Thursday, November 01, 2012

"Why Does The World Exist?" - Towards a Jewish Answer - Part 2.- Emulating God.

In the previous post I explained that Rambam sees the God of Judaism as an entity that we know exists but is so outside any category that we know that even the words “God exists” has no meaning in our understanding of “existence”. It just means that there “is” such an entity and that we hopelessly cannot ever even conceptualize His essence. The question is then what relevance does such an entity have to us? How can we relate to Him? What does worship, prophecy and knowledge mean as it relates to God? How do we ever propose to connect with Him? Paradoxically, the Halacha does demand of us that we get to know God, that we worship Him and that we love Him. How are we supposed to love an unknowable and incomprehensible entity? Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvot establishes that the first Mitzvah is to know God and he restates it in the short count at the beginning of Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah
הלכות יסודי התורה
יש בכללן עשר מצוות--שש מצוות עשה, וארבע מצוות לא תעשה; וזה הוא פרטן:  (א) לידע שיש שם אלוה

How are we supposed to know the unknowable? And to complicate matters further we are required to love Him too –
ב) שלא יעלה במחשבה שיש שם אלוה זולתי ה'; (ג) לייחדו; (ד) לאוהבו

How can we to do that? Hassidim report that this question was posed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe and Ba’al Hatanya by the child grandson of Rabbi Dovber of Mezritch. He asked; after having said the first verse of Shema where we declare the ultimate uniqueness and thus transcendence and unknowability of God by saying   ה' אלוהינו, ה' אחד, how can we immediately proceed and say
ואהבת, את ה' אלוהיך, בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך, ובכל מאודך

This question is addressed by the Ba’al Hatanya in his Sha’ar Hayichud Veha’emunah where he deals with the issue in great depth. A discussion of this great essay is beyond the scope of this post; the question however is very important and I will attempt to address it as I understand it.

Although we were taught by Moshe rabbeinu that God can only be known in the negative, what He is not, we still needed Avraham Avinu’s question to arrive at that by understanding what caused existence and who or what is behind it. If the answer to that question is that there must be an entity responsible for existence, it leads to the next one - what is the essence of that entity that is behind that existence? Rambam in MN 1:54 puts it as follows:

דע כי אדון החכמים, משה רבנו עליו השלום, ביקש שתי בקשות ובאה לו תשובה על שתי הבקשות. הבקשה האחת היא שביקש ממנו יתעלה שיודיענו את עצמוּתו ואת אמיתת מהותו. הבקשה השנייה - והיא זו אשר ביקשה ראשונה - היא שיודיענו את תאריו. וענה לו יתעלה בכך שהבטיח להודיעו את תאריו כולם ושהם מעשׂיו. כן הודיעו, כי אין להשׂיג את עצמוּתו כפי שהיא. אך הוא העיר לו על מקום עיון שממנו ישיג את מרב מה שיכול אדם להשׂיגו. מה שהוא, עליו השלום, השׂיג, לא השׂיגו אף אחד לפניו ולא אחריו.

THE wisest man, our Teacher Moses, asked two things of God, and received a reply respecting both. The one thing he asked was that God should let him know His true essence: the other, which in fact he asked first, that God should let him know His attributes. In answer to both these petitions God promised that He would let him know all His attributes, and that these were nothing but His actions. He also told him that His true essence could not be perceived, and pointed out a method by which he could obtain the utmost knowledge of God possible for man to acquire. The knowledge obtained by Moses has not been possessed by any human being before him or after him.”

Rambam describes Moshe’s thinking process. He begins with the question triggered by existence which we see as God’s actions – “His attributes, and that these were nothing but His actions” – or to put it in a simpler context – we know that there is an entity we call God because something or someone must be responsible for existence[1]. In this process, the path to God is through contemplating His actions which is existence. As we contemplate God’s actions we also develop a sense of how the world we live in is being run by Him. We are amazed by the complexity and at the same time the simplicity of the whole system, how each part is necessary for the existence of the whole, our environment how everything is interdependent and how finely tuned all the components of our universe are. As we are filled with wonder, we are humbled by our insignificance in the scheme of things and at the same time we want to get to know better this entity that is responsible for all this.

  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".
ב  וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן, מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו, ויירא ויפחד ויידע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה, עומד בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות, כמו שאמר דויד "כי אראה שמיך . . . מה אנוש, כי תזכרנו".

What is the path to love and fear Him?  As a person contemplates His wondrous actions and His great creations, seeing in them His immeasurable and unending wisdom, at once he is filled with love, praising and lauding [Him] as he is filled with a great longing to get to know the great name as David said “my soul thirsts for God – the living God”.  When one contemplates these matters he at once steps back as he is filled with fear and dread realizing that he is an insignificant small creature, low and somber, who stands with minimal intellect in front of the perfect intellect as David said “when I see your heavens …. What is humankind that you should notice it”?

Rambam depicts contradictory feelings that the seeker confronts. On the one hand there is a great urge and need to get to know God and to express one’s love for Him and at the same time he is humbled  as he realizes how insignificant and unimportant he is in the scheme of things and he is overcome with trepidation and wants to step back.  The urge to love gets translated into action as the person now wants to emulate the beloved by contemplating the beloved’s actions. He wants to partake in those actions and play a role in them. The humbling feeling on the other hand fills him with uncertainty and doubt, forcing him to question his understanding of God and His actions - עומד בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות. This constant tension between wanting to know and to emulate God and the deep knowledge that this is an impossible task, the uncertainty that this fosters is the impetus for self-improvement. It is only by striving for perfection that one can feel a little comfort in this attempt to emulate God. It also fills one with humility forcing the person to question his decisions on how to act, making sure that he is really trying to emulate God and not just act out of personal biases and natural inclinations. I always find it upsetting when people act with certainty criticizing and condemning others, stepping all over them and bulldozing through them as if they had all the answers. We never have all the answers and we never will; we just are trying our best to know how to act correctly and that does not give us the right to judge or step on others.

We started by asking what is the relevance of searching for the unknowable God and the relevance of this knowledge to our daily life. The answer is that the search is a goal in itself. It is through the search that one becomes acutely aware of our environment and how it works giving us a basis rooted in reality, not an imaginary mystical “spiritual” concept, for emulating that perfect entity responsible for existence. The urge to find God and the humbling knowledge of the impossibility of the task, the unknowability of God, see to it that our emulating Him is judicious and well thought out, done with the proper caution and realness.  

[1] I have to emphasize that it does not mean there must be a Creator but rather an entity that is not contingent and that has a hierarchal precedence to all existence (see my article in Hakirah). 

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

"Why Does The World Exist?" - Towards a Jewish Answer - Part 1.- Divine "Existence".

In his book “Why Does the World Exist?”(Which I highly recommend to all those who think about existential issues), Jim Holt interviews a series of philosophers, physicists and writers. He poses to them the question “why is there a world rather than nothing at all?” and reports their answers.  The answers can be divided into three camps listed by the author as; “optimists” who hold that there has to be a reason for the world to exist; the “pessimists” who believe there might be a reason for the world to exist but we will never know for sure; the “rejectionists” who believe there cannot be a reason for the world to exist and the question itself is meaningless.  The fact that thinkers in each group grapple with the question, while even the rejectionists work hard to explain why the question is meaningless, proves that the question is important and begs for an answer.  With the Big Bang, the currently accepted theory of how the world began, the question is; what triggered the singular event? How did the Big Bang come about? The answers given by the different interviewees vary from, it just happened; to it was started by some quantum induced or other possible scientifically explained event; to God as the Creator being behind the event. Each of these answers leaves us with a mystery as the question still remains; who made God, who or what established the scientific law that triggered the event or what was behind the “just happened” event. The book’s point is that the question still begs for a definite answer and will continue to do so for a long time if not forever.

The same question is posed by Rambam in Hilchot Avodah Zara 1:3 –
ט  [ג] כיון שנגמל איתן זה, התחיל לשוטט בדעתו והוא קטן, ולחשוב ביום ובלילה, והיה תמיה:  היאך אפשר שיהיה הגלגל הזה נוהג תמיד, ולא יהיה לו מנהיג; ומי יסבב אותו, לפי שאי אפשר שיסבב את עצמו.  ולא היה לו לא מלמד ולא מודיע דבר, אלא מושקע באור כשדים בין עובדי עבודה זרה הטיפשים

As this solid individual (Avraham Avinu) matured, while still a youth, his mind began to wander and think day and night pondering; how is it possible for this sphere to always circle without it having a driver? Who is making it circle? After all it cannot do so by itself. He had no teacher or someone who could inform him for he was ensconced in Ur of the Chaldeans amongst the stupid idol worshipers.

Rambam presents the question in context of the Aristotelian physics of his time putting it into Avraham Avinu’s mouth. The movement of the spheres was seen as the force that made earthly existence possible; the movement caused the elements to mix together creating the endless combinations of matter that make up the world. The outer sphere, הגלגל הזה, causes all the other spheres to move. The question is what is behind that moving force just as contemporary thinkers ask what is behind the Big Bang. That question has not changed with our more advanced understanding of how things work and there is no outlook that it will change with further advances in our understanding of our environment and universe. The answer that Avraham arrives at according to Rambam is

וליבו משוטט ומבין, עד שהשיג דרך האמת, והבין קו הצדק, מדעתו הנכונה; וידע שיש שם אלוה אחד, והוא מנהיג הגלגל, והוא ברא הכול, ואין בכל הנמצא אלוה חוץ ממנו.

As his mind wanders and contemplates, he arrives at the true path, and thanks to his straight thinking he develops the correct line of thought; he knows that there is out there one God who directs the sphere, who created all and no other God exists besides Him.

Avraham’s God is the Creator and His existence is a deduction that Avraham arrives at through questioning the provenance of the natural environment he lived in. He deduces that there is a Creator, a unique God that is also the continuous force that is responsible for all physical existence. The exact definition of “unique” had not yet been developed completely and therefore he had not answered the ultimate question; how did God himself come into being? That question remained even with Avraham’s understanding of God’s uniqueness. It is only when Moshe comes onto the scene that the question is finally answered with his introduction of a more advanced concept of God that addresses the question.
For all men, with few exceptions, were ignorant of the existence of God; their highest thoughts did not extend beyond the heavenly sphere, its forms or its influences. They could not yet emancipate themselves from sensation, and had not yet attained to any intellectual perfection. Then God taught Moses how to teach them, and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself, namely, by saying Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of "existing," for the verb hayah denotes "to be," and in Hebrew no difference is made between the verbs "to be" and "to exist."… This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is "the existing Being which is the existing Being," that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute. The proof which he was to give consisted in demonstrating that there is a Being of absolute existence, that has never been and never will be without existence.” (MN 1:63)

Moshe introduces the concept of negative knowledge when dealing with God’s existence leaving us with the only possible expression, “the existent Being which is the existent Being”. When we say that God exists we mean that His existence is absolute. He does not exist in the way we understand and use the word existence which is qualitative. Existence is not a quality of God but His essence meaning that God by definition cannot NOT exist. This concept cannot be grasped by the human mind because our senses attach existence to things. In our experience all things we know are brought into existence by another thing, by an event or another type of cause. We live in a world of cause and effect and that is what we can understand. The only way we can get a sense of God’s existence is by understanding that whatever we understand existence to be it does not apply to God just as the concept of cause and effect does not apply either. The great understanding of Moshe Rabbeinu was that any concept of God we arrive at, that concept cannot be God. God is inconceivable; He is the Great Mystery and also the ultimate Truth. (For a fuller treatment of Rambam’s understanding see my article in Hakirah.) This concept was taught to us as a nation at Sinai where the Torah continuously repeats that God appeared in darkness and clouds on the one hand and fire and sound on the other, a metaphor for this tension between knowing that there is an Entity responsible for existence while at the same time, that Entity is unknowable to the point that even “existence” is equivocal when used in this context. It is only once this new concept of God has been accepted that we can move to the next step and say that this Existent is the Creator. We are thus saying that there is a singular incomprehensible Entity which we call God, an Entity that has a singular existence that is responsible for all that exists.

This understanding of God makes the question “who created God?” incomprehensible. Time, space and therefore location have no meaning when thinking about such an “existent”. He “is” but not in the sense we understand “is” to be. Creation is needed for the common existent who therefore has to have been caused but the kind of “existent” we think of when talking about God is not in the same category. To summarize; we sense that there must be something out there that is responsible for this existence but this something is completely incomprehensible to us to the point we cannot even imagine anything about His essence nor ask questions about His existence which cannot be what “existence” is to us. The closer a person can come to internalizing these opposing ideas, the closer he is to God. At Moshe’s first encounter with God (Shemot 3:6) he immediately hid his face and refrained from looking. He had internalized that God is incomprehensible. The Rabbis tell us metaphorically (TB Brachot 7a) that as a reward for this it is said about Moshe (Bamidbar 12:8) that he saw God’s image. In other words the true apprehension of God is the “not” apprehension, the deep acceptance that whatever one thinks is God, it is not. No wonder Moshe was the humblest of men.  (See Rav Adin Steinsaltz edition of Sha’ar Hayichud Veha’emunah of the Ba’al Hatanya page 98 in his wonderful comments).

This is how Judaism according to Rambam explains existence and how it came to be caused by the incomprehensible God. Had it stopped here we would have a nice abstract explanation of an existential question.  But Judaism goes a step further. This Entity that we sense its "existence" and is responsible for ours whom we find incomprehensible, can however be traced via that same existence. Our own existence results from His existence. We are therefore one of the results of His “actions” and so is everything that surrounds us. By looking at all that objectively and very carefully we can develop a sense of where He wants to take this whole enterprise namely existence. That is the focus Judaism puts on this speculation and redirects it to the practical; how do we emulate God’s actions? In next post(s) I will attempt to address this and how it affects our question “why does the world exist?”    

Sunday, September 16, 2012

"But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion" - Love and Fear in Judaism.

העובד מאהבה, עוסק בתורה ובמצוות והולך בנתיבות החכמה--לא מפני דבר בעולם, לא מפני יראת הרעה, ולא כדי לירש הטובה:  אלא עושה האמת, מפני שהוא אמת; וסוף הטובה לבוא בכלל.

“One who worships out of love, is occupied with Torah and walks in the paths of knowledge, for no other reason in the world, neither for fear of bad consequences nor hoping for good outcomes, but acts the truth because it is true and eventually good will follow on the whole[1]”. (Hilchot Teshuvah 10:2)

This is one of the most important statements that we can find anywhere in the Jewish literature and it truly defines our religion as it really is – The Quest for Truth - the ultimate Truth. What triggered this post is a quote from Steven Weinberg (Nobel Prize Physicist), in Jim Holt’s excellent book – Why Does the World Exist? – which I am now reading. Weinberg reportedly stated, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”.  My reaction is that he is 100% right and that is because most people do not understand what real religion is all about. I don’t know enough about other religions but I know enough about our religion, Judaism to know that based on the way it is practiced nowadays and understood by the general Jewish religious community, Weinberg is correct. It is only by accepting Rambam’s definition of religion and understanding deeply what he is teaching that Judaism can become what it is supposed to be – to move humanity towards seeking Truth and not a tool for control and manipulation. 

The general rather simplistic and popular concept of Judaism today is that it is good for you. God knows all and watches all human actions and sits in judgment; good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. As man does not know what is right or wrong, a set of laws has been given – the Torah and Mitzvot – and doing good means following the Mitzvot, bad is ignoring or flouting them. Punishment is when bad things happen and reward is when good things happen. How to define good things and bad things? If a person’s wishes are fulfilled it is good and if they are thwarted it is bad. As human life is short there is an additional bonus, Olam Haba, life after death where if one was good one will bask in perpetual bliss, an undefined concept but said to be something that one cannot grasp while alive. The evil person, the one who flouted the Mitzvot while alive will burn in hell, suffering untold pain eternally. Then there are full panoplies of intermediary systems where one gets reward in this world for the good deeds so that he can be punished eternally for the bad and vice versa.  Interestingly some more “advanced thinkers” will suggest that there are “spiritual” benefits that result from following this path. If you try to delve deeper and ask what they mean by "spiritual" the answer is less anxiety, Bitachon, feeling good about yourself and other such “feel good” experiences. The common denominator is that the rewards are “good things” happening to the individual.  All one has to do is pick up a contemporary Mussar sefer or “theological” sefer to get a picture of this simple and easy to grasp system of reward and punishment. The ultimate goal of this type of religion is to adhere strictly to the Mitzvot and to reap the rewards that God bestows on those that follow rituals strictly.

At first blush, the sources fit very nicely with this understanding of Judaism. However this approach cannot satisfy a thinking person. It is a narcissistic and selfish perspective on life where everything one does is to satisfy personal wishes and needs. It is no better than capitalism, socialism or any other “ism” out there. Egoism and selfishness eventually lead to evil and it is in the name of these “isms” that much of the evil witnessed by humankind has been perpetrated. If there is nothing more to religion, then religion is truly the cause of evil. If religion is there only to better our material life then it will inevitably lead to evil. That is the idea behind Avodah Zara – idolatry - which is the ultimate falsehood and is the underlying theme of all that the Torah teaches away from. So how do we explain the prevalence of this way of thinking in our community? Human beings are endowed with the urge for self-preservation. That urge is common to all living things and is there to perpetuate themselves and their kind or genus.  That urge is narcissistic and selfish and is part of us just like appetite and all our other urges. This type of religious thinking caters to that urge and is attractive to the animalistic instinct, it “feels” good. It is also a misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the sources, a distortion of what they teach us as we will see further.

In addition to the survival instinct human beings have another innate capability - consciousness. That capability allows us to see ourselves, ourselves in relation to the other and in relation to our environment and our universe. It gives us the ability to see beyond our natural urges and our immediate needs, to see the other and develop moral and ethical codes that take into account the other and our environment. Moral and ethical societies do not necessarily require religion to function and indeed many societies work well without religion. Thus the first part of Weinberg’s statement is correct, good people will do good and bad people evil without religion. Consciousness and the ability to think abstractly and self-awareness that comes with it bring with them an even more advanced and sophisticated urge; it triggers in us the need to understand our existence why we are here, what is the goal of us being here and all the existential questions that humanity has struggled with for millennia. Judaism is meant to help people address these questions. Rambam counts as the eighth positive commandment
המצווה השמינית
הציווי שנצטווינו להדמות לו ית' כפי יכלתנו, והוא אמרו:
"והלכת בדרכיו" (דברים כח, ט). 
The existential question of how and why we exist and the search for the answer has a practical side to it – to find God so that we can emulate Him. The problem is that to know God, to know how to emulate Him is not easy. God is the Truth but also the Great Mystery and the search to discover Him and interpret His actions correctly is a lifelong task that takes over all aspects of a human being’s day. The greatest challenge is to overcome subjectivity, self-serving bias so that we can see things objectively. It is here that Torah and Mitzvot, the practical side of Judaism come into play. They are the tool that perfects our minds and our emotions so that we think objectively and thus know how to act constructively. Torah and Mitzvot are not the goal and end all of religious life but the most important gift we received from HKBH as tools to perfect us and help us reach our ultimate goal which is finding God and His ways and emulating Him. When religion is focused to help us realize these goals it is a very personal experience and does not lead to control and manipulation that is the source of evil. On the contrary it imbues us with respect to fellow seekers and compels us to enlist others into this quest through example and promotes love for our fellow human beings.

Returning to the question we asked earlier, why is our community so invested in the idea of following the Law for the sake of physical reward and to avoid punishment?  The question is even sharper when we read the strong admonishments and warnings in the last few Parshyot – Ki Tavo and Nitzavim. They all seem to focus on the physical good and bad. As I said earlier it is an attractive approach to the undeveloped person and therefore entices him to grab on to this misinterpretation of the sources. In Hilchot Teshuvah Chapter 9 Rambam addresses these sources  and explains how they are meant to be read. As this is a quite lengthy discussion I will leave it for another post.  Here is a summary of how Rambam understands this –
ו  נמצא פירוש כל אותן הברכות והקללות, על דרך זו:  כלומר אם עבדתם את ה' בשמחה, ושמרתם דרכו--משפיע לכם הברכות האלו ומרחיק הקללות, עד שתהיו פנויים להתחכם בתורה ולעסוק בה, כדי שתזכו לחיי העולם הבא, וייטב לך לעולם שכולו טוב ותאריך ימים לעולם שכולו ארוך.  ונמצאתם זוכין לשני העולמות, לחיים טובים בעולם הזה המביאין לחיי העולם הבא:  שאם לא יקנה הנה חכמה ומעשים טובים--אין לו במה יזכה, שנאמר "כי אין מעשה וחשבון, ודעת וחכמה, בשאול . . ." (קוהלת ט,י).

ז  ואם עזבתם את ה' ושגיתם במאכל ומשקה וזנות ודומה להם--מביא עליכם כל הקללות האלו ומסיר כל הברכות, עד שייכלו ימיכם בבהלה ופחד, ולא יהיה לכם לב פנוי ולא גוף שלם לעשות המצוות, כדי שתאבדו מחיי העולם הבא.  ונמצא שאיבדתם שני עולמות:  שבזמן שאדם טרוד בעולם הזה בחולי ובמלחמה ורעבון, אינו מתעסק לא בחכמה ולא במצוה שבהן זוכין לחיי העולם הבא.

It should be noted that at the end of all the admonishments and warnings where the Torah describes all the physical destruction and punishment that will result from our transgressions, the Torah describes what will happen at the end when we realize our mistake. It promises improvements in our physical wellbeing but ultimately the goal is – (Devarim 30:6)
ו  וּמָל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְאֶת-לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ:  לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ--לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ.
6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live.
The ultimate goal is to worship God out of love and not out of fear. Love comes with knowledge. We love someone we know; we do not love strangers. It is the search for the answers to our existential questions that leads us to the transcendental God, the mysterious and unknown Entity that we can only know through negating any physical attribute to, that we only perceive the results of His will and which we try to emulate. The understanding that this is the goal of Mitzvot and not just physical wellbeing will go a long way to keep us from falling into the trap Professor Weinberg so eloquently describes – “But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”.

In another post I would like to expand more on this last fundamental issue – what exactly to we mean when we talk about God? When we say we are searching for God, what exactly are we looking for? Because the answer to that sharpens further why Professor Weinstein’s comment and indeed many of the anti-religion arguments of other atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens do not talk to me when I think about real Judaism, the one Rambam teaches.

As this post was inspired by Steven Weinberg, who claims to be an atheist, I would like to share another statement of his regarding the boycotting of Israel by some humanistic/religious groups -

"Given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicated a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than anti-Semitism."

Spoken like a Jew!

I wish all a Ketiva Vechatima Tova and a Shana Tova. Chag Sameach.  

[1] “On the whole” indicates the possibility of a rocky road with a good outcome. The immediate result of “acting the Truth” may not be necessarily rosy but in the larger context it will lead to good. This falls into Rambam’s discussion of providence – Hashgacha.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Variants In Talmud and RIF - RABH Disagrees With His Father.

An apparently innocuous comment by RABH opens up an interesting window on variants of the Talmud and RIF.

Rambam in Hilchot Tefillah 7:6 as part of a discussion of the morning blessings we make when we wake up writes:
כשחוגר חגורו--מברך ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, אוזר ישראל בגבורה.  כשלובש מנעלו--מברך ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, שעשה לי כל צרכיי.  כשמהלך לצאת לדרך--מברך ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, המכין מצעדי גבר.  ומברך אדם בכל יום--ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, שלא עשני גוי; ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, שלא עשני עבד; ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, שלא עשני אישה

The three blessings שלא עשני גוי, שלא עשני עבד and שלא עשני אישה are said daily as opposed to the others which are said only when appropriate. Indeed in Halacha 9 he writes:
ט  נהגו העם ברוב ערינו, לברך ברכות אלו כולן זו אחר זו בבית הכנסת, בין נתחייבו בהן, בין לא נתחייבו בהן.  וטעות היא בידם, ואין ראוי לעשות כן.  ולא יברך אדם ברכה, אלא אם כן נתחייב בה.

Apparently the latter applies to all the other blessings except for these three which are said always on a daily basis. The Rambam commentators pick up on it and Rabbeinu Manoach explains that as it is probable that one will encounter during the day one of the three, a woman, a slave and a non-Jew, therefore these three blessings are said daily as opposed to the others which are said only when applicable. RABH in his sefer Hamaspik refers us to this Halacha in MT, repeats the rule with the other blessings and then comments:

My father Z”L already warned about this erroneous custom in Hilchot Tefillah however it becomes clear from his words that three of these blessings, שלא עשני גוי, שלא עשני עבד and שלא עשני אישה are said under all circumstances whether one encountered a Goy, slave or woman or did not. It also appears to be so from the popular edition of the Pirush of rabbeinu Yitzchak the author of the Halachot (RIF). However someone who saw a copy of an earlier edition of the Talmud that is brought down in this Pirush reads “when one sees a Goy one says שלא עשני גו” and so too concerning a woman and a slave. That edition (copy) is correct as it makes sense. So too can be found in the siddur of Rabbeinu Amram ben Shoshanna (died 875). ”  

RABH blames his father’s ruling regarding these three Brachot on a faulty edition of RIF. (As an aside and letting my anal persona take over, Frankel Rambam Mekorot Vetziyunim misunderstood RABH and says that he quotes an old edition of the Talmud. A careful read makes it clear that he is referring to a version of RIF who quotes the Talmud.) Having heard about a different edition which makes more sense to him he disagrees and relies on the latter against his father’s ruling. This is not new as many Rishonim deal with the variants as anyone who learns Gemara is familiar with the many Hachi Garsinan in Rashi. What I find interesting in this comment is that RABH who was only four generations away from RIF (Rabbeinu Maimon, Rambam’s father was a pupil of RI Migash who was a pupil of RIF) relies on a variant that he heard about from someone, a variant RIF quoting a variant in a Gemara.

The RIF edition we have is not reliable. Dr. Ezra Chwat on his blog Giluy Milta Be’alma writes that Hamaor is about to publish a new edition of RIF in their new Shas with many of the variants which explain many difficulties found in Rishonim who quote RIF different than our edition.  See there for some examples of clarifying variants.

The problem with the variant that RABH quotes is that it does not fit well into the text of the Gemara. The source of this Halacha is TB Menachot 43b which quotes a Tosefta Brachot 6 (see R. Lieberman Tosefta Kifshuta Zera’im page 38 and comments on page 119) and the suggested variant would have to be a few lines addition to the current text by the editor which did not make it into the known editions of the Talmud. Be it as it may it does open a window on how varied the texts of the Talmud were even at those early times only a few centuries after the sealing of the Talmud. These early variants impact Halacha. This case is a very minute ritualistic detail but these variants can have an impact on more serious issues. No wonder that we are so dependent on the Rishonim who, predating the many incidents of burning of the Talmud during the Middle Ages, had many variants at their disposal and were able to critically analyze them.  

Friday, July 06, 2012

Washing Hands After Meals - Halacha or Superstition?

Another fascinating (to me) comment by RABH in his Sefer Hamaspik in a discussion about Mayim Acharonim caught my attention. The traditional explanation given by Halacha as the reason for Mayim Acharonim, washing hands after eating a meal before benching is to remove “Melach Sedomit” Soddomite salts from the hands. Apparently the salt used during the meals that remained on the hands could be dangerous if they ended up in the eyes.

(Rambam Hilchot Brachot 6:4)
   כל את המלח, צריך נטילת ידיים באחרונה--שמא יש בו מלח סדומית או מלח שטבעו כטבע מלח סדומית, ויעביר ידיו על עיניו וייסמה; ומפני זה חייבו ליטול ידיים בסוף כל סעודה, מפני המלח.  ובמחנה, פטורין מנטילת ידיים בתחילה, מפני שהן טרודין במלחמה; וחייבין באחרונה, מפני הסכנה

RABH writes:
“Externally, the reason for Mayim Acharonim is given by Halacha to prevent the risks caused by Soddomite Salts. In my opinion the reason for Mayim Acharonim and the Rabbi’s making them more important than pre-meal washing as they said “Pre-meal is a mitzvah, post- meal is an obligation and in an [army] camp one is not obligated to wash before a meal but obligated to wash after the meal”, is because one needs to make preparations for Benching (the blessing after the meal) which is De’oraita (a Torah obligation) and a minor Tefillah. They gave danger as the exoteric reason and set it into Halacha so that people should take it seriously and not be lenient [and not wash hands after the meal], making them fear for their life. I report something similar from my father A’H on the Rabbi’s saying “a person may not eat pairs and may not drink pairs [of cups]” (TB Pessachim 109b). He said that the rationale for the prohibition is to distance from the custom of doubling up in the Beit Hamikdash, where the reason for doing so was to be blessed, therefore the Rabbis said this and tied it in with danger to prevent them from doing so.”

RABH reports that his father, Rambam, explained the famous Issur of “pairs”, Zugot, which is discussed in the Gemara. The supposed reason as given by the Gemara is that pairs are dangerous apparently for mystical or spiritual reasons and could harm a person that indulges in them. Rambam apparently was bothered by this reason as it seems to endorse superstition. He therefore explained that, and this is just a guess on my part as to what he means exactly, there was a superstition in the Beit Hamikdash for people going for doubles as a talisman, and the rabbis frowned at that. To dissuade people from it the Rabbis claimed that it was dangerous and harmful, knowing full well that this is the only thing that would work for the masses.

I understand doubles as a talisman based on the Gemara Yoma 26a that explains the drawing of lots for which Cohen will have the privilege to do the Ketoret because of the popularity of the ritual as it supposedly brings riches to the person who does it. I cannot put my finger on the location but I seem to remember the same thing regarding who gets to eat the Lechem Hapanim. If anyone has a better idea, please don’t hesitate to comment and straighten me out.  

“What caught my attention and made me revisit the reason for Mayim Acharonim is the rule that “immediately after washing one must make the blessing” and the prohibition of using hot water, because hot water does not clean. If the reason for post-meal washing was danger these restrictions would not apply. Furthermore the Rabbis giving the reason for using good oil {on the hands after the meal] “because a dirty person is not allowed to worship [in the temple] (TB Brachot 53b)” is a direct proof to my thesis, for one who understands. It is not just a hint. Pay attention well as it a secret that is only understood by scholars”.

RABH is arguing that if the reason for the obligation to wash after the meal is to avoid a dangerous situation why does the Halacha forbid delaying the blessing after washing?[1] He then points to the Gemara that requires quality oil to be used to anoint hands after the meal, and explain that requirement by comparing Benching to the Avodah in the Beit Hamikdash. Clearly, the Rabbis considered Benching as a replacement or a process similar to the one done in the temple. All temple worship requires washing hands so too does Benching. Indeed so does Tefillah which we know that the Rabbis see it as mirroring the Korbanot. (See Hilchot Tefillah 1:5)
There are several interesting undercurrents in this discussion. The general custom nowadays is to bring a small cup or at more elegant homes a special silver Mayim Acharonim plate with a cup at the end of a meal to wash the fingertips. This is based on Tosafot Brachot 53b s.v. Vehe’yitem Kedoshim that says that nowadays there is no more concern about Melach Sedomit as it is not available and therefore Mayim Acharonim washing is no longer obligatory. We therefore wash symbolically rather than as a Mitzvah. Rambam on the other hand does not make that distinction making it an obligation even nowadays and the way the Halacha is organized in Hilchot Brachot 6, it is clear that the same rules of washing with a Revi’it, a Kelli etc… apply to Mayim Acharonim. RABH’s explanation fits very well with this.

The other issue is the rationale for the Halacha of washing hands in general. The Rishonim had different understandings of the basis for the obligation.  In the Gemara there are a variety of reasons given for different situations; Tume’ah for Teruma and Kodashim which is the only Halacha where hands only are seen as unclean versus the whole body as a Rabbinical obligation; bad spirits on hands overnight; preparation (Hikon) for Tefillah and Kery’at Shema and of course plain cleanliness as in the Melach Sedomit explanation for Mayim Acharonim. (I am sure I forgot one or two more reasons.) The Rishonim apply the different reasons to each situation and from a practical standpoint, details of praxis differ according to each situation based on which reason is seen as the correct one. Rambam breaks up the Halacha of hand washing placing it in two separate places. The one for Teruma and Kodashim he places at the end of Hilchot Mikva’ot, the end of Sefer Tahara in MT, because it is another detail in how to prepare for dealing with matters of holiness such as Kodashim, Beit Hamikdash etc… which is the core for Hilchot Tahara ( a discussion which I will leave for another post). The other Halacha which covers washing hands for Kery’at Shema, Tefillah, bread (and liquid dipped foods) and Mayim Acharonim he places in the 6th chapter of Hilchot Brachot. He does not give an explicit reason other than it being a Mitzvah Derabanan and for Mayim Acharonim – Melach Sedomit. He links the Halachot from a practical standpoint in Hilchot Mikva’ot (11:11) referring back to Hilchot Brachot.  There is no mention of any of the other reasons. In practice according to Rambam one does not have to wash hands in the morning before making a Bracha just for Kery’at Shema and Tefillah.  On Yom Kippur one does not have to wash hands at all as well as on Tisha Be’av. In fact one is prohibited from doing so (however RABH disagrees in Sefer Hamaspik). There are other differences but I don’t want to digress here.

RABH in this piece addresses the reasoning behind this Mitzvah Derabanan and explains that it is because Tefillah is organized as a parallel to the worship in the Beit Hamikdash, the Korbanot Tamid and therefore require washing hands just like there was such a requirement before Korbanot. This idea is mentioned in Beit Yosef on the Tur where he quotes a Teshuvah of the Rashba that is struggling to understand the basis of this Takanah of washing hands for Tefillah and suggests the comparison to the washing in the Beit Hamikdash as one possible explanation among others. In Hilchot Tefillah 4:3 Rambam rules that before the Morning Prayer one should wash hands, face and feet. Ravad questions the basis for washing feet. Rabbeinu Manoach ad locum points to a Gemara ignored by Ravad and suggests that it is based on the washing from the Kiyor in the Beit Hamikdash where hands and feet were washed. These two Provençale Rishonim apparently arrived at the same conclusion as RABH. Rabbeinu Manoach went one step further and saw it as Rambam’s underlying idea for the Halacha.  

What I find interesting is the context that RABH uses to introduce this idea. He struggles and does not accept the reason for Mayim Acharonim given by the Gemara as apparently it was not something that made sense to him. He compares his objection to the danger reason given for Mayim Acharonim with the reason given for pairs - Zugot. This to me indicates that he saw the ostensible danger of Soddomite salts as a superstition rather than a scientific fact.  He then proves internally, from the praxis the Halacha requires that it is not the true reason as it does not explain the praxis. We have here a Straussian approach to Halacha – an exoteric and an esoteric reason. RABH adds that the reason for keeping the real reason secret is because it would not have guaranteed compliance[2]. The Rabbis then give a reason that will induce the masses to follow their Takanah. Another interesting thing is that this rationale binds the two Halachot of Netilat Yaday’im of Rambam – Hilchot Mikva’ot and Brachot – both have a Beit Hamikdash component.  
Shabbat Shalom.


[1] I am not sure what his problem is with using hot water as that does make sense. Hot water prevents one from washing carefully as he said in an earlier piece leaving some residual salt on the hands
[2] Similar to his father’s explanation why the Gemara would allow a superstitious reason for pairs

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Rabbeinu Avraham on Customs - Minhaggim.

Rabbeinu Avraham in his sefer Hamaspik is very concerned with the decorum in Shul during prayer; to stand or to sit; in what direction one should sit; people should sit in rows; etc…. In a discussion where he argues that people should always be facing towards the Aron Hakodesh, including when sitting, he quotes a Tosefta which describes seating arrangements during prayer. One of the details in that Tosefta is that the elders sit with their back to the Aron Hakodesh facing the people (see Hilchot Tefillah 11:4). Here is an interesting snippet about the elders.

“It is incorrect to sit other than facing the Holy (Aron Hakodesh) except for the elders who sit at the front of the Beit Knesset. These elders are sages, based on the rabbi’s explanation of the verse “And you shall defer to an elder” (Vaykra 19:32) they comment “An elder is one who acquired knowledge” (TB Kiddushin 32b). The reason why elders are permitted to sit in such a way is so that “the people should fear (respect) them”. In my mind, that [their sitting this way] is not to be seen as obligatory, but rather as a concession. Or possibly, the elders the Tanaim of that generation were referring to, were those that seeing their faces elicited a greater concentration on the part of the public, thus bringing them great benefit. In our generation such people or any coming close to their status are non-existent and no benefit will accrue from contemporary elders sitting that way, “with their back to the holy”, other than their striving for power. Learning from them, emulating them, causes people to sin rather than fulfill the purpose of their sitting thus as described in the Tosefta.  As we can see their sitting [facing the people] they are perceived as a group that is schmoozing amongst themselves rather than talking to God”.

 How little things have changed!

One of the things RABH is known for is his attempt to introduce into the ritual the requirement to prostate spread eagled on the ground during certain parts of the davening especially during the saying of the Kadish, Halel, after every Halleluiah in the Pessukei Dezimra part of the Morning Prayer, during the blessings for Kryat Shema etc…. He argues that one of the reasons it did not make it as a requirement in Talmudic Halacha is because of the difficulty people have doing this act so many times during prayer. As he goes along in the discussion he proposes several other reasons for the disappearance of this ritual. However, real authentic worship should include it according to him. He writes a lot about it in a very polemical fashion. It is clear that he encountered a lot of resistance to this idea. There are some very interesting points that he brings out in this heated discussion. He then lists several objections that people had and apparently voiced to him against his introducing this form of worship as a normal part of the ritual. One objection is that it is a form of worship that is customary with non-Jews. Interestingly, many scholars have argued that RABH was strongly influenced by Sufi theology. Apparently RABH himself already had to confront that accusation. His answer is lengthy arguing that just because other religions, religions that stem from Judaism adopt a Jewish ritual, that ritual does not become illegitimate.

Another objection that RABH addresses is that it is presumptuous for simple people to act in such manners of extreme devotion. He differentiates between different acts of devotion, those that are presumptuous and those that are acts of submission. RABH then quotes his grandfather’s explanation of the verse:

יח  פָּנָה, אֶל-תְּפִלַּת הָעַרְעָר;    וְלֹא-בָזָה, אֶת-תְּפִלָּתָם.              
18 When He hath regarded the prayer of the destitute, and hath not despised their prayer.

The word עַרְעָר which JPS translates destitute and Alter translates desolate is a word found only twice in Tanach; here and in Yirmiyahu 17:6. Its meaning is obscure though in both places the context is negative. Aruch based on the Targum Yehonatan translates it as a thorny fruit or vegetable, others, including RABH quoting an explanation he rejects, think it refers to a type of insect similar to the locust. Others see it as referring to a childless barren person, one who cannot have children, from the word ערירי. The problem is that if the verse is taken literally none of these translations make sense contextually. A fruit or vegetable or an insect do not pray and a barren man who cannot conceive, no amount of prayer will help. This word עַרְעָר must therefore have an allegorical meaning.

“I copy from my grandfather Rabbeinu Maimon: the verse is referring to a person who is the opposite of a Tzaddik or a Chassid …. As if saying even one who is not worthy to pray, should he turn to Him and petition Him, He will not disappoint him depending on his concentration and genuineness. Not that it refers to the prayer of an insect, a tree insect or something similar as many mistakenly believe. This is the gist of his [grandfather] Pirush though not verbatim and it is one of those wondrous explanations to one who understands. It [not ignoring the prayer] is a generosity from Him; it is through the merit of the earlier generations during which the prophets taught this based on the spirit from the Holy [they had access to] that we dare in the later generations to praise and exalt even if we have not reached perfection. Thus the next verse:
  יט  תִּכָּתֶב זֹאת, לְדוֹר אַחֲרוֹן;    וְעַם נִבְרָא, יְהַלֶּל-יָהּ.  
19 This shall be written for the generation to come; and a people who shall be created shall praise the LORD. “

RABH does not dwell on the exact meaning of the word. He says that should one understand it to be an insect it cannot be taken literally. It is a metaphor for an unworthy human who is allowed to praise and exalt HKBH in spite of his low status. One can do so only if supported by revelation.   
Another objection that RABH addresses is that it is not customary for people to prostrate themselves during Davening. Here are excerpts from his response:

One may oppose what we have clarified and proven regarding prostration by resorting to the argument that these things are not according to custom and that it is difficult to go against a custom since the Mishnah obligates one to follow the custom…. Even more as the customs used to argue against our proposed custom [of prostration] are very old and were performed in front of respected sages, Torah scholars and promulgators of Halacha, and they did not see as wrong what we have shown to be wrong nor have they suggested what we suggest. This [my suggested custom] seems to be an innovation and an indictment of the earlier [generations]. You may say anything you want in this matter, it brings us back to what I said earlier that the widespread customs (minhagim) whether they are popular or unpopular, ancient or recent, done in front of respected [sages] or not, if we can prove them to be defective, we may not follow them. For it is not impossible for later [scholars] to clarify matters that earlier ones could not; it is quite common for the later ones to build on what the earlier ones have already clarified giving them the ability to progress further and arrive at conclusions that are different from the earlier ones…. This is not because the later ones are always and in all circumstances better than the earlier ones but because they have the ability to analyze the sayings of the earlier generations building on them and learning from them. Using deductive rules they [the later generations] can arrive at conclusions that obligate us to act accordingly as long as they make sense and are based on accepted logical rules…. There is therefore no reason for a fully rational person, one whose intellect is perfect, to oppose things that were clarified by a later [sage] who uses correct proofs, by arguing that earlier authorities have not said so. It is well known that many of the Geonim argued on earlier ones unearthing things the earlier ones did not discover. See the critical notes that Rabbeinu Yitzchak the author of the Halachot (RIF 1013-1103) made on the Pirush of Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038) in spite of the latter’s great abilities and knowledge, so too [his critical notes] on Rabbeinu Nissim the author of “Megillat Setarim” (990-1062). See all the critical notes on these two and others in his Halachot. Rabbeinu Yosef Halevy (R. Yosef Migash (1077-1141) his [RIF] pupil disagreed with him on many issues. My father, although he considered himself their pupil and in his magnum opus refers to them as “my teachers”, because his father (Rabbeinu Maimon) who was his [Rambam’s] teacher was a pupil of Rabbeinu Yosef, disagrees with them wherever he found the truth to be against them. He even argues with his father and says “my father is amongst those who forbid it and I am amongst those who allow it” [MT Hilchot Shechita 11:10)[1]. There is nothing wrong with sages and men of religion doing that. It is only the ignorant masses and the like who must rely on their leaders but that does not obligate sages to follow in their path.”

This is an amazing piece. RABH is suggesting that no custom (minhag) is inviolate. If a scholar finds a minhag to be wrong and does so using the proper rules that the Halacha systems dictate, he may follow his conclusions and change that custom. A minhag is not necessarily an act but could also be a lack of an act. If a scholar feels something should be done when it is not, such as prostrating in the case of RABH, he must do his utmost to implement what he believes to be correct. There is however a very important proviso; one must be knowledgeable, well informed and use the tools Halacha provides. That condition satisfied, when it comes to the truth, precedent is not binding.     
So far I have pointed to interesting (at least to me) things that RABH dealt with from a practical perspective. What were his theology and his philosophy and how did that influence his Halachik and general thinking? I will hopefully address that in upcoming posts.

[1] יש מקומות שמנהגן אם מצאו סרכה מן האוזן לבשר ולעצם שבצלעות, והסרכה דבוקה בשתיהן--אוסרין אותה.  ואבא מרי זצ"ל, מן האוסרין; ואני, מן המתירין.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Accede to the Truth

Rabbeinu Avraham Ben Harambam (1186-1237) (RABH going forward) took over the leadership of Egyptian Jewry after his father’s death when he was barely 20 years old. He was a dynamic leader who instituted many changes in the communal and ritual customs of the community in Fustat (old Cairo). We have many Responsa from him and portions of his magnum opus – Sefer Hamaspik Le’ovdei Hashem – (SHLH going forward). The sefer is a Halachik sefer interspersed with philosophical insights and ethical/moral admonishments. It originally was quite lengthy, around 10 volumes of which we only have a very small part. The volume that I am reading, published and translated by Nissim Dana is part two, volume two, of the sefer. The first few chapters deal with Tefillah – Prayer is  a very satisfying and interesting read. As I go through the sefer I plan to post and comment on pieces that I find novel or intriguing. All translations are my own.

In a discussion about the obligation of washing hands before praying, RABH quotes his father in Hilchot Tefillah 7:8 that on Yom Kippur and Tisha Be’av, since washing is prohibited, one does not make the Bracha Al Netilat Yaday’im (on hand washing) nor does one make the Bracha of Hama’avir Sheina Me’einay which is made when washing one’s eyes after sleep. RABH explains that the basis for this ruling is the prohibition of even extending the tip of a finger into water on those days (Hilchot Shvitat Assor 3:1 and Ta’anyot 5:10). The Gemara in Yoma 78a also states that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi used a damp cloth to wipe his eyes on Yom Kippur instead of rinsing them. RABH continues:
However I hold that one is obligated to wash hands for Kryat Shema and Tefillah on Yom Kippur and Tisha Be’av just like one is obligated to do so on other days. The Rabbis never prohibited doing so because this washing is not meant for pleasure; it is a mitzvah. Proof is that a Ba’al Keri - before the Gezeira was abolished – was obligated to purify himself in a Mikvah on Yom Kippur. Washing for Kryat Shema and Tefillah is no less an obligation nowadays then the purification of a Ba’al Keri in those days. One cannot compare washing the face to this, because it is not as obligatory as washing hands and that is why Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi allowed substituting washing by using a damp cloth. This is a correct analysis, exact and there can be no dissent unless one does not understand it or one who has ulterior motives. Had my father heard this argument, he would have acceded as we are commanded “accede to the truth”. Indeed we always saw him clearly accede to the truth even to the least amongst his students despite the wealth of his learning which did not contradict his extreme religiosity for “unwitting errors who can grasp?” (Tehillim 19:13).”
This theme of not being bound by his father’s rulings or for that matter any ruling that he disagrees with will be recurrent in the book as we go along and I hope to point the more blatant ones out as I go along. It is interesting how his arguments are not textual or text based but rather conceptual. Washing hands for prayer is a rabbinical Takanah (See Hilchot Brachot 6:2). Rambam does not explain the reasons for the Takanah but it would appear that it is a form of preparation for Prayer and Kery’at Shema.  The requirements of a ba’al Keri to purify himself is also rabbinical, Takanat Ezra, with the reason given to limit sexual activity. RABH ignores the apparently different underlying reasons of the two Takanot, comparing the weightiness of the rulings both being Takanot and differentiating them from washing the eyes which has a lesser Halachik weight, it not being an official Takanah. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Gavriel's Views On The Asifa

 My grandson Gavriel just posted about the Asifa on Dovid Teitelbaum's blog. It is worth reading - enjoy

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Some Thoughts About Tzara'at

Every year as we read the Parsha of Tazria we are confronted with the Torah treatment of what is erroneously referred to as leprosy. Inevitably someone brings the issue to my attention as did a dear Israeli friend a week earlier and my grandson Gavriel this Erev Shabbat. As usual a number of ideas and thoughts passed through my mind as I was contemplating the issue and though I don’t believe the issue is closed and solved (will it ever be?), I went on a different track and looked at it from a different perspective this time around.

Tzara’at is when one presents on his body a mole like lesion on the skin that is white or off-white going towards the pink. The smallest size of this lesion is a square that could contain 36 hairs, quite a small area. Incongruously however, if the discoloration covers the whole body the person is considered clean. Thinking about this the question that came to my mind is, what prompts a person that has a tiny lesion like that to run and tell the Cohen about it?  Why not just ignore it? I then thought that the verse in Devarim 24:8 addresses exactly that question.

ח  הִשָּׁמֶר בְּנֶגַע-הַצָּרַעַת לִשְׁמֹר מְאֹד, וְלַעֲשׂוֹת:  כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יוֹרוּ אֶתְכֶם הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִם--תִּשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת.
8 Take heed in the plague of leprosy, that thou observe diligently, and do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you, as I commanded them, so ye shall observe to do.

However the Rabbis do not see this as an obligation to report the lesion but rather as the prohibition to cut it off or remove it. I found no mention of the obligation to report it. Is reporting voluntary? I have not found any discussion about this in Massechet Negaim nor in Rambam Hilchot Tume’at Tzara’at. Not seeing is not a definite proof and maybe someone will enlighten me if I am incorrect but until then I am operating under that assumption.

Looking at the cases in Tanach that depict occurrences of Tzara’at we have first where we have one of Moshe’s hand becoming white when he refused to go to Egypt. That probably can be seen as a vision rather than a physical occurrence (rabbeinu Nissim of Marseilles explains it thus). The case of Miriam is depicted as a visible lesion –  

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.

In the case of Uziyahu, the verse makes a point of telling us that the lesion was on his forehead (Divrei Hayamim 2:26:19), where it could not be concealed, which further supports my thesis about reporting being voluntary or at the most a choice one has to make. The case of Na’aman in Melachim 2:5- a careful read of the story leads one to conclude that it was not Tzara’at of the unclean kind but a real skin disease (more about this later).

Rambam in Pirush Hamishna Negaim 12:5 explains why the Mishnah refers to the Metzora as a Rasha – an evildoer -
(My translation) – Tzara’at that the Torah discusses is a punishment for Lashon Hara (saying evil things about the other) so that he will be separated from people affording them respite from his evil tongue. It starts in his house, either he takes notice and repents or it spreads to his bedding – i.e. leather utensils -  either he repents or it spreads to his woolens, either he repents or it spreads to his body. This thing is a sign and a portent just as is the water of the Sotah. It is clear that these are unnatural occurrences not logically explainable, for clothing and houses are inanimate things and the changes that occur are not lesions [Tzara’at] (which can occur only in biological entities). The Torah named them as such as I explained. So too the human lesions, you see that He (God through the Torah) considers baldness as Tzara’at; furthermore He considers one whose whole body has turned white to be clean when [logic dictates] that it is the ultimate, most intense Tzara’at. Therefore these must be legal definitions [as opposed to real illness] and it is based on this that the Mishnah refers to the Metzora as an evildoer.   

Rambam does not consider Tzara’at a real skin disease but rather an innocuous discoloration of the skin that when it occurs the Torah teaches to see it as a reminder for transgressions of speech.  Rambam furthermore compares Tzara’at to the waters of the Sotah. In MN3:49 he explains the rational for the Sotah ritual in a psychological vein though quite foreign to our modern women’s right sensibilities.

There are frequently occasions for suspicion of adultery and doubts concerning the conduct of the wife. Laws concerning a wife suspected of adultery (Sotah) are therefore prescribed (Num. v.); the effect of which is that the wife, out of fear of the "bitter waters," is most careful to prevent any ill-feeling on the part of her husband against her. Even of those that felt quite innocent and safe most were rather willing to lose all their property than to submit to the prescribed treatment; even death was preferred to the public disgrace of uncovering the head, undoing the hair, rending the garments and exposing the heart, and being led round through the Sanctuary in the presence of all, of women and men, and also in the presence of the members of the Sanhedrin. The fear of this trial keeps away great diseases that ruin the home comfort.

 Rambam minimizes the effect of drinking the water and emphasizes the preparatory rituals that lead up to that moment as the main concept behind the water drinking process. The publicity of the process is the main feature and the greatest deterrent for improper behavior. Comparing Tzara’at to Sotah seems to cast it in a similar light, namely a psychological context. Is the Torah telling us that such a skin lesion, a non-medical lesion which may go unnoticed, should be viewed as a wakeup call for introspection? Is it that knowledge and guilt that compels the person who notices the lesion to go to the Cohen and be exposed? Is the Torah creating an artificial anomaly and uses suggestion as a powerful tool to trigger introspection?

With this in mind I read Rambam at the end of Hilchot Tume’at Tzara’at -
יג  [י] הצרעת--הוא שם האמור בשותפות, כולל עניינים הרבה שאין דומין זה לזה:  שהרי לובן עור האדם, קרוי צרעת; ונפילת מקצת שיער הראש או הזקן, קרוי צרעת; ושינוי עין הבגדים או הבתים, קרוי צרעת.  וזה השינוי האמור בבגדים ובבתים שקראה אותו תורה צרעת בשותפות השם--אינו ממנהגו של עולם, אלא אות ופלא היה בישראל כדי להזהירן מלשון הרע.

Rambam points out that Tzara’at does not stand for a specific disease but is rather a generalization of various occurrences that are not biological illnesses - ממנהגו של עולם – but rather are seen by Jews as - אות ופלא – signs and markers of improper behavior.

I come away from all this with the impression that Tzara’at is a Halachik construct used to make us aware of the damages uncontrolled gossip can cause. There is no intrinsic disease, just a tool to use for self-improvement. A person, who has a problem with uncontrolled gossip and wants to change, will use Tzara’at as a tool to work on himself through temporary isolation and distancing from society allowing for proper introspection on his own bad behavior and work on overcoming it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Cat Is Out of the Bag - The Dangers of Unbridled Speculation.

Haaretz brought to my attention the sad decline in the Meshichist stream in Chabad, their slow move towards Sabbateanism and who knows what else. The dangers of unbridled and popular mysticism are quite glaring. The timing on Parshat Shemini is incredible falling in line with the episode (sin) of Nadav and Avihu who according to Midrash were participants in
י  וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר.10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.
יא  וְאֶל-אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ; וַיֶּחֱזוּ, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאכְלוּ, וַיִּשְׁתּוּ.  {ס}11 And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink

Note the last two words above - Also see MN 1:5 

But "the nobles of the Children of Israel" were impetuous, and allowed their thoughts to go unrestrained: what they perceived was but imperfect. Therefore it is said of them, "And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet," etc. (Exod. xxiv. 10); and not merely, "and they saw the God of Israel"; the purpose of the whole passage is to criticize their act of seeing and not to describe it. They are blamed for the nature of their perception, which was to a certain extent corporeal--a result which necessarily followed, from the fact that they ventured too far before being perfectly prepared. They deserved to perish, but at the intercession of Moses this fate was averted by God for the time. They were afterwards burnt at Taberah, except Nadab and Abihu, who were burnt in the Tabernacle of the congregation, according to what is stated by authentic tradition. (Midr. Rabba ad locum.)
If such was the case with them, how much more is it incumbent on us who are inferior, and on those who are below us, to persevere in perfecting our knowledge of the elements, and in rightly understanding the preliminaries which purify the mind from the defilement of error: then we may enter the holy and divine camp in order to gaze: as the Bible says, "And let the priests also, which come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them" (Exod. xix. 22). Solomon, also, has cautioned all who endeavour to attain this high degree of knowledge in the following figurative terms, "Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God" (Eccles. iv. 17).

?Need one say more

Monday, April 16, 2012

Hakirah Volume 13 Is Now Available

You can now purchase Hakirah 13, the latest volume on Amazon. All past editions are now available on Amazon too.

This issue in my opinion is the most exciting yet.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Yoram Hazoni"s The Rav"s Bombshell - A review of The Emergence of Ethical Man.

I just finished reading Yoram Hazoni's article in Commentary Magazine discussing his read of The Emergence of Ethical Man by Rav Joseph B. Sloveitchik. I immediately ordered the book because if Yoram's understanding of it is correct, it is the contemporary Guide for the Perplexed. This article is anyway a must read for anyone interested in a modern perspective and presentation of a very similar approach to how I understand Rambam's outlook on Judaism.

If Hazony is correct the Rav was a pure Maimonidean and all those rumours that he was Nachmanidean should be dispelled.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Important Post at Lamalikra.

I have been following this excellent blog for several years and the latest post is amazing. I highly recommend it to anyone who reads Hebrew.

Friday, March 02, 2012

The Laws of Purity, The Core of Torah and Ruach Hakodesh.

Rambam’s introduction to Taharot, which includes the Pirush on the first Perek of Massechet Kelim, is one of the greatest Halachik compositions ever written. It is the work of a virtuoso in his twenties who presents all the rules of Taharot in a concise and organized form which gives the student all the tools necessary to understand the most complex and difficult part of the Talmud. Rambam is quite aware of his accomplishments and as usual we find no false modesty in the writings of the great man. At the end of the introduction he writes:

“… Do not think that these matters are of the same caliber as those I have presented in the earlier Sedarim, for these valuable generalities that I have organized in this introduction were only apprehended by me after I toiled greatly in clarifying each one of them from all perspectives. I collected them “one from a city, two from a family” (an allegory based on Yirmiyahu 3:14 for collecting details from a vast corpus of writings) from all corners of the Talmud and fragments of Braitot and Toseftot, until I have compiled this introduction which is the key to all I want to explain in this Seder…. One will not appreciate the real practical value [of this introduction] until he has toiled days and sleepless nights in one Halacha amongst those at the beginning of Shabbat, Pessachim or Chagigah, Zevachim, Chulin and similar ones and it has not become clear enough for him to rely on his conclusions.  He will then read my introduction and the rest [I wrote] and all these matters will now be based on fundamental rules, only then will he appreciate the value of what was accomplished here”.

Earlier Rambam admonishes the reader to read this introduction and the first Perek of Kelim with his Pirush, over and over a thousand times until he memorizes it word for word. In Parah Perek 8 Mishnah 5, he writes: “We already explained this Halacha well in our introduction and if you have memorized what we said [there] verbatim, it requires no further explanation”. Rambam was serious when he admonished the reader to memorize the introduction verbatim!

All this is quite interesting but is not the point of this post. I wanted to focus  on a point Rambam makes in the introduction which I believe is revolutionary and is a basis for additional thought and contemplation. Rambam points out that the Rabbis in the Mishnah and Talmud already had great difficulty understanding the rules of Tume’ot and Taharot. He points to a Gemara in Pessachim 17a which discusses the test given by Hagai (2:11-13) to the returning Kohanim during the early times of the Second Temple to make sure they still knew the laws of Purity. The Gemara offers three possibilities in understanding those verses, offered by three of the most prominent Amoraim, Rav, Shmuel and Ravina. Each one had a different understanding of the details of these halachot. Rambam ends this somewhat lengthy exposition and discussion of the three points of view as follows:
“It is now clear that the subject itself [Tume’ot and Taharot] is difficult and was so even in earlier times,. Contemplate about that which they say that the torah at a future time will be forgotten in Israel, and they are referring to the forgetting of the laws of Purity [Tume’ah and Tahara]. So too when the prophet says on this subject ask please the Kohanim Torah - שְׁאַל-נָא אֶת-הַכֹּהֲנִים תּוֹרָהֹ - he refers to the laws of Purity generically and knowing their rules as Torah.”

Rambam is pointing out that the word Torah both in Rabbinic and in the Tanach texts is at times a reference to the laws of Purity. They are so important that they are synonymous with Torah.

So too have they [the Rabbis] said about Tume’ot and Taharot that they are the core of Torah (see Mishnah Chagigah 1:8). And why not? They are the ladder to Ruach Hakodesh as they say purity brings about holiness etc… (TB Avodah Zara 20b and also at the end of Mishnah Sotah as an interpolated Braita)

Rambam sees the rules of purity as a central teaching of Torah and furthermore as a stepping-stone to Ruach Hakodesh, an inspirational basic level of prophecy. How are we to understand this?

Rambam in Hilchot Tume’at Ochlin 16:8 writes:

ט  [ח] כל הכתוב בתורה ובדברי קבלה מהלכות הטומאות והטהרות--אינו אלא לעניין מקדש וקודשיו ותרומות ומעשר שני בלבד, שהרי הזהיר את הטמאין מלהיכנס למקדש או לאכול קודש או תרומה ומעשר בטומאה.  אבל החולין--אין בהן איסור כלל, אלא מותר לאכול חולין טמאין ולשתות משקין טמאין:  הרי נאמר בתורה "והבשר אשר ייגע בכל טמא, לא ייאכל--באש, יישרף" (ויקרא ז,יט)--מכלל שהחולין מותרין, שאינו מדבר אלא בבשר קודשים.

The rules of purity apply only in the Beit Hamikdash and there are no obligatory rules outside it[1] (except of course the laws of Nidah which fall in the same Seder because of the dual aspect of those laws: marital relations and purity). What is the purpose of the laws of purity?

The twelfth class comprises the laws concerning things unclean and clean. The general object of these laws is, as will be explained by me, to discourage people from [frequently] entering the Sanctuary; in order that their minds are impressed with the greatness of the Sanctuary, and approach it with respect and reverence.” (MN 3:35)

The Beit Hamikdash is a place where we humans who have difficulty with focusing our minds on abstract concepts, have a physical locale on which we can focus our contemplation regarding the existence of God and His role in our existence and our role in His universe. Before we enter the Beit Hamikdash we have to remove ourselves mentally from the day-to-day material life and pursuits so that we can rationally contemplate our existence looking at it dispassionately. It is only when we look at ourselves from this perspective that we can make proper decisions on how to act so that our actions conform to our place and role in God’s universe. The laws of purity create the proper atmosphere that distances us from the mundane. It forces us to become aware of everything we handled recently or came in contact with. It is the proper preparation for the contemplation that is the goal of our visit to the Beit Hamikdash. It is that awareness and realization that sets the proper mood of reverence and respect when entering the Temple which puts us in the proper state of mind to contemplate our existence and our place in the Universe.

What is Ruach Hakodesh? Rabbi Dr. Jose Faur points out that the Hebrew does not connote “holy spirit[2]”, which would be Ruach Hakadosh. Ruach Hakodesh translates as “the spirit that emanates from the Holy”. It is the spirit that emanates from the Beit Hamikdash, the locale that was established to facilitate human contemplation about his relationship with God and His universe and the resulting conclusions. Ruach Hakodesh is not contemplation where the person just meditates about abstract matters, but rather is an action oriented type of meditation.

The first degree of prophecy consists in the divine assistance which is given to a person, and induces and encourages him to do something good and grand, e.g., to deliver a congregation of good men from the hands of evildoers; to save one noble person, or to bring happiness to a large number of people; he finds in himself the cause that moves and urges him to this deed. This degree of divine influence is called "the spirit of the Lord"; and of the person who is under that influence we say that the spirit of the Lord came upon him, clothed him, or rested upon him, or the Lord was with him, and the like…When Amasa was moved by the Ruach Hakodesh to assist David, "A spirit clothed Amasa, who was chief of the captains, and he said, Thine are we, David," etc.(1 Chron. xii. 18). This faculty was always possessed by Moses from the time he had attained the age of manhood: it moved him to slay the Egyptian, and to prevent evil from the two men that quarreled….This faculty did not cause any of the above-named persons to speak on a certain subject, for it only aims at encouraging the person who possesses it to action; it does not encourage him to do everything, but only to help either a distinguished man or a whole congregation when oppressed, or to do something that leads to that end…. We only apply such phrases to those who have accomplished something very good and grand, or something that leads to that end….” (MN 2:45)

Keeping in mind these ideas as we learn and struggle with the laws of purity, seeing the laws as preparation for unbiased contemplation, a way of making us aware of our obsession with the material aspects of day-to-day life, is a stepping stone to behavior inspired by Ruach Hakodesh, a result of such contemplation. It is indeed this focus on making us aware of our material life and its limitations that gives these laws such importance and at the same time explains why they are so difficult to grasp – they highlight our limitations. These laws are therefore seen as the final stepping stone to action based on Ruach Hakodesh. That is the main purpose of the Torah and all the Mitzvot, for us to act in a way that conforms to God’s universe fulfilling our role in it. The laws of purity are therefore the final step before accomplishing the goal of the Torah; they are at the core of the Torah.

[1] For a thorough discussion of the different opinions and possibilities see the first chapter in  Shiurei Harav Aharon Lichtenstein on Taharot.
[2] A Christian concept not found in Judaism.