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.
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.