Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Rationale For Mitzvot - Feeling The Presence Of God.

I have been planning for some time to write about the reason for Mitzvot and have procrastinated. The subject is very complicated, probably the most complicated subject discussed in MN and one of the most misunderstood.

Rambam starts the discussion of the reason for Mitzvot systematically in MN 3:26 and it is the lengthiest discussion of a subject as it continues until the final three chapters of the book. It is placed at the end of MN as if it were the culmination and end goal of the whole Moreh, which in truth it is. In fact, the way I read them, and I will expand on this later in the series, the last three chapters are still part of that discussion though at a much more advanced level.

What is the overall purpose of Mitzvot? What are they trying to accomplish? Rambam in MN 3:52 -

We do not sit, move, and occupy ourselves when we are alone and at home, in the same manner as we do in the presence of a great king. We speak and open our mouth as we please when we are with the people of our own household and with our relatives, but not so when we are in a royal assembly. If we therefore desire to attain human perfection, and to be truly men of God, we must awake from our sleep, and bear in mind that the great king that is over us, and is always joined to us, is greater than any earthly king, greater than David and Solomon.”

If we can train ourselves to, at all times, be cognizant of being in the presence of God, we will act responsibly. As I have shown many times, that cognizance and acting according to it, is referred to as living under Divine Providence or Hashgacha. When we say that God watches over us we are really saying that we are acting in a way that fulfills our purpose in existence, our role as part of God’s universe and its continuity. We are not just a component of that universe that acts randomly, but the only one that has the freedom of choice to act with a specific purpose. How do we develop that cognizance?

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 my attain human perfection. They will be filled with dread and awe of God and know who it is that is with them and as a result act subsequently as they ought to.”

The overarching reason that we have Mitzvot is to help us develop this constant cognizance of God’s presence and the responsibility this awareness brings with it. Whether we perform a commandment or refrain from indulging ourselves with a prohibition, we perforce ask ourselves why we are submitting to this rule realizing that it is God who commanded us and we are following His edict. This heightens our awareness of god’s existence and leads us to feel His presence.
The king that cleaves to us and embraces us is the Intellect that influences us, and forms the link between us and God.”

When we say that we ought to be aware of God’s presence, we are saying that our mind is thinking about and connecting with God. In medieval philosophic parlance, that connection is understood to be through the Active Intellect which in contemporary modern language I like to call the Divine concept underlying existence. This understanding of the end goal of Mitzvot as a tool to make us aware of God’s presence transforms a physical act into a catalyst for transcendental awareness. The physical act now is deemed holy.
This is the overall reason for commandments, but is there a rationale for the kind of commandments chosen as tools for this purpose? Is there a rational reason for how they are performed? Those questions, indeed, whether such question can even be posed, will be addressed in follow up posts.


  1. Selwyn Geller7/25/2010 3:23 PM

    This is the Aristotelian view: "He who asks the law to rule asks that God and reason alone shall rule. While he who asks that a man shall rule adds the appetite of the beast."
    On the other hand, there is Max Weber's statement: "The is absolutely no 'unbroken' religion working as a vital force that does not demand the "credo non quod,sed quia absurdum," the sacrifice of the intellect.
    Most people are torn between these two points of view. We Jews are blessed, as you wrote, with hashgacha pratiyut. Unfortunately, we are the least of the nations and this exposes our faith to the cycles of life that occur in nations and other faiths

  2. so if i understand correctly, suffering is psychological in that cognizance of God, which is Hasgacha, leads one to realize that all is from God and therefore suffering dissipates. Thus, Hasgacha literally protects one from suffering. Not that bad will not befall a person, but that even if it does, through ones connection to God, one will know that God has a plan, and will be spared suffering.

  3. Anon, The definition of "good" is continuance of existence and "bad" is destruction. If one acts according to God's ways it is by definition good even if in the short term or to the individual it seems to be destructive.

  4. Welcome back!

    “We do not sit, move, and occupy ourselves when we are alone and at home, in the same manner as we do in the presence of a great king". True but what if we lived in the Palace as Princes or servants and saw the King every moment of every day?

    No doubt we would lose some sensitivity. Is that then the purpose of mitsvos as a tool to keep reminding us of His Presence?

    Also, if we were truely cognizant of the awesomeness of Gd could we function at all? Would we not be too petrified?

  5. David,
    Yishar Koach, I would think however that the Mitzvot are in themselves God's presence. The Mitzvot are our attachment to Him solely because they were commanded by him. We learned that the Hashgaha pratit is proportional to one's attachment to God, it's the attachment that actually creates and enhances Hashgaha.

  6. Ergo, You are correct mitzvot do keep us on our toes. The Mitzvot that deal with tahara according to rambam apply only in Beit Hamikdash to make it difficult when we go there and not let it become routine. i will discuus eventually. Re Awesomness, the challenge is to overcome that fear when one arrives at that Madrega. I am not worried at this point personally ;_)

  7. Elyahu, It seems you are saying the same thing I am. It is not the mitzvot themselves that are the actions that are within God's blueprint but the Hassagah one gets because the Mitzvot focus the person on God and cause hin to act according to his apprehension of God's Derachim.