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  .