Shiur: The Funny Thing About Mitsvot – Adar Bet 2019

The Funny Thing About Mitsvot: Humanity, Divinity, and Irony

I. Take life lightly!

2. Rav Menachem Froman, They Make Hasidim Laugh, §27-28

27. Take life lightly! Clap your hands, run, dance! […] Stop being a Jew like me, who recites the Shema and takes the Mishneh Berurah and Shulan Arukh so seriously. Because truth be told, it’s also written that the Shema has to be recited with an intentional heart. And what exactly is an intentional heart? Lightness; it’s when your heart carries you through your Shema!

Let’s stop being like those who bear the cross of the Torah with such gravity! Let’s stop being like those who can’t take the Torah lightly. That’s what leads to heresy. That’s why the majority of the Jewish people no longer keeps the Torah. What is it I need? To dance the Torah, to jump the Torah! What’s missing is Purim. That’s what’s holding back my service of God.

Years ago, I suggested to my wife that we change our last name from Froman to Purim. Instead of saying, “Rabbi Froman will today meet with Arafat, representatives from Hamas, etc.”, they’d say it was Rabbi Purim! It would sound completely different! Then no one would take what I do too seriously…

28. […] In classical Judaism, all of the commandments commemorate the exodus from Egypt, but now we have reached a new era, an era of laughter and freedom. Until now, all the commandments were very serious. Passover is about pathos. The Torah has lots of pathos, it’s very serious. Now, we have a new era, a new Torah, the Torah of the land of Israel, the Torah of the Messiah. All the commandments commemorate the laughter of Purim, not the pathos of Passover.

To be or not to be is a serious, weighty question. However, Shakespeare wrote in the very same play that the whole world is a stage, that everything is a game. Do you hear me asking the most important question there is in life, whether or not to be? This question is just a joke, it’s a game… it’s just a game…

There is something that takes priority over the question of whether or not to be. It even takes priority over saving a life, which is so important that it overrides Shabbat. What is this thing that takes priority over saving a life? Being before God. Before God. Being before God in this world and the world to come, being before God and knowing that everything we have done in our lives is a joke. Life, death, it’s all a joke before God.

II. Do the Mitsvot, But with a Wink

2. Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored, “Living with Nothingness,” 103 n.35
Translated by Elie Leshem, with minor changes.

This spirit of lightness is expressed through the injection of faith with a humorous dimension. As Rabbi Nahman wrote, the power of humor lies in its capacity to illuminate the limitations of our world in relation to the divine infinitude.

 

3. Rav Shagar, Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan, on Lekutei Moharan I:6

Rebbe Naḥman claims that the very concepts in which we live, concepts of sin and reward and punishment, in a certain sense corporealize God. They lack spirituality in comparison to the infinite, necessitating a “World to Come” teshuvah to make up for the lower, earthly, teshuvah. Rebbe Naḥman essentially demands that we do teshuvah for the forms of religiosity in which we perform the commandment of teshuvah, which he claims is plagued by corporealization of God. A person must act, but he must not turn this action into an ideology, a something, an object. He knows that his teshuvah necessarily fails, and this recognition elevates his repentance.

This means that every significant decision, like the mental (nafshit) act of repentance, must come from an inner silence. This lets a person drawn on his inner life, which cannot be put into words. Despite this, when the spiritual (ruḥanit) act emerges in the world it loses its innerness, requiring “repentance” to turn it into a true spiritual act. What does this mean? Imagine a person who decides to repent. He is forbidden from thinking that this decision expresses the absolute divine truth. If he thinks this, he has corporealized the divine. He must make the decision, but by nature of being an act in the world, it belongs to the category of “kingly honor” (kevod melakhim). It is by definition corporeal, so he must simultaneously repent for his repentance. He thus elevates and spiritualizes the repentance, returning it to its lofty source.

Rebbe Naḥman’s approach recalls how Soren Kierkegaard described the concept of irony. The spiritual character is different, but there is a degree of similarity between the idea of repenting for your repentance and Kierkegaard’s image of the ironic individual, who speaks seriously, but with a wink. This wink does not mean that he is lying, but expresses a dual perspective on reality. He sees with both his eyes at once: one perspective recognizes the seriousness of holiness, while the second, aware of the seriousness of holiness, feels uncomfortable with the inflexibility hidden in this seriousness; spirituality is not a “thing,” it is free and light by definition. This second perspective, the gaze, frees a person from his first perspective on holiness, thereby initiating it anew. The role of irony is to spiritualize human comprehensions of reality. The ironic individual wants to maintain his world while nullifying it (bitulo). He is the believer who takes his life seriously, but understands that sometimes you need a sideways wink in order to look at life seriously.

4. Rav Shagar, Shuvi Nafshi, 27-28

The religious act is inherently flawed by virtue of being an earthly act. Any religious statement must be nullified as it is being said, simply in order to make it sayable.

In order to give teshuvah the elevation it deserves, we have to do teshuvah while simultaneously doing teshuvah for that act of teshuvah itself. The act of teshuvah is in and of itself a sin in relation to the divine infinitude. It is therefore forbidden to get caught up in the motivation for the teshuvah, seeing it as an absolute motivation. It’s earthliness makes it necessary to do teshuvah for the teshuvah.

This is how Rebbe Naḥman elevates the teshuvah itself to the supernal teshuvah, the teshuvah of the world to come, which not our real world, but the teshuvah of the ideal world that does not yet exist. The doubled gaze enables a person to do teshuvah even if this teshuvah is earthly and insufficient.

 

5. Rav Shagar, Tsel Ha’Emunah, 57-58

The test of religiosity is not keeping the mitsvot, nor even suspending them or not keeping them, but how you relate to their suspension. A person can trust (bitaḥon) in the mitsvot and cast his lot upon them, but he must ask himself what happens when God rejects his performance of the mitsvot. Is the mitsvah itself the goal? What about when it doesn’t receive its light from the will of God? […] God’s laughter reveals the unusual combination of the person who trusts (bitahon) and the God who knocks his trust out from under him. […] This is a comical event, which reveals the total nothingness, the joke, of the person who thinks its so serious and important when he does a mitsvah. It’s as if God “pranked” the person; someone with a sense of humor will laugh along and even enjoy it, but someone who doesn’t will see it as a painful rejection. This necessary humor comes from recognizing the precariousness of human existence, the nothingness of humanity in contrast with the divine infinitude. […] Performing the act as a mitsvah is what makes it divine and absolute, for the mitsvah is what reveals God speaking to a person. […] Doing them any other way, no matter how lofty and important the motivations, remains within the human confines of “reasoned decision,” without connecting to the divine. […] The Jewish person celebrates doing mitsvot because that is where he finds God addressing him.

 

III. Freeing God from the Mitsvot

6. Yishai Mevorach, Teologiah Shel Heser, 102

It’s as if God is bound in the bonds of a person’s religious language and religious way of life. A person’s faith language carries with it a meaning that limits the words of faith – words like “God,” “divinity,” “holiness,” “commandment” – to the narrow sense of their religious form of life. The rabbis expressed this “framing” in homilies (midrashim) that depict God observing the commandments.[1] This congruence between religious life and God’s life creates an intimacy in the relationship of the believer and his god. Additionally, it testifies to the narrowness of the god’s world, constricted within the believer’s way of life.

Only a “secular believer,” sensitive to the enigmatic nature of his language, can encounter the infinite force of the divine, while he is forced to constantly turn his gaze up and down, backward and forward, because the word he speaks lacks any meaning or sense when he says “God.”[2] This understanding opens up a path to secular faith, to faith that encounters religious language and feels how it is full of force exactly by virtue of its lack of meaning.

[1] “Rabbi Avin bar Rav Adda said that Rabbi Yitzḥak said: From where is it derived that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wears phylacteries? As it is stated: “The Lord has sworn by His right hand, and by the arm of His strength” (Isaiah 62:8). Since it is customary to swear upon holy objects, it is understood that His right hand and the arm of His strength are the holy objects upon which God swore.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6a, Koren translation and commentary)

[2] “One may not expound the laws of forbidden sexual relations before three people, nor the account of Creation before two, nor the Divine Chariot before one, unless he is wise and understanding from his own knowledge. Anyone who looks into four things is worthy of not having come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after. And anyone who has no consideration for the honor of his Maker would be better off if he had not come into the world.” (Mishnah Hagigah 2:2)

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Shiur: Masters of Disguise – Adar Alef 2019

Masters of Disguise

1. Rav Shagar, Zeman Shel Ḥerut, 68

To understand this piece from Rebbe Naḥman, we have to distinguish between ḥofesh and ḥerut. Rebbe Naḥman teaches us that ḥofesh is an introductory step which creates the ḥerut of Pesaḥ […] Purim and Pesaḥ parallel ḥofesh and ḥerut. Purim, when we celebrate the lottery (pur) and man’s anarchic freedom (ḥofesh), is when we freely choose the freedom (ḥerut) of Pesaḥ, of personal essence and identity. This is an experience of Jewishness as a self-enclosed world, which finds its justification in itself. It is the experience of divine chosenness. For Rav Kook, the anarchic, “Purim-style” freedom (hofesh) lets us elevate our nature, our Pesach-style freedom (ḥerut). Rebbe Nahman here says otherwise. He says that anarchic freedom (ḥofesh) enables us to create ḥerut-freedom. We can create our very nature! This path of creation does not depend on the facts; it creates them. Freedom, as Sartre understood it, therefore exists even within holiness.

We are therefore faced with two paths. There is the path of “be who you are,” but there is also a more radical path: The ability to create your freedom (ḥerut), your “I.” Perhaps this was Rebbe Naḥman meant by the cryptic line that appears at the end of the teaching: “For in the beginning, all the beginnings began at Pesach, and therefore the mitsvot are all in memory of the exodus from Egypt. But now…” Today, all the beginnings start from Purim.

 

2. Adam Seligman, “Ritual, the Self, and Sincerity,” Social Research 76, no. 4 (2009)

To invoke ritual then is not to eschew change. It is, however, to value the past, to give credence to tradition, to accept that we, each and every one of us, are not the beginning and end of existence. It is to articulate a vision of autonomy that does not stand in negation of the past but, one where, as in the Jewish practice, “the ways of our fathers’ are in our hands.” Ritual in fact continues to provide an ongoing arena of creativity and tradition, acceptance and obligation. Ritual practice becomes the arena where the dynamic of that third space, the potential space within which cultural creativity takes place, is worked out. Here an analogy with the world of art is I think very appropriate. For artistic production certainly flows along similar lines and while the world of post-romantic artistic production in Western Europe is one where the aesthetic experience is almost equated with individual expressionism; there have been millennia of human aesthetic production that developed exactly along the lines I outline here. In fact, even the production of icons—that most formalistic and circumscribed of genres—has been shown to exhibit personal and idiosyncratic traits of each iconographer. In that context we can perhaps speak of the individual artist existing within the tradition. It may even be appropriate to talk of the individual artistic creation existing only through a tradition. (1093)

II. Torah like You Mean It

3. Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 28a

It was taught: On that day they dismissed the guard at the door and permission was granted to the students to enter. For Rabban Gamliel had proclaimed: Any student whose inside is not like his outside may not enter the study hall. On that day several benches were added. Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Abba Yosef ben Dostai and the Rabbis disputed this. One said: Four hundred benches were added. And one said: Seven hundred benches were added.

 

4. Adam Seligman, “Ritual, the Self, and Sincerity,” Social Research 76, no. 4 (2009)

The sincere mode of behavior seeks to replace the “mere convention” of ritual with a genuine and thoughtful state of internal conviction. Rather than becoming what we do in action through ritual, we do according to what we have become through self-examination. This form of thought emphasizes tropes of “authenticity” and each individual thus takes on an enormous responsibility. (1079)

 

5. Rav Shagar, Chance and Providence, “The Mystery of Disguise,” 84-88

Translated by Naftali Moses

The first person we meet in the Bible to wear a disguise is Yaakov; Yaakov assumes the guise of Esav, his brother, his enemy. “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav.” Yaakov’s hands are wrapped in goat skin-the same goat that will be cast to Azazel on Yom Kippur. He also wears the garb of Esav, his outer appearance, in order to win the blessings of his father. […]

“For game was in his mouth”-Esav’s power lies in his mouth. Esav also inherits Yaakov’s voice. He wraps himself in his voice, the sound of the Torah. Esav lacks the truth of Yaakov. All of his actions are false. All are done merely for the sake of appearance-but he dares to be Yaakov. This is the religiosity of this world: religiosity founded on lies. […]

So Yaakov impersonates Esav who impersonates Yaakov. Back and forth. Religious truth in this world appears firmly secular. The large measure of self-negation that true religiosity demands from its adherents seems to arouse stern judgment’s opposition. The righteous must then clothe himself in the garb of false external religiosity so that he may appear as a tzadik in this world. Not only in order to gain from the material world must he lie, but even in order to retain his persona of spirituality. If he would be true to himself, he would not be thought of as righteous, nor would he be able to act in the world as such. He gives up that most dear to him-his own inner self-in order to be understood by others.

The wicked attempt to imitate his garb, making a mockery of righteousness itself. Dressed the part, the wicked man does not feel the absurdity of his situation. Judging all by external appearances, he truly believes that he is one of the righteous. The trickery of Esav is not simple. It is not conscious subterfuge, but runs much deeper than that. lt is utter self-deception. He sees this world as true; he identifies reality with mere appearances. From his point of view, the attempts to find favor in his father’s eyes are honest. They even bear fruit. The side of strict judgment, the source of this world, is satisfied with his efforts. Only the true tzadik is capable of seeing through the facade of the wicked. But cannot expose him lest he himself be seen as one of the wicked as well.

 

6. Adam Seligman, “Ritual, the Self, and Sincerity,” Social Research 76, no. 4 (2009)

Ritual concentrates on the performative nature of the act rather than on its denotative meaning. In fact, pure ritual puts questions of belief or truth aside in favor of the shared world that its action creates and requires. The very external, performative aspects of ritual—especially its repetition and recollection of places and times not given to purely rational or instrumental computation—give it a unique lability. Thus does ritual encompasses the ambiguity of life in a unique manner. It allows one to “play” with such ambiguity in a manner precluded by an undue concern with the authenticity of one’s actions and beliefs. Ritual unshackles the mind from a need to believe in a dogma of our choosing, as long as we act properly. (1076-77)

Internal and Absolute: A Close Reading of Rav Shagar

A lot is made of the fact that Rav Shagar consciously and vigorously embraces subjectivity within Judaism, even going so far as to champion the “postmodern” claim that, subjectively speaking, there is no objective truth. The problem with this is that “subjective” and “objective” are slippery words, used in a variety of different ways. If you consider how Westerners often use them, it doesn’t quite match the picture that emerges from Rav Shagar’s writings. Below, I want to demonstrate this with a careful reading of a passage from one of Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah sermons.

For context, the essay deals with the Baal HaTanya’s embrace of an alienated observance of mitsvot in contrast to Rav Kook’s focus on authentically observing the mitsvot. The paragraph on which we will focus is Rav Shagar’s summation of Rav Kook’s position, which he sees as ideal, as opposed to the more realistic approach of the Baal HaTanya, which he explicates throughout the rest of the essay.

1124201316531

Setting Up the Binary

To get started, I just want to go through and note the adjectives which Rav Shagar uses to discuss truth, reality, command, etc. They are indicated in bold.

Ideally, an individual’s inner truth will match the objective truth. This would mean that his inner life burns strongly, while his sense of obligation to this inner life is unassailable. He understands his inner life as absolute, objective reality. Such a person’s inner life stops feeling relative, and gains the strength of an external command; it obligates him no less than external truth would. (Leha’ir Et Hapetahim, 55)

Rav Shagar’s use of the adjectives “inner,” “external,” “objective,” “unassailable,” “relative,” and “absolute” lays out a familiar dichotomy between “objective” and “subjective” (despite the fact that latter term does not appear). This dichotomy is represented by the table below (for reasons that will become clear, I have headed the columns with “Internal” and “External” rather than “Subjective” and “Objective”).

Internal

External

Subjective

Objective

Relative

?

?

Absolute, Unassailable

On the one side we have that which is subjective-internal-relative, while on the other we have what is objective-external-absolute. This fits how we generally think of these categories. “Objective truth” refers to truths about the world outside ourselves, which are “absolute” in that they exceed the whims of any individual. These are what people often call “facts,” and they do not care about the individual’s whims, desires, or personal situation. “Subjective truth,” on the other hand, refers to truths about the individual and her inner world. These truths are specific to a given individual, often to the point where they could not be explained to another person, and they are generally seen as much less absolute, more whims than facts. (While I take “unassailable” to be essentially synonymous with “absolute,” I am less certain that “relative” should be understood as their antonym. I have therefore left them in separate rows, without clear opposites).

shagar4

Crossing the Streams

While Rav Shagar is clearly using these same categories, he does not maintain the strict dichotomies we laid out above. In the first have of the paragraph the two columns are separate, but coinciding. “Ideally, an individual’s inner truth will match the objective truth.” Internal, subjective truth would correspond to external, objective truth, while still remaining distinct from it.

However, as Rav Shagar proceeds, things become more complicated. “He understands his inner life as absolute, objective reality. Such a person’s inner life stops feeling relative, and gains the strength of an external command; it obligates him no less than external truth would.” Here the differences between the two columns begin to collapse. The distinction between internal and external still remains, but suddenly the internal side gains the attributes of the external side, yielding the following table:

Internal

External

Objective

Objective

Relative

?

Absolute, Unassailable

Absolute, Unassailable

Suddenly the individual’s inner life is seen as something that far exceeds them. Truths about the individual, are also “objective” and “absolute.” In this case, then the definition of “objective truth” offered above, “truths about the world outside ourselves, which are “absolute” in that they exceed the whims of any individual,” becomes untenable. Therefore, without being so bold as to try and redefine “objective” in a broad sense, I want to try and trace its contours as they emerge from this discussion. This should give us a sense of what Rav Shagar means when he uses the term.

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Toward Definitions

Given the above, I will begin by laying out new definitions of internal an external truth. External truth refers to truths about the world outside ourselves, which are “objective” “absolute” in that they exceed the whims of any individual. However, internal truth is not entirely dissimilar, referring as it does to truths that are relative to the individual, but which can be “objective” and “absolute” in that they exceed the whims of any individual. However, internal truths can also be “subjective” and “non-absolute,” as Rav Shagar notes in the immediately following paragraph.

Unfortunately, we live in a situation where our inner lives lack strength and force. Our inner lives, and our relation to them, are prone to ups and downs. The dullness of our inner lives makes them susceptible to all kinds of outside influences, and they therefore feel inauthentic. This is the reason that the Shulhan Arukh, rather than our inner lives, is the basis of our religious obligations. It anchors our lives absolutely. (Ibid.)

The fact is, our inner lives are highly fluid, rising and falling constantly, rarely if ever stable. They thus cannot always be a source of absolute, objective truth. Navigating this experience is one of the most common themes of Rav Shagar’s writings (his most thorough treatment of the topic is the entirety of the book Shuvi Nafshi, but particularly the chapter on Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin; the best English treatment available is the chapter “Freedom and Holiness” in Faith Shattered and Restored).

To return to our initial text, we should note that it seems to essentially identify the two terms we have been using in unison: “objective” and “absolute.” If “subjective” and “objective” are opposite, then what would make something “subjective” as opposed to “objective” is that we take it to be non-absolute, and vice versa. For the sake of consistency, here’s a table:

Subjective

Objective

Non-Absolute

Absolute

Notably, this whole table could describe inner truths, some of which may be objective/absolute and some of which may be subjective/non-absolute. External truth is always objective/absolute, rather than subjective/non-absolute, while internal truth can be either. The distinction between subjective and objective is not something that separates the individual from the world, as the dividing line actually falls within the individual herself

Broader Context

It’s worth noting that the idea of truth that is absolute but also appears only to the individual not only exists within Judaism, it is actually critical to any revealed religion. With the exception of some sort of public revelation, all prophecy is an absolute truth revealed within the prophet’s inner self. This truth is generally taken to be universal, rather than individual, but prophecy is certainly a step toward what Rav Shagar is talking about.

Of course, not everyone agrees about the nature of prophecy. For Maimonides, prophecy is something more like perfect knowledge of the world and God, so the above description would not apply. For Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, however, prophecy is indeed a singular revelation. In his Kuzari, the king rejects philosophical religion because, while it is a universal, demonstrable truth, it does not fit with the singular revelation that he experienced.

A second, more radical step can be found in the teachings of the Hasidic thinkers Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica and Rabbi Tsadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin. These thinkers see the human impulse as the site of divine revelation. There are steps necessary for ascertaining that any given impulse is in fact divine, but they are minimally open to the possibility of absolute, divine truth being totally individual and internal. Moreover, (and here the two disagree somewhat), Rav Mordechai Yosef, sees this divine revelation as inherently opposed to any sort of universalizable truth or principle. The moment of divine revelation within the human self is a moment when external, universal truth ceases to be relevant. Rav Shagar is not quite so radical as that, but he does share the understanding of singular revelation within the self (see the essay in Shuvi Nafshi referenced above).

shagar_faith_shattered_and_restored_covers_03_final_page_1

Conclusion

To put this all in the context of Rav Shagar’s broader writings and embrace of “subjective” truth within religion: Rav Shagar absolutely embraces “subjective” truth in sense it was described at the beginning of this essay, as internal truth. However, this is only insofar as this internal truth possesses a sense of absoluteness, and thus “objective,” as we have defined it here at the end of the essay. Rav Shagar wants us to be authentic, which requires having a strong sense of self and inner truth. It requires feeling like there’s some parts of our inner lives that exceed us, that we can and should simply accept as facts, as divine grace. In the absence of this divine grace, Rav Shagar wants us to grapple with out alienation, and with the possibility of creating ourselves anew (see my essay on accepting the yoke of heaven in Rav Shagar’s writings).

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.