Friday, August 06, 2010
Are Mitzvot Arbitrary Rituals?
In my last post, I showed that the underlying reason for Mitzvot is to foster an awareness of God in our daily life. As the Mitzvot involve us almost constantly, we are always connected to God in our thinking. Whether doing things such as prayer, blessings, Tefillin, Tzitzit, mezuzah and the time-sensitive Mitzvot such as Shabbat and Yom Tov or refraining from things such as eating forbidden foods or when dealings with others we do so with honesty and ethical behavior, we are always brought back to God who commanded us to act this way by doing these Mitzvot. Of course this only works if we accept and understand that Mitzvot are not just some kind of mystical ritual but a tool for our own betterment. Having such an overarching reason one may argue that there is no further need to find reasons for each particular Mitzvah.
Rambam begins his discussion of Ta’amei Hamitzvot with a fascinating introduction in MN 3:26 -
“Just as men of speculation among the adherents of the Law are divided on the question whether the actions of God are the result of His wisdom or only of His will without being intended for any purpose whatever, they are also divided as regards the object of the commandments which God gave us. Some of them hold that the commandments have no object at all; and are only dictated by the will of God. Others are of opinion that all commandments and prohibitions are dictated by His wisdom and serve a certain aim; consequently, there is a reason for each one of the precepts: they are enjoined because they are useful.”
The comparison is surprising because unlike Mitzvot where Rambam holds there is an overarching reason for them, when it comes to why there is existence in general, Rambam argues that the question is moot and has no answer except that God so wanted.
“After this explanation you will understand that there is no occasion to seek the final cause of the whole Universe, neither according to our theory of the Creation, nor according to the theory of Aristotle, who assumes the Eternity of the Universe…" (MN3:13).
This chapter is the introductory chapter to Rambam’s exposition of
. Before he can discuss Providence , Rambam must establish whether there is an end goal for existence. His conclusion is that there really is no way for us to know other than accept that God willed existence. However, as he continues with the discussion he shows that we can discern from the world we live in, a certain pattern from which we can develop an understanding of how God wants to run the world and allows us to partake in His wishes. Although we cannot fathom the goals of the whole of existence, we see that the goal of man’s existence is to develop this understanding of God’s actions using the mind that he has and the freedom of will that he enjoys and act emulating those actions. Rambam rejects the popular arguments given by other thinkers such as Ramban and later Ramchal that God wanted people that worship Him so that He can bestow good upon them and bring into actuality His goodness. Or others who claim that humanity are the reason for existence. However, once we are here we humans have a role to play, though what that role is, is for us to find out. Providence
On the other hand, when it comes to finding a reason for Mitzvot, the overarching reason is keeping the awareness of God’s presence in the forefront of our thinking according to Rambam. We are not talking about an existential issue but about the whys of commandments. The question that confronts us is whether the acts dictated by these commandments are arbitrary. After all any directed action or inaction would serve the purpose of reminding us of God as the One commanding us, even if it were an irrational or arbitrary act. In fact, maybe a counterintuitive commandment would attain the goal of making us aware more efficiently. How then can Rambam link these two subjects, the whole of existence and Mitzvot, and suggest that the same logic goes for both of them?
If we really think about Rambam’s proposal that Mitzvot are to keep God present in our awareness, the question that comes to mind is what concept of God are we striving to be aware of? Unless we develop our understanding of what God is, what is the point of thinking and being aware of an imaginary entity that exists only in our fantasy? Rambam makes a strikingly strong statement on this issue in MN3:51 -
“Those, however, who think of God, and frequently mention His name, without any correct notion of Him, but merely following some imagination, or some theory received from another person, are, in my opinion, like those who remain outside the palace and distant from it. They do not mention the name of God in truth, nor do they reflect on it. That which they imagine and mention does not correspond to any being in existence: it is a thing invented by their imagination, as has been shown by us in our discussion on the Divine Attributes (
chap. 1.). The true worship of God is only possible when correct notions of Him have previously been conceived.” Part I.
How does one develop correct notions about God? As followers on this blog must know by now, we cannot conceptualize God at all. We can only know Him through His actions. By contemplating the universe we are in and the way it works, learning about physics, chemistry, biology and all the other sciences that explain its workings, we can try to decipher God’s mind and will so to say. But how does knowing the sciences in general teach us about God? Is God really involved in all this? Maybe God is what is referred to as the God of the philosophers, an entity that has no involvement in the physical but only the first and only non-contingent entity? Does God really have will? Is He really responsible for existence or is He just a necessary being, a singularity that explains the existence of a chain of cause and effect? These questions cannot be answered by scientific investigation. There is a limit to human knowledge and it stops at the beginning of physical existence. We can investigate how the universe works but we will never be able to definitely answer how it came into being, what triggered that singular event. We can have theories, and there are new ones developed by scientist on a daily basis. We are pushing back the envelope of what can be known, but there always will be a place that human knowledge will not be able to reach. Rambam puts this into words using the medieval scientific language of his time where Aristotelian science was considered the limit of human knowledge.
“What I said before I will repeat now, namely, that the theory of Aristotle, in explaining the phenomena in the sublunary world, is in accordance with logical inference: here we know the causal relation between one phenomenon and another; we see how far science can investigate them, and the management of nature is clear and intelligible. But of the things in the heavens man knows nothing except a few mathematical calculations, and you see how far these go. … This is in reality the truth. For the facts which we require in proving the existence of heavenly beings are withheld from us: the heavens are too far from us, and too exalted in place and rank. Man's faculties are too deficient to comprehend even the general proof the heavens contain for the existence of Him who sets them in motion. It is in fact ignorance or a kind of madness to weary our minds with finding out things which are beyond our reach, without having the means of approaching them. We must content ourselves with that which is within our reach, and that which cannot be approached by logical inference let us leave to him who has been endowed with that great and divine influence, expressed in the words: "Mouth to mouth do I speak with Him" (Num. xii. 8).” (MN 2:24)
Of course, as I said earlier, since that time humankind has pushed back the envelope of knowledge and the heavens are much better understood. There are many things we still do not understand and many of them will be explained as science advances. There is however a point that we will never go beyond and that is before existence began, how it began, how the creation event was triggered and by whom or what. It is in that area of speculation that theology has a role and by definition is based on subjective judgments and what is referred to as revelation – Nevuah – “to him who has been endowed with that great and divine influence, expressed in the words: "Mouth to mouth do I speak with Him".” The singularity that was the coming into being of existence can be attributed to a natural phenomenon, negating will to God or as something willed by God, which accepts that God wills and acts. Will we ever be able to definitely prove one possibility over the other? Probably not but which perspective we chose to accept will definitely have a great impact on our behavior and sense of right and wrong. Our personal biases and natural inclinations, our built in need for self-satisfaction and self-indulgence will influence on how we chose.
Although the overall concept of Mitzvot is to make us think about God, they also have a role in helping us decide what we believe about God. Do we believe in a transcendental unknowable God for whom we have an insatiable yearning to get to know or do we believe in an emotional god who is there to serve us? Do we believe in a god who takes sides and defends those who supplicate the most or do we believe in God who in His great wisdom has put us in a world were our success or failure is consequent on how we act? It is this role of Mitzvot that Rambam addresses in the comparison to existence. By training us in thinking beyond the self, teaching us how to think when we study the minutia of how these Mitzvot are implemented, the Havayot of Abaye and Rava, we become better equipped to deal with these subjective questions with the proper perspective. Although we do not know why God willed existence, we know that He has a role for us in that existence, a role that we have to discover for ourselves. So too He commanded us the Mitzvot so that we perfect ourselves and get closer to Him by knowing Him and believing in Him, as He really is - unknowable. How the Mitzvot accomplish that is the subject of following posts.