differentiated from His essence. Yisrael, the committed Torah learners, Torah in its broad sense of course, as they do what they are meant to do, become one with that knowledge. I know that readers will react by saying aren’t the “secular” scientists the ones who developed our understanding of our environment? How can you credit the Torah and those who learn it for the advances in science? The way I see it, myths of antiquity and idolatry and their followers, were a major barrier to open minded inquiry. When one can explain a phenomenon as magical, there is no further need to investigate; indeed investigation is dangerous as it might upset the magical powers that use their esoteric knowledge as tools of control. The core of Halachik Torah is the fight for the abolition of idolatry. The people that practice the Torah, in their human frailty, at times seem to be supporting and going in the wrong direction but then, every so often a person like Rambam appears on the scene and nudges us back onto the right path. It is only because of that partially successful fight against superstition and idolatry that western civilization, greatly influenced by the Judaic culture via its misguided offshoots, Islam and Christianity, made the strides that brought us modern science and empiricism.

In closing, I would like to explain my emphasis on the word “try”, conveying a tentative sense to our knowledge of God and His world and the importance of not deluding ourselves that we have all the answers or even some of them. In Mishlei 16:4-5 we read:

ד כֹּל פָּעַל יְהוָה, לַמַּעֲנֵהוּ; וְגַם-רָשָׁע, לְיוֹם רָעָה. 4

Each act of the Lord has its own end; even the wicked for an evil day.

Rambam in MN3:13 comments on this verse:

The words, " Each act of the Lord has its own end "express therefore the same idea as the following verse, "Everything that is called by my name: I have created it for my glory, I have formed it; yea, I have made it" (Isa. xliii. 7); that is to say, everything that is described as My work has been made by Me for the sake of My will and for no other purpose.

The idea is that in observing that what God made, a person contemplates His will. Lest a person think that he has apprehended God and His will in this contemplation, Shlomo Hamelech immediately warns us –

ה תּוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה, כָּל-גְּבַהּ-לֵב; יָד לְיָד, לֹא יִנָּקֶה. 5

Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD; my hand upon it! he shall not be unpunished.

In other words, do not think and act with certainty based on that contemplation. Humans do not have the ability to really apprehend HKBH’s ways, they can try and as long as they are aware of their limitations, they can act with caution and humility. The certainty of the zealot is an abomination to HKBH.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Actions and Knowledge - Decision Making.

 Responding to my comments on the excellent blog Three Jews, Four opinions Evanston Jew posed a few questions which require a more thorough treatment than on a comment thread. Here are the first two: (I rearranged their sequence for clarity)

1. Knowledge=Chochma=wisdom= science= all the sciences +philosophy+ theology. You say in your second comment, "learning Torah encompasses all the sciences etc." Is encompasses the same as identical, and is knowledge, wisdom, science contained in or synonymous with Torah?

2. How can understanding the science of chemistry or evolution predict or give us a picture where the universe is headed. Are you referring to truths like one day the sun will implode or the universe will expand forever? Do you know where the universe is headed?

Let me do the Jewish thing and begin with a question; how does one know whether his or her next act is  good or bad? We all agree that every action has a consequence whether trivial or momentous, so we would have to look at the outcome resulting from that act. As I get older and also more introspective, I can see how actions I took decades ago had consequences which I can tie in with specific decisions I made then. Some of those outcomes are good, others are pretty bad and it is clear that in those cases I could have done things differently for a different and better outcome. But even assessing now, so many years later, whether the outcome was good or bad is not so simple. The bad may be just a transition and as those who are affected by that decision continue on their path, we might find out that things evolved for the best and the same goes for the currently apparent good. In fact, many consequences of my actions may only become clear after I am long gone, maybe even a few generations down the road. As I look back on the things I did, the decisions I made, I have to say that all were pretty much like shooting darts in the dark. There was no real long-term impact assessment or study made before deciding. I based my decision on my instinct, my impulses, and my emotional state at the time and whatever logic I could muster up. Is there a way to improve our decision making so that it has the desired outcome in the long term? But what is the “desired” outcome? Isn’t that a problem too? Different people, based on their state of mind, culture, emotional state, personal bias and a slew of other factors will see different things as good and bad outcomes. Is there an objective criterion?

There really is no good answer to these questions because we are human and our perspective is very limited. But there are ways we can improve our decision-making and broaden our horizon. First, we have to define “good” and “bad” so that we can establish what a “desired” outcome is. Then we have to understand what the consequence of each action is. The most difficult task though is to understand ourselves and overcome our impulses and biases so that we can come to an objective conclusion rather that a subjectively self-indulging one. To achieve all this we need to acquire a lot of knowledge. We have to understand the world we live in, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, psychology, mathematics and all the other sciences including metaphysics and theology that try to explain how things function in our world. It is only then that we can hope to develop an understanding of “good” and “bad”, desired outcome and the actions that will bring those about. Clearly, no one person, not even one generation of humankind can achieve all this in one lifetime. This requires years, civilizations, many peoples and trial and error.

Rambam tells us in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 4:13

 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

Pardes are the sciences while Havayot דאביי ורבא are the rules of self-discipline in both action and thought that are the underlying reason of לידע ביאור האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן משאר המצוות.

Rambam also tells us in Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:12 in a discussion on how one should organize the day and learn Torah and its various components והעניינות הנקראין פרדס, בכלל התלמוד. In other words Pardes, the sciences including metaphysics, are categorized as Talmud, as part of the core of the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah.

The purpose of acquiring all this knowledge and working on self-improvement is to try our best and I keep on emphasizing, “try our best”, to figure out how to act properly and responsibly and to assess “good” and “bad” objectively by understanding ourselves and our environment. This is the idea behind the Mitzvah of Vehalachta Biderachav – to follow in God’s path so poignantly and concisely expressed in Breishit 18:18-19

  וְאַבְרָהָם--הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וְעָצוּם; וְנִבְרְכוּ-בוֹ--כֹּל, גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ.

Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him

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

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 hath spoken of him.'

Avraham realized that to know what is the desired effect – “to the end that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him” – he had to first figure out what to “keep the way of the LORD” means. The result of that contemplation was “to do righteousness and justice”. It is with that understanding that Avraham could foresee the outcome at Sdom. When Lot decided to move there the basis of his decision was very mundane – (Breishit 13:10)

י  וַיִּשָּׂא-לוֹט אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא
אֶת-כָּל-כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן, כִּי כֻלָּהּ, מַשְׁקֶה--לִפְנֵי שַׁחֵת
יְהוָה, אֶת-סְדֹם וְאֶת-עֲמֹרָה, כְּגַן-יְהוָה כְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם,
בֹּאֲכָה צֹעַר.

10 And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as one goes unto Tzoar.

I am sure there were signs of the upcoming destruction, as Sdom lies directly on a fault at the edge of a major tectonic plate there must have been earlier less devastating tremors etc… and Lot chose to ignore them because of the short-term gain he saw in the fertility of the land. The “desired outcome” that Lot was seeking was not in accord with Derech Hashem. It was a selfish and narcissistic short-term decision. Avraham on the other hand realized the mistake Lot made and Lot, a student of Avraham, came to that realization just in time to barely save his own skin. Lot’s earlier decisions to join Avraham show his conflicted personality and the imperfect decisions this brought about. It is those early decisions that resulted generations later in the two nations Amon and Mo’av.

So answering Evanston Jews questions, yes all knowledge that leads to our better understanding of our universe, world and society falls under the rubric of Talmud Torah as it helps in our acting responsibly for the long term. The Halachik part of the Torah is only one of the components of Talmud Torah albeit an important one, because it gives us the tools to assimilate the other knowledge and use it constructively. And yes, knowledge and information are crucial in our decision making and for us to know how to act. Does knowledge lead to perfect action, are we always right if we act with knowledge, of course not. We are human and the best we can do is try our best by getting to know as much as we can about ourselves and the world we live in.

I will address Evanston Jews other questions which are related to his first question in a follow up post as I have reached my self-imposed limit on posts lengths and have indulged in a little digressing to Parshanut.  


Monday, November 15, 2010

The Paradox of Creationism and Non-Corporeality.

Proving the existence of God is a topic discussed from time immemorial and seems to be a never-ending subject. I believe that the cause is the lack of definitions[1]. When we are trying to prove the existence of God, the thinking is that we are talking about a personal God, an entity that created and controls existence and is involved in it on a constant basis. That is the God that is relevant to the general public and is therefore the one that is instinctively sought after. Unfortunately, the only thing that we can prove unequivocally is the existence of a non-contingent entity that is uniquely non-contingent, non-physical and whose “existence” itself is only a term used for an entity that “exists” in an “existence” that we cannot fathom.

“…for even the term “existence” is applied to Him and other things, according to our opinion, only by way of absolute equivocation.” (MN 1:52, repeated in MN 1:35, 56 and 57.)

I say “Prove”, but I have to add a caveat even to this. Let me explain. Rambam in the introductory chapters to his discussion of the proofs for the existence of God presents the most common proofs, the ones used to this day, which are based on creation and referred to nowadays as “ID - Intelligent design” and which he vehemently rejects.   Rambam explains that basing the existence of God on the argument that the world[2] must have a creator for it to be so magnificently structured is a very risky approach. He argues that there is no unequivocal proof that the world was created. It is only an argument that seems to be the most appealing and logical but cannot be proven incontrovertibly. Basing the existence of God on such a weak base is not a good idea. He therefore undertakes to prove it based on the possibility of an eternal universe too. He brings several proofs and one of the most compelling to me is the one arguing that in a world that we observe as being contingent, where every part of it is contingent on a preceding cause, there must be one entity that is non-contingent – that entity is what we call God[3]. In essence, he therefore shows that whether we believe in a created universe or an eternal one, there must be an entity, a “First Existent” that we refer to as God. The problem that we face is that the God that emerges from the eternal universe argument is necessarily uniquely non-contingent and therefore non- physical while the one that emerges from the creationist argument does not necessarily have to be non-physical and therefore uniqueness cannot be proven.

The universe is either eternal or has had a beginning; if it had a beginning, there must necessarily exist a being which caused the beginning; this is clear to common sense; for a thing that has had a beginning, cannot be the cause of its own beginning, another must have caused it. The universe was therefore created by God. If on the other hand the universe were eternal, it could in various ways be proved that apart from the things which constitute the universe, there exists a being which is neither body nor a force in a body, and which is one, eternal, not preceded by any cause, and immutable. That being is God.” (MN 1:71)

Unity and non-corporeality can only be unequivocally proven if one assumes an eternal universe. A created universe can accept a non-corporeal unique God but it cannot be unequivocally proven. We therefore face a great paradox – accept creation – God does not have to be non-corporeal, accept eternity of the universe, God must be non-corporeal. We, Jews, who accept creation as a belief should therefore be able to live with the idea of a physical God. In fact, many great Jews did believe that God was corporeal. Ra’avad in Hilchot Teshuvah 3:7 makes the famous comment that “greater and better people [than Rambam who considers corporealists as minim] accepted that belief based on what they read in the scriptures and even more in the Aggadot that confuse thinking”.

It is with this in mind that I believe Hilchot Teshuvah 3:7 becomes clearer. 

טו  [ז] חמישה הן הנקראין מינים:  האומר שאין שם אלוה, ואין לעולם מנהיג; והאומר שיש שם מנהיג, אבל הם שניים או יתר; והאומר שיש שם ריבון אחד, אלא שהוא גוף ובעל תמונה; וכן האומר שאינו לבדו ראשון וצור לכול; וכן העובד אלוה זולתו, כדי להיות מליץ בינו ובין ריבון העולמים.  כל אחד מחמישה אלו מין.

The first of the five “Minim” must be read as one who accepts the existence of an entity such as God but does not accept Him as the entity responsible for natural law (מנהיג)[4]. An atheist, one who does not believe in the existence of God altogether, is not a Min – a religious definition. Denial of the existence of a “First Existent” is illogical because,

 יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות, לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון
(Yesodei Hatorah 1:1)

The existence of a First Existent is a fact; it is the foundation and supporting column of all knowledge. In Hilchot Teshuvah, the Min rejects how our religion sees God and that places him in the category of Minim.

Micah Goodman in his excellent book “Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed” (pg. 268-269) concludes that Rambam did not really believe that the existence of God is unequivocally provable[5]. I believe he erred by conflating the existence of God with “what” God is, an argument he himself makes several times in the discussion. True, the idea of a non-physical God is not provable; the existence of a First Existent is factual and provable. All the proofs that God is non-corporeal are based on the eternity of the universe which is not provable. The proofs for the existence of a First Existent are based on either possibilities; eternal or created universe.   


[1] In a letter to Marseilles Rambam writes:
Know, my masters, that it is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things. The first is a thing for which there is a clear proof deriving from man's reasoning—such as arithmetic' geometry, and astronomy. The second is a thing that a man perceives through one of the five senses—such as when he knows with certainty that this is red and this is black and the like through the sight of his eye; or as when he tastes that this is bitter and this is sweet; or as when he feels that this is hot and this is cold; or as when he hears that this sound is clear and this sound is indistinct; or as when he smells that this is a pleasing smell and this is a displeasing smell and the like. The third is a thing that a man receives from the prophets or from the righteous. Every reasonable man ought to distinguish in his mind and thought all the things that he accepts as trustworthy, and say: "This I accept as trustworthy because of tradition, and this because of sense perception, and this on grounds of reason." Anyone who accepts as trustworthy anything that is not of these three species, of him it is said: "The simple believes everything" (Prov. 14:15).
[2] I use “world” for simplicity and clarity. I am really talking about physical existence.
[3] A variation on this proof is what is referred to as the metaphysical proof; all existents are “possible existents” – they are not necessary existent. In an eternal existence, there must be a time when no “possible existents” were in existence. As we are here, there must therefore exist a “necessary existent” who is God. This proof too is dependent on an eternal universe.
[4] Otherwise, the first should be counted as two. It is only after accepting the existence of God that a discussion can be held on His role in existence. Clearly שאין שם אלוה must be read as one with . ואין לעולם מנהיג
[5] He bases it on professor Ze’ev Harvey’s article ‘Maimonides” Avicennianism” Maimonidean Studies Vol 5 (2008).

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Bein Adam Lamakom - Between Man and God.

Mitzvot are generally categorized as Bein Adam Lacheveiro – laws directed towards living within society – and Bein Adam Lamakom – laws that deal with man’s relationship to God. The meaning of the latter – man’s relationship to God is seen in contemporary mainstream Jewish thought, as a form of worship whereby man satisfies God’s wishes and by doing so unleashes a flood of “good”. The simplistic see it as a kind of quid pro quo – I do for God and He reciprocates. The more sophisticated see it as a form of Tikkun - reparation; man’s ritualistic action somehow “repairs” the ruptures in the cosmos allowing for the flow of “good” to gush forth. There is thus a feeling of man being able to manipulate the divine and induce it to satisfy what man considers his needs, by performing rituals. This explains the dissonance we see where people act immorally and unethically while being very punctilious ritualistically. One can hurt fellow man as long as God is placated, nothing untoward will happen. In fact, the ritualistic non-punctilious injured party had it coming to him.   

This has led to a religion of God in service of man. The Chassidim go to the Rebbes and Tzadikkim, the Yeshivish go to the “Gedolim” others go to the “Mekubalim” and other charlatans hoping that they have a better understanding of this manipulation, asking them to help and intercede. It has become anathema to doubt that this works; the doubters are seen as heretics who deny divine power and “Emunat Chachamim”. I, on the other hand, see it as a result of the Christianization of Judaism. As Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz so sharply pointed out, the Christian god sacrificed his son Jesus to serve humankind while Avraham sacrificed his son to serve God. The Christian god serves man and promotes “love” and “faith”. That god can be mollified and manipulated so that he takes pity. On the other hand, the Jewish God demands that man worship Him the source of all knowledge and promotes Yediah – knowledge.

לה  אַתָּה הָרְאֵתָ לָדַעַת, כִּי יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים:  אֵין עוֹד, מִלְּבַדּוֹ.

You yourself were taught to know that Hashem is God; there is none besides Him.

In authentic Judaism, “faith” is replaced with knowledge. Furthermore, our God does not change His mind nor is He mollifiable, because He is perfect in His essence and does not need to adapt, change or improve for greater perfection.

Rambam takes the idea of Mitzvot Bein Adam Lamakom, one-step further.

As is well known, all the commandments are divided into two groups: transgressions between man and his fellow man and transgressions between man and God…. For every commandment, whether it be a prescription or a prohibition, whose purpose is to bring about the achievement of a certain moral quality or of an opinion or the rightness of actions, which only concerns the individual himself and his becoming more perfect, is called by them a commandment dealing with the relation between man and God, even though in reality it sometimes may affect relations between man and his fellow man…. Note this.” (MN 3:35) 

The definition of Bein Adam Lamakom is a Mitzvah that promotes self-improvement. When the Mitzvah does not obviously relate to fellow man it is categorized Bein Adam Lamakom. Man’s self-improvement is the path to follow if he wishes to relate to God. Self-improvement includes the moral, the ethical and the intellectual. The ritual of all Mitzvot has no intrinsic meaning other than changing the person performing them, whether it teaches self-control or promotes a belief. God is not, God forbid, affected by this ritual. It is man that through the changes the Mitzvah induces in him brings himself closer to God. As usual, when Rambam ends a statement with “Note this”, he signals an important point and shift from traditional thinking. This is one of the important teachings and radical changes that Rambam set out to share with us.

This comment was brought to my attention as I am reading an excellent new book that recently came out (in Hebrew), The Secrets of The Guide for the Perplexed by Micah Goodman available here 

I will be writing more about this book and another I recently read (also Hebrew) Rambam by Moshe Halbertal available here  .

Friday, October 22, 2010

Contemporay Repercussions of a 13th Century Controversy in Provence.

Over the last few years, I got interested in the intellectual ferment that took place in 13th century Provence specifically surrounding Rambam and the learning of Greek philosophy and secular studies. I knew about it peripherally from traditional sources such as the Shut Rashba that has a series of responsa that address the controversy of studying “Greek” philosophy and the resulting allegorical interpretation of Torah and Mitzvot. (See Shut Rashba volume 1, 414 to 419 here ). Subsequently, I read the excellent and intriguing book by Professor Moshe Halbertal Bein Torah Lachochma which discusses in detail the attitude of Rabbi Menachem Hameiri and his contemporaries to the controversy. My interest in the subject grew as it seemed to be an issue that resonates in our society where people are scared by knowledge and feel the Torah cannot stand up to intellectual scrutiny. I discovered the intriguing and important Malmad Hatalmidim by Rabbi Yaakov Antuli here who is referred to by subsequent generations as the “Ba’al Hamalmad”. Meiri quotes him extensively in his Chibur Hateshuvah here as an authoritative source as do many others. Minchat Kenaot by Rabbi Abba Mari of Lunel is another intriguing book. It is a record of the controversy where the author recruited the Rashba, the great Halachik authority of the time, to prohibit the study of “Greek” philosophy before the age of 25. Recently, Professor Chaim Kreisel published two very fascinating books from that period, Ma’aseh Nissim by Rabbi Nissim of Marseilles and Livyat Chen by Rabbi Avraham ben Levi. Of course another famous and well known work that came out from that school is the great Ralbag on Chumash and Tanach   reprinted by Mossad Harav Kook and recently a new annotated edition by Yeshivat Ma’aleh Adumim is almost complete through Bamidbar. Ralbag also wrote the controversial Milchamot Hashem  here which is less well known but even more controversial where he lays down his ideas about Hashgacha and Yediah and other such matters.

Professor Halbertal thesis in his book is that the controversy over philosophy was an internal discussion amongst the Maimonideans in the Provence community. Provence at the time (1200-1350), was one of the most enlightened Jewish communities in Europe with famous and well known great Halachist and thinkers such as the Raavad , Baal Hamaor who emigrated there from Gerona, the  Tibon Family , Meiri  and countless others who take a very prominent position in our traditional Halachik and theological sources.  Rambam was revered, not only for his Halachik works but also for his theological understanding of Judaism. Moreh Hanevuchim was translated  from Judeo- Arabic to Hebrew by two separate translators as was the sefer Hamitzvot, his Pirush Hamishna and the short but important Milot Hahegayon. Even his medical works were translated.[1]

Rambam’s theological positions are quite sophisticated and require deep analysis and great intellectual effort to even get a glimpse of what his true position is. His great erudition in all subjects gave him the ability to address the immediate subject while at all times keeping in mind the macro view of both what we call Torah and science and all the ramifications this presented. As he so sharply points out in his introduction to MN, any author that contradicts himself unknowingly should not even come into any serious consideration. As is common, people who did not grasp Rambam started preaching, teaching and writing, ostensibly interpreting Rambam’s position while in reality proposing their own misguided theories. This led to misinterpretations and conclusions that were completely against Jewish theology while all the time hanging their hat on obscure statements of Rambam thus claiming legitimacy. The most flagrant problem was the allegorical explanation of the stories in the Torah and of the Mitzvot. Allegorical interpretation of the stories was bad enough as it gave rise to doubts whether the Patriarchs were historical figures, but even worse was the allegorizing of Mitzvot.  Was not that the position of the Catholic Church as regard Mitzvot which led to their abandoning their performance?

The leaders of the Provencal community tried to address the matter. They felt that a blanket ban on philosophic study was counterproductive, as it would stifle true learning and the acquisition of knowledge. They were exploring other approaches but could not arrive at a consensus. Rav Menachem Hameiri, the leading Talmudic and Halachik authority in Provence supported some kind of restraint and joined the camp of Rav Abba Mari of Lunel who was at the forefront of the effort. As time went by and no consensus was reached, Abba Mari approached Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet (Rashba) the leading and eldest Halachik authority of the time, a non-Provencal rabbi who lived in Barcelona, for help. At that point, Meiri and many other early supporters parted ways with Abba Mari. In a letter which we do not have but has been partially reconstructed by Professor Halbertal based on quotations from it in a letter from a respondent, Meiri explains his change of mind. Although he respects and holds in high esteem the Rashba as a Halachik giant, he points out that he comes from a wholly different perspective and school; the Kabbalah of Spain taught by his Rebbis, Ramban and his Beit Midrash. He questions the rationale of the ban on learning “Greek” philosophy before reaching 25 years of age, the main practical plan proposed by Abba Mari and Rashba, from several points of view. First, he objects to limiting education and learning, a central tenet in his community. Censoring what people can read is anathema to him. Why should one not read a book that teaches true concepts even if it may contain some errors and ideas we do not agree with? One or two errors do not make a book off-limit. This would stifle intellectual growth and advancement. Secondly, he asks with irony, why did they ban Aristotle and Plato which can only be understood by the really intelligent and sophisticated, rather than banning the Moreh Hanevuchim, the Malmad and other such books which are accessible to many more? Is it because it would uncover the real intent behind the ban; discouraging any learning of “Greek” philosophy?  After all, without grounding in basic sciences from a young age, few will have the ability to learn when older. Could it also be that they were disingenuous and felt that such a blanket ban would be ignored? Did they really feel that the Provencal Jewish literature was heresy but were afraid to state that openly? 

Meiri in his objection unmasked the true intent of Rashba; the eradication of secular studies from the Jewish community. In fact, Rashba’s supporter, Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel of Toledo (ROSH) writes in his supporting letter that he only reluctantly supports the 25-year limit. Were it up to him he would ban ALL secular knowledge[2].  As the controversy continued with letters and Charamim flying fast and furious between supporters of the ban led by Rashba and opponents, the chasm between Abba Mari and the Rashba’s underlying positions started to emerge. In the later letters one can sense Abba Mari’s disillusion and realization of the mistake he made involving Rashba who had a completely different perspective than he did. We can also discern in the Rashba’s letters an attempt to cover up his true feelings so that he could be heard in Provence.

The controversy was cut short by the tragic expulsion of Jews from various Provencal cities including Abba Mari’s town which led to the eventual exile of Provencal Jewry.

Although the controversy died down, its repercussions continue to this day. Many of the best books written by Provencal thinkers have been suppressed and lost to us because of what seems to have been an unofficial censorship. A great Talmudic magnum opus like the Beit Habechirah was lost until about 150 years ago when it was discovered in the Vatican archives. Malmad Hatalmidim, the most popular book of the time, became almost unknown[3]. Livyat Chen by Rabbi Avraham ben Levi, the primary personal target of Rashba based on unsubstantiated hearsay that he was the teacher of the allegorical approach, was completely lost for centuries and only published a few years ago by Professor Kreisel. I say unsubstantiated hearsay, because the sefer is full of Yra’at Shamayim and the accusation of heresy is false. However, this fear of facing reality and truth, of trying to shield the Torah from supposed scientific errors, has taken such deep roots in our community that it blinds us from seeing that we are indicting the Torah by following this path. When “Gedolim” tell us that Torah knows better that science, they are blaspheming and admitting that Torah contains untruths. How can one deny what he sees with his own eyes, as Ramban, yes Ramban!, so many times says? Understanding that Torah does not teach science but how to look at science from a theological perspective and that without knowing science it loses its utility, is key in appreciating the Torah’s divinity. Rashba, Rosh and their contemporaries can be understood considering that empirical scientific knowledge was not yet developed during their era. Science was murky enough to allow for arguing that the Torah knows best, and it and the rabbis in fact did know many times better than the “Greeks”. That can no longer be held in our times. Let us hope that

 ט  לֹא-יָרֵעוּ וְלֹא-יַשְׁחִיתוּ, בְּכָל-הַר
 קָדְשִׁי:  כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ, דֵּעָה אֶת-יְהוָה, כַּמַּיִם, לַיָּם
 מְכַסִּים.  {ס}

9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. {S}

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] It is interesting to note, that although Rambam held that astrology and magic was bunk and falsehood, just an illusion that neither worked nor made sense, the cultural environment would not allow the Provencal Jews to accept it. They considered these subjects as scientifically proven facts using it in their exegesis of Tanach and Chazal as well as took that into consideration in Halachik issues. The famous Rambam letter addressed to them on the subject made little impact.

[2] Ironically, in Hilchot Kilayim 6:2 Rambam ruling is based on a mathematical calculation which escaped Rosh. He turned to a remnant of the old Andalusian elite who was well versed in secular knowledge to help him understand the Halacha. See Kessef Mishna ad locum.
[3] Halbertal quotes an unsigned letter of Rashba furiously attacking the Malmad. This attitude probably had something to do with this suppression.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Kilayim - Separation of Mind and Matter: Livyat Chen.

Over Yom Tov I was reading Livyat Chen by Rabbi Levi ben Avraham published recently by Professor Howard Kreisel. Livyat Chen is an encyclopedic book which describes the process of development needed to arrive at the ultimate potential of a human being – knowledge of God. Rabbi Levi lived in Provence at the end of the 13th century and was persecuted by the Rashba for supposedly proposing that Mitzvot are allegorical. Rashba did not have first hand knowledge of his writings, basing his opposition to Rabbi Levi on hearsay as he himself admits in his letters on the issue. Those letters are published in Minhat Kenaot found at the end of the Dimitrovsky edition of Shut Harashba. On the other hand, Rabbi Yitzchak de Lattes (14th century) refers to Rabbi Levi as a great Chacham who wrote wondrous books, amongst them the sefer Livyat Chen, a precious and important book, whose value is known only to the knowledgeable. Rabbi Levi belonged to the school of thought of Rambam followers in Provence which counted the likes of Rabbi Shmuel Ibn Tibon, R. Yaakov Antuli (Malmad Hatalmidim), Ralbag and many others amongst its adherents.

I started reading the section on Ta’amei Hamitzvot and it is extremely interesting and illuminating. He clearly writes with Rambam in the background expanding on him and at the same time explaining Midrashim and halachot. I understood several chapters in MN which had eluded me until now because of two words he threw in on them in passing. I hope to write about that and other gems I come across, as I get inspired.

In discussing the particular law of Kilayim, prohibiting the harnessing of two types of animals together, he suggests an interesting reason. A short introduction is warranted first. Rabbi Levi sees all Mitzvot as geared towards improving and perfecting people. That is very much how Rambam sees them too. He also holds that the reason why many Mitzvot do not have explicit reasons is because there could be more than one and those who keep the Mitzvah may find individual reasons. After all, we all are different and have various personal characteristics, where the same Mitzvah may address each particular personality’s individual character. The Torah is also meant to be eternal and as societies and cultures change, the reason for doing certain Mitzvot may change thus remaining relevant. This flexibility and eternal utility is seen as a clear indication of the divinity of the Torah.

Regarding the prohibition to harness a ritually pure animal with an impure one, Rabbi Levi first discusses the traditional approaches of the Rishonim such as e.g. to teach us sensitivity to cruelty; a ruminating cow will cause suffering to its partner in harness, the donkey who thinks it is eating while it is not and other well known explanations. Rabbi Levi then suggests that the two animals, the bull/cow and the donkey represent allegorically the two realms of human endeavor - the physical and the mind. The Hebrew word for bull is “shor” which also means to see in Hebrew and is also similar to straight “yashar”.  The ox plows in a straight line; sight is in a straight line which also reminds us of straight thinking.  On the other hand, the word for donkey is “chamor”, which reminds us of “Chomer” – matter – or physicality. The Mitzvah teaches us that the two areas of human endeavor do not mix well. One cannot think about abstract and existential matters which lead us to trying to decipher the mind of God so to say, while we are steeped in matter and physicality. If our weltanschauung is focused on physical wellbeing and narcissistic pursuits, our judgment when it comes to questions about Truth is clouded and Truth will elude us. Similarly, the prohibition for a man to wear feminine clothing is a reminder along the same lines. Woman according to Rambam represents the physical while man represents the mind. The physical receives, or is impregnated by the mind. In Aristotelian physics, matter cannot exist without Form which gives it its characteristics. The Male therefore represents Form while the female stands for matter.  A mind that focuses on the physical cannot reach its ultimate potential. This interpretation was introduced into Jewish thought by a predecessor of Rabbi Levi, Rabbi Yaakov Antuli in his Malmad Hatalmidim. He quotes his non-Jewish friend (reportedly the monk Michael of York), who explains the verse in Yeshayahu 1:3

 ג  יָדַע שׁוֹר קֹנֵהוּ, וַחֲמוֹר אֵבוּס בְּעָלָיו; יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַע, עַמִּי לֹא הִתְבּוֹנָן.

3 The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel does not know, My people does not consider.

Yeshayahu was chastising the Jews by comparing them to the thinkers of the nations represented by the ox, who found God without the help of Torah and their followers represented by the ass, who believed in them because these thinkers promised them material goods if they follow them.  In comparison the Jews, although they received the Torah to help their development abandoned all rational thought and followed in the paths of superstition[1].   

This interpretation of the reason for the Mitzvah conforms with the individualized approach to Ta’amei Hamitzvot. After all, one has to be a philosopher to appreciate this reasoning. For the common person the other reasons would be relevant, such as teaching about cruelty or promiscuity.

Interestingly, it is this approach that was criticized by Rashba. I am sure that had he seen these interpretations first hand, he would not have been critical. It was reported to him that Rabbi Levi encouraged allegorical interpretations of Mitzvot which led people to abandon praxis. Reading Rabbi Levi clearly shows that this was far from his mind and is not the case. To the contrary, it makes the practice of Mitzvot relevant to all of us at the different stages of our internal growth.

Rabbi Menachem Recanati (c. 1250- c. 1310) explains that according to Ramban, the prohibition of Kilayim is to prevent mixing two things that have a different emanation source. All physical and spiritual existence is the result of emanations that can be traced all the way back to God. Medieval thinkers realized that all movement in our world is generated by cosmic forces. They did not understand gravity and our modern ideas about movement but observed that many things such as tides were related to the trajectory of the sun, moon and stars. The difference between the different thinkers was how far that influence went. Some believed that stars affected even the day-to-day and minute-by-minute life of everything that exists on our planet including the spiritual, while others limited that influence to physical movement, what we would refer to as physics. Rambam belonged to the latter school, keeping a clear demarcation between the mind and the physical while Ramban was closer to the former. Ramban however accepted that in practice, no matter the source of the two components, mind and body, mixing the two was counterproductive. A clear balance and demarcation had to be maintained for correct human behavior and thought. I wonder if Rabbi Levi’s thinking and his approach were nothing more than a variation on the Kabbalah thinking that was in its development stages during the period he lived in.  Clearly, both approaches were strongly influenced by the philosophy/physics of their time which was rooted on the different Greek schools of thought. It is always amazing to me when the Kabbalah School accused the Rationalist School of being held hostage by Greek philosophy, as if their own school was immune. I always think in that vein about the famous Gra comment on Rambam who held that magic is nonsense.  Rashba who chastised Rabbi Levi belonged to the Ramban School and it is clear that a first hand read of his positions would have been not only acceptable but also commendable and highly appreciated. Here we see how Lashon Hara works its nefarious ways, and was probably one of the causes of the suppression and censorship of the teachings of Rabbi Levi, which would have greatly benefited our contemporary Jewish society.    

[1] The reference to the Malmad is suggested by Howard Kreisel though the original text is convoluted and requires a little work to see the similarity.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reward and Punishment: Reality or Myth? Zechor Yemot Olam.

As I was discussing reward and punishment in my last post, I would like to share some thoughts on the subject.

The idea that there are consequences to all our actions is something that is accepted by most of us as an axiom that we acquire growing up. However, we do not always see the outcome from our deeds. Sometimes consequences are immediate and at other times, they may take a long time to become manifest, at times even generations pass before the outcome(s) from an action can be known. Sometimes, the long-term outcome from an action that, at the time it was done looked to be good or bad, may turn out in the long term to have the opposite result of the intended outcome. The question that comes to mind then is, is this belief in consequences a myth or reality? I believe that looking at reward and punishment from this perspective, highlights why Rambam considers this to be a commanded belief rather than an empirical fact. It is listed among the 13 principles and is a necessary and required a-priori belief. Like all these principles, we have to accept them at first and then, as we acquire further knowledge about the world and our environment and how it operates, we develop a deeper understanding of exactly what they mean. A child’s understanding of God’s uniqueness is not the same as that of an adult especially one who has philosophic tendencies, nor is how a child understands reward and punishment the same as how an adult does. 

Assuming actions are judged by their consequences, there is a certain amount of prophecy required at the time the decision how to act correctly is made. Prophecy in this instance being the ability to understand how God’s world operates and adapt one’s actions to conform to His original will. That is exactly how Rambam understands Hashgacha – Divine Providence. The closer a person is to prophecy, the more he acts in a way that agrees with Divine Providence – Hashgacha. Is a person ever certain about his actions? Of course not: even the greatest prophets doubted themselves and constantly questioned their decisions. We see this with Avraham, the first to have developed a philosophy about God and how he runs His world. As we are introduced to him in Breishit 12, we immediately are told that his goal was to build a nation of believers.

ב  וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.

2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing.

And a little further, in Breishit 15 he questions himself and falls into a great depression fearing that he did not act correctly, that he misunderstood how things work.

א  אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה,
הָיָה דְבַר-יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, בַּמַּחֲזֶה, לֵאמֹר:  אַל-תִּירָא
אַבְרָם, אָנֹכִי מָגֵן לָךְ--שְׂכָרְךָ, הַרְבֵּה מְאֹד.

1 After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying: 'Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield, thy reward shall be exceeding great.

וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם, אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה מַה-תִּתֶּן-לִי, וְאָנֹכִי,
הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי; וּבֶן-מֶשֶׁק בֵּיתִי, הוּא דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר.

2 And Abram said: 'O Lord GOD, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go hence childless, and he that shall be possessor of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?'

  וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם--הֵן לִי, לֹא נָתַתָּה זָרַע; וְהִנֵּה בֶן-בֵּיתִי, יוֹרֵשׁ אֹתִי.

 3 And Abram said: 'Behold, to me Thou hast given no seed, and, lo, one born in my house is to be mine heir.'

Avraham was questioning whether he was living in a fantasy, as he was childless and he was unsure that Eliezer, his sole inheritor at the time, could be the biological father of such a nation. As he meditated further on the matter, he came to realize that if one acts to the best of his knowledge with the goals clearly in mind, one must believe that there will be a good outcome. That is the crux of the belief in Reward and Punishment.

 וְהֶאֱמִן, בַּיהוָה; וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ, צְדָקָה.

6 And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.

Rambam in MN 3:53 discusses the meaning of the word צְדָקָה .

The term edakah is derived from edek, "righteousness"; it denotes the act of giving every one his due, and of showing kindness to every being according as it deserves.”

In other words, צְדָקָה has two meanings, one ethical the other moral:  giving someone what is due to him, an ethical obligation, and charity, a moral obligation.  

In Scripture, however, the expression edakah is not used in the first sense, and does not apply to the payment of what we owe to others…. But we do perform an act of edakah when we fulfill those duties towards our fellow-men which our moral conscience imposes upon us; e.g., when we heal the wound of the sufferer….Thus Scripture says, in reference to the returning of the pledge [to the poor debtor]: "And it shall be edakah (righteousness) unto thee" (Deut. xxiv. 11).”

When the word צְדָקָה is used in Torah, it is used in its moral sense rather than its ethical one. Returning collateral to a poor debtor is a moral obligation, not an ethical one. The true understanding of moral obligation in Judaism comes from contemplating how God runs His world. Judaism understands God as an entity that is completely separate from any physicality yet at the same time sees Him as the Creator responsible for existence. That existence in itself is seen as charity; there is no obligation for God to bring us into existence. Charity is thus an act of emulating God once one has apprehended this concept. Charity is therefore a rational and knowledge based act rather than an emotional one. The natural emotions that charity triggers are controlled and induced by the rational faculty. 
When we walk in the way of virtue we act righteously towards our intellectual faculty, and pay what is due unto it; and because every virtue is thus edakah, Scripture applies the term to the virtue of faith in God. Comp. "And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him as righteousness" (Gen. xv. 6); "And it shall be our righteousness" (Deut. vi. 25).”  

This to me is one of the most amazing and inspiring comments of Rambam. Charity, the one described above, which is based on knowledge and not on pure emotion, benefits not only our fellow man, the recipient of that charity, but also the giver who arrived at this act through developing his rational faculty. The two benefits are independent of each other. One does charity with oneself by developing the mind and actualizing the rational faculty. It is this charity that Avraham did to himself by believing that by emulating God’s ways the way he understood them, a good outcome was to be expected. It is the belief that “good” actions bring about “good” consequences that allows us to act. Without that acceptance, we would be paralyzed. Is that belief really true or is it just a utilitarian belief?  We believe it is real and we stake our whole raison d’etre on it. It is at the root of how we understand ourselves as the standard-bearers of true monotheism to the world. Our long-term survival as a nation working towards perfecting ourselves proves it. It proves that the “good” deeds and plans for us started with Avraham and his children, the divine Torah Moshe gave us and the way of life it set out for us, were really “good” by accomplishing their intent. Their influence of so many thousands of years is still very much felt in the here and now. That is how I understand when we invoke the memory of our ancestors, the Avot, during prayer; we say that by our mere continued existence we confirm that they read correctly God’s will.

Moadim Lesimcha and Chag Sameach.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Is Reward And Punishment A True or A Necessary Belief? Musings on MN 3:28.

The end goal of Torah and Mitzvot is to create a society with great knowledge of their environment and through that knowledge develop an understanding of God and His ways fulfilling their role in existence by emulating Him. This society will bring along the rest of humanity to the same developed state. If we look back at the history of the human species, we have evolved from a hunter-gatherer society where immediate survival was the central focus of day-to-day life into a (relatively) technologically advanced one. This evolution took many millennia, was gradual with many hiccups and regressions along the way with humanity still a long way from having fulfilled its potential.

We know that early man was baffled by his environment and completely at the mercy of it. His understanding was guided by his imagination as there were no tools available to perform any experiments that would provide empirical data. Man developed a theological system based on imaginary myths that tried to explain his existence. Those myths developed into a complicated system of gods,  some benevolent others malevolent, operating on a reciprocal approach where these gods were to be mollified and bribed if man wanted to be saved from their wrath or deserve their munificence. This system based on imagination created societies with hierarchies of slave and ruler abetted by priests who preyed on their fears presenting themselves as “god specialists” who knew how to bribe and manipulate the deities. Having sunk into this system based on imagination, humanity needed to expend great effort to break away from it and begin looking objectively at the world so that it could develop and become more than just another animal species amongst many. The Torah and its Mitzvot is the tool given to us, Jews, by HKBH to help us pull out from these ages of intellectual darkness and bring humanity along with us. In a macro sense, the Torah has three categories of Mitzvot: (i) Societal Law, (ii) Guide for Self-Improvement and (iii) Intellectual/Theological Teachings. The first two categories are focused on our physical well-being so that we can dedicate ourselves to the third category which is the ultimate objective.

“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.” (MN3:27)

The societal laws can be summarized as “do not unto your friend what you would not do unto yourself”. In other words, there are obvious consequences to how we act with each other. Society operates on a reciprocal basis where generally we react in kind to kindness, fairness, nastiness and injustice. Narcissism and selfishness are at the root of the latter two and controlling our natural impulses is the key to controlling these inclinations. Looked at from this perspective, reward and punishment are natural outcomes of ethics and morals or the lack thereof.  One does not need to be a scientist or a philosopher to grasp this concept of reward and punishment. In fact, every child is taught that there are consequences to his actions whether explicitly or implicitly and it is a key component of education.

On the other hand, when it comes to intellectual development, the process is long and arduous. One cannot teach Algebra, to someone who has not mastered basic arithmetic or any other advanced theory in any science without having understood the basics. Correct theology is based on correct science. Rambam teaches that if we want to have a correct understanding of God and our existence in relation to Him, we must first have a good and correct grasp of all the sciences. Theology and science go hand in hand; they are not two disparate things, as many thinkers want us to believe.

“There may thus be a man who after having earnestly devoted many years to the pursuit of one science, and to the true understanding of its principles, till he is fully convinced of its truths, has obtained as the sole result of this study the conviction that a certain quality must be negated in reference to God, and the capacity of demonstrating that it is impossible to apply it to Him.” (MN1:59)

Myths are the antithesis to science. They offer alternate explanations based on imaginary fantasies for reality. For science to flourish, myths and idol worship, the practical outcome of myths, must be eradicated. Rambam sees Avodah Zara as falsehood. Eradication of falsehood is at the core of the prohibition to have anything to do with Avodah Zara. The Torah teaches that Avodah Zara leads humanity away from seeking the truth and thus away from God the ultimate Truth.

Teaching a developing society, one has no trouble discussing consequences. One can be explicit and describe consequences as reward and punishment. Although simplistic, reward and punishment lends itself to a presentation that allows for dual meanings: the simplistic obvious one and the more advanced and sophisticated understanding thereof. Both understandings are helpful for the promotion of responsible behavior, though the simplistic approach may be inaccurate at face value. From a practical standpoint, there is value in a detailed description of consequences for bad behavior and the Torah indeed repeats the concept many times in places in excruciating detail. 

However, teaching correct theology is impossible to a society that has not yet reached its ultimate perfection, never mind a primitive one at the start of its journey toward intellectual perfection. As long as a man has not grasped the sciences and all it means, he cannot really know God and Truth. He can be told that the goal, the end-purpose is to know God and he must learn all he can about the world he lives in to achieve that. The real meaning of knowing God however can only be pointed to, not taught.

“It is necessary to bear in mind that Law only teaches the chief points of those true principles which lead to the true perfection of man, and only demands in general terms faith in them. Thus, Scripture teaches the Existence, the Unity, the Omniscience, the Omnipotence, the Win, and the Eternity of God. All this is given in the form of final results, but they cannot be understood fully and accurately except after the acquisition of many kinds of knowledge.” (MN3:28)

However when it comes to reward and punishment, consequences –

“In the same way the Law also makes a call to adopt certain beliefs, belief in which is necessary for political welfare. Such is the belief that God is angry with those who disobey Him, for it leads us to the fear and dread of disobedience [to the will of God]. There are other truths in reference to the whole of the Universe which form the substance of the various and many kinds of speculative sciences, and afford the means of verifying the above-mentioned principles as their final result. But Scripture does not so distinctly prescribe the belief in them as it does in the first case; it is implied in the commandment, "to love the Lord" (Deut. xi. 13).” (MN3:28)

Reward and punishment is presented in the Torah in its simplistic way, “the belief that God is angry with those who disobey Him”, and in great detail (see Vaykra 25:14-42 and Devarim 28:15-69) while theology is presented in a very limited and allusive way, “it is implied in the commandment, "to love the Lord"”.

When practical commands - Mitzvot – are given and their reason presented we have the same situation. The Mitzvot that have a theological underpinning, their reason is often omitted and if presented, they are only in an allusive way, while those that are societal, their reason and consequences for transgressing them, are laid out clearly.

“Consider what we said of Beliefs: In some cases the law contains a truth which is itself the only object of that law, as e.g., the truth of the Unity, Eternity, and Incorporeality of God. In other cases, that belief is necessary for securing the removal of injustice, or the acquisition of good morals. Such is the belief that God is angry with those who oppress their fellow men, as it is said, "Mine anger will be kindled, and I will slay," etc. (Exod. xxii. 23). Or the belief that God hears the crying of the oppressed and vexed, to deliver them out of the hands of the oppressor and tyrant, as it is written, "And it shall come to pass, when he will cry unto me, that I will hear, for I am gracious" (Exod. xxii. 25).” (MN3:28)

Some classic interpreters of Rambam as well as modern scholars pointed to this chapter as an example of Rambam’s “true” esoteric beliefs about reward and punishment. They argue that he did not believe in reward and punishment as true belief but rather as a utilitarian one. I have difficulty accepting that, after studying his presentation of Divine Providence. It is obvious that Rambam sees providence as a natural phenomenon and it is up to man to act in ways that fall in line with God’s will which by definition is “good” as it promotes continued existence. Reward and punishment is thus a natural consequence of our actions. As we believe that God willed things into existence, consequences are therefore traceable to that original will (see MN2:47). When we say that God punishes we are saying that He created the world in a way that there are consequences to actions. This is the sophisticated understanding of reward and punishment. However, the simplistic understanding, that God Himself indeed punishes for every transgression can be understood by all and offers the same result; incentivize good ethics and morals. In fact, the two examples Rambam brings for explicit reward and punishment, both deal with ethical and moral issues that affect society and where the consequences can be traced to reciprocal societal norms.

I understand this as being the message of this chapter and not an “esoteric” view of reward and punishment. As further support for my understanding, this chapter is placed in the midst of chapters that deal with the reason for commandments and not among those that deal with Hashgacha - providence. It explains why some reasons for Mitzvot are explicit and others are not and why some are detailed while others only allude to the reason.

Chag Sameach.