The video recording of Rabbi Finkelman's pre-Pesach shiur can be accessed here.
(Drasha given at Or Chadash on Rosh Hashanah 5782)
On Rosh Hashanah out thoughts turn to the prayer that we be protected for the next year.
On Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgment, we recite the terrifying assertion that on this day it is determined who will live and who will die, who by plague, and who fire, and who by flood. The poet bases his poem on the statement in the Mishnah that all humans are judged on Rosh HaShanah (1:2). In an elaboration of that Mishanh, R. Cruspedai said in the name of R. Yohanan: Three ledgers are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for those who are entirely wicked, one for those who are entirely righteous, and one for those who are in the middle. The entirely righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed to live. The entirely wicked are immediately inscribed and sealed to die. The fate of those in the middle is held in balance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If they have merit, they are inscribed to live. If they do not have merit they are inscribed to die (Talmud Rosh Hashanah. 16 a,b).
On the contrary, another source from our sages asserts that we are all judged on every day. כִּי כָל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ נִדּוֹן בְּכָל יוֹם the opinion of Rabbi Yosi (Rosh Hashanah 16a). Rabbi Natan goes further: “A person is judged at every moment” (Rosh Hashanah 16a). which somewhat accords with the Talmudic statement that God judges the world for three hours each day (Avodah Zarah 3b). According to that source, each day God sees that the world deserves destruction, so God turns from justice to mercy and allows the world to continue.
But whether we are judged on Rosh Hashanah especially, or on some other schedule, the fact remains: We recited this prayer last year, and since then, some have died by plague, some by fire, some by flood. This year especially, the world has experienced a plague year; more than a few have died of plague. The world has experienced a year of accelerating climatic disturbance: More than a few have died of fire; more than a few of flood, including at least 50 in New Jersey and New York last week. Between last Rosh Hashanah and today, some of the fears we articulated have been realized.
And what do you think will happen next year?
I am not a prophet, but I can venture a prediction.
How does prophecy work? Rambam asserts that a person who achieves perfection in morals and intellect, can reach the level where the power of imagination allows the person to understand circumstances from God’s viewpoint. God does not always prevent this from happening.
Rambam strongly rejects the simple assertion that God can give the gift of prophecy to anyone, deserving or not. A simple reading of TaNaKH would seem to support the simple version. Rambam has to explain some difficulties: Jeremiah’s understanding that he was a prophet from birth, and God’s appearance to Avimelech, to Balaam, and even to Balaam’s donkey.
The Talmud records the opinion of Rabbi Yohanan that prophecy has been taken from the prophets, and given to psychotics and children (Bava Batra 12b). I understand this to mean, not that we should pay careful attention to psychotics and children for the purposes of understanding God’s word, but that we should dismiss anyone who claims to the gift of prophecy as either childish or mad. \ Rambam, I believe, never cites Rabbi Yohanan’s statement. Perhaps Rambam believes that conditions do not currently favor prophecy, but that it remains a possibility.
Even without the certainty that comes from prophecy, we have the conviction that God’s protection may extend even to us. We might not have insight into how God protects us.
Rambam, in The Guide of the Perplexed puts forth a theory of divine protection that hinges largely on the development of our intellects. “But I believe that providence is consequent upon the intellect and attached to it “(3:17). Providence, for Rambam, extends to individual humans, and not to animals, because we have intelligence. In the next chapter, he asserts that “when any human individual has obtained, because of the disposition of his matter and of his training, a greater portion of this overflow [intellect] than others, providence will of necessity watch over him more than over others” (3:18). He almost claims that God, by giving us the ability to use our intelligence, gives us the ability to protect ourselves from many dangers. Even if we do not go so far as Rambam seems to go, we can assert that by using our intellect, sometimes we can predict aspects of the future.
I have not achieved perfection in morals or in intellect. I cannot describe current conditions from God’s point of view. Any words about the future from me probably identify me as a childish person or mad. Perhaps, though, based on the Rambam, if I use my intellect, I have the right to urge people to prepare for the future, and take care to preserve our lives.
Rabbinic literature often derives the obligation to preserve our lives from ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם (Deut. 4:15) . “You shall be careful to protect your lives” (Ketubot 30a). In context, the verse, though, warns us against idolatry. A less fanciful source comes from וחיי בהם (Lev. 18:5), that we should do the commandments and live by them. Rav Yehudah says in the name of Shemuel, “וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם (Talmud Yoma 83b), in order to live by the commandments, we need to live. When keeping a commandment results in danger to life, we choose to preserve life. Rabbi Cohen explored similar language in this past week’s Torah reading: (Deut. 30:15) “ובחרת בחיים“ We have to choose life; by choosing to observe the commandments, we do choose to deserve life; but deserved life serves as a reward for observance. We do not sacrifice life for observance (with the known exceptions).
And if we avoid sacrificing our lives for commandments, how much more care should we take to avoid sacrificing our lives for less important matters.
I think this means that we should take every rational precaution to preserve lives. Of course, the rabbi, speaking on Rosh Hashanah, has to urge the congregation to observe the commandments, both ritual and interpersonal commandments.. This year, I think, the rabbi has to urge the congregation to take every rational action in the face of a global pandemic, and in the face of climatic change, to preserve life.
אלוקי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא
My God, the life which you gave me ]was? Is?] pure.
A newborn baby has a pure life. It has not done anything wrong. It is innocent. It has an innocent cry. When it feels discomfort, it cries. Its caretakers have a few tactics for dealing with the baby’s needs: it might need to suckle; it might need to be cleaned; it might need to cuddle, to snuggle; it might not be warm enough, or it might be too warm.
The newborn baby might not even know what need makes it feel discomfort. It cannot express exactly what it needs. It has no words. I don’t know if it knows exactly what it needs; yet its needs are genuine, existential. Its life depends on meeting those needs. If no caretaker addresses those needs, it will die.
The caretakers run through the repertoire of needs, and usually the baby will stop crying.
So the baby’s cry, without words, without specifying anything, is pure, genuine; I might even say, holy.
After we have run though our repertoire of tactics, if the baby still cries, we explain that it has colic, as if that word explains anything.
The life that I was given was pure. It is not pure now. I have scratched it in a few places, dinged it. Now it has some worn places, some corroded places, some corrupted places. When I express what I need or want in words, sometimes I ask for what I should not have, what I should not want.
The broken sound of the shofar, the quavering sound of the shofar, makes this day יום תרועה , the day of the broken, quavering sound (Numbers 29:1). The shofar has no words. It does not ask for any specific thing. The cry resembles the newborn baby’s cry.
In the course of Rosh Hashanah, we have plenty of words. Our prayer book has too many words. We at this congregation skip some of them, thank God. Wise people put those words in the prayer book, so most of those words probably guide us to ask for what we honestly need. We also add our own words, some of which come from the undamaged parts of our life, from what we really need; some of which come from the corroded parts, the corrupted parts.
The shofar has no words. It only speaks for what we really need. It speaks what we cannot put into words.
The sages of the Talmud offer another, surprising, model for the quavering cry of the shofar. Yavin, Canaanite King of Hazor, has been oppressing his Hebrew subjects for years. His general, Sisera, heads to battle to subdue the rebellious Hebrews, but he gets badly defeated. As he flees the battlefield, he is killed. Devorah, the prophet and judge of Israel, composes a song celebrating her victory against the forces of Sisera. At the end of the song, she imagines the mother of Sisera distraught that her son’s chariot has not yet retuned from the battlefield, worried, sobbing (Judges 5:28).
I think she has words for why she is worried, but her cry has no words . . . it is just יבבה )yevavah(, whimpering (The word occurs nowhere else in the Bible, but in Aramaic, and later Hebrew, it means whimpering. Targum Onkelos uses this word to translate the Hebrew word תרועה in Numbers 29:1 into Aramaic). The rabbis of the Talmud explain that the sound of the Shofar should quaver like the whimpering of the mother of Sisera (Rosh Hashanah 33b).
She has a real, genuine reason to cry: she is a mother, fearful that her son has died. Her cry comes from a pure place.
The wisest of her ladies in waiting try to assuage her fears, reassuring her that the men are probably delayed because they are busy collecting more prizes, dyed embroidered fabrics and young women. They use a demeaning, disparaging, ugly word for women.
In the rules of ancient warfare, a victorious soldier killed his defeated enemy men, and took his prizes from the women and the valuable property.
You and I do not understand what dyed, embroidered fabrics mean, because we live in the age of machine-made clothing. We think cloth is inexpensive. In the ancient world every scrap of cloth took hours, probably hundreds of hours of work.
My wife once received as a present an entire shearing of a single sheep. It smelled like a sheep. It took hours to wash it well enough so that she could stand to spend time with it. Then it had to be combed. Then, using a primitive tool called a drop spindle, she painstakingly turned it into thread; then plaited the thread into yarn; then died the yarn; then wove the yarn into fabric. It took months of work, day after day, for her to make herself a jacket out of that wool. That was the only way to have a garment in the ancient world.
No, wait, there was another way. You could find the person who had the garment, kill anyone around her, maybe kill her too, or take her into slavery, and then you could take the garment.
Deborah imagines the wise ladies-in waiting reassuring Sisera’s mother that she need not worry about her son. He is probably dragging home some slave girls, and some beautiful, unimaginably expensive clothing. Probably he will share some of that with his beloved mother. The ladies-in-waiting assuage her pure dread with the most crass alternatives: wealth and the power to oppress helpless people.
In our own experience, that is how people often deal with the fear of death: Life, we pretend, has meaning because we have wealth, and power over other people. How much of our limited time do we spend amassing more wealth, and developing more power over others?
We might not be wise enough to recognize when our prayers come from our crass desires for wealth, and for power. That’s why we need the sound of the shofar, without any words. We need the sound of the shofar that comes from our purest part. It expresses what we really need.
Eliezer Finkelman Rosh Hashanah 5780 September 30, 2019.
December 29, 2018, Parshat Shemot
Why a thorn bush? What makes a Sneh so special? Why does the manifestation of God’s presence come to Moshe our teacher in a thorn bush?
Now, maybe that is a klutz kasha, a clumsy question. The paradigmatic clumsy question, a kashe fun a maaseh, a question from an incident. It happened that way. It happened to happen that way.
Actually, I do not know why a kasha fun a maaseh equals a clumsy question. Perhaps someone will explain that to me someday.
But the thorn bush is not just a case of “it happened to happen that way.” If God appeared to Moshe our teacher in a thorn bush, the Master of the Universe certainly intended something. Furthermore, the thorn bush appears in the written record of the incident: that makes it a literary symbol. By every literary theory, we expect symbols to be overdetermined, to be polyvalent, or, without the fancy terminology, to make sense in nearly every way we look at them.
So what did the ancient rabbis make of the thorn bush?
I went browsing through the Torah Sheleimah to find out. That work collects nearly every scrap of material from the early rabbis, organized according to the verses in the Torah mentioned in each scrap, each scrap bound up with its variant texts, including explanatory notes, all by Rabbi Menahem Kasher (1895-1983); Rabbi Kasher published this work for four of the five books. After his death, his successors have added volumes for the beginning of Devarim.
What did I find?
A non-Jew asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha, “Why did God see fit to speak to Moshe from a thorn bush?”
He said to him: “If he had spoken to him from a carob tree or a fig tree, you would have asked me the same question” (That amounts to calling this a klutz kasha.) But it is not possible to leave you with a blank answer, why from a thorn bush? To teach you that there is no place empty of his presence, not even a thorn bush (Shemot Rabbah 81:9).
If God had spoken to him from a fruit tree, one might declare him the God of all productive or good things, and declare the rest of space godforsaken, even the domain of some other power. Therefore the thorn bush teaches us something about God.
Rabbi Yehoshua says: Why did God reveal himself to Moshe from the midst of a thorn bush? Because as long as Israel was in pain, it was as if God had pain before him, as it says “In all their pains, it was painful for him” (Isaiah 63:9) and “I am with him in pain” (Psalm 91:15). (Mekhilta deRabbi Shimon bar Yohai 2a).
Again, the thorn bush teaches us about God, who has empathy for Israel in its time of trouble.
Rabbi Elazar says . . . because the thorn bush is the lowliest of the trees in the world, to teach us that Israel had descended, at that time, to the lowest possible level, and God descended to rescue them, as it says, “And I descended to rescue them” (Lev. 23:40). (Mekhilta Shemot).
The thorn bush also teaches us about the children of Israel.
Pinhas the Cohen, son of Rabbi Hama: Consider the thorn bush! When a person puts his hand into the thorn bush, he does not notice. When he takes his hand out of the thorn bush, it gets scratched. So too, Israel, when it went down to Egypt, not a creature noticed. It came out of Egypt with signs, wonders and war (Shemot Rabbah 81:9).
The thorn bush teaches us about the exodus from Egypt.
From the thorn bush: just as the thorn bush grows on any water, so Israel grows only by the merit of the Torah, which is called “water,” as it says, “Oh, all who are thirsty, come and drink water” (Isaiah 54:1). (Shemot Rabbah 82:9).
This and much more appears collected in Torah Sheleimah.
To which I add: the thorn bush teaches us about the children of Israel. We are never destined to be the most lofty, glorious, and powerful of nations (Deut. 7:7). We always appear small, possibly even nasty, like a thorn bush, and endangered by flames. But we are not consumed. The flames do not cease, but they may indicate the divine presence.
And the thorn bush teaches us about Moshe our teacher. Moshe went out of his way to inspect the burning bush. He said “I will turn aside and see this great sight: Why is this thorn bush not consumed?” (Exodus 3:3). He had intellectual curiosity. I have suggested in a previous talk that perhaps Moshe was not the first person to see this mysterious burning thorn bush. Perhaps some other people just walked past the burning bush, thinking it no concern of theirs, or having no interest. Moshe qualifies as our leader, in part, because he wants to understand.
Moshe our teacher resembles the thorn bush. In his own estimation, he does not feel adequate to the task of taking Israel out of Egypt. He is “the most humble of men” (Numbers 12:3). The task takes him so far out of his comfort zone that he argues with God to choose someone else.
This teaches us about leadership: the best leader we ever had did not feel entitled.
The thorn bush works as a polyvalent symbol. Look at the thorn bush as a symbol of God, of slavery in Egypt, of the Exodus, of the leadership of Moshe our teacher, of the conditions of the survival of the Jewish people – however we look at the thorn bush, we find the symbol evocative.
Expanded source materials from Rabbi Finkelman's August 19 seudah shlishit talk can be downloaded below.
What Is So Bad about Sin?
The Torah forbids all sorts of activities. Some of them seem pretty bad: theft and murder, for example. But why does the Torah forbid wearing linsey-woolsey (Deut. 22:11), or planting wheat in the vineyard (Deut. 22:9)?
Are those activities forbidden just for arbitrary reasons, or are they forbidden because they are evil? Does God punish people for disobeying arbitrary rules?
Euthyphro’s dilemma; in Plato’s dialogue, Socrates asks Euthyphro whether deeds are evil because God hates them, or God hates them because they are evil.
Rambam rejects the idea that sins can possibly be arbitrary tests of obedience. Two arguments for Rambam:
1. An arbitrary commandment would have to come from God’s will, rather than God’s wisdom. But Rambam asserts that God cannot have divisible characteristics, “will” that differs from “wisdom.” To assert that God has internal division amounts to a flaw in monotheism (Guide of the Perplexed 3:26).
2. Arbitrary commandments have no rational purpose. People who act with rational purpose in ways that achieve their ends are called intelligent. People who act in ways that do not achieve their ends are said to perform vain, futile or frivolous acts. “A man endowed with intellect is incapable of saying that any action of God is vain, futile or frivolous” (Guide 2:25; see also 3:31).
Rambam does believe that the details of a commandment can qualify as arbitrary. If it make sense that we have some ritualized method of killing an animal for food, perhaps the details of that method do not matter (Guide 3:26; as, to pick a modern example, we need traffic lights, but which color will signify “go” and which “stop” may qualify as arbitrary).
So Rambam believes that adequate reasons exist for every commandment, though we might not figure out a good reason for each one, and we should not claim that we have figured out “the” reason.
Rambam asserts that “the sole object of the law is to benefit us.” Further, that “every one of the six hundred thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners, or to warn against bad habits. All this depends upon three things: opinions, morals and social conduct” (3:31).
Or do sins have bad consequences? For whom?
Rambam clearly asserts, as we have seen, that bad consequences (for the sinner or for other humans) define the sin. God would not have forbidden anything unless it has bad consequences. This apparently makes Rambam a consequentialist (who evaluates acts by their consequences), rather than a deontologist (who evaluates acts by their relationship to duties). Some readers think Rambam really expresses a virtue ethic (who evaluates acts by what sort of person the actor becomes).
Or perhaps sins have bad consequences in that God punishes sinners.
A straightforward reading of many passages in the TaNaKH clearly leads to this conclusions. See, for example, the warnings in Behukotai (Lev. 26:14ff) and Ki Tavo (Deut. 28:15ff).
A problem with this model: It does not seem to work in practice. The objection appears in the biblical books of Kohelet and Job; but you do not need a book to find examples of the objection.
In the commentary on the Mishnah, in his introduction to the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin, as summarized by Israel Drazin, “Maimonides contends that people are encouraged to believe in reward and punishment until they are sufficiently intellectually mature to understand the truth and stop insisting on bribes like the immature child.” (Drazin’s blog, Thoughts on Aug. 10, 2014).
Does God mind if we sin? Does it hurt God's feelings?
Should we describe God as having emotions at all?
Many biblical texts describe God’s emotions, especially anger and love.
One text even describes God as rejoicing to bring about the downfall of sinning Jews just as God rejoices to reward “And it shall come to pass, that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the LORD will rejoice over you to cause you to perish, and to destroy you; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest in to possess it” (Deut. 28:63).
Rambam objects to attributing emotions to God.
R. Abraham Joshua Heschel objects to “the anesthetization of God.” R. Heschel rather asserts:
The prophets never thought that God’s anger is something that cannot be accounted for, unpredictable, irrational. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but a reaction occasioned by the conduct of man. Indeed, it is the major task of the prophet to set forth the facts that account for it, to insist that the anger of God is not a blind, explosive force, operating without reference to the behavior of man, but rather voluntary and purposeful, motivated by concern for right and wrong. . . . It is a secondary emotion, never the ruling passion, disclosing only a part of God’s way with man (The Prophets, 2:62-63).
Emotions come from recognizing that what exits does not conforms, or does conform, with what we want. Does it make sense for God to suffer from a gap between what exists in creation and what God wants? R. Heschel seems to say yes, because humans have free will.
And someone who decides to sin . . . does that person deserve to suffer?
Perhaps, because “the soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20).
But generally, in Torah, the society that sins earns negative consequences: Individuals may get caught up in the sins of the whole society. See the second paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 11;13-21) and the beginning of Amos (1:3-2:5).
Or only if the whole society sins? But what can we do about that?
What are the responsibilities of decent persons in a sinning society?
Should they keep a low profile, and keep their hands clean?
Or do they have responsibility to try to change the society? How?
Are the negative consequences to society punishment?
“If you will consider my decrees loathsome, and if my judgments your being rejects, not to do my commandments and to annul my covenant, then I will do the same to you; I will assign on you panic, swelling lesions, and burning fever . . .” (Lev. 26:15-160.
“If you will observe the entire commandment that I command you . . . So that you may long live in the land that the Lord has sworn to your fathers to give to you as the heaven above the earth.” (Deut. 11:8-9).
Should we look down on people who transgress? Why?
Beruria tells her husband, Rabbi Meir, not to pray for the end of sinners, but only for the end of sin “Let sins [or sinners] be finished off” (Psalm 104:35). Let them repent (Berakhot 10a).
“To fear the Lord is to hate evil” (Proverbs 8:13). R. Nahman bar Yitzhak asserts that one is commanded to hate an evildoer (Pesahim 113b).
Perhaps sin hinders a person from becoming holy (virtue ethics).
“who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to . . .”
“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2), and “You shall make yourselves holy, and you shall become holy; I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 20:7).
Sometimes sin profanes the name of God
“and you shall not profane my holy name” (Lev. 22:32).
Perhaps sin distances a person from God
(See Cain’s comment in Gen. 4:14: “And from your face I shall be hidden.” God had not told Cain anything about how his relationship with God would change. Cain apparently just realized that act would make God inaccessible to him.)
Perhaps sin injures a person’s place in the world to come
(See Mishnah Sanhedrin 1):1, 3 and elsewhere; see especially Gluckel of Hameln).
Above all, my children, be honest in money matters, both with Jews and Gentiles, lest the name of Heaven be profaned. If you have in hand money or goods belonging to other people, give more care to them than if they were your own, so that, please God, you will do no one a wrong. The first question put to a man in the next world is, whether he was faithful in business dealings. Let a man work ever so hard amassing wealth dishonestly, let him during his lifetime provide for his children fat dowries and upon his death a rich heritage – yet woe, I say, and woe again to the wicked who for the sake of enriching his children has lost his share in the world to come! For the fleeting moment he has sold Eternity.
Maybe the negative consequences of sin devolve on the self (virtue ethics)
“He comes before men, and says: I have sinned and twisted that which was right, and it has not profited me.” (Job 33:27). These are the words of one of Job’s friends, Elihu, describing the acts of a penitent and thus rebuking Job, who insists on his own relative innocence. In the continuation of his speech, Elihu asserts that God accepts repentance two or three times, allowing people to return from the grave to the light of life, which seems more like “sin distances a person from God” ethics.
Maybe our sins have cosmic consequences in supernal realms.
In general: “Great is tzedakah for it hastens the redemption” (Bava Batra 10a).
In specific: In Lurianic Kabbalah, the universe as created contained vessels to hold the light. Some of the vessels shattered. Proper behavior can repair vessels so they can hold light again (tikkun olam); improper behavior can keep the shards (kelipot) broken.
Joseph Gorfinkle’s translation of Rambam in his commentary on the Mishnah, introduction to the ethics of the fathers, the famous “8 chapters,” (Shemonah Perakim), in Chapter 6 distinguishes two models of those who avoid sin: “Concerning the Difference between the Saintly or Temperamentally Ethical Man and him who subdues his Passions and has Self-restraint”
PHILOSOPHERS maintain that though the man of self-restraint performs moral and praiseworthy deeds, yet he does them desiring and craving all the while for immoral deeds, but, subduing his passions and actively fighting against a longing to do those things to which his faculties, his desires, and his psychic disposition excite him, succeeds, though with constant vexation and irritation, in acting morally. The saintly man, however, is guided in his actions by that to which his inclination and disposition prompt him, in consequence of which he acts morally from innate longing and desire. Philosophers unanimously agree that the latter is superior to, and more perfect than, the one who has to curb his passions, although they add that it is possible for such a one to equal the saintly man in many regards. In general, however, he must necessarily be ranked lower in the scale of virtue, because there lurks within him the desire to do evil, and, though he does not do it, yet be- cause his inclinations are all in that direction, it denotes the presence of an immoral psychic disposition. Solomon, also, entertained the same idea when he said, "The soul of the wicked desireth evil", and, in regard to the saintly man's rejoicing in doing good, and the discontent experienced by him, who is not innately righteous, when required to act justly, he says, "It is bliss to the righteous to do justice, but torment to the evil-doer". 1 This is manifestly an agreement between Scripture and philosophy.
When, however, we consult the Rabbis on this subject, it would seem that they consider him who desires iniquity, and craves for it (but does not do it), more praiseworthy and perfect than the one who feels no torment at refraining from evil; and they even go so far as to maintain that the more praiseworthy and perfect a man is, the greater is his desire to commit iniquity, and the more irritation does he feel at having to desist from it. This they express by saying, "Whosoever is greater than his neighbor has likewise greater evil inclinations". Again, as if this were not sufficient, they even go so far as to say that the reward of him who overcomes his evil inclination is commensurate with the torture occasioned by his resistance, which thought they express by the words, "According to the labor is the reward".
Furthermore, they command that man should conquer his desires, but they forbid one to say, "I, by my nature, do not desire to commit such and such a trangression, even though the Law does not forbid it". Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel summed up this thought in the words, "Man should not say, 'I do not want to eat meat together with milk; I do not want to wear clothes made of a mixture of wool and linen; I do not want to enter into an incestuous marriage', but he should say, 'I do indeed want to, yet I must not, for my father in Heaven has forbidden it'".
At first blush, by a superficial comparison of the sayings of the philosophers and the Rabbis, one might be inclined to say that they contradict one another. Such, however, is not the case. Both are correct and, moreover, are not in disagreement in the least, as the evils which the philosophers term such and of which they say that he who has no longing for them is more to be praised than he who desires them but conquers his passion are things which all people commonly agree are evils, such as the shedding of blood, theft, robbery, fraud, injury to one who has done no harm, ingratitude, contempt for parents, and the like. The prescriptions against these are called commandments (HlSfi), about which the Rabbis said, "If they had not already been written in the Law, it would be proper to add them". Some of our later sages, who were infected with the unsound principles of the Mutakallimun, called these rational laws. 3 There is no doubt that a soul which has the desire for, and lusts after, the above-mentioned misdeeds, is imperfect, that a noble soul has absolutely no desire for any such crimes, and experiences no struggle in refraining from them. When, how- ever, the Rabbis maintain that he who overcomes his desire has more merit and a greater reward (than he who has no temptation), they say so only in reference to laws that are ceremonial prohibitions. This is quite true, since, were it not for the Law, they would not at all be considered transgressions. Therefore, the Rabbis say that man should permit his soul to entertain the natural inclination for these things, but that the Law alone should restrain him from them.
Ponder over the wisdom of these men of blessed memory manifest in the examples they adduce. They do not declare, "Man should not say, 'I have no desire to kill, to steal and to lie, but I have a desire for these things, yet what can I do, since my Father in heaven forbids it!'" The instances they cite are all from the ceremonial law, such as partaking of meat and milk together, wearing clothes made of wool and linen, and entering into consanguinuous marriages. These, and similar enactments are what are called "my statutes" (Tllpn), which, as the Rabbis say are "statutes which I (God) have enacted for thee, which thou hast no right to subject to criticism, which the nations of the world attack and which Satan denounces, as for instance, the statutes concerning the red heifer, the scapegoat, and so forth".
Those transgressions, however, which the later sages called rational laws are termed commandments (filSfi), as the Rabbis explained.
It is now evident from all that we have said, what the transgressions are for which, if a man have no desire at all, he is on a higher plane than he who has a longing, but controls his passion for them; and it is also evident what the transgressions are of which the opposite is true. It is an astonishing fact that these two classes of expressions should be shown to be compatible with one another, but their content points to the truth of our explanation.
This ends the discussion of the subject-matter of this chapter.
Of course, the answers should differ for different classes of misdeeds.
Rambam identifies classes of sins that hurt society, and bad habits that hurt the self, and failure to memorialize important truths, and failure to remember important events in our history.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz (born Riga, 1903 – died Israel 1994) at times rejected the distinction between different classes of misdeeds with different classes of imperatives.
He characteristically said, “The Torah does not recognize moral imperatives stemming from knowledge of natural reality or from awareness of man’s duty to his fellow man. All it recognizes are Mitzvoth, divine imperatives.”
For Leibowitz, the attempt to understand how we benefit from doing mitzvot, or how we harm ourselves in transgressing, establishes the goal of commandments to benefit ourselves, rather than obedience to the commander. As such, this philosophy of commandment becomes a kind of idolatry: it imagines that the goal of Torah is to benefit ourselves.
Note the implications for prayer: “Only the prayer which one prays as the observance of a Mitzvah is religiously significant. The spontaneous prayer ("when he is overwhelmed and pours out his complaint before God") a man prays of his own accord is, of course, halakhically permissible, but, like the performance of any act which has not been prescribed, its religious value is limited. As a religious act it is even faulty, since he who prays to satisfy his needs sets himself up as an end, as though God were a means for promotion of his welfare.”
So he could say “Ethics, when regarded as unconditionally asserting its own validity, is an atheistic category par excellence.”
Daniel Rynhold, wrote the entry “Yeshayahu Leibowitz” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Rynhold summarizes Leibowitz’s approach to our problem:
At this point, Leibowitz's description of the religious and halakhic realms, even if disputable, appears to be consistent. Judaism is for him a deontological system of divine duties, rather than a teleological system designed to promote any form of human “good.” From a human perspective, the mitzvoth might indeed be meaningless; if they do end up promoting some form of human good, this would be accidental and not part of the essential nature of mitzvoth. But while this conception of mitzvoth works well for most ritual commandments, it comes under pressure in relation to what would ordinarily be termed ethical mitzvoth—were it not for the fact that this is now an oxymoron for Leibowitz—such that even “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is to be regarded as a mitzvah, not as an ethical precept. The key phrase in the verse containing this commandment for Leibowitz is that which follows immediately to end the verse: “I am God.” It is a duty towards one's neighbor that is based on man's position before God, not his position before his fellow man.
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