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.