The Rambam, Knowledge and Akrasia

(Version 3.)

In the previous entry, I wrote: “Rav SR Hirsch argues that the Rambam only failed to find the meaning to the details of the mitzvos because his assumption that mitzvos serve to either (a) teach true monotheism, (b) wean us away from idolatry, or (c) create a society which enables us in these pursuits is based on Aristotle’s emphasis on abstract knowledge rather than the Torah’s emphasis on ethics and personal refinement.” And that this orientation came from the Rambam’s embracing of Greek Thought, and its placement of knowledge as central to the human quest.

We saw quotes from Hilkhos Teshuvah ch. 8  that the Rambam considers the cause of eternal existence in the World to Come and of all of the Torah’s blessings to be the soul’s knowledge of G-d.

Similarly, when they said that the righteous people have crowns on their heads they were referring to the knowledge because of which they inherited a place in the World To Come. This knowledge is always with them, as is their crown, as Solomon said, “…with the crown with which his mother crowned him.” It is also written, “and everlasting joy shall be upon their head”—this is not physical pleasure that they will receive, but the crown of the Sages, i.e. knowledge. When they said that they will benefit from the radiance of the Divine Presence they meant that they will know and understand the existence of God in a manner that they couldn’t while in their gloomy and paltry bodies.
Whenever the word “soul” is mentioned, it does not mean the soul-body combination but the actual soul itself, which is the understanding given by the Creator and which causes other understandings and actions. …

This theme of the primacy of philosophical grasp of G-d is so central to the Moreh, it both opens and closes on this point. Quoting 1:1, on man’s creation in G-d’s image (demus):

As man’s distinction consists in a property which no other creature on earth possesses, viz., intellectual perception, in the exercise of which he does not employ his senses, nor move his hand or his foot, this perception has been compared–though only apparently, not in truth–to the Divine perception, which requires no corporeal organ. On this account, i.e., on account of the Divine intellect with which man has been endowed, he is said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty, but far from it be the notion that the Supreme Being is corporeal, having a material form.

And continuing in 1:2, when he discusses how this image was sullied by the sin of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge:

… Similarly our language expresses the idea of true and false by the terms emet and sheker, of the morally right and the morally wrong, by tov and ra’. Thus it is the function of the intellect to discriminate between the true and the false–a distinction which is applicable to all objects of intellectual perception. When Adam was yet in a state of innocence, and was guided solely by reflection and reason–on account of which it is said: “Thou hast made him (man) little lower than the angels” (Tehillim 8:6)–he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths; the most manifest impropriety, viz., to appear in a state of nudity, was nothing unbecoming according to his idea: he could not comprehend why it should be so. After man’s disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said, “And the wife saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes” (Bereishis 3:6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed. He therefore transgressed a command with which he had been charged on the score of his reason; and having obtained a knowledge of the apparent truths, he was wholly absorbed in the study of what is proper and what improper….

It is also the thesis of the closing chapter, 5:54:

The ancient and the modern philosophers have shown that man can acquire four kinds of perfection.


The first kind, the lowest, in the acquisition of which people spend their days, is perfection as regards property; the possession of money, garments, furniture, servants, land, and the like; the possession of the title of a great king belongs to this class. There is no close connexion between this possession and its possessor…


The second kind is more closely related to man’s body than the first. It includes the perfection of the shape, constitution, and form of mans body; the utmost evenness of temperaments, and the proper order and strength of his limbs. This kind of perfection must likewise be excluded from forming our chief aim…


The third kind of perfection is more closely connected with man himself than the second perfection. It includes moral perfection, the highest degree of excellency in man’s character. Most of the precepts aim at producing this perfection; but even this kind is only a preparation for another perfection, and is not sought for its own sake. For all moral principles concern the relation of man to his neighbor; the perfection of man’s moral principles is, as it were, given to man for the benefit of mankind. Imagine a person being alone, and having no connexion whatever with any other person, all his good moral principles are at rest, they are not required, and give man no perfection whatever. These principles are only necessary and useful when man comes in contact with others.


The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man: the possession of the highest, intellectual faculties; the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God. With this perfection man has obtained his final object; it gives him true human perfection; it remains to him alone; it gives him immortality, and on its account he is called man. Examine the first three kinds of perfection, you will find that, if you possess them, they are not your property, but the property of others; according to the ordinary view, however, they belong to you and to others. But the last kind of perfection is exclusively yours; no one else owns any part of it, “They shall be only thine own, and not strangers’ with thee” (Mishlei 5:17). Your aim must therefore be to attain this [fourth] perfection that is exclusively yours, and you ought not to continue to work and weary yourself for that which belongs to others, whilst neglecting your soul till it has lost entirely its original purity through the dominion of the bodily powers over it. The same idea is expressed in the beginning of those poems, which allegorically represent the state of our soul. “My mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept” (Shir haShirim 1:6). Also the following passage refers to the same subject, “Lest thou give thine honor unto others, and thy years unto the cruel” (Mishlei 5:9)….

In my humble opinion, Rav Hirsch’s critique stands, but the Rambam’s distance from other rishonim is greatly diminished by taking the his explanation of akrasia (ἀκρασία) into account. Akrasia is an ancient Greek term that means “lacking command [of oneself]“. I still see the consequences that bother Rav Hirsch standing, though.

As a philosophical term, the question of akrasia was posed by Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras, who asks how it is possible that someone can know that action A to be the best course of action, and yet may end up actually doing something other than A? Central to the Mussar perspective is that religion is about akrasia — not only theoretical moral knowledge, but having the character by which one’s behavior reflects that knowledge.

In Plato’s opinion (which most assume was that of the historical Socrates as well), akrasia can only be the product of ignorance about the realities of the situation, or about what is the person’s best interest. In other words, bad decisions come from ignorance.

Aristotle breaks down the problem into two — a failure of opinion, or a failure of appetite (desires of the body). Rather than being due to ignorance, opinion is subjective, a produce of disposition.

I mention the Greek debate as a backdrop to explaining how I see the Rambam’s position. Yes, the Rambam values philosophical knowledge in a way that is atypical for the mesorah. In particular in his placing it as more important than moral refinement. However, he also fuses such knowledge to our ability to be moral beings in an way other baalei mesorah do not.

In “Text & Texture“, the RCA blog, R’ Alex Sztuden suggests answers from R’ JB Soloveitchik’s writings to questions given on R’ Soloveitchik’s 1936 final exam in Jewish Philosophy. (Thereby showing that these questions were ones R’ Soloveitchik considered during much of his life.) The first question, which had two parts:

I.a. What is the basic idea of the “Intellectualist Theory” of the religious act?

In Halakhic Mind (41-43), the Rav distinguishes between 3 different views of emotional states (and by implication, of religious states):

1.       Emotions are non-cognitive. They do not express any facts or statements about the world. In a footnote, the Rav cites Hume as a typical example of this view: “Hume denied the intentional character of our emotional experiences: ‘A passion is an original existence…and contains not any representative quality which renders it a copy of any other existence or modification. When I am angry, I am actually possessed with the passion, and in that emotion have no more a reference to any other object, than when I am thirsty, or sick or five feet tall…’” (116, footnote 49).

2.       Emotions have a cognitive component. In fact, “every intentional act is implicitly a cognitive one…by way of simple illustration, the statement ‘I love my country’ may be broken down into three components: I. There exists a country – predication; II. This object is worthy of my love – valuation; [and] III. I love my country – consummation of the act.” (43). According to the Rav, I. (“There exists a country”) is a statement of fact that is in effect contained by and in the emotion. Emotions are not irrational outpourings of the heart. They make claims about the world.

3.       Emotions are cognitive, but they are confused ideas. This is the Intellectualist Theory of Emotions (and religious states). “Of course, the intellectualistic school, regarding the emotional and volitional activities as modi cogitandi, had to admit some relationship between them and the objective sphere. Owing, however to the contempt that philosophers and psychologists had for the emotional act which they considered an idea confusa…”

b. What are the conclusions? Criticism.

The intellectualist theory correctly perceived that emotions were cognitive, but incorrectly assumed that they were inferior forms of cognition, confused ideas. For the Rav, all psychic states are intentional, and religious acts therefore contain a cognitive component, subject to elaboration, refinement and critique on its own terms.

The Rambam appears to follow the position that Aristotle’s primary focus in answering the problem of akrasia is on our holding bad opinions. Of the three answers to 1b, the Rambam appears to answer “3. Emotions are cognitive.” I think this shows through in his naming “hilkhos dei’os“, his discussion of what we today call “middos“,  words that literally mean “laws of opinions”.

In Litvish and Yekkish derakhim, they define self-completion in ethical, moral, and personal refinement terms. Even Litvaks, with their/our emphasis on learning, expect the immersion in learning to cause a character change by the miqvah-like experience of learning — not by the knowledge. See the opening chapters of Nefesh haChaim cheileq 4. (Yes, that really is an online copy of NhC that those words link to!) This is how R’ Chaim Volozhiner emphasizes the lishmah experience rather than the knowledge gained. Something the Rambam’s approach wouldn’t allow for — the more you know of G-d, the greater your soul. The Rambam describes the hoi paloi whose beliefs never get beyond the 13 principles of emunah as possessing a  nefesh qetanah, literally possessing smaller souls. Because it is knowledge, not the experience of gaining knowledge, which is essential in the Rambam’s worldview.

According to Aristotle, the Rambam, and to a lesser extent R’ Saadia Gaon, the goal is knowledge. It’s not just that knowledge prevents akrasia, that the person who knows G-d well will not sin. But it’s the knowledge itself that is the highest perfection. We usually speak about imitating G-d in order to know how one should give tzedaqah. The Rambam would have you give an a poor person “dei machsero — according to what he lacks” in order to emulate and thereby better understand the Creator.

Now let’s add in another factor. The Rambam had confidence in philosophical proofs above other forms of justification.  This is in contrast to the position of rishonim like R’ Yehudah haLevi and R’ Chasdai Crescas, as well as running against the general trend of contemporary philosophy and the field of psychology. To quote from my post “The Kuzari Proof, part I” (in which I argue that the Kuzari itself argues against the so-called “Kuzari Proof” — because he rejects dependence on philosophical proof altogether):

Rabbi Prof. Shalom Carmy posted something similar to Avodah:

People who throw around big words on these subjects always seem to take for granted things that I don’t.

The people who keep insisting that it’s necessary to prove things about G-d, including His existence, seem to take it for granted that devising these proofs is identical with knowing G-d.

Now if I know a human being personally the last thing I’d do, except as a purely intellectual exercise, is prove his or her existence.

R’ Gil Student posted the following quote from Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason to Believe, pp. 25-26, 28-30 on Hirhurim:

Since Kant, these proofs [of God's existence] have been heavily assailed…. Many theologians, nowadays, accept the validity of these refutations and admit that there can be no proof of God in the sense that there can be no proof of a mathematical formula… But they go on to remark that we can be convinced of a thing beyond of a shadow of a doubt by means other than that of mathematical proof. There is no such proof, for instance, of the existence of other human beings beside ourselves, yet we are convinced that they do exist… In other words a distinction must be drawn between proof and conviction — proof is one of the ways to conviction but there are other ways, too…

Many have arrived at this conviction as the result of a personal experience which convinces them that God exists. These men would rule out of court the very discussion of whether God exists, for, they would say, if a man is truly in love he does not ask himself if he is in love. The experience of God’s Presence is sufficient…

Combining the Rambam’s emphasis on knowledge and his position that philosophical proof is the surest way to know something, we can see why to the Rambam:

1. Emunah is knowing things philosophically.

2. It is through such knowledge that one gains persistence after death, that one enters the World to Come.

Both of these notions are expressed in his introduction to his commentary to chapter Cheileq (Sanhedrin ch. 11), and are made his foundation for making his famous list of 13 Articles of Faith. The mishnah upon which he comments says that “All Israel has a place in the world to come”, and then Maimonides adds that only those who believe these articles, and not just by faith but via philosophical proof, are “Israel” in this context.

3. Ahavas Hashem is wanting to know more about Him philosophically. Quoting Yesodei haTorah 2:1-2:

וְהֵיאַךְ הִיא הַדֶּרֶךְ לְאַהֲבָתוֹ, וְיִרְאָתוֹ:  בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּתְבּוֹנֵן הָאָדָם בְּמַעֲשָׂיו וּבְרוּאָיו הַנִּפְלָאִים הַגְּדוֹלִים, וְיִרְאֶה מֵהֶם חָכְמָתוֹ שְׁאֵין לָהּ עֵרֶךְ וְלֹא קֵץ–מִיָּד הוּא אוֹהֵב וּמְשַׁבֵּחַ וּמְפָאֵר וּמִתְאַוֶּה תַּאֲוָה גְּדוֹלָה לֵידַע הַשֵּׁם הַגָּדוֹל, כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר דָּוִיד “צָמְאָה נַפְשִׁי, לֵא-לֹהִים–לְאֵ-ל חָי” (תהילים מב,ג).

And what is the way to love Him and be in awe/fear of Him? When a person contemplates His acts, His amazing and great creations, and his wisdom sees from them that there is no length or end to it, immediately he loves, praises, glorifies, and desires with a great desire to know [His] great Name/Reputation. As David said (Tehillim 42:3), “My soul thirsts for G-d, for the ‘Living’ G-d.”

Love comes from and is a draw to knowledge, not an experiential relationship with the Almighty. (See my post on Emunah Peshutah vs Machashavah, on how others balance the philosophical transcendent and the experiential immanent.)

Similarly from the third mitzvah in Sefer haMitzvos (tr. David Guttman):

היא הציווי שנצטווינו על אהבתו יתעלה שנתבונן ונסתכל במצוותיו ופעולתיו, כדי שנשיגהו ונתענג בהשגתו תכלית התענוג – וזוהי האהבה המצווה [עלינו].

The third mitzvah is that we were commanded to love Him. [Meaning] that we should contemplate and look into His commandments and His actions so that we apprehend Him, thus experiencing [lit: enjoying] the ultimate enjoyment through that apprehension of him. That is the love that we were commanded.

4. Providence is a function of how well one knows about G-d. The Moreh (3:17) argues that only people get providence, and (3:18) the borders of who is a person with regard to providence are blurry. Greater knowledge of Hashem earns one more providence. To quote:

It is an established fact that species have no existence except in our own minds. Species and other classes are merely ideas formed in our minds, whilst everything in real existence is an individual object, or an aggregate of individual objects. This being granted, it must further be admitted that the result of the existing Divine influence, that reaches mankind through the human intellect, is identical with individual intellects really in existence…

… and so on. We’re talking about what the Rambam calls the fourth and highest kind of perfection — knowledge, and in particular knowledge through philosophical proof.

The Rambam’s Philosophy and Mesorah

The argument over whether the Rambam’s philosophy had a place in Jewish Thought didn’t end in 1306 when the Maimonidian Controversies (that began in his lifetime) died down. Even to this day, in many circles his Guide for the Perplexed and the first four chapters of the Mishneh Torah are not studied. (For similar reasons, in these communities, when Chovos haLvavos is studied, they skip Sha’ar haYichud and avoid its Artistotilian underpinnings.)

The Maharal writes (Tif’eres Yisrael ch. 9):

הפילוסופים אשר זכרנו למעלה, יתנו שם ותפארת אל השכל, ועל ידי המושכלות יקנה האדם הנצחיות, ויעשו המעשים הישרים והטובים כמו תכונה וסולם, אשר יגיע בהן אל המושכלות. ומזה הסולם נפלו.

The philosophers that we mentioned earlier give recognition and glory exclusively to the intellect, believing that through intellectual achievements a person can acquire permanence. They made upright and good acts like preparation and a ladder with which to reach for comprehension. And from this ladder they [the philosophers] fell.

The “philosophers” the Maharal describes includes the Rambam. Such as in Hilkhos Teshuvah ch. 8:2-3:

וכן זה שאמרו עטרותיהן בראשיהן כלומר דעת שידעו שבגללה זכו לחיי העולם הבא מצויה עמהן והיא העטרה שלהן כענין שאמר שלמה בעטרה שעטרה לו אמו, והרי הוא אומר ושמחת עולם על ראשם ואין השמחה גוף כדי שתנוח על הראש כך עטרה שאמרו חכמים כאן היא הידיעה, ומהו זהו שאמרו נהנין מזיו שכינה שיודעים ומשיגין מאמתת הקב”ה מה שאינם יודעים והם בגוף האפל השפל. כל נפש האמורה בענין זה אינה הנשמה הצריכה לגוף אלא צורת הנפש שהיא הדעה שהשיגה מהבורא כפי כחה והשיגה הדעות הנפרדות ושאר המעשים והיא הצורה שביארנו ענינה בפרק רביעי מהלכות יסודי התורה היא הנקראת נפש בענין זה, חיים אלו לפי שאין עמהם מות שאין המות אלא ממאורעות הגוף ואין שם גוף נקראו צרור החיים שנאמר והיתה נפש אדוני צרורה בצרור החיים, וזהו השכר שאין שכר למעלה ממנו והטובה שאין אחריה טובה והיא שהתאוו לה כל הנביאים.

Similarly, when they said that the righteous people have crowns on their heads they were referring to the knowledge because of which they inherited a place in the World To Come. This knowledge is always with them, as is their crown, as Solomon said, “…with the crown with which his mother crowned him.” It is also written, “and everlasting joy shall be upon their head”—this is not physical pleasure that they will receive, but the crown of the Sages, i.e. knowledge. When they said that they will benefit from the radiance of the Divine Presence they meant that they will know and understand the existence of God in a manner that they couldn’t while in their gloomy and paltry bodies.
Whenever the word “soul” is mentioned, it does not mean the soul-body combination but the actual soul itself, which is the understanding given by the Creator and which causes other understandings and actions. This is the form which was explained in the fourth chapter of the Laws of The Basic Principles of The Torah. It is called “soul” with respect to this matter. This life, which does not involve death, for the reason that death is an occurrence of the body, or a body is called the bond of life, as it is written, “Yet the soul of my lord shall be bound with the bond of life”—this is the reward above which there is no other rewards, and the goodness above which there is no other goodness, and with which all the Prophets were granted.

In his commentary on the Shulchan Arukh (YD179:13), the Gra takes exception to the number of ideas stated by Chazal that the Rambam dismisses as allegorical because they didn’t fit within his rationalistic thought. (Although I must confess that in the cases of amulets and astrology, my sympathies lie with the Rambam, we are discussing here the cause, not specific cases.) The Vilna Gaon writes that the Rambam was “led astray by the accursed philosophy”.

The Gra’s contemporary, Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna (1765-1821), writes in Sefer HaBris (Section 1 2:6; tr. R’ Daniel Eidensohn):

The Givat HaMoreh wrote in the introduction to his sefer that the reason that it took such a long time for the full development of philosophy was because of the great wisdom of Aristotle and his unprecedented stature. Because of this his views were followed by all the scholars generation after generation in a slavish manner. It was viewed that anybody who disagreed with him was as if he were arguing on self-evident reality. In exactly the same way, the reason that there has been a long delay in the development of our theology is because many think that to disagree with something that the Rambam said is to disagree with something which is self evidently true. The two processes are almost identical because in fact the concepts of the Rambam are those of Aristotle – as is well known. However all men of integrity while they love the Rambam – love the truth more. This is as the philosopher said, “I love Aristotle and I love Socrates but the truth I love more.”

The R’ Hirsch’s complaint against the Rambam reads much like the Maharal’s. He writes in The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uzziel (letter 18):

The age gave birth to a man [R' Drachman's footnote: Maimonides], a mind, who, the product of uncomprehended Judaism and Arabic science, was obliged to reconcile the strife which raged in his own breast in his own manner, and who, by proclaiming it to the world, became the guide of all in whom the same conflict existed.


This great man to whom, and to whom alone, we owe the preservation of practical Judaism to our time, is responsible because he sought to reconcile Judaism with the difficulties which confronted it from without instead of developing it creatively from within, for all the good and the evil which bless and afflict the heritage of the father. His peculiar mental tendency was Arabic-Greek, and his conception of the purpose of life the same. He entered into Judaism from without, bringing with him opinions of whose truth he had convinced himself from extraneous sources and he reconciled. For him, too, self-perfecting through the knowledge of truth was the highest aim, the practical he deemed subordinate. For him knowledge of God was the end, not the means; hence he devoted his intellectual powers to speculations upon the essence of Deity, and sought to bind Judaism to the results of his speculative investigations as to postulates of science or faith. The Mizvoth became for him merely ladders, necessary only to conduct to knowledge or to protect against error, this latter often only the temporary and limited error of polytheism. Mishpatim became only rules of prudence, Mitzvoth as well; Chukkim rules of health, teaching right feeling, defending against the transitory errors of the time; Edoth ordinances, designed to promote philosophical concepts; all this having no foundation in the eternal essence of things, not resulting from their eternal demand on me, or from my eternal purpose and task, no eternal symbolizing of an unchangeable idea, and not inclusive enough to form a basis for the totality of the commandments.


He, the great systematic orderer of the practical results of the Talmud, gives expression in the last part of his philosophic work to opinions concerning tlie meaning and purpose of the commandments which, taking the very practical results codified by himself as the contents of the commandments, are utterly untenable cast no real light upon them and cannot go hand in hand with them in practice, in life, and in science…

What then is RSRH’s complaint? That the Rambam was too Aristotelian, and it led him to study Judaism from the outside, casting upon it the Hellenic philosopher’s priority of knowledge rather than morality. And as proof, Rav Hirsch points to the fact that system of taamei hamitzvos the Rambam presents in the third section of the Moreh Nevuchim leaves many elements unexplained. For example, this quote from sec. 3, ch. 26 (tr. Friedlander, emphasis added):

I will now tell you what intelligent persons ought to believe in this respect; namely, that each commandment has necessarily a cause, as far as its general character is concerned, and serves a certain object; but as regards its details we hold that it has no ulterior object. Thus killing animals for the purpose of obtaining good food is certainly useful, as we intend to show (below, ch. 48); that, however, the killing should not be performed by nechirah (poleaxing the animal), but by shechitah (cutting the neck), and by dividing the œsophagus and the windpipe in a certain place; these regulations and the like are nothing but tests for man’s obedience.

RSRH argues that the Rambam only failed to find the meaning to the details of the mitzvos because his assumption that mitzvos serve to either (a) teach true monotheism, (b) wean us away from idolatry, or (c) create a society which enables us in these pursuits is based on Aristotle’s emphasis on abstract knowledge rather than the Torah’s emphasis on ethics and personal refinement.

I am not sure the gap is as extreme as Rav Hirsch’s portrayal. I believe that while the Rambam does place intellectual knowledge as more central than moral refinement, the Rambam also felt the two were inseparable — that the lack of knowledge is the primary reason for people making bad moral choices. This topic was addressed in a post about the Rambam’s theory of knowledge and akrasia (why people make decisions they know are wrong) and knowledge, but in the course of preparing this post, I also started rewrite that entry.

Still, this gap is very real in that it does give a “spin” to doing the mitzvos that few contemporary Jews would share. Are you more comfortable sharing the idea that mitzvos are to teach us abstract facts about G-d, or to train us in how to act more like Him?

But I want to back off from the subject of bad decisions, mitzvos, and the Rambam’s understanding of the ideal person to leave them for the rewrite that I hope to post next.

In Aristotilian Physics, any motion begins with an intellect imparting impetus to an object. And that motion or change continues until that impetus runs out. I decide to throw a ball, the ball continues on the path my arm gives it, until the impetus I gave the ball runs out, and then the ball falls. (More on this idea and how it shows up in the gemara in the post “Aristotle, Science and Halakhah“.)

Still this explains why his Metaphysics is centered around intellects. So Aristotle posited a start to the whole causal chain, an Unmoved Mover, Who Exists in eternal contemplation of Himself. Unchanging, but thus causing change. And from this Unmoved Mover, there is a sequence of intellects down to the Active Intellect, which is the bridge from disembodied intellects to the spheres and people — intellects that are wedded to objects within they physical universe. Therefore, the key to human perfection, according to Aristotle, is to connect to this Active Intellect, and the only way to do so is to share its thoughts. In other words, to gain philosophical understanding.

The Rambam makes one drastic change to this model, but otherwise accepts it in its entirety. (An idea I also ready discussed at length; see “Maimonidian Qabbalah – Part III“.) Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover is subject to the laws of nature (metaphysics and physics), whereas the Rambam credits the Creator with being their source. So, the Unmoved Mover couldn’t be credited with starting the universe ex nihilo, because Aristotle understood that only forms change — nature does not allow for the increase or decrease in quantities of matter. And so his universe has no beginning. The Rambam basically defines G-d in terms of the Unmoved Mover (Moreh Nevuchim 1:69), but since nature is itself a creation, G-d is capable of creating ex nihilo or performing miracles that violate the laws.

Similarly, Aristotle’s chain of intellects become identified with the angels. Quoting the Rambam (Freidlander’s translation, MN 2:6) “We have already stated above that the angels are incorporeal. This agrees with the opinion of Aristotle: there is only this difference in the names employed — he uses the term ‘Intelligences,’ and we say instead ‘angels.’” See also Yesodei haTorah 2:5-6:

5: Since they [the angels] possess no body, what separates the form [of each] from the other? Their existence is not alike. Rather each one is below the level of the other and exists by virtue of its influence, one “above” the other. Everything exists by virtue of the influence of HQBH, and His Goodness. Solomon alluded to this idea in his wisdom, saying (Qoheles 5:7): “Because above the one who is high there is a watcher [and there are others higher than them].”

6: The expression “‘below’ the level of the other” does not refer to height in a spatial sense like, “He is sitting higher than his colleague”. For example, when speaking about two sages, one of whom is greater than the other, we say, “one is above the level of the other.” Similarly, a cause is referred to as “above” the effect [it produces].

But Aristotle’s physics doesn’t match reality, where the ball follows a parabolic trajectory. The notion of momentum, which is conserved, is very well established. And the planets in their orbits conserve momentum pretty well, and one doesn’t need to posit their being embedded in intelligent spheres. (Minus losses due to the gravity of the sun and other planets — but those two are seen exactly as expected by the math.) Although in practice objects on earth pretty consistently lose their momentum to friction, including air drag. Aristotle’s physics was replaced by Newton’s.

The entire notion of a chain of intellects to translate Divine Will into physical action isn’t necessary. The Rambam’s justification for needing intellects to cause grass to grow and everything else attributed to angels simply isn’t there. And thus there is no reason anymore to assume there is an Active Intellect, or that aligning one’s intellect to a progressively higher understandings brings one up the chain of angelic causation closer to G-d.

By wedding so much to Aristotle, the Rambam’s philosophy requires major translation to have a place in a contemporary world-view. Aside from the issue I want to focus on in the next post, on how the Rambam marries this idea of the centrality of understanding concepts to the role of mitzvos and morality, its role in obtaining prophecy and [other forms of] Personal Divine Providence [hashagah peratis].

A Retrospective Implication of Bitachon

Saying that I have bitachon, trust that Hashem sets up the world I experience to maximize my opportunity for success, implies that I believe that all of my failures are due to my own decisions.

So, if I am not succeeding, there are really only two possibilities. Either

  • I am not carrying my own side of the partnership. In which case, Hashem gave me the best chance of success and I made some wrong choice along the way. Or
  • I have a false definition of “success”. I chose the wrong goal, the wrong thing to try to succeed at. Again, the mistake was all mine.

So, doesn’t bitachon force me to take ownership of everything that turns out other than I’d like?

An Altar of Earth

We just looked at the section on the mizbeiach as being more about the role of the religious rite in a life of Torah. We don’t offer qorbanos — or daven, or shake lulav and esrog or… –  to rertreat from the world and find solace with G-d, but as part of our engagement with the world, a life-long process of self-refinement.

There are two comments by Rashi on this section that each offer a pair of perspectives on the question they address:

כי מן השמים דברתי: וכתוב אחד אומר “וירד ה’ על הר סיני” בא הכתוב השלישי והכריע ביניהם (דברים ד) מן השמים השמיעך את קולו ליסרך ועל הארץ הראך את אשו הגדולה כבודו בשמים ואשו וגבורתו על הארץ (מכילתא) ד”א הרכין שמים ושמי השמים והציען על ההר וכן הוא אומר (תהלים יח) ויט שמים וירד

From the heavens I spoke to you: And one verse says “Hashem ‘descended’ onto Mount Sinai”. A third verse comes and decides between them — “from heaven He let you hear his ‘voice, and upon the earth he showed you His great fire in heaven and his fire and might on the earth”. (Mekhilta)

Another thought: He stretched out the heavens and the heavens of heavens, and extended them onto the mountain. And so it says “He extended the heaven and ‘descended’.”

How do we picture the revelation at Sinai? Did Hashem “come down to earth” or did we get a glimpse of heaven? The Mekhilta suggests the latter. But Rashi also offers a second opinion — that heavens were stretched down until heaven and earth coincided at Sinai.

מזבח אדמה: מחובר באדמה שלא יבננו על גבי עמודים או על גבי כיפים (נ”א בסיס) (מכילתא) ד”א שהיה ממלא את חלל מזבח הנחשת אדמה בשעת חנייתן

An altar of earth: Attached to the earth. That you should not build it upon pillars or domes [another variant: or atop a foundation]. (Mekhilta)

Another thought: That you filled the hollow of the bronze altar [of the Mishkan] at the times they camped.

Two understandings of what an “altar of earth” would mean: either an altar that must be on or attached to the earth, or a reference to the earth that filled the mizbeiach of the Mishkan.

It is possible the two comments are two reflections of the same dispute. Note that both offer one opinion by the Mekhilta and then a second interpretation. For this to be true, we would have to view the concept of mizbeiach as a recreation of Sinai. Which would explain why this mitzvah in particular is explained in relation to the three pillars upon which the world stands. The mizbeiach is not only the place of worship, it is also the reconnection to the revelation of how to perfect the three classes of relationships in our lives.

The Mekhilta views Sinai as a glimpse of heaven from down here on earth. And so the altar of earth is one placed firmly on the ground. The gap between heaven and earth must be clear — as is the wondrousness of being able to experience Hashem across it.

In Rashi’s other opinion, heaven and earth met at Sinai. Therefore the recreation of it at the altar is when we take Hashem’s altar and fill it with earth.

Parashas Naso opens with a discussion of oaths and vows. The Torah writes, “A man, when he makes a neider LaShem [oath to HaShem], or gives a shevu’ah [vow] to prohibit something al nafsho [on his living soul].” (30:3)

It is a fundamental principle of Torah study that not a single word is wasted. So, while this pasuq appears repetitious, it isn’t. There must be some subtle distinction between a neider to Hashem and a shevu’ah on one’s nefesh.

The gemara (Nedarim 2b) describes a neider as “when he prohibits an object to himself.” It changes the state of the object, or in Brisker jargon, the cheftza. A shevu’ah, however, is “when he prohibits himself from an object” (ibid). Here, it is the gavra, the individual, who is affected.

For example, if a person were to say, “This thing shall be a qorban for me,” it would be a neider. With his words, he is sanctifying the object, and thereby prohibiting it to everyone. On the other hand, if he were to say, “I will not eat this thing,” he made a shevu’ah. He changed himself, by giving himself a new prohibition. To the rest of the world, the animal may be eaten.

As I already mentioned, the distinction between gavra and cheftza is used frequently in Brisker lomdus. For example, is the gavra exempt from sitting in a sukkah in the rain (or any other circumstance one wouldn’t stay at home through) , or is the cheftza of the booth not technically a sukkah when it’s not in a condition that you would live in? The difference would be whether one accomplishes anything by sitting in a sukkah the first night of Sukkos. If the rain exempts the gavra, then one is fulfilling a non-obligatory mitzvah. A beraskhah would be appropriate, and someone who doesn’t want to miss out on the mitzvah may wait up until midnight in case the rain stops, and sit in the rain for qiddush and hamotzi if it does not. Whereas, if the rain turns the cheftza into a non-sukkah, then the act of sitting in the rain is empty.

With this dialectic between bringing heaven down to earth vs. elevating this world up to heaven, we can get a philosophical perspective on the gavra-cheftza divide. A neider, or any other obligation on the gavra, takes the angle of improving the self. Admittedly not bringing heaven here, but still — improving the one charged with following Hashem’s Torah and Moral Law in this world. The Sinai revelation as “from heaven I spoke to you“. When we speak of obligations on the chefza we talk about changing the world, elevating it. An altar made of the earth, Mt. Sinai as unifying earth and heaven.

Why the Altar?

(Rewritten from last year’s version.)

It makes a lot of sense that the first mitzvos the Torah teaches after the Aseres haDiberos would be the interpersonal mitzvos of parashas Mishpatim. And many rabbis have given sermons on this point. The only problem is — they aren’t. There is this brief interlude between the description of the national revelation and Mishpatim (20:18-22):

יח וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, כֹּה תֹאמַר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם, דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם. יט לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן אִתִּי אֱלֹהֵי כֶסֶף וֵאלֹהֵי זָהָב, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם. כ מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה תַּעֲשֶׂה-לִּי, וְזָבַחְתָּ עָלָיו אֶת-עֹלֹתֶיךָ וְאֶת-שְׁלָמֶיךָ, אֶת-צֹאנְךָ וְאֶת-בְּקָרֶךָ, בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת-שְׁמִי, אָבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ. כא וְאִם-מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי, לֹא תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית: כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ, וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ. כב וְלֹא תַעֲלֶה בְמַעֲלֹת עַל-מִזְבְּחִי, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תִגָּלֶה עֶרְוָתְךָ, עָלָיו.

18 Hashem said to Moshe, this is what you should tell Benei Yisrael:

You saw that from the heavens I spoke with you. 19 Do not make alongside me gods of gold, and gods of silver do not make for yourselves. 20 An altar of dirt you should make for me, and sacrifice upon it your burnt offerings and peace offerings, your flocks and your cattle — in any place where I will make a memorial to My reputation, I will come to you and bless you.

21 And if you make for me an altar of stones, do not make them hewn, for you have lifted your sword against it and profaned it.

22 And do not go up upon steps on my altar, so that should shall not reveal your nakedness upon it.

Why is it the altar, and why specifically these mitzvos related to the altar, that warrant first mention after the Aseres haDiberos?

Aside from the obligation of how to build the altar itself, three other laws are relayed in this description of the mizbeiach:

  1. Do not make with Me gods of gold and gods of silver
  2. … [D]o not make them hewn, for you have lifted your sword against it and profaned it.
  3. And do not go up upon steps on my altar, so that should shall not reveal your nakedness…

Notice that these are references to the three sins that we are obligated “yeihareig ve’al ya’avor – one must be martyred rather than violate” – avodah zarah, shefichas damim vegilui arayos – idolatry, bloodshed and sexual immorality [literally: revealing nakedness]. Each of these mitzvos takes an ax to one of the pillars upon which the world stands. As I posted a number of years ago:

The three pillars upon which the world stands as described by Shim’on haTzadiq (Avos 1:2) are Torah, Avodah and Gemillus Chassadim. The Maharal (Derech haChaim ad loc) writes that this is in turn because man lives in three worlds: this one, in which he interacts with other people, the world of his mind, and heaven, which gives him a connection to G-d.

Therefore, the g-dly tanna writes that one pillar that the universe stands upon is the Torah, for the pillar completes man so that he can be a finished creation with respect to himself.
After that he says “on avodah”…. For from this man can be thought complete and good toward He Who created him — by serving Him….
With regard to the third, it is necessary for man to be complete and good with others, and that is through gemillus chassadim.
You also must understand that these three pillars parallel three things in each man: the mind, the living soul, and the body. None of them have existence without G-d. The existence of the soul is when it comes close to Hashem by serving Him…. From the perspective of the mind, the man gets his existence through Torah, for it is through the Torah that man attaches himself to G-d. To the body, man gets his existence through gemillus chassadim for the body has no closeness or attachment to Hashem, just that Hashem is kind to all. When man performs kindness G-d is kind to him, and so gives him existence.

There are three relationships around which the Torah is structured: self-refinement, closeness to G-d, and loving-kindness toward other people. The altar here is being described in those cosmic terms, requiring attention to purity on all three levels.

Immediately after the singular event of their national revelation from G-d, Hashem continues by emphasizing that the religious experience does not stand alone. It is not an escape from “daily reality”, but part of a life-long process of self-refinement. A prelude to the interpersonal laws of parashas Mishpatim.