Monday, February 21, 2011

Without In Any Way Moving a Body: A Change in Perspective - The Welfare of The Body and The Soul.

Rambam at the end of MN 1:24 makes a fascinating statement that opens a very intriguing view of Imitato Dei.  The chapter discusses the word Halicha – going as it refers to God. The word at times is used in the context of leaving or going away.

And just as the withdrawal of providence is referred to as the hiding of the face – as in the dictum: And as for Me, I will surely hide my face – it also is referred to as going, which has the meaning to turn away from a thing. Thus Scripture says:  I will go and return to my place.”

As discussed in my previous post on MN 1:23, when we say that God is leaving, we are saying that a person has lost his connection with God, thereby subjecting himself to the random flow and ebb of events. He no longer acts in conformity with providence – Hashgacha.

At other times the word Halicha is used in the context of the spread of a thing. It is similar to the word Yetziah discussed in the earlier chapter, where it means that God’s decree is spreading out.

“As for its dictum, and the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he went away, the two significations subsist together in the same passage. I mean the signification of a withdrawal of providence referred to by means of the term “turning away”, and the signification of a spread, diffusion, and manifestation of a thing. I mean to say it was the anger that went and extended toward the two. For this reason Miriam became leprous as white as snow.”

Rambam is talking about the story in Bamidbar 12.

  וַיִּחַר-אַף יְהוָה בָּם, וַיֵּלַךְ.
9 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them; and He departed.
י  וְהֶעָנָן, סָר מֵעַל הָאֹהֶל, וְהִנֵּה מִרְיָם, מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג; וַיִּפֶן אַהֲרֹן אֶל-מִרְיָם, וְהִנֵּה מְצֹרָעַת.
10 And when the cloud was removed from over the Tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam; and, behold, she was leprous.
יא  וַיֹּאמֶר אַהֲרֹן, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה:  בִּי אֲדֹנִי--אַל-נָא תָשֵׁת עָלֵינוּ חַטָּאת, אֲשֶׁר נוֹאַלְנוּ וַאֲשֶׁר חָטָאנוּ.
11 And Aaron said unto Moses: 'Oh my lord, lay not, I pray thee, sin upon us, for that we have done foolishly, and for that we have sinned.
יב  אַל-נָא תְהִי, כַּמֵּת, אֲשֶׁר בְּצֵאתוֹ מֵרֶחֶם אִמּוֹ, וַיֵּאָכֵל חֲצִי בְשָׂרוֹ.
12 Let her not, I pray, be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother's womb.'

Miriam’s error of comparing Moshe with other prophets, her not discerning the difference between his type of prophecy and the kind of prophecy other prophets experienced, disconnected her from providence. It was such a fundamental misunderstanding of how humans interact with God that she was no longer acting in accordance with providence – Hashgacha. She was therefore left to the vagaries of nature and no longer in control of her destiny, a kind of death represented by the leprosy that appeared on her hand. That change in status is the spread of the decree of God, His will at creation of what a “living” human being is, one who fully employs his free will by taking control of his destiny.[1]

Having established that the term Halicha – whether in its connotation of God “going away” or the “spreading out of God’s decree” – does not have any physical implication, Rambam, in a surprising aside, turns to a human mitzvah and applies the same idea.

The term going is also applied figuratively to living a good life[2], without in any way moving a body. Thus it says: And you shall go in His ways(Devarim 28:9); After the Lord your God you should go(Devarim 13:5); Come and let us walk in the light of God (Yeshayahu 2:5).”

We are talking about the eighth positive commandment.

המצווה השמינית
הציווי שנצטווינו להדמות לו ית' כפי יכלתנו, 
והוא אמרו:
והלכת בדרכיו" (דברים כח, ט). וכבר כפל ציווי זה ואמר: "ללכת בכל-דרכיו" (שם יא, כב), ובא בפירוש עניין זה:
"מה הקב"ה נקרא רחום - אף אתה היה רחום;
הקב"ה נקרא חנון - אף אתה היה חנון;
הקב"ה נקרא צדיק - אף אתה היה צדיק;
הקב"ה נקרא חסיד - אף אתה היה חסיד" - זהו לשון ספרי.
וכבר כפל צווי זה בלשון אחר ואמר: "אחרי ה' אלקיכם תלכו" (שם יג, ה), וגם בפירושו בא, שעניינו להתדמות למעשים הטובים ולמידות הנכבדות שבהם מתואר יתעלה על דרך המשל - יתעלה על הכל עילוי רב

How does one implement practically the Mitzvah of Imitato Dei by being merciful, righteous “Without in any way moving a body”?

The issue becomes even more baffling when we realize that these actions are reciprocal and fall under the rubric of social Mitzvot. Society cannot function without certain ethical rules that are reciprocal in the sense that by treating well your neighbor, he will do the same to you keeping the peace and maintaining a healthy society. This should therefore not be seen as a theological Mitzvah, Bein Adam Lamakom, but rather a humanistic one, Bein Adam Lacheveiro. Indeed Rambam in MN 3:27 makes the point that there are two categories of Mitzvot- those that are aimed at “the welfare of the soul” and those that are meant to deal with the “welfare of the body”.

“As for the welfare of the body, it comes about by their improvement of the ways of living one with another.Know that between these two aims, one is indubitably greater in nobility, namely the welfare of the soul – I mean the procuring of correct opinions – with the second aim – I mean the welfare of the body – is prior in nature and time. The latter aim consists in the governance of the city and the well-being of the states of all its people according to their capacity.”  

It is clear that the Mitzvot that deal with our relationship with the other, are only intermediate goals that help us achieve the ultimate goal of correct theology –“the welfare of the soul”. However, at the end of the Moreh, in chapter 3:54, where Rambam ends his philosophical Magnum Opus with the exhilarating description of the purpose of man in this world, he presents these same Mitzvot as the end goal, seemingly even higher than “the procuring of correct opinions”.

“…For when explaining in this verse the noblest ends, he does not limit them only to the apprehension of Him, may He be exalted…. But he says that one should glory in the apprehension of Myself and in the knowledge of My attributes, by which he means His actions. … He means that it is My purpose that there should come from you loving-kindness, righteousness, and judgment in the earth in the way we have explained with regard to the thirteen attributes: namely, that the purpose should be assimilation to them and that this should be our way of life.”  

In this presentation, emulating God by acting with kindness and righteousness is the ultimate goal and not just an intermediate stage that paves the way for intellectual excellence – the ultimate goal. How are we to understand these seemingly contradictory presentations?

I believe that this seeming contradiction is an important key to Rambam’s thought. Generally, it is accepted that Rambam sees intellectual excellence as the goal of humankind. Perfected man is the intellectual one who contemplates his existence and its relationship with God and his creation. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Rambam’s theology is very much action oriented.

At first blush, it would seem that the social aspects of interpersonal interaction are of paramount importance. However, if looked at carefully, it is more tactic than strategy. When I give alms to a poor man, I acknowledge that fate may put me at some future time into the same predicament and I hope that fellow man will reciprocate. By making Tzedakah – the giving of alms – a Mitzvah, a required social behavior, this improves the odds that this will be the case.  The same applies to all the other Mitzvot categorized as bein Adam lacheveiro. These laws are expedient and make for a healthy society but there is no long-term plan other than the perpetuation of this society or social system. It is in a way narcissistic. Indeed, such an organized, healthy and lawful society has a better chance for it to have individuals who attain great intellectual excellence and perfection, but again that is very narrowly focused on the self, whether the individual or the community. However, an understanding of our personal existence and its relationship to the rest of the universe, a universe created by God with wisdom and purpose, makes us act with a vision that encompasses the whole of our existence. That same Mitzvah of Tzedakah is no longer done with an expectation of reciprocity, but because it is integral part of how God runs His world. By doing the mitzvah, we are fulfilling God’s will and the role he wants us to play in His universe and are responsible for the consequences these actions may bring. By emulating Him, we are partaking in His creation.

Is there a practical aspect to this difference in perspective? It is impossible for us to personally point to the difference without it being experiential and looking at the long-term consequences which may be more than one lifetime. In other words, we would have to reach the pinnacle of perfection and act accordingly, to understand the practical implications of this changed perspective. However, the Torah illustrates it very vividly in the story of the Egel, the golden calf, and Moshe’s reaction to it. When Moshe was confronted with the people straying to the Egel after their experience at Sinai he was at a total loss. How was he to proceed and forestall future repeats of the incident? If the Sinai experience was not enough to wean the people from idolatry, what would?

יב  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, רְאֵה אַתָּה אֹמֵר אֵלַי הַעַל אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְאַתָּה לֹא הוֹדַעְתַּנִי, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-תִּשְׁלַח עִמִּי; וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ יְדַעְתִּיךָ בְשֵׁם, וְגַם-מָצָאתָ חֵן בְּעֵינָי.
12 And Moses said unto the LORD: 'See, You say unto me: Bring up this people; and Thou hast not let me know whom Thou wilt send with me. Yet Thou hast said: I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in My sight.
יג  וְעַתָּה אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ, וְאֵדָעֲךָ, לְמַעַן אֶמְצָא-חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ; וּרְאֵה, כִּי עַמְּךָ הַגּוֹי הַזֶּה.
13 Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found grace in Thy sight, show me now Thy ways, that I may know Thee, to the end that I may find grace in Thy sight; and consider that this nation is Thy people.'

Rambam in MN 1:54 explains this request as follows;

The second request which he [Moshe] put first is that He should let him know His attributes. … This was Moshe’s ultimate object in his demand, the conclusion of what he says being: that I may know thee, to the end that I may find grace in thy sight and consider that this nation is thy people. That is, a people for the government of which I need to perform actions that I must seek similar to thy actions in governing them”.   

The attributes that Moshe focuses on are mercy, righteousness and other similar ones that are seemingly interpersonal social behavior. Indeed, they are but the perspective that Moshe takes in their performance is a universal one, one focused on the whole universe and the role and place he and the people have in it, emulating God’s ways in governing His world. The results of Moshe’s actions and teachings are still very much meaningful today three thousand years later. That is the real understanding of the eighth positive commandment -  והלכת בדרכיו . The outward act does not change; it is mercy and righteousness but with a different perspective, without in any way moving a body.

[1] For a further discussion, see my article here . Also, see Rambam at the end of Hilchot Tume’at Tzara’at 16:10 where he begins the presentation as Lashon Hara and subtly transits to theological error. That Halacha warrants further treatment as time will allow.
[2] Pines notes in a footnote that literally the translation should be “to going (or walking) a good or virtuous life”.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Providence and Chance - Calamity and Calamity.

Learning MN1:23, we get an interesting insight into Rambam’s understanding of Providence. For a thorough treatment of Divine Providence, see my article in Hakirah here 

The chapter deals with the word Yetziah – going out as it is used in Tanach with reference to God. As God is not a body, is immaterial, how can there be movement from one place to another? Rambam explains that

The term is applied figuratively to the manifestation of things that are in no way a body… meaning the propagation of the matter… Every mention of going out occurring in Scriptures with reference to Him conforms to this figurative use.

Rambam uses a verse in Yeshayahu 26:21 as the central example of this usage. To understand Rambam we have to read this verse in context. Starting at chapter 24, we have a collection of prophecies about the destruction of the land and the subsequent glorious reconstruction and return of its righteous inhabitants. The prophet foretells the calamities that are coming and offers a mixture of hope and advice on how to survive the coming storm. Our verse, the second in a two-verse prophecy, reads:

כ  לֵךְ עַמִּי בֹּא בַחֲדָרֶיךָ, וּסְגֹר דלתיך (דְּלָתְךָ) בַּעֲדֶךָ; חֲבִי כִמְעַט-רֶגַע, עַד-יעבור- (יַעֲבָר-) זָעַם.
20 Come, my people, enter into your chambers, and shut your doors about you; hide yourself for a little moment, until the indignation passes.
כא  כִּי-הִנֵּה יְהוָה יֹצֵא מִמְּקוֹמוֹ, לִפְקֹד עֲוֹן יֹשֵׁב-הָאָרֶץ עָלָיו; וְגִלְּתָה הָאָרֶץ אֶת-דָּמֶיהָ, וְלֹא-תְכַסֶּה עוֹד עַל-הֲרוּגֶיהָ.  {פ}
21 For, behold, the LORD goes out of His place to visit upon the inhabitants of the earth their iniquity; the earth also shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain. {P}

 Rambam comments:

Thus: For, behold, the LORD goes out of His place, that is His decree, which at present is hidden from us, will become manifest.”

God does not go out. There is a missing subtext in the verse, the word “decree”. God’s decree is going to take effect thus “go out”.

I refer to the coming into being of something after its not having existed, for everything that comes into being from God is attributed to His decree.”

Lest you think that God decrees in real time, in other words reacts to circumstances and acts when He deems it necessary, Rambam explains that the decree refers to God’s will at creation[1]. In other words, there is a natural system of cause and effect that conforms to God’s original will.

Thus: By the word of the Lord were the heavens made and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth (Tehilim 33:6).In this verse God’s acts are likened to those that proceed from kings, whose instrument in giving effect to their will is speech. However, God does not require an instrument by the means of which He could act for His acts are accomplished by means of His will alone; neither is there any speech at all as shall be made clear.”

God does not speak nor does He decree or do any such things; God wills, where will is one with His essence and things come into being. That is how the heavens came into being and all they contain. Similarly, Rambam reads the verses in Yeshayahu as telling us that as a consequence of the misdeeds of the people a calamity is about to befall them. That calamity is foreseeable and is indeed foreseen by Yeshayahu’s prophecy which he acquired by contemplating the iniquities of his contemporaries and their naturally resulting consequences. Those who understand this on their own or accept his warning can therefore protect themselves by hiding out and lying low “until the indignation passes”. It is important to realize that this perspective of seeing events in a cause and effect system is only a perception on our part. One has to look at events and interpret them by seeing the larger picture of how they came into being to arrive at that conclusion. It is not necessarily self-evident[2].

Inasmuch as the term going out as we have made clear, was figuratively applied to the manifestation of an act of God – for scriptures says: For, behold, the LORD goes out of His place – the term returning (Shiva) is figuratively applied to the cessation of such an act likewise brought about in virtue of God’s will.”

Rambam now addresses a related term often used in connection with God – returning. When someone leaves a place at times he returns – so too the metaphor when we talk about God. If going out is the manifestation of an act of God, returning is the cessation of such an act. The verse that exemplifies this is from Hoshea 5:15 –

טו  אֵלֵךְ אָשׁוּבָה אֶל-מְקוֹמִי, עַד אֲשֶׁר-יֶאְשְׁמוּ וּבִקְשׁוּ פָנָי:  בַּצַּר לָהֶם, יְשַׁחֲרֻנְנִי.
15 I will go and return to My place, till they acknowledge their guilt, and seek My face; in their trouble they will seek Me earnestly:
The prophet castigates Israel (the Ten Tribes) and foretells their destruction. In the case of the Ten Tribes, however, there are no survivors or any who protect themselves from the onrushing disaster. The prophet’s warning is not heeded.

…the signification of which is that the indwelling that had been among us has been removed. This removal is followed by a privation of providence as far as we are concerned.”

It is remarkable that both the former verse and this verse talk about calamities but the one in Yeshayahu is seen as providence – Hashgacha – while the one in Hoshea is seen as the removal of providence.

For a privation of providence leaves one abandoned and a target to all that may happen and come about, so that his ill and weal come about according to chance. How terrible is this threat!”

When the prophet is ignored, the people are caught off-guard and chance rules there is no possibility of taking control and trying to save a remnant. The destruction becomes total. It is only when they acknowledge their guilt, and seek My face that providence returns and redemption may ensue.  The punishment of abandonment, of being left to chance even with its possibility of good, is worse than knowing about the coming bad times. Knowledge gives one a chance to protect oneself. The calamity that befalls us unbeknownst drowns out the good times completely.

Reading this brings to mind pre-Holocaust Orthodox European Jewry where the majority ignored the signs of doom on the horizon. Instead of pushing for immigration to Palestine and America, mainstream Orthodox Jewish leadership insisted on staying put. It was only the few, the minority that heeded Rav Kook and his follower’s call in the Twenties and Thirties to come to Eretz Israel. It was only the few prescient and those pushed by the pogroms and anti-Semitism that had the foresight to come to America. The European Jewish leadership sadly did not put any effort into building up Torah in America or Israel[3] and prepare a place of refuge. However, clearly, it was not a total privation of providence. The few were enough to have a remnant rebuild and grow again. History repeats itself. 

It is interesting to note that Narboni, one of the classical commentators of the Moreh, though cryptic, apparently reads this piece the way I explained it here. Abravanel  strongly disagrees but his reading is extremely forced.     

[1] The basis for this reading is the choice of the verse to explain speech. There are endless verses that attribute speech in this context to God but Rambam chose the one about creation – the coming into existence of the heavens.
[2] See MN1:8 for the meaning of “place” as it refers to God. God leaving His place is thus an interpretation of perceived occurrences and our perception of God as changing “place”. We see Him as an active rather than a passive Deity while in truth He is neither.
[3] With the exception of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky who sent Rav Karelitz, the Chazon Ish  to Israel. Better late than never.  

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Are Mitzvot Always Beneficial? Can A Mitzvah Harm Someone?

Are Mitzvot always beneficial? Are they always healthy? Let me take the question a step further; is it possible that a Mitzvah may harm us physically or psychologically?

Rambam tells us in MN 3:34 –

It is also important to note that the Law does not pay attention to the isolated. It is not based on conditions which rarely occur. Whatever the Law teaches, whether it is of an intellectual, a moral, or a practical character, is founded on that which is the rule and not on that which is the exception: it ignores the injury that might be caused to a single person through a certain maxim or a certain divine precept.

He makes even more explicit as he goes on in the chapter

We must consequently not be surprised when we find that the object of the Law does not fully appear in every individual; there must naturally be people who are not perfected by the instruction of the Law, just as there are beings which do not receive from the specific forms in Nature all that they require.”

Clearly, a Mitzvah may not work for everybody. Some people will even be harmed and find a Mitzvah counterproductive or harmful. I know that this sounds very disturbing to many people especially those brought up in the Frum community, but the facts are otherwise. Indeed, one may NOT say that a Mitzvah protects and therefore I will keep it even when it puts my life at risk. Unless we are dealing with one of three critical Mitzvot, Avodah Zara (Idolatry), murder or certain sexual transgressions, or in matters that involve Chilul Hashem, life takes precedence. One who chooses to give the Mitzvah precedence in such cases is wrong.

 ג   ואסור להתמהמה בחילול שבת, לחולה שיש בו סכנה, שנאמר "אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם" (ויקרא יח,ה), ולא שימות בהם.  הא למדת, שאין משפטי התורה נקמה בעולם, אלא רחמים וחסד ושלום בעולם.  ואלו המינים שאומרים שזה חילול ואסור, עליהן הכתוב אומר "וגם אני נתתי להם, חוקים לא טובים; ומשפטים--לא יחיו, בהם"
MT Hil Shabbat 2:3

If Mitzvot were always protective, why demand they be ignored when life is at risk? Would they not protect? Rambam in fact condemns those who believe Mitzvot take precedence over life and refers to them as Minim.

The ultimate goal of Mitzvot is to make us into better people. They are meant to control unbridled desires and to set social rules so that we live in an orderly and just society. The ultimate goal, however, is to allow us to have quality time to get to know the world we live in and try to decipher the purpose of our existence, the will of God who put us here. Our physical and psychic well-being is necessary if we are to accomplish that but is not a goal in itself. Some positive or negative commandments may be counterproductive to certain individuals. Unless it is life threatening, that individual is required to abide by the law no matter how painful or uncomfortable it is. That subservience to the law in itself is spiritually beneficial and strengthens character although it may hurt in other areas. That is the deep meaning of the Mishna (Avot 4:2) ששכר מצוה מצוה – the reward of a Mitzvah is the deed itself.