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.

 

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Rav Saadiah Gaon on Trusting a Prophet and the Place of the Intellect in Religion

Rav Saadiah Gaon on Trusting a Prophet and the Place of the Intellect in Religion

Rambam begins the eighth chapter of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah with a discussion of why the Israelites believed in Moshe. He rejects the position that they believed on the basis of the miracles they witnessed in Egypt and instead says that they believed Moshe because they witnessed Moshe being spoken to by ‘א at Har Sinai (notably, they first part of this statement clearly contradicts Shemot 14:31, but the second part works well with Shemot 19:9). In this he stands directly agains the position of Rav Saadiah Gaon in his work Emunot VeDeot, where he states that the reason Moshe was believed, the reason any prophet was believed, was because of the miracles they performed.

Rambam objected to this approach because he saw it as a manifestation of a larger trend where religion is seen as a tool for the betterment of life in this world (See also Hilkhot Tefillin 5:4). For RaSaG this issue is a non-starter, because while the emphasis was not on this world, RaSaG did see the mitsvot as being essentially for the sake of mankind. He begins the third essay of Emunot VeDeot by stating that ‘א created the world as an act of kindness, and that the giving of the mitsvot was a similar act of kindness, intended to enable the earning of reward, a motivation Rambam was very against. RaSaG therefore had no problem affirming the idea that a miracle might be the basis for Bnei Yisrael trusting a prophet.

Throughout the third section of Emunot VeDeot RaSaG develops this concept of the prophet as someone who proves the divinity of his message by performing miracles. He says that a prophet must predict the miracle beforehand, in order that it be clear that he performed the miracle. He also says that a prophet cannot be an angel, only a person, because people don’t know the capabilities of angels, and so the angel might be doing the miracle of his own power and authority, not ‘א’s. RaSaG develops a complete theory of prophetic confirmation by miracle.

He also, therefore, discusses the limits of this model. He asserts that a prophet cannot lie, because even if a prophet demonstrated that he had a divine message, who could then trust that he would transmit the message faithfully, and creatively interprets Tanakh to fit this model. He also discusses the possibility, in his discussion of the opinions that say the Torah of Moshe was already nullified, that a prophet might arise and perform miracles but say that the Torah of Moshe should not be followed. He rejects this, giving a more formal description of the process of a prophet giving instructions to the nation(3:8).

RaSaG says that, counter-intuitively, the prophet does not perform the miracle, thus establishing his authority, and then proceed to deliver his now-authoritative message. Instead, step one is that the prophet delivers his message. Then, the message is evaluated based on whether it contradicts both the intellect and the received tradition(2 of RaSaG’s 4 sources of knowledge from his introduction). If the message of the prophet contradicts either of these, it is rejected immediately. The people do not ask the prophet for a miraculous proof, nor do they care if he provides one of his own volition.

Importantly, by “the intellect” RaSaG does not mean logic, but the plainly obvious, the truths that are inherent in the human mind, including moral truths. The reason for putting so much faith in the power of the intellect, to the point of letting it reject potential revelation, is that for RaSaG both revelation and intellect has the same source. Both are given to man by ‘א. The received tradition is comprised of the written and oral traditions of the people, which of course themselves were revealed to Moshe via this process, and so were also subject to rejection if they contradicted the intellect. Thus perhaps the most important arbiter in accepting prophecy as divine is the human intellect.

Nowadays, we don’t necessarily believe that there are certain divine truths inherent in the intellect of man. In the age of globalization and the internet we are more than aware that not everyone automatically agrees with us, that the ideas we think of as plainly obvious are in fact culturally conditioned. However, our intellect remains without a doubt a gift from ‘א. He created man with the mental complexity to create societies and improve the world, with the intellectual tools to realize the Image of God and the blessings He gave to man (Bereishit 1:26-30). Thus while we cannot necessarily make the clear statement that our intellect is the final arbiters of the truth of revelation, we absolutely should be using our intellect to grasp revelation critically. Rav Saadiah Gaon doesn’t just invite us to analyze the torah with our minds, he enjoins us to do so, saying that the explication and realization of the Torah is only possible through the use of the intellect (3:10). We have an obligation to approach the Torah with our minds alert, ready to grasp and explore the will and wisdom of ‘א.

Parashat Noah – What We Do And Why We Do It

וְעַתָּה לֹא יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת

Parashat Noach contains two main stories, the story of the Flood and the story of the Tower of Bavel. Neither of these stories depict man in a particularly positive light, with the only hero, Noah, declared righteous at the beginning of his story and passed out drunk and indecent at the end. However there is something unique about the story of the Tower of Bavel that sets it apart from not only the story of the Flood, but also the preceding stories of the first religious and moral transgressions. The Tower of Bavel is unique in that it depicts ‘א as relating to the people in an almost adversarial manner. ‘א scatters them across the land (Bereishit 11:8, 9), the exact thing they had been trying to avoid happening (11:4). The people begin each step of their construction with the phrase, “Come, let us” (11:3, 4), and ‘א turns this around on them when he decides to mix up their languages, saying, “Come, let us go down, and there confound their language” (11:7). Perhaps the strongest indicator is ‘א’s statement where He seems concerned about what the people might do next. “And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, with one language for all of them, and this is what they begin to do; And now nothing will be beyond their reach that they intend to do” (11:6). This verse is jarring not only because ‘א sounds like someone worried about what the people on the other side might do next, but also because unity and cooperation are generally thought of as causes for celebration, not destruction. By contrast, ‘א reacts to the first religious and moral sins like a disappointed parent, first giving the transgressor a chance to repent, and only then punishing them after they attempt to shirk the responsibility for their actions (3:8-19; 4:9-15), and by the generation of the Flood ‘א just seems saddened and regretful (6:6). ‘א’s adversarial tone by the Tower of Bavel stands out against the background of the preceding narratives. The reason for this tone can be found in nature of the sin of the Tower of Bavel, however, the nature of this sin is not at all clear from the text, and requires delving into the historical context of the ancient city of Bavel[1].

To this day if a person goes to the spot where Bavel once stood they will see the ruins of the great tower that once stood there. This tower was a place of pagan worship, dedicated to the god Marduwas, and it was renown throughout the region as the “The House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth.” At the temple atop the tower the priests would “meet” the gods, in line with meaning of the Aramaic name for the city, “Gate of the Gods[2].” This was the grandest of such towers, but they were not an uncommon phenomenon in the ancient near east. Many kings had built, or restored, such towers, and often their dedications claimed that they “reached the heavens” (as 11:4) and “made a name” for the king, even earning the king a place among the gods. While building a tower for pagan worship would be problematic in its own right, the idea of a person becoming a god is a direct attack on the basic idea of monotheism, that ‘א is God, and no other.

The sin of the Tower of Bavel is a function of a group of people working together not just for the sake of Idolatry, but in order to challenge ‘א’s very nature as uniquely divine. Thus the adversarial tone in the story is not a function of ‘א setting himself against the people, but of the people setting themselves against ‘א. If then had not said, “Come, let us” build a tower against ‘א, then He would not have said, “Come, let us” destroy the tower. If they had not tried to gather together at the Tower, they would not have required scattering. And if they had not been gathered against ‘א, then their unity would not have been a reason for destruction, but a reason for celebration.

The narrative of the Tower of Bavel is a story of the crushing of ancient idolatry, but it is also more than that. The Tower of Bavel story, in its lack of clarity, challenges the reader to consider not just what the people were doing, but also why they were doing it. The fact that the people were unified is meaningless in the face of their larger intentions. Unity is not its own justification, as it can just as easily be used to build as to destroy. In the Tower of Bavel narrative, the Torah challenges us to examine not only our actions but also why we are doing them, as even the best actions can be made meaningless, or worse, by the wrong intentions. When we do anything in our daily lives, we are meant to ask, are we just doing this to make a name for ourselves, or does it serve some greater, divine, purpose?

[1] For an excellent discussion of some of the differing views of the Rishonim regarding the nature of the sin, as well as how they fit with the historical background of the text, see this essay by R’ Elchanan Samet, from which much of the information in the next paragraph was culled.

[2] It is noteworthy that the only place in Tanakh where a similar phrase occurs is in Bereishit 28:17, when Yaakov exclaims, “and this is the Gate of Heaven,” after having a vision of ‘א in a dream. This is just one of a variety of parallels between the two passages, a greater discussion of which can be found in R’ Yitzchak Etshalom’s lecture “Archaeology in Tanach.”

Shavuot 5774 – Reason and Revelation: Why does it matter that the Torah is Divine?

Why Does it Matter That the Torah is Divine?

“The streams of reason and revelation either run parallel or in different directions. If they run in different directions, then only one of them leads toward truth, while the other one leads toward error. If they run parallel, why do they need river and sea at the same moment.”[1]

This dilemma, known as the problem of Reason and Revelation, is something that goes all the way back to the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato suggested that if Revelation is reasonable, as it generally seems to be, then it would contain nothing Reason could not produce on its own. Revelation would therefore serve no real purpose, being simply a repetition of Reason. Religious scholars since then have proposed multiple solutions to explain what purpose Revelation would have, what advantage it would possess over Reason. Some of the proposed motives were quantitative, stating that there was no essential difference between Reason and Revelation, but that functionally Revelation added something. Others made qualitative differentiations, stating that Reason and Revelation actually lead to the different conclusions and produce different content. However, all were trying to answer the same basic question: Why is it important that ‘א wrote the Torah?

Eliezer Berkovits book, “God, Man and History”, was devoted to founding a whole theology on his resolution to the Reason/Revelation problem. He resolved it by saying that  while Reason and Revelation do lead to the same content, only Revelation creates Obligation. In order for there to be Law, there must also be a Law-Giver, one who enforces the law. Therefore Revelation, which involves the relationship between the Law-Giver and those who must keep the law, also gives the law binding force. If someone thinks up the law on their own, there’s really no motivation for them to necessarily follow it, as opposed to when you have an external force, in this case ‘א, to enforce the Law, in this case the law of the Torah. Reason can generate laws, but only Revelation can obligate you to keep them.

Rav Saadia Gaon, leader of the Babylonian academies in the 9th-10th centuries, took a slightly different approach. He said that the idea that Reason and Revelation could generate the same information was only mostly true. For the most part Reason can keep up with Revelation, but not quite. For Rav Saadia Gaon, Reason falls short on two levels. Firstly, it doesn’t always get the details. Reason can tell you that stealing is wrong, but it won’t necessarily tell you that borrowing something without asking is tantamount to stealing (for example). More importantly, Reason as an abstract concept is one thing, but on a practical level Reason is something that varies from person to person, and not every person will reason out the same laws. You can’t make a law system in which each person is required to obey different laws. This problem is avoided by having one law-giver who reveals the laws to the society.

Of all the Kabbalists, Ramban is perhaps the most well known and certainly the most well read. This is due to the popularity of his commentary on the Torah. In addition to its sharp, text-oriented comments, Ramban’s commentary also features very mystically oriented comments. Some of these are famously clipped and cryptic,[2] but many go on to explain at length the mystical secrets hidden behind the surface layer of the text. These mystical understandings of the text could never be derived by Reason. As divine secrets, they have to be revealed by the Divine. Thus a revealed law is only partially reasonable; it’s also a godly mystery.

Heschel took a fairly unique approach to this issue. Taking the principle of Divine Authorship very seriously, he proposed a model of the Torah that could not possibly be written by man.

The Bible is primarily not man’s vision of God but God’s vision of man. The Bible is not man’s theology but God’s anthropology, dealing with man and what He asks of him rather than with the nature of God.[3]

Heschel suggested that the Torah contains information that Reason could not possibly conceive, because it requires the Divine perspective. This mean that even if all the information in the Torah were completely reasonable, Reason and Revelation would still not be comparable. The divine perspective means that everything in the Torah is considered to be important by ‘א. While Reason is powerful, perhaps even theoretically unlimited,[4] ‘א’s perspective is something it could never compete with.

These are just a few many resolutions that have been suggested to this problem throughout history, from within the Jewish Tradition and from without. However, the most important part of the discussion is something seen most obviously in the arguments of Heschel and Berkovits. Berkovits emphasizes the part of the “revealer” in Revelation. Heschel focuses on ‘א and His Perspective as the basis of the Torah. The basic idea behind both of these ideas is that what makes Revelation important is that it is the Revelation of ‘א. The Torah is not just a book of laws created by a divine being. It is a book created by the Creator of the World. In the Torah, the Redeemer of Israel reveals His Will. Our God, and the God of our Fathers, placed His Wisdom in a text for us to study, to immerse ourselves in, not just because of the Torah itself, but because it is a way to connect to Him. It matters that the Torah is divine because learning a Divine Torah puts us in relation to the God of Israel. We used to hear His word from the mouth of his prophets; now we hear it from the text of His Torah.

[1] A.J. Heschel, The Quest For Certainty in Saadia’s Philosophy, “Reason and Revelation”, Pg. 50

[2] Ramban’s student, Rabbeinu Bachye, also wrote a commentary on the Torah, and many of his comments explicate the secretive statements of his teacher.

[3] A.J. Heschel, Man is not Alone, 129

[4] Rav Re’em HaKohen, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Otniel, in a shiur given at Yeshivat Har Etzion.