Hanukkah 2018 Shiur – Where do we draw the line between Judaism and the Outside World?

 

Sources:

I. The Weather Outside is Frightful – Franz Rosenzweig’s “Apologetic Thinking,”

Translation from “Philosophical and Theological Writings,” eds. and trans. P. Franks and M. Morgan

  1. Judaism in­deed has dogmas, but no dogmatics. […] The community does not wish to be only a spiri­tual community, but wants rather to be what it actually is in contrast to other communities connected by spirit/intellect alone: a natural com­munity, a people.

  2. The Guide of the Perplexed, however, would dis­appoint one who approaches it in the expectation of finding a system. […] The defense is directed against the attacks of philosophy, not or only peripherally against other religions, by which the defense could therefore have been taken over. The apologetic nature of the funda­mental attitude yields the completely unpedantic character, which still today is a fresh breeze for the reader and strikes him as in no way “scholastic”; this thinking has what systematic thinking cannot have so easily: the fascination—and the truthfulness—of thought reacting to the occasion; but therefore a limit is also set for it which only systematic thinking removes: exactly the limit of the occasional; only systematic thinking determines the circle of its objects itself; apologetic thinking remains dependent on the cause, the adversary.

  3. And in this sense Jewish thinking remains apologetic thinking. […] One did not become a Jewish thinker in the undisturbed circle of Judaism. Here, thinking did not become a think­ing about Judaism, which was simply the most self-evident thing of all, more a being than an “ism,” but rather it became a thinking within Judaism, a learning; thus ultimately not a fundamental but rather an or­namental thinking. Anyone who was supposed to reflect on Judaism had somehow, if not psychologically then at least spiritually, to be torn at the border of Judaism. Therefore, however, his thinking was then de­termined by the power which had led him to the border, and the depth horizon of his gaze was determined by the degree to which he had been carried to, on, or across the border. The apologetic is the legitimate force of this thinking but also its dan­ger.

  4. Why is the word “apologetics” particularly afflicted with such a bad odor? In this regard, it is probably similar to the apologetic profession par excellence, that of the lawyer. Against him, too, exists widely the prejudice that considers lying, as it were, his legitimate task. It may be that a certain professional routine appears to justify this prejudice. And yet, defending can be one of the noblest human occupations. Namely, if it goes to the very ground of things and souls and, renouncing the petty devices of a lie, ex-culpates with the truth, nothing but the truth. In this broad sense, literary apologetics can also defend. It would then embellish nothing, still less evade a vulnerable point, but would rather make precisely the most endangered points the basis of the defense. In a word: it would defend the whole, not this or that particular. It would not at all be a defense in the usual sense, but rather a candid exposition, yet not of some cause, but rather of one’s own [self].

 

II. But the Fire is So Delightful – Rav Shagar’s “Translation and Living in Multiple Worlds”

Translation by Levi Morrow, forthcoming

  1. For better or worse, we are citizen of multiple cultures and we live in more than one world of values. We are not able to deny this situation, nor would we deny it if we could. Denying it would be self-denial, leading to deep, radical injury to our religious faith itself. Rebbe Naḥman’s approach to translation is therefore not only desirable, but also the only option for elevating the translation that is already happening anyway.
    I see great importance in this characterization because we do not first experience the true problem of the encounter between Torah, religious life, and the Greek language – affecting us through the media, academia, literature, and much more – when we come across this language in our university studies after years of learning in yeshiva. Rather, much earlier, in the religious education that we received, in the foundation of our faith, and in the limited constructs that we make its content. We therefore need a substantial religious-spiritual-Jewish alternative, without which it is impossible to avoid internal contradictions that bear a heavy price.
  2. The multiple, split identity model puts together different worlds without recognizing compartmentalized truth-values or different realms of truth. We should describe the Religious Zionist soul as a soul that lives not in one world but in many worlds, which it likely cannot integrate. It does not compartmentalize them – Torah versus Avodah, faith versus science, religion versus secularism – but rather manages a confusing and often even schizophrenic set of relationships between them.
    A new type of religiosity has therefore developed nowadays, one that cannot be defined by its location on any graph; it is scattered across many different (shonim), you could even call them “strange” (meshunim), centers. This religiosity does not define itself with the regular religious definitions, but enables a weaving of unusual identities, integrating multiple worlds – in a way that is not a way. It presents a deep personal faith that, in my opinion, carries the potential for religious redemption
  3.  As per Rebbe Naḥman, the deep meaning of preserving the covenant (shemirat habrit) is eros. This is the significance of the small jug of oil with the seal of the high priest: the harmony of an individual with who and what he is, without locking himself into a specific identity; he can be who he is, whoever that may be.
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Nomadic Mitsvot: Brendan Breed’s Reception Theory and Materialist Reasons for the Commandments

Introduction: By Way of Conclusion

Over the past year or so, I’ve written a series of posts dealing with what I called “materialist” approaches to the reasons for the mitsvot, meaning an approach to the commandments that privileges the embodied acts over the theoretical reasons. I started with looking at how the relationship between software and hardware might shape a different way of thinking about the mitsvot. I then explored how slightly different materialist approaches show up in the writings of three modern Jewish thinkers, two recent, one contemporary: Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Shagar, and Rabbi David Silverstein. By way of conclusion, I thought would talk a little about how I got started thinking about this issue.

Several years ago, I listened to a podcast interview with Brendan Breed about his then-new book, “Nomadic Texts: A Theory of Biblical Reception History.” In the interview, he explained a few of the different aspects of his broad new theory of biblical reception history, the full breadth of which I only understood when I read the book itself earlier this year. Biblical reception history is an an area of academic research that studies not the Bible itself, but how the Bible has been received by various groups over time. While I can’t do justice to the entire book here, in what follows I want to lay out the two main points from his argument that inspired my idea of “materialist” approaches to the commandments.

(This section is going to briefly lay out the relevant section of Breed’s argument. For anyone not interested, feel free to skip to the next section, which should make sense even without this background.)

Let’s Get Technical: Beyond Audience and Intent

As Breed discusses, two of the most popular ways of defining the “meaning” of a text are based on authorial intent and the original audience. The former approach asserts that the text means what an author intended it to mean. Thus, what we really do when we read is extrapolate the author’s intent from the words that she wrote. The author expresses herself in text, and we work backwards from there. The latter approach asserts that the text means what it was understood to mean by its original audience. What we really do when we read, therefore, is determine what the original audience understood from reading the same text. We try and get outside our own context and perspective and adopt the context and perspective of the original audience.

These two approaches can certainly lead to similar, or even identical, understandings of a given text, but they can also lead to different understandings if, for example, an author is misunderstood by her readers. One example of this might be J. R. R. Tolkien, who claimed that his The Lord of the Rings was not a Christian allegory, despite many readers understanding it as exactly that. Of course, there is a huge variety of approaches beyond just these two, as well as approaches that combine them. It can also be hard to separate them to begin with, as presumably the author took her audience and its context into account when writing the text. When it comes to texts we take to be divinely authored, questions of author and audience become more complex.

Breed attacks both of these approaches, based on a fundamental re-evaluation of what texts are supposed to do, why we even write things to begin with. As Breed compellingly argues, the point of writing something is to enable it to move from the author’s original context to another context. Writing creates permanence whereas spoken words disappear as soon as they are said. Oral conversation happens face-to-face, and it allows the author to express her intent to a specific audience, with a shared context to avoid confusion about the meaning of her words. If she writes a text, however, it will be read by an audience outside her immediate context, who may interpret it radically differently from her intent. Moreover, it could be read by an entirely different audience than the author had in mind; letters can be intercepted in a way that in-person conversation simply cannot. As Breed says,

Written signs are not only repeatable; they are also durable. That is, a written text remains long after its context of production has passed away. Durability has long been noted as a productive feature of writing: writers write things down precisely so that readers can read them outside the situational context of writing. […] In other words, writing is useful precisely because it does not lose its readability when it is transported elsewhere and read at another time, even when it is radically separated from its context of production. (103)

As a result of this, “all texts continue to find new contexts regardless of writerly, readerly, and scholarly attempts to pin them down” (104). This idea challenges the both the authorial intent model and the original audience model for determining a text’s meaning. If the author’s text is going to be read by people outside her immediate context, and potentially by people she couldn’t imagine in contexts she couldn’t imagine, then her intent is going to get garbled along the way, to say the least. Meanwhile, the permanence of a text means that it will almost certainly be read by more than just the one original audience. Both the authorial intent and original audience models may therefore be much less significant than many people think.

In place of these approaches, Breed puts forth his own, novel approach to thinking about the meaning of a text (based significantly on the works of French theorist Gilles Deleuze).

Following Gilles Deleuze’s lead, I propose that biblical texts are not objects but are instead objectiles, object-projectiles, that must be studied as something for which movement and variation is a necessary quality and thus for whom any static identity is an always contingent predicate. (116-117)

Texts, Breed claims, tear through history like bullets. And, like bullets, it matters a lot less why they were set loose than what happens after that point. The shooter’s intent matters a lot less than the actual effect of the shooting. Similarly, an author’s intent matters a lot less than how her text affects the world. J. K. Rowling likely could never have imagined what Harry Potter would mean when she first dreamed it up. Reducing its meaning to her intent would mean missing out on everything that followed.

The picture that Breed develops is one in which “drift is an essential characteristic of text itself” (109, emphasis in the original). Texts are inherently opaque, carrying no meaning of their own. The unique nature of each opaque object will inspire unique meanings and responses in each new context it enters. Thus, “instead of asking what the correct context is in which to read a text, one might ask in what ways a particular context reshapes the reading of the text” (130). We can’t know what the text means inherently, but we can know what it means in each different context. “When we look at how a text produces meaning in various settings it tells us more, not less, about the nature of that text” (131). We can look at all the different meanings a text has in all the different contexts it enters, and see what patterns emerge. This will enable us to map the capacities inherent in the text, the potential meanings it inherently bears. The two ideas that we have seen, the rejection of the author’s intent and the rejection of an original audience, thus combine to make the text what Breed calls “nomadic.”

Nomadic Mitsvot

I haven’t laid out Breed’s argument in full, and I don’t really even want to argue for the small part that I have laid out. What interests me is the value this discussion might have for Judaism. I think that taking these two ideas, the rejection of the author’s intent and the rejection of an original audience, and introducing them into the discourse around taamei hamitsvot, reasons for the commandments, can help solve a critical problem for contemporary Jews.

One of the blights of our era is our historical awareness. We don’t just have a long and colorful history, we are also painfully aware of every step of it. This has many benefits, but it also forces us to confront the contingency of each moment in history; nothing is absolute, because everything is a result of historical conditioning. We can no longer say “Judaism says” with full confidence, because we know that Judaism has said many different things at many different moments in its history. When it comes to the discussion of reasons for the commandments, we are too aware of all the different reasons that have been put forward for any given commandment. Even if we are willing to write off broad swaths of the reasons put forward (for example, anything that does or doesn’t include Kabbalistic ideas), we could never narrow the field to the point where we have exactly the same amount of reasons as we do commandments. Even in just the Torah itself, many commandments have multiple reasons (perhaps most famously, Shabbat has different reasons in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, not to mention in the rest of its biblical appearances). Moreover, the simple fact that so many important figures from the tradition disagreed over the reason for each commandment makes it hard to really confidently affirm any one opinion over any other.

If we affirm Breed’s two principles that I laid out above, if we see the mitsvot as “nomadic,” then I think we can avoid this problem. This is essentially what I have tried to show with my posts on Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Shagar, and Rabbi David Silverstein. In The Halakhic Mind, Rav Soloveitchik argues that the reason for a commandment should not be identified with some idea that came before it, for which it was commanded, but with the subjective experience it inspires in one who performs it. Of course, he seems to suggest that there is one correct subjective effect each command will inspire, so he lacks the second element of my model. For that, I turned to Rav Shagar, whose derashot on Hanukkah both frame the commandments as opaque, meaningless objects and suggest that the reason for any mitsvot should be understood in terms of the meaning of performing the commandment, rather than the reason for the commandment itself. The act of performing is the locus of meaning, rather than the mitsvah itself, and it will necessarily differ from person to person and from historical context to historical context. This could combine with Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to let us talk about the mitsvot as “nomadic,” in Breed’s language. All that is left to do is map out the different possibilities each mitsvah bears within it, as manifested on its journey through history. A bold step in that direction is taken by Rabbi David Silverstein in his Jewish Law as a Journey which discusses the reasons for many commandments by exploring what those commandments have meant throughout history. He never broaches the question of what God’s reason for any given mitsvah might be, instead simply focusing on what different Jewish texts have said about it throughout history. The next step would be highlighting the broad patters in order to map the nomadic paths of various mitsvot, the specific meanings that have repeatedly generated throughout their histories. I can only hope someone will take this project up in the future.

As a Hammer Smashes Rock: Rethinking Divine Intent

Before I bring this concluding post to an end, I should broach more directly a topic I have so far discussed only briefly, in the post on Jewish Law as a Journey: how this approach squares with divine intent. It’s a lot harder to talk about “the death of the author,” about disregarding authorial intent, when that author is God. However, I would argue that this actually presents an opportunity for rethinking divine intent, specifically, for thinking about how divine authorial intent might differ from human authorial intent.

The problem with human authorial intent as I laid it out above is that the author can never predict in advance where their text will go and what it will mean there. She cannot know what her text will mean or to whom it will mean it. Limiting the meaning of the text to her intent is therefore very narrowly restrictive and obscures the reality of the text rather than clarifying it.

Whether or not you accept that argument in the context of a human author, it seems problematic to simply copy-and-paste it into the context of a divine author. The challenge to authorial intent is essentially based on the limits of human knowledge; the human author can never know all the different contexts and meanings of her work. However, with a divine author, there is at least the possibility of omniscience, of the idea that God knows everything, even the future. This is obviously one of the great theological debates, one I don’t intend to resolve here, but the possibility is at the very least available. We could thus claim that the divine authorial intent is not one specific meaning of the Torah text, but each and every meaning that it will pick up throughout its history.

Notably, this seems to be the idea behind one traditional reading of Jeremiah 23:29, “Behold my word is like fire, saith the Lord, like a hammer that shatters rock.” This verse (which has its own history of different meanings and contexts), is taken by many to mean that the divine word, as realized in the scriptural texts of the Jewish canon, can and does bear a multiplicity of meanings (See, for example, Rashi’s comment on Exodus 6:9). The image of the divine word as a hammer shattering a rock is really a phenomenal one for our purposes. The Torah is an opaque “objectile” launched into history, smashing into human contexts, meanings breaking off in every direction. The same way the author composes a text and sets it adrift among her readers, God fixed certain rituals and acts as commandments and loosed them on Jewish history, to generate a whole host of meanings. As Rav Shagar puts it in one essay, the divine wisdom sheds and takes up different forms throughout the course of history (Halikhot Olam, 187). Notably, this would essentially give us a reconceptualization of the Oral Torah as the meanings generated by the Written Torah on its path through history, all intended by the original divine author.

If you’re uncomfortable with that strong sense of divine foreknowledge, but still don’t want to give up on divine authorial intent, we could perhaps appeal to a more general intent. Instead of saying that God intended every meaning that the Torah would generate, we can simply say that God wanted the Jewish people to do their best to understand the Torah, even given that they would understand the Torah differently in different historical contexts. This would give us something like the idea behind the famous “Oven of Akhnai” story from Bavli Bava Metsia 59b, which argues that “the Torah is not in heaven,” and therefore the majority interpretation of the Jewish sages supersedes even the divine understanding of the Torah’s meaning. The meaning of the Torah is thus what the Jewish people thinks it is, rather than what God intended it to be. However, as the conclusion to the story makes clear, God desires this to be the case. God intended that the Torah be understood differently over time, even without intending those specific different understandings.

Conclusion

As I hope I have shown, in this post and in the whole series, thinking about the mitsvot as material objects that generate their meanings both can be and already is a fruitful part of taamei hamitsvot discourse. Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Shagar did it, and Rabbi David Silverstein is doing it now. Given the theological issues it helps us untangle, I hope it can become a bigger part of this discourse in the future. Minimally, I hope this series will help people recognize it when they see it, as it is already a part of our sacred texts and traditions.

Objectless Repentance in the Religious Zionist Turn to Hasidic Texts

Introduction

When we talk about teshuvah, about repentance, what do we mean? Is it a process of reviewing our sins and determining how to make up for them? Is it about feeling bad about the things we’ve done wrong? While this is a fairly typical way of describing the process of repentance, thinkers from Religious Zionism’s turn toward Hasidic texts would have us think otherwise. Rav Shagar and Rav Froman critique this model of repentance, and each suggest their own alternative. Rav Shagar wants us to focus on the future, on living up to our ideals in a broad sense, in making the world the way it ought to be. Rav Froman wants us to open up ourselves rather than examine our actions, and express ourselves before God. This is in line with Rav Froman and Rav Shagar’s broader critiques of “religious materialism” and religion that is focused on checking boxes and acquiring religious achievements. Yishai Mevorach does not discuss repentance specifically, but he aims the same critique at faith in general, arguing that only giving up on an object-based faith can save religion from fundamentalism.

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Rav Shagar

In a small book of Rosh Hashanah derashot called Zikaron Leyom Rishon, Rav Shagar challenged the way people often talk about repentance. In a derashah called “Sin, Guilt, and Covenant” (1990), he says:

We review our personal history (ḥeshbon hanefesh); here is where we made mistakes, this is where we transgressed, etc. We accept upon ourselves to be better. Do we stop reviewing at that point? Is that the extent of sin and repentance? (36-37)

Is that really sufficient? Does the simple process of “I did X, I regret it, I commit to not doing it again” exhaust the process of repentance? Some of what is at stake here, as we shall see throughout this post, is the nature of religion. Is religion about more than just actions? If it is, then a word as fundamental as “repentance” has to be about more than just actions as well.

Without going as broad as that, however, Rav Shagar raises another issue with this form of repentance. In a derashah called “Repentance and the World to Come” (1989), he differentiates between “this world” and “the world to come.” “This world” is characterized by that at which we can point; if you can put your finger on it, it’s part of this world. “The world to come,” in contrast, “is not what exists, but what could exist” (29); “the world to come” (which Rav Shagar follows the Zohar in understanding as “the world that is always coming”) is about the potential of a better future. In this context, Rav Shagar raises the problem of the sincerity and finality of repentance.

Someone could claim: Do any of us really think that it’s possible to become different? That we might merit forgiveness (seliḥah) on the complicated personal level or the confused and conflicted national level? Perhaps this is all just self-deception. Will any of us really merit forgiveness (meḥilah)? “This” is “this,” hard and unchangeable! […] The world is indeed “this world.” However, it is possible to live it as “what is coming” rather than “this,” to gaze upon the possible rather than the already existing. This is actually no less real a reality. Even as something as of yet unrealized, as something that is not yet “this,” it is decisively important that we connect to it at least as “what is coming.” (30-31)

The anxiety of repentance, permeating the months of Elul and Tishrei, questions where we can ever really be sincere in our desire to be better. And even if we can be sincere, who is to say that it will last? What if we change ourselves only to rapidly fall back into our old ways. While he does want us to acknowledge that real, lasting change does happen (31), Rav Shagar thinks we should shift away from these questions. They are “this world” questions, they’re concerned only with the actions we have or have not performed. Instead, we should look to the future, to the world we want to create and how we want to live. Instead of a critical repentance wherein we scour and examine ourselves and our actions, Rav Shagar wants us to embrace a creative repentance, where we create ourselves anew.

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Rav Froman

Rav Froman’s small book, Ḥasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh, contains many short, aphoristic sayings on a number of topics. In one of them, he addresses the nature of repentance.

What is repentance according to Rebbe Naḥman?

It doesn’t mean sitting with a journal, writing out a personal accounting (ḥeshbon hanefesh) and repairing all your deeds. That’s repentance for Yekkes.

What is repentance for Rebbe Naḥman? You pour out your heart before Hashem. Your heart, like water. (§41, trans. Ben Greenfield.)

As typical of aphoristic works, Hasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh tends to be striking, but often cryptic, and this passage is no exception (what does it mean to pour out your heart before God? Why is the water bit important?). Despite this, we can derive some clear ideas from it. The first is that he shares Rav Shagar’s critique of repentance as reviewing your personal history and actions (ḥeshbon hanefesh). Repentance is not about deeds, about things you can write down in a book (corresponding to Rav Shagar’s image of things at you can point). Instead it’s about personal expression. Whatever exactly he means by pouring out your heart before God, the bigger idea is that who you are exceeds your actions, and you should express who you are within the context of religion. Repentance is thus perhaps a return to who you are, or perhaps a decision to have a more personal relationship with God going forward, more based on who you are rather than on what deeds you do or do not perform.

Yishai Mevorach

Finally, Yishai Mevorach applies the same critique to faith more broadly. Working in a Lacanian, psychoanalytic mode, he provides an interesting reading of Rebbe Naḥman’s popular teaching, Lekutei Moharan §282. The teaching talks about the importance, particularly for someone leading communal prayer, of finding something good in everyone, including yourself. Reading Rebbe Naḥman very close, Mevorach notes that the teaching instructs the reader to search for “another bit more” (od me’at) good in each person, while saying that if they search for “another thing” (od davar) that is good in each person, they will fail. You can always challenge the validity or sincerity of a good thing that you have done, so it can’t hold up to scrutiny. Instead, you have to search for the good in each person, and yourself, that is not a thing or deed, it’s just “another bit more.”

Building off this reading of Rebbe Naḥman, Mevorach discusses the nature of faith and religion more broadly.

The religious person’s castration anxiety comes from how he understands his religion-faith as an object that he holds. this is a possessive, phallic relationship, afraid of losing the additional object, which does not really belong to the individual. In Rebbe Naḥman’s language, the believer’s relationship to the faith object is a relationship of “another thing,” rather than “another bit more“: another thing, another object, and now I hold onto it really tightly so that it doesn’t scatter or disappear. I have to demonstrate ownership. At this point, the religion descends into harsh, violent fundamentalism. In contrast, Rav Shagar proposes a different possibility, wherein faith is present as “another bit more,” as an excess of my being rather than another object. He was talking about faith that does not trying to preserve the thing, because it will persist no matter what. (37-38)

Translating out of his psychoanalytic idiom, Mevorach argues that faith and religion too often become possessions, objects external to us. Religion that is too obsessed with specific actions leads to two problems, he says. First, it loses the self, it becomes about a person’s actions rather than about who they are. It is separate from them, and easily abandoned. Second, and connected to this, is it becomes violent. Because religion is external, in this model, even affirming religion yourself is just imposing it on yourself. At that point, imposing it on others is a difference of degree, rather than kind.

As I hope I have shown at this point, the school of thought embodied by Rav Shagar, Rav Froman, and those around them seems to have maintained an idea (at least by some of them) that repentance and religion not only are not about specific actions, but cannot be about specific actions. Focusing on specific actions is, for various reasons, very problematic. When we approach the high holidays, as we pass through the season of repentance, the focus should not be on our actions, but on our personal capacity for change and for a relationship with God.

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Rav Kook

In this light, it’s worth noting a very similar idea from Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook’s Orot Hateshuvah, albeit with an important difference. The third chapter of Orot Hateshuvah lays out a dichotomy between “detail repentance” (teshuvah peratit) and “unspecified and general repentance” (teshuvah stamit kelalit).

There is a form of penitence that addresses itself to a particular sin or to many particular sins. The person confronts his sin face to face, and feels remorseful that he fell into the trap of sin. Slowly he struggles to come out of it, until he is liberated from his sinful enslavement and he begins to experience a holy freedom that is most delightful to his weary self…

There is another kind of feeling of penitence, unspecified and general. A person does not conjure up the memory of a past sin or sins, but in a general way he feels terribly depressed. He feels himself pervaded by sin; that the divine light does not shine on him…

Day by day, inspired by this higher level of general penitence, his feeling becomes more firm, clearer, more illumined by reason and more authenticated by the principles of the Torah. His manner becomes increasingly brightened, his anger recedes, a kindly light shines on him, he is filled with vigor, his eyes sparkle with a holy fire, his heart is bathed in rivers of delight, holiness and purity hover over him. His spirit is filled with endless love, his soul thirsts for God, and this very thirst nourishes him like the choicest of foods. (trans. Bentzion Botsker, 46-48)

The former is focused on repenting and making up for specific acts a person may have performed. The latter, is an attempt to fix a general feeling of distance from God. It’s part of the person, and really all of existence, moving towards God, rather than away from specific actions. While Rav Kook does not critique action-focused repentance the way that Rav Shagar and Rav Froman do, in fact he maintains its validity throughout Orot Hateshuvah, it’s notable that he both distinguishes between them and seem to put the broader form of repentance on a higher level. While the later thinkers may not be basing themselves on Rav Kook, at least not explicitly, the resonance with their ideas is striking.

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.