The Commandments and their Reasons as Hardware and Software: Toward a Materialist Understanding of Mitsvot

In this post I want to continue exploring new metaphors for talking about aspects of Judaism (an exploration I started here). Specifically, I want to look at what it might mean if we think of the commandments and their reasons (traditionally referred to as “ta’amei hamitsvot”) as analogous to hardware and software, respectively. This analogy will enable us to draw out and discuss various aspects of the commandments and their reasons, and the relationship between the two.

To clarify a little what I mean by the terms “hardware” and “software,” hardware is the physical devices we interact with in order to access software, while software, the thing we actually want to access, can only be accessed via hardware. I use my computer to access Microsoft Word; using Word is a goal that is only accessible via my computer. Similarly, once we say that the commandments have reasons (not uncontroversial in the history of Jewish thought), it makes sense to articulate reasons that can only be achieved via the commandments. If giving charity makes you a more generous person, “becoming a more generous person” is something that is only accessible via the generous act of giving charity. I therefore use charity to access “becoming a more generous person.”

However, while giving charity is one way of becoming a more generous person, it is certainly not the only way; similarly, my computer is not the only device with which I can access Word. We might therefore ask why we should use these specific pieces of hardware rather than any other. On one level, it’s worth noting that the question is not so fair. Sure you could use any device, but you have to use one, no matter which one it is. So you might justify the one that you use based on simply having to pick one, rather than any specific traits about it. Charity is as good a way as any to become a more generous person.

You also might justify your choice of hardware based on the fact that it is the one you have. Maybe you got it as a present, maybe it’s the one that all of your friends had, maybe you just found it lying on the curb and took it home; however it came to you, now you have it and it is yours. Barring significant issues with the device that interfere with its functioning, this alone is enough to justify using it, as opposed to switching to some other device. I have my phone, I like it, I identify with it, it’s mine. Sure the screen is cracked and the battery-life is stress-inducing, but I identify with its flaws as much as its functions. Moreover, having to pick out and purchase a new phone would be a difficult process.

This leads us toward Maimonides’s historicist conception of the commandments, and their relationship with the idolatrous rituals of ancient Israel’s neighbors. Maimonides argues that human nature cannot change rapidly, that it must be shifted gradually, and that God therefore gave the Israelites commandments that were the same or incredibly similar to the idolatrous forms of worship they were already familiar with. If the ancient Israelites wanted to “access” worship, they would inevitably turn to the “device” animal sacrifice, simply because it’s the one with which they were most familiar and comfortable, and so God accommodated this fact of human nature (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32). This, Maimonides argued, despite the fact that animal sacrifice has noticeable drawbacks, and prayer or silent meditation would work much better. Sacrifice worked, however, and it was the hardware they already had.

If Maimonides conception assumes the difficulty of changing “hardware,” it assumes  some more ease in changing software. Animal sacrifice used to run “worship pagan pantheon X” and was now being used to run “worship YHWH, the one god.” This holds true to our analogy to software, which was always replaced more easily than hardware, particularly now that even major upgrades and shifts in operating systems can be achieved via the internet.

This brings us to an important point: software is not self-justifying. I use my phone to access WhatsApp, but I don’t use WhatsApp just for the sake of using WhatsApp, I use it for communicating with other people. If a certain piece of software isn’t getting the job done, I am likely to replace it. Moreover, because software is replaced so easily, it is not as easy to hold onto it simply“because it’s mine,” as in the case of hardware.

The analogy to reasons for commandments here is a bit tricky, but I think also important. Commandments are, as I have said, intended for the sake of the reasons for the commandments. But are those reasons for anything outside themselves? I think they are. I think we should understand reasons for the individual commandments as pivoting around larger ideals, such as holiness, morality, covenant, etc. The reasons for individual commandments serve to give us “access” to the larger ideals, much the same way as the commandments themselves give us “access” to the reasons for the commandments.

This is important for the way it enables us to view the historic assertions of reasons for the commandments, some of which we have moved well away from today (for a good example of this regarding the laws of Niddah, see Jonah Steinberg’s “From a Pot of Filth to a Hedge of Roses”). If there is one reason to which a given commandment is meant to provide access, then debates and differences of opinion in regard to the reason for that commandment require deciding who is right and who is wrong. However, if we conceptualize the reasons for the commandments as tools for accessing the larger ideals, then different reasons can coexist without one needing to be “the right one.” Moreover, in changing historical circumstances, with the people already used to certain actions and thought processes, different reasons might be just what is necessary to access the same larger ideal. Whether the details of commandments are based on the ritual worship of the Israelites’ neighbors (Maimonides) or on strict symbolism (Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch), both reasons are part of shaping the life of the nation in relation to God (cf. Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Shemoneh Kevatsim, 2:54-57). Because the reasons are not ends in and of themselves, they can be replaced when they are not serving their function and we can change between them as necessary. Moreover, different people use their phones and computers for different things, and different people can perform the commandments for different reasons. People even generally use their hardware to access a variety of softwares, and there’s no reason that the commandments and their reasons could not work similarly.

By way of conclusion, I would like to take note of how this analogy structures the relationship between the commandments and their reasons. In a sense, it makes the reasons more primary. The commandments exist and are performed for the sake of the reasons. However, the reasons themselves serve larger ideals and are easily replaceable. The commandments themselves, on the other hand, have a significant presence in the life and laws of the people, and thus are not easily replaceable. This very real presence, and the difficulty it would create in trying to change the commandments, make the commandments more primary. Barring gradual change, the physical commandments are sticking around, while their reasons may shift. This emphasis on the primacy of the physical actions that make up the commandments in the historical life of the nation leads me to call this a materialist understanding of mitsvot. This approach also puts an emphasis on the shifting historical situation of the nation and the way it shapes the reasons for the commandments. The Jewish people have carried these actions with us through various contexts over the millennia, and we have been different in these various contexts. The commandments therefore have served, and continue to serve, different reasons at different times and for different people, just as different people use their hardware for different softwares.



Rabbi Yehoshua, the Bat Kol, and Legal-Religious Epistemology

There are two passages from the Talmud Bavli that, perhaps more than any other, are taken to be fundamental to our understanding of the legal process of Halakhah. The first is the story known as Tanur Shel Akhnai, found in Baba Metsia.

It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument , but they did not accept them. Said he to them: If the halakhah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place others affirm, four hundred cubits. No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,they retorted. Again he said to them: If the halakhah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,they rejoined. Again he urged: If the halakhah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what have ye to interfere? Hence they did not fall, in honor of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honor of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: If the halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halakhah agrees with him!But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: It is not in heaven.What did he mean by this? Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.[1]

This passage depicts a debate between R. Eliezer and the rest of the sages, wherein R. Eliezer calls on increasingly impressive miracles as verification for his argument, culminating in a heavenly voice that proclaims explicitly that R. Eliezer is correct. To this R. Yehoshua responds that the Torah itself says we do not care what revelation has to say about halakhah, and instead we follow the Torahs own law that the majority vote is decisive. Halakhah was given to the Israelites to decide; It is in human, not Divine, hands.

The second gemara is revolves around yet another heavenly voice, this one in regard to a dispute between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, recorded in Masekhet Eruvin.

Abba stated in the name of Samuel: For three years there was a dispute between Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel, the former asserting, The halakhah is in agreement with our viewsand the latter contending, The halakhah is in agreement with our views. Then a Heavenly Voice issued announcing, [The opinions of] both these and these are the words of the living God, but the halakhah is in agreement with the rulings of Beth Hillel. Since, however, both are the words of the living Godwhat was it that entitled Beth Hillel to have the halakhah fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beth Shammai, and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of Beth Shammai before theirs.[2]

This passage depicts a debate that seems to have been unresolvable. It dragged on for three years, until such time as a heavenly voice came forth to decide it, with a surprising and radical conclusion. Instead of declaring which opinion is correct, the heavenly voice declares that both opinions are correct, and it is only because practice cannot simultaneously uphold both opinions that the voice must declare which one is right.But it is technical right,a practical necessity rather than an ontological fact. The halakhic system is such that there are issues regarding which reasonable people might disagree, in which case both of them are essentially correct, even if the demands of practical law are not so forgiving.

While these two passages are often touted for giving basic principles of the Oral Law and the Jewish Tradition, there is an essential contradiction between them that is often overlooked. The essential point of the first passage is that we do not listen to revelation when it comes to deciding halakhah, with the particular form of revelation under discussion being a heavenly voice. Yet the second passage hinges on the information learned from a heavenly voice. These two passages cannot coexist. Of course, numerous commentators have gone to lengths to show how they can and in fact do coexist, usually by putting conditions on R. Yehoshuas blanket statement that we do not listen to revelation.

The Talmud Bavli itself, however, maintains that these two passages are indeed contradictory, and that one should not attempt to resolve them by limiting one of them.

For it has been taught: The halakhah is always in accordance with the ruling of Beth Hillel. Nevertheless one who desires to adopt the view of Beth Shammai may do so, and one who desires to adopt the view of Beth Hillel may do so. One who adopts the view of Beth Shammai only when they incline to leniency, and likewise the view of Beth Hillel only when they incline to leniency, is a wicked person. One who adopts the view of Beth Shammai only when they incline to strictness and likewise the view of Beth Hillel only when they incline to strictness, [is a fool and] to such a one applies the verse: But the fool walks in darkness. But one must either adopt the view of Beth Shammai in all cases, whether they incline to leniency or strictness, or the view of Beth Hillel in all cases, whether they incline to leniency or strictness. Now is not this statement self-contradictory? At first it says: The halakhah is always in accordance with the ruling of Beth Hillel, and immediately after it says: Nevertheless one who desires to adopt the view of Beth Shammai may do so? This is no difficulty. The latter statement relates to the practice before the Heavenly Voice was heard, whilst the former states the law as it is after the Heavenly Voice was heard. Or, you may even say that the latter statement too was made after the Heavenly Voice was heard. [and yet there is no contradiction], for that statement is the view of R. Joshua who exclaimed: We pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice![3]

This third passage says that the ruling of the heavenly voice, that the halakhah is like Bet Hillel, was considered legally binding, except by R. Yehoshua who did not accept revelation as legally binding.

This passage leaves one thing unclear, however. While R. Yehoshua is explicitly said to be rejecting the decision that the practical law is always like Bet Hillel, it is unclear to how he treats the first half of the heavenly voices declaration. Does R. Yehoshua agree that both these and these are the words of the living God? There are arguments in either direction. On the one hand, this information is received via revelation, something R. Yehoshua apparently rejects. On the other hand, the information is not halakhically decisive, and it is possible R. Yehoshua only denies revelation a decisive legal capacity, rather than the ability to convey information about halakhah more generally, in which case he would only reject the second half of the heavenly voices statement, but not the first.

While its impossible to know for certain, it may be fruitful to speculate a little. If we go back to the original statement of the heavenly voice in the second passage we looked at, the two halves of the proclamation are connected. The first half tells us that more than one halakhic opinions can be essentially correct. While this clarifies why the debate under discussion in that passage had raged on for three years, it presents an immediate practical problem. Once you know for certain that two contradictory opinions are correct, how do you decide the practical law? No matter which one you choose you will know that you are violating a different, but also correct, opinion. Therefore the proclamation has a second half, where it gives a decisive ruling as to what should be done practically. No matter what is essentially correct, there is a different practical measure of correctness, and what is most correct in that sense is the opinion of Bet Hillel.

As connected as the two halves of the heavenly voices proclamation are, it is entirely possible that R. Yehoshua not only rejects both the second and first halves of the proclamation, but rejects the second half because he rejects the first half. The heavenly voice appears in the middle of a debate which apparently could not be resolved through the normal methods of halakhic jurisprudence. Given a Divine source of information, it is easy to determine who is ultimately correct and to then establish practice accordingly (notwithstanding a surprising turn of events wherein both opinions are deemed to be essentially correct). R. Yehoshua does not have this option. Instead, he sees that there are times when the halakhic discussion will have no single, obviously correct, answer. In such cases the answer is not to declare all answers equally correct or incorrect, but to simply allow every capable person to attempt to determine what seems to them to be correct in that situation. While R. Yehoshuas entirely human conception of the halakhic system leads him to reject R. Eliezers opinion by Tanur Shel Akhnai, it leads to certain cases where the only option is not to be so decisive. Thus R. Yehoshua’s different conception of viable sources of halakhic information also leads, in some cases, not only to different halakhic conclusion, but to different types of conclusion, to conclusions that are very human attempts at arriving at halakhic correctness, as opposed to divine concessions to practicality.

[1] TB Baba Metsia 59b. Translations from, with some adaptation for ease of reading and clarity.

[2] TB Eruvin 13b.

[3] TB Hulin 43b-44a.