Texts Transform Readers Transform Texts: Fleischacker and Maimonides

Texts Transform Readers Transform Texts:

Fleischacker and Maimonides

 

I have recently been thinking a lot about a passage from Samuel Fleischacker’s excellent short work, The Good and the Good Book, which develops an argument for taking traditional texts to be good guides for living. In the first chapter he discusses a story of a wise man who tells a miser where he can find treasure. In going to that place, the miser finds people living in squalor, is moved to dedicate his money to improving their lives. This experience transforms him, and he realizes that the transformation was the promised “treasure.” He later returns the wise man, protesting about the misleading advice, and the wise man points out he originally would not have been motivated by the idea of such a “treasure.” Analyzing this story, Fleischaker notes:

fleischacker

And finally, following an authority makes best sense if one is carrying out an extended course of action and can periodically reinterpret what the authority says as one goes along. If the point is precisely to transform oneself, radically to change one’s character or orientation in life, then that is likely to take a while, and to lead one to have a new, deeper understanding of what one’s authority says after the change than one did before. This last point is the reason why authorities may employ obscure or indirect ways of saying things: what they want to convey cannot be properly understood by their listeners until those listeners have been transformed. And in the course of transformation, the authority’s utterances may well shift from a literal to a metaphorical register, or acquire new literal meanings that we did not expect them to have when we first heard them.[1]

Any statement or text that tries to change a person, moving them from personality A to personality B, risks the possibility that only one of the two personalities will be able to comprehend it, not both. Alternatively, it has to be capable of meaning two different things to each personality.

This is basically the problem Maimonides is struggling with throughout the Guide for the Perplexed. The Torah and its laws are meant to improve the people, as individuals and as a society (I:2, III:28). That means that it has to make sense to them both before and after it has improved them. This is all the more urgent a problem as the Torah is meant to improve the people’s cognitive understanding and beliefs as well (ibid.). The Torah has to make sense to people who think God wants sacrifices, but also to people who know that God doesn’t want sacrifices, or possibly even prayer; instead people should ideally just meditate (III:32).

maimonides

Maimonides solves this on a legal level by allowing the legitimate authorities strong powers both in interpreting the Torah’s laws and in creating legal enactments (Hilkhot Mamrim; intro to MT). On the level of the Torah text and how we interpret it, this is a project that occupies much of the Guide. The words of the Torah, he says, can have more than one meaning (intro to Guide). He therefore must go through and explain to the reader which meaning is the proper one, in all places trying to move away from corporealizing and “primitive” understandings of God.

While the Torah can more obviously be meaningful for someone who shares those understandings, people who have already moved away from those understandings may have a harder time (ibid.). Moreover, encouraging such a person to take up those understandings would actually be harmful (III:34). Therefore the Torah cannot mean the same thing for them that it meant for people who had those understandings.

In a real sense, this problem underlies all interpretation, and gives rise to the need for an Oral Torah. If the Torah is to speak to different people in different historical realities, it must be subject to significant interpretation. What Maimonides work points out is that this problem is internal to the Torah and its goals. If the Israelites had never been exiled, if international politics essentially froze during the First Israelite Commonwealth, the Torah would still eventually require reinterpretation. As society and individuals conformed more to the Torah’s laws, they would become more like the ideal society and individuals. They would then read the Torah and see that it must mean something different than what it had meant to them previously.

[1] Samuel Fleischacker, The Good and the Good Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 23.

Advertisements

Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law

Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law

 

Revelation presents a problem, one that it has been acknowledged, discussed, and struggled over since Plato. In short, if revelation provides information that can be discovered via reason, then revelation is unnecessary. However, if it provides information that contradicts reason, then why should reasonable beings accept it. The two prongs of this discussion have brought forth many answers and responses from within the Jewish tradition.

While not dealing with this problem explicitly, Rambam lays out an approach to the tension between reason and revelation in the Moreh Nevukhim[1]. In discussing various approaches to the origin of the universe (MN 2:25), Rambam says, with some reservation, that the true opinion is the one that is most philosophically compelling, and that were it to contradict the plain sense of verses of the Torah, then those verses would have to be reinterpreted. This flows logically from his belief that the Torah was very limited in what it could discuss due to the primitive and pagan beliefs of the Israelites who left Egypt. Thus the plain sense of the Torah was designed to convey beliefs and truths that could be accepted by the masses, while the wise man (read: the philosopher) would be able to plumb its depths and discover the truth, with a capital “T”. The problem with this approach is that it seems to indicate that the Torah is primarily aimed at the more philosophically inclined, with everyone else being hopelessly doomed to misunderstand the Torah. Only the philosophical elite can truly understand the Torah.

In the third volume of Mikhtav Me’Eliyahu, Rav Eliyahu Dessler tackles a similar discussion. Rav Dessler says that, initially, the Torah was only accessible through the inner-life of man. It was through introspection and developing ethics and spirituality that a person connected to the Torah; this was the path of our forefathers. Then Moshe delivered the Torah from Heaven to Earth. Ever since Sinai, the Torah is accessible in our external, practical, lives. This is because the Torah is now manifest in mitsvot, in commandments that are fulfilled equally no matter who is performing them. While certain people have a natural inclination towards philosophy, spirituality, or introspection, all people are equal before the law.

Returning to the Moreh Nevukhim, it is actually easy to identify this ethos in one of the later chapters (MN 3:34). Discussing the way commandments were given to help with the self-perfection of Man, Rambam confronts the problem of individuality. Given the way people vary, it is inevitable that there will be a person for whom a certain law is not only not helpful, but it actually harmful in terms of their development. To put in terms of the text of the Torah, a person might be developed enough that they do not need the original plain sense of the text, but not so philosophical that they immediately grasp the divine Truth behind it. For this person, the text can only be confusing. So too in the case of the law; even to their detriment, the wise are equal to everyone else when it comes to following the commandments.

The Kuzari presents a similar idea as part of a polemic against the Karaites (3:39). In contrast to the Karaites, for whom each person must understand Torah according to their own intellect interpretive biases, Rabbinic Jews all follow the same tradition of interpretation. This not only serves to create unified practice throughout the entire nation, it also creates unity of practice throughout a person’s life, as they follow the tradition as opposed to their own ever-changing opinion. Not only are all Jews equal before the law, but all Jews share in the same law.

More than Matan Torah (a traditional term meaning the “the giving of the Torah”) was the giving of the law, it was the creation of a national identity through the law. While the nation shared a familial and cultural history, we were not truly united until they received the law at Har Sinai. From then on, we shared an identity based around our connection to the Torah, based on our connection to ‘א through His law. It is this identity that has been our guiding light throughout history[2], keeping us united in times of immense hardship. This Shavuot, let us reaffirm this identity, and let it keep guiding us in our future.

[1] For more on the ideas of this paragraph, see my discussion of the Torah speaking in the language of man here.

[2] This brings to mind Ehad HaAm’s famous statement, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”