Wednesday, September 18, 2013
How Mitzvot and the Universe Teach us About God - Professor Don Seeman's article and my thoughts on it.
Over Rosh Hashanah I read an excellent paper in the current issue of JQR (Volume 3 number 3 Summer 2013) by Professor Don Seeman which opened for me a whole new avenue of thought and was very much at the forefront of my thinking during Yom Kippur (which by the way is my favorite day of the year). Rambam’s Ta’amei Hamitzvot, the last section of the Moreh, which comprises more than half of part 3, has raised the hackles of thinkers since it was published in the 12th century. Ramban attacks it several times in his commentary on Chumash; the most famous attack is the one against Rambam’s explanation of Korbanot (animal offerings in the temple). The biggest criticism is that they seem very utilitarian and as the Rav writes in his Halachik Man as quoted by Seeman, the reasons of the guide “neither edify nor inspire the religious consciousness” and are “valueless for the religious interests we have most at heart”. Many attempts have been made at dealing with this but Seeman shows how the criticism is a misreading of the Rambam and that Ta’amei Hamitzvot are indeed in line with his general philosophy of Judaism, an intense religious idea. What is really extraordinary is that Seeman proves this textually through a comment of the Rambam in MN and its connection to Sefer Hamitzvot,
In sefer Hamitzvot positive commandment 3 Rambam defines the Mitzvah of loving God as follows:
היא הציווי שנצטווינו על אהבתו יתעלה, והוא: שנתבונן ונסתכל במצוותיו וציווייו ופעולתיו, כדי שנשיגהו ונתענג בהשגתו תכלית התענוג - וזוהי האהבה המצווה [עלינו].
“By this injunction we are commanded to love God that is to say to dwell upon and contemplate his commandments, his injunctions and his works so that we can obtain a conception of Him and in conceiving Him attain absolute joy. This constitutes the love of God and is obligatory.”
God is unknowable as He is a transcendental entity and unique. He is beyond the realm of human comprehension. However man can see God’s traces by contemplating his surroundings, the world he lives in, the universe it is part of, how they came into existence, in short God’s works. But what does Rambam mean when he says that we can obtain a conception of God by contemplating and dwelling on His injunctions and commandments? Students of Rambam have understood it to mean that by studying the Laws of the Torah in great detail and devotion one is indeed studying God’s words and thus reading the mind of God. That has been the classical explanation and to me it was always discordant. It sounded like sophistry. And as Seeman points out, commandment 11 deals with the mitzvah of Talmud torah, which is clearly learning the details of the Law, why duplicate it? Furthermore in 11 there is no mention of Talmud torah bringing about a conception of God.
Here is where Seeman’s great insight sheds light connecting this commandment 3 with what seem almost an offhand Rambam comment and a digression in MN 3:49. Rambam is discussing the reason for the commandments and injunctions the Laws that deal with forbidden relations. As he discusses the laws of Yibum (levirate) he seems to digress and talk about the story of Yehuda and Tamar, how Yehuda was honest and just, and how the story teaches the descendants of Yaakov about how their forefathers dealt with others justly. Rambam then shows how equitable justice plays an important role in the Laws of the Torah.
“Thus are these bad habits cured when they are treated according to the divine Law; the ways of equity are never lost sight of; they are obvious and discernible in every precept of the Law by those who consider it well. See how, according to the Law, the slanderer of his wife, who only intended to withhold from her what he is bound to give her, is treated in the same manner as a thief who has stolen the property of his neighbor; and the false witness (Deut. xix. 16, seq.) who schemes to injure, although the injury was in reality not inflicted, is punished like those who have actually caused injury and wrong, viz., like the thief and the slanderer. The three kinds of sinners are tried and judged by one and the same law. Marvel exceedingly at the wisdom of His commandments, may He be exalted, just as you should marvel at the wisdom manifested in the things He has made. Scripture says: "The Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are judgment" (Deut. xxxii. 4. It says that just as the things made by Him are consummately perfect so are His commandments consummately just. However our mind is too limited to comprehend the perfection of all His works, or the equity of all His laws; and as we are able to comprehend some of His wonderful works in the organs of living beings and the motions of the spheres, so we understand also the equity of some of His laws; that which is unknown to us of both of them is far more than that which is known to us. I will now return to the theme of the present chapter.”
Besides knowing the Laws in detail, which is the mitzvah of Talmud torah, Rambam suggests that one should step back and contemplate the Laws in their entirety how perfect and just they are. By placing this contemplation together with contemplation of the universe, Rambam is telling us that both contemplations have the same purpose and result. Just as contemplating the elegance of the universe points us to God so too the justice and equity of His Laws point us to Him. MN here is thus an expansion of what he said in Sefer Hamitzvot, a kind of Gemara to a Mishnah. Seeman explains that now we understand how the chapters about Ta’amei Hamitzvot are sandwiched between the chapters that talk about Providence and the last chapters which talk about devotional worship. It is the Ta’amei Hamitzvot that when the Mitzvot are contemplated from their perspective lead to that devotional worship. It also explains the seemingly mundane reasons for the commandments, it is the contemplation of these reasons that lead us to be aware through the Mitzvot God’s wisdom in promulgating these Laws and we gain a conception of Him. It is the latter idea that I would like to expand a little upon and that has been central to my thinking in the short time since I read the article.
The Law changes the individual and society by inculcating good habits and beliefs thus changing the way people act with each other, individuals as well as nations, by being more equitable and just. These habits and beliefs indeed changed the course of human history. Judaism has influenced the trajectory of western civilization and by extension the rest of humanity. Contemplating how these Laws started at Sinai with Moshe Rabbeinu, have changed the course of human history, one apprehends the wisdom of God the Giver of these Laws, and we develop a conception of His Being. So when Rambam defines the third commandment to love God as contemplating His commandments and his works, he is talking about this type of contemplation not the details of the Law. When Rambam explains that Korbanot are a concession to human frailty, he is telling us that they are there to help us in the process of abandoning idolatry, the bane of humanity, the great barrier to scientific understanding of the universe. (See my article in Hakirah on the subject here
) When justice is done equitably society is impacted and consequently the trajectory of that society is affected as are those impacted by that society. Sometimes the Law be not work for an individual, but the Law is still valid because it is good for the great majority of people and impacts society favorably (see MN 3:34). This contemplation is the underlying purpose of the need to know the Ta’amei Hamitzvot. This idea also dovetails with Rambam’s concept of providence – Hashgacha as I explained Providence in my article here. All actions have consequences and if one calibrates his action to conform with God’s will and plan, one is acting within the parameters of providence otherwise ones actions are purely chance. The Mitzvot have propelled mankind along the path of divine Providence. Contemplation of that confirms and illuminates how one understands God’s will and wisdom, pointing to His existence and a conception of how He acts.
Professor Seeman has contributed greatly with his article to a better understanding of the thinking of the Great Eagle and has completely answered all criticism of his Ta’amei Hamitzvot. Understanding the Ta’amei Hamitzvot in this context has made what seemed a mundane and historical explanation of many Mitzvot into an intense religious experience.
This short post does not do justice to Professor Seeman’s article which should be read in its entirety, but it triggered some thoughts which I wanted to put down on paper.
(See also Ibn Ezra on Tehillim 19:8 and Redak on the same verse who probably got it from Ibn Ezra which could be read in a similar vein.)