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.

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The Divine Unconscious and Individual Meaning: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments from Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah Derashot

The Divine Unconscious and Individual Meaning:
A Materialist Approach to the Commandments
from Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah Derashot

As I have shown in my post on the materialist theory of the commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Mind, materialist theories have two components, one primary and one secondary. The primary component is that the physical acts of the commandments are logically and causally independent of any reasons that might be given for them. The commandments aren’t meant for any purpose, no matter what purposes they might serve. Secondarily, and as a corollary to the first component, different people in different historical situations can quite validly give different explanations of the commandments. However, this second component does not have to follow from the first. This is why it appears in Rabbi David Silverstein’s approach but not in Rav Soloveitchik’s.

In this post, I want to look at two short excerpts from Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah sermons, published in the book Leha’ir et Hapetahim. Neither of these excerpts comes from a formal, systematic discussion of the reasons for the commandments, something as of yet unpublished among Rav Shagar’s writings. However, each independently deals with one of the two components of a materials approach to the mitsvot, giving us a comprehensive materialist understanding when we read them together.[1]

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The first piece comes from a great derashah entitled, “Screen for the Spirit, Garment for the Soul,” which explores the meaning of the commandments in the teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Baal Hatanya, based on the biblical images of the human soul as the candle of God, and the commandment as a candle that shines with the Torah’s light. Rav Shagar finds that, as opposed to other Hasidic thinkers such as the Izhbitzer Rebbe, the Baal Hatanya sets up an opposition between the candle of the person’s soul and the candle of the commandment. Mitsvot are therefore not about authenticity, and can even be a source of alienation.

Moreover, Rav Shagar then moves into a discussion of the relative importance of will as compared to wisdom in understanding God and the commandments, based on the Baal Hatanya’s discussion of and departure from Maimonides. As opposed to Maimonides, for whom wisdom is the primary aspect we must understand about God and the underlying principle behind the commandments, the Baal Hatanya emphasizes the divine will, which precedes the divine wisdom.

If we return to characterizing the commandments, the Baal Hatanya says that even the physicality of action precedes thought and spirituality. “The root of the commandments is incredibly lofty, for they are rooted in the aspect of the highest crown (Keter Elyon) […] which ultimately devolves down into physical action […] specifically there we find the divine will. The final act is first in thought.” By its very nature, the essence of the will of the infinite can’t be revealed in a garment, in sense, in the finite. It therefore does not appear as the inner light of reality, as meaning, as clarity, as the delight of holiness. Though these things cannot be defined, they are comprehended and contained in the categories (kelim) of existence, just as meaning is comprehended through sense. The essence of will appears only as light that surrounds reality, overlapping the opaque act by virtue of it lacking sense. This opaque act defies human existence which relies on reason, knowledge, comprehensibility, and meaning, wherein every effect has a cause and everything that happens is determined by a thought or experience.

Based on the Baal Hatanya, we might say that people fail to understand will because it is performative (performativi). Its only justification is its being. It has no value as a logical assertion, as a statement or claim, and it cannot serve as an argument for anything. The will wants a specific act because it wants it, and this is what makes “the highest will” absolute. It is will, and it does not need to rely on any external justifications. (52-53)

Rav Shagar describes the will, and the divine will specifically, as “performative” in the sense that philosopher J. L. Austin used the term, describing words that do things instead of describing them, creating or shaping reality rather than referring to or depicting reality. This creative will precedes any intellectual ideas, any words or meanings, which always explain a pre-existing reality. The Baal Hatanya roots the physical forms of the commandments in this pre-intellectual will, in the simple meaningless insistence that precedes conscious thought. These physical act therefore are not, and could not be, preceded by an idea or goal for which God commanded them. You can’t get “behind” the commanding of the specific acts, because there’s no “before” that precedes them. They are primordial. God didn’t command them because they make sense, and this as Rav Shagar continues there, you can’t choose to keep them because they make sense. It requires an act of passionate commitment (mesirut nefesh), a decision to take upon yourself the framework of the mitsvot, only after which can you find meaning in them.

Our second excerpt comes from a derashah called “Candlelight: Genealogy of a Metaphor.” In this text, Rav Shagar traces the way different thinkers have understood the metaphor of candles and light within Judaism. Simultaneously, he traces the way the different thinkers have understood the metaphors to function; do they reveal the inherent connection between light and intellect, for example, or do they somehow create this connection?

After tracing this genealogy, Rav Shagar turns to propose his own way of understanding metaphors, based on a Lacanian understanding of psychoanalysis and the unconscious. For our purposes, there are two Lacanian ideas necessary for understanding what Rav Shagar is trying to get at. The first is that a symptom does not have a preexisting meaning. The meaning is created in the process of its verbalization. Second, nothing exists in the abstract, separate from its linguistic context. To be conscious means to exist within and be constituted by language. Rav Shagar weaves these two ideas together, such that the mitsvot are a “language” from which the Jew who “speaks” (fulfills) then is not separate, and the meaning of which emerges in the moment when the Jew fulfills them. For the sake of context and clarity, I will quote Rav Shagar’s words at length:

I want to depict another way to understand the metaphor of light and candle, one in which the meanings themselves of the different depictions happen in the present of “this time” (hazman hazeh). As opposed to Rav Kook and the Kabbalists, for whom metaphors reveal psychological and idealistic truth and meaning that already exist in reality, we could see metaphors as functioning as a chain of connections and contexts functioning in the psychoanalytic realm. This realm is the realm of the creation and construction of the unconscious which those contexts represent. The psychological connections are created at the moment of the interpretation of the dream, or in the associative games of therapy. Similarly, the creation of a metaphor (“candle-light = Torah-light”) is an illumination that creates a language in real time. We should therefore understand the metaphor as a work of art that uses language as its “vocabulary,” a use that creates the network of connections and the truth and meaning that it bears within it, rather than a gesture toward some truth that existed “there” in the past. Of course, in order to be present to this sort of creative process, we must, as Richard Rorty said, abandon metaphors of “revelation” and “discovery” of truth, which perpetuate the idea of truth and meaning as things of the past to which we must return, which we must signify, and which we must track into its present traces. Instead, we must discuss truth and meaning using metaphors of creation and construction.

The metaphor of the light of candlelight as the light of Torah is a creation that structures all the levels, both light and vessel, of the real world. Lighting a candle is not a symbol or a behavioral-psychological effect. It is a real place wherein a person acts as fulfiller of the commandment. In this sense, the individual grants meaning to the existence of the commandment. However, we must emphasize that this meaning is not subjective. We’re not talking about a dualistic split between the person and the commandment, consciousness and action, light and vessel, but about a person fulfilling the commandment in the fullest sense of the term, and they cannot be separated. The two together construct the meaning-creating event. […]

Just as words are not external to the speaker, so too the commandments are not external to the person fulfilling them. As such, the meaning that he grants them, the metaphors they inspire within him, […] enter into the action of fulfilling the commandment itself. Just as […] the idea does not precede the action, so too the intent (kavvanah) does not precede the commandment, and there’s no set, foreseen, meaning to which the action must point. The light of the candle which we are going to light in the evening thus becomes a real opening to all kinds of worlds which a person can create, rather than discover. […]

The metaphor of candlelight does not belong to language’s sense. Rather, it is part of a network that constructs the world. In fulfilling the commandments, a person has the freedom to create an event. Of course, the process of creation is not ex nihilo, something from nothing, but something from something. The person who lights the candle uses the teachings that he learned, the different intentions to which he was exposed, the words and sentences of the language which he and those around him speak. All these elements come together in a new way in order to create something new, a creative construct. The Hanukkah candle can create an event, but this depends on man’s capacity to break himself loose from already-known nature. Only then will something happen, a connection will be made, a metaphor and similarity between images. (78-80)

According to Rav Shagar, when a Jew fulfills a commandment, she and the commandment are not two separate things. In that moment, the person is a fulfiller and the mitsvah a fulfilled, neither of which can exist or be understood without the other. Not only does the commandment not have any pre-existing meaning, but it doesn’t make any sense to talk about the meaning of a commandment separate from the person fulfilling it. Meaning is always “meaning to,” the meaning a thing bears for a specific individual or group, rather than being inherent in the thing itself. This is true of the metaphors surrounding candlelight, and it is also true of the commandments. Moreover, like the metaphors about candlelight, commandments are always going to be understood differently by different people, with this new meaning or understanding emerging when individual and commandment become fulfiller and fulfilled.

Combining these two excerpts gives the following picture: The commandments are inherently meaningless, originating as they do in the divine will that precedes any conscious, verbalizable thought or meaning. Their meaning emerges in the moment when an individual Jew fulfills them. This meaning is not the meaning of the mitsvah, but of the fulfillment of the commandment by this specific person in their specific historical situation. This reason cannot serve as the reason for the commandment, as it is always subjective, and is created after the commandment already exists. For the same reason, there is no need or possibility of saying that certain reasons are wrong while one reason is right. In my last post we saw that Rav Soloveitchik frames the commandments as objectifications of subjective religious experiences, with one such subjective experience being the correct one that we ought to reconstruct. In contrast, Rav Shagar sees the commandments as originating in the essential divine will, in a sense beginning as objects, which then generate subjective experiences as they are fulfilled by individuals.

In my next, and likely last, post on this subject, I want to look at Brennan Breed’s theory of biblical reception history research, which inspired this whole project.

[1] As to the legitimacy of reading them together, a few technical notes are in order. First, I’m on the whole in favor of reading Rav Shagar’s corpus as a comprehensive whole, unless there’s good reason to take exception in a given instance. There are many such exceptions, but coherence is the rule that enables to understand both the whole and the exceptions. Second, the two excerpts were not only published in the same book, but they are from adjacent sermons within that book (“Masakh Lanefesh Levush Laneshamah” and “Or Haner: Gilgulah Shel Metaforah”). Reading them together is almost unavoidable given that publishing choice. Third, a good starting point for questions like this is when the material was originally written. Differences in Rav Shagar’s writings can often be traced to the difference between pieces written in the 1980’s-90’s and pieces written in the 2000’s, though that’s not a firm rule. This lens can be applied with the help of the editorial notes that appear in most of the more recent volumes of Rav Shagar’s writings noting the dates of original material used in composing the texts. In our case, “Or Vener” is from 2007, near the very end of Rav Shagar’s life. “Masakh Lanefesh Levush Laneshamah” is more complicated. According to the editor, the sermon is based on transcripts of oral teachings stretching from 1986 until 2004, as well as two written texts from 2004 and 2006. It is therefore difficult to know how to decipher that sermon for era indicators, but the predominance of material from the 2000’s (“Shenot HaSamekh” as I have heard his students say), when he was more involved in “postmodern” and psychoanalytic materials. This bears out in both of the sermons, which have distinct psychoanalytic underpinnings, as we shall see.

Phenomenology of the Mitsvot: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s “Halakhic Mind”

Phenomenology of the Mitsvot:

A Materialist Approach to the Commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s “Halakhic Mind”

Continuing my series of posts (see here and here) on materialist approaches to taamei hamitsvot, reasons for the commandments, I want to take a look at a few passages from Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Mind. In these passages, Rav Soloveitchik constructs a theory of the commandments (based on the philosophy of religion developed throughout the work, and in use throughout Rav Soloveitchik’s other writings) which emphasizes the material rites of the commandments over any reason or cause given for them. That said, his theory differs from the approach of R. David Silverstein, which I discussed in my last post on the topic, and that of Rav Shagar, which I plan to discuss in a future post. I will discuss the nuances of Rav Soloveitchik’s theory below.

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Not only does Rav Soloveitchik’s theory emphasize the physical aspect of the commandments, he actually uses it attack theories of the commandments that emphasize the reasons for the commandments over the physical actions. While his main targets seem to be non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, he also sees himself as siding with the Maimonides of the Mishneh Torah against the Maimonides of the Guide for the Perplexed (without getting into the validity of that distinction, I take issue with his reading of the GP, which I think fails to take into account GP III:34).

The reluctance on the part of the Jewish homo religiosus to accept Maimonidean rationalistic ideas is not ascribable to any agnostic tendencies, but to the incontrovertible fact that such explanations neither edify nor inspire the religious consciousness. They are essentially, if not entirely valueless for the religious interests we have most at heart. Maimonides’ failure to impress his rationalistic method upon the vivid religious consciousness is to be attributed mainly to the fact that the central theme of the Maimonidean exposition is the causalistic problem. The “how” question, the explanatory quest, and the genetic attitude determined Maimonides’ doctrine of the commandments. Instead of describing, Maimonides explained; instead of reconstructing, he constructed. (Halakhic Mind, 92)

The Jewish people, Rav Soloveitchik argues, are not interested in “genetic” questions about what led to the creation of the commandments. The commandments exist, as objects independent of any cause, and the “religious consciousness” is not interested in questions that might challenge their existence.

The “genetic” approach, according to Rav Soloveitchik, sees the commandments as serving goals unrelated to the commandments themselves.

As we have previous indicated, whenever the causal question is raised, the philosopher must transcend the boundary line of religion in order to find his answer which lies beyond the religious domain. Both mechanistic and teleological concepts of causality explain the effect through the existence of an alien factor, be it within or without the system. Thus religion cannot be interpreted under immanent aspects but must avail itself of foreign elements. The net result of Maimonides’ rationalization is that religion no longer operates with unique autonomous norms, but with technical rules, the employment of which would culminate in the attainment of some extraneous maximum bonum. In rationalizing the commandments genetically, Maimonides developed a religious “instrumentalism.” Causality reverted to teleology (the Aristotelian concept of causa finalis) and Jewish religion was converted into technical wisdom. (93)

Maimonides’ theory of the commandments in the Guide for the Perplexed describes the commandments as having goals outside what we call “religion.” Instead, they are meant to “rectify the body and the mind,” meaning that they are supposed to create a peaceful society of virtuous individuals with accurate knowledge reality (GP III:28-32). The goals of the commandments thus come not from the realm of Judaism, or even religion more generally, but from politics and philosophy.

Against this model of reasons for the commandments, which renders religion the handmaiden of the secular realm, Rav Soloveitchik proposes an alternative.

In contradistinction to the causal method of the philosophical Guide that reads to a religious techne, the halakhic Code (the Mishneh Torah) apprehends the religious act in an entirely different light. The Code does not pursue the objective causation of the commandment, but attempts to reconstruct its subjective correlative. It would seem that the Maimonides of the Halakhah was not intrigued by the “how” question. He freed himself from the genetic purview and employed a descriptive method of expounding the content and symbolic meaning of the religious norm. The “what” question was his guide in the Code. (93-94)

Here, as throughout his various writings, Rav Soloveitchik sees the commandments as the “objectification” of “subjective” religious ideas, experiences, and values.[1] This movement from subjective to objective is not strictly a move from internal to external, but from the individual, chaotic, and unrefined to the shared, orderly, and well defined. Hence Halakhah not only guides a person’s actions, but also her thoughts and feelings. Derived through the objectification of certain ideas, experiences, and values, halakhah’s goal is essentially to perpetuate them, recreating that subjective element in the individual fulfilling the commandment. However, all of this is essentially a reconstruction, our determination extrapolated from the already-existing halakhah. It does not enable us to really get “behind” the halakhah, such that we could challenge its nature or existence. In keeping with Rav Soloveitchik’s phenomenological method, he takes halakhah as a given and examines the way the individual living according to its laws experiences it, rather than asking about whether or not halakhah should exist at all.

Looking through the lens of “materialist” approaches to taamei hamitsvot, we can see that Rav Soloveitchik’s approach gives primacy to the physical acts of halakhic rituals over any reasons or goals that we might give the commandments. As with Rabbi David Silverstein’s approach, Rav Soloveitchik’s discussion does not once appeal to the reasons that the commands were given, or what God may have had in mind for them. The emphasis is on what the commandments do, the experiences they evoke or the values they convey, rather than what motivated them.

However, Rav Soloveitchik’s approach does seem to assume specific, singular meanings for each commandment. In contrast, Rav Silverstein’s discusses the different ways each commandment he examines has been understood throughout Jewish history. He gives the ritual acts of the commandments such independent weight that the same commandment can essentially mean different things to different people. Not so Rav Soloveitchik, who seems to see each commandment has having one true meaning in all historical contexts. The practical outcome of this distinction is that Rav Soloveitchik by definition thinks most of the attempts to explain the meaning of a given commandment missed their mark, as only one of them could be correct (notably, his discussion of reasons for the commandments in Halakhic Mind takes the form of an attack on Maimonides discussion thereof in the Guide for the Perplexed). Rav Soloveitchik’s approach therefore differs from what I have called a “materialist” approach to the commandments while still possessing its primary characteristic, an emphasis on the physical acts of the commandments over any meaning or explanation. In my next post on this topic, I will examine how Rav Shagar differs from Rav Soloveitchik on exactly this point.

[1] For a thorough discussion of this idea, see Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility (Jerusalem, Israel, and Brooklyn, NY: Urim Publications and the Orthodox Union Press, 2012), 334-340.

Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey”: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments

Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey”:
A Materialist Approach to the Commandments

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Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey” is a masterful contemporary rendition of the traditional genre of taamei hamitsvot literature, books that give reasons for the commandments. Each chapter is dedicated to a different commandment or halakhah, stretching from saying modeh ani upon waking to saying shema before bedtime, and even touching on interpersonal mitsvot, loving God, and more in between. It also sports a helpful introduction that gives the reader background on taamei hamitsvot throughout Jewish history.

The introduction focuses on the question of whether or not Jews should speculate about the reasons for the commandments. The topic has been hotly debated throughout Jewish history. On the one hand, God’s commands are presumably rooted in the infinite divine wisdom. They should therefore “represent the physical actualization of a divine set of values and ideal” (p. xxiv), rather than simply being commands that a person must obey. On the other hand, emphasizing the reason for a command can come at the expense of obedience to the command itself. If keeping kosher is about eating healthy (the opinion of the Sefer HaHinukh, quoted in chapter 19), then shouldn’t eating healthy take precedence over keeping kosher? If the two were to contradict, shouldn’t we side with healthy eating over its handmaiden, kashrut?

Silverstein indicates that despite the critical importance of the “spiritual messages” of the mitsvot, we cannot give the reasons for the commandments priority over the commandments themselves. In addition to preserving obedience to the commandments, this has the added value of keeping a person humble. Just because I do not know the value of a commandment, that does not mean there is no value. Trying to understand the commandments is therefore an important, if not always achievable, goal.

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A Materialist Model of the Commandments

Silverstein’s approach to the commandments is what I have elsewhere called a “materialist” model of the commandments. Though he says the commandments are intended to convey spiritual messages, he ultimately gives priority to the physical acts of the commandments, their material presence in the world and history, over the ideas attached to them. This manifests in the call for obedience in the face of incomprehensible mitsvot. If you have to obey the commandments regardless of the reason, then clearly the actions take priority over the ideas.

The materialist model also shows up in the number of reasons Silverstein gives for each commandment. Classically, books of taamei hamitsvot give one reason for each commandment. They attempt to determine what goal God wanted to achieve by commanding each action, what specific idea or value God wanted to convey. In contrast, “Jewish Law as a Journey” doesn’t talk about what the purpose of each commandment is, or what God’s intent was in commanding it. Instead, Silverstein goes through the historical journey of each mitsvah, looking at what it has meant in different texts throughout history. He starts with Tanakh and the rabbis, for laws that go back that far, and continues all the way to rabbis so contemporary that their ideas are referenced from webpages rather than books. In a materialist model, the reasons for the commandments are not what God meant by them, but what they have meant to Jews throughout history.

One of the advantages of a materialist model of the commandments is the way it lets us look back at the history of reasons for the commandments. With a model like this, we do not need to say that everyone who disagreed with our understanding of a commandment was wrong, nor do we have to pretend that no one ever disagreed. We can recognize the full diversity of the Jewish tradition when it comes to taamei hamitsvot. Silverstein can therefore quote a variety of interpretation by thinkers who may have been consciously disagreeing with each other, as he explores the various things a commandment means. It does raise the question of what God’s intent actually was for each commandment, but this can be solved in a variety of ways, such as suggesting that God wanted each Jew to understand each mitsvah in a way that made sense to her in her historical situation, or that God omnipotently foresaw all the meanings that Jews would attribute to the commandments.

“Jewish Law as a Journey” therefore provides the reader with short collections of ideas that have been attached to each commandment, helpfully summarized in the book’s conclusion in the form of short meditations. However, it also asks the reader an implicit question: If these ideas are what the commandment has meant throughout its historical journey, then what does it mean today?

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:

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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).

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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.