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.