Monday, June 25, 2007

reasons behind doing mitzvos (ta'amei hamitzvos) - part 1

I was partially motivated to write this post by Matt’s musings last week on the nature of chok within the Rambam’s framework of ta’amei hamitzvot. I am generally unsatisfied with rationalism, and this is a good topic to delve a little deeper into why. Before getting to chukim, I want to start with a broader look at ta’amei hamitzvot – how do we answer the classic question of “why do you do that?” Are mitzvos an end unto themselves, or are mitzvos a means to achieve some higher order goal, such as philosophical perfection, good midot, or closeness to G-d?

The classic starting point for this issue is the Mishna in Brachos that prohibits including in our davening a plea for G-d’s mercy which is so vast that it extends to birds in the nest, referring to the Torah’s prohition against taking the eggs from under a mother bird while she is sitting on them. Why not invoke G-d’s mercy in this way? The gemara offers two explanations: 1) because G-d is merciful on all creation, not just on birds; 2) because G-d’s commandments are gezeiros, decrees, not acts of mercy.

The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim explains the commandment of driving off the mother bird before taking the eggs as based on G-d’s concern and mercy for the baby birds. The Rambam himself notes that his explanation contradicts the second explanation of the gemara above, but says we have the right to rely on the first opinion and offer a philosophical explanation.

According to the Rambam, there is an inherent “good” to performing mitzvos based on some understandable (rational) end – in this case, it is mercy for the birds. A similar example would be the prohibition of killing a mother cow and its baby in the same day – again, G-d wishes to show mercy on his creatures.

There are a number of weaknesses with this line of reasoning, some stronger than others, but combined, they make a devastating case (for more detail, see Maharal’s Tiferes Yisrael ch 6-8):

1) The Rambam’s approach is reductionist – mitzvos have no inherent value other than as a means to some other goal. The Torah thus becomes a health manual (e.g. the command to eat kosher), or a manual for ethics, or psychology, etc.,
2) The Rambam admits that he has swept aside one opinion of the gemara, an opinion quoted elsewhere (Meg 25) as a stam statement
3) The mitzvos themselves seem to have exceptions and details which often undermine their (supposed) intented aim, e.g. if a mother cow and baby cow may not be killed in the same day because of G-d’s mercy, how can one explain the permissibility of killing the mother 5 minutes before shkiya and the baby 5 minutes later after shkiya? If shechita is a humane form of slaugher, why is it not required for the ben pakua?
4) Chazal say that one should not say I dislike pig, but rather even though I may like it, since it is prohibited by G-d it cannot be eaten. If there is a rational reason for not eating pig, e.g. pig is bad for one’s health (Moreh ch 48), why invoke G-d’s command as the justification for the mitzvah when one can offer a reasonable explanation for disliking pig?
5) The principle of mitzvos lav le’henos nitnu implies that the only benefit accrued by doing mitzvos is religious in nature. According to the Rambam, the telos of religion is the many benefits like good health and ethics that it inculcates – isn’t this the greatest form of hana’ah?

The Ramban in discussing the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird offers a very different philosophy of ta’amei hamitzvot than the Rambam’s – stay tuned…

4 comments:

  1. > 1) The Rambam’s approach is reductionist – mitzvos have no inherent value other than as a means to some other goal. The Torah thus becomes a health manual (e.g. the command to eat kosher), or a manual for ethics, or psychology, etc.,

    Why is that a problem?! On the contrary, according to this derech, the Torah is exactly that. A health/ethics/psychology/etc manual. Since God created us, wouldn't that be the exact thing that we need from God? Everyone always calls the Torah 'the instruction manual' for life. So what could be better than practical instructions? Seriously.

    > 2) The Rambam admits that he has swept aside one opinion of the gemara, an opinion quoted elsewhere (Meg 25) as a stam statement

    OK, no big deal.

    > 3) The mitzvos themselves seem to have exceptions and details which often undermine their (supposed) intented aim, e.g. if a mother cow and baby cow may not be killed in the same day because of G-d’s mercy, how can one explain the permissibility of killing the mother 5 minutes before shkiya and the baby 5 minutes later after shkiya? If shechita is a humane form of slaugher, why is it not required for the ben pakua?

    Re the first example: all laws have to to be delineated. You can always find borderline cases like that. For example if the drunk driving limit is 150, if someone is 151 is that really so much worse, etc.

    > 4) Chazal say that one should not say I dislike pig, but rather even though I may like it, since it is prohibited by G-d it cannot be eaten. If there is a rational reason for not eating pig, e.g. pig is bad for one’s health (Moreh ch 48), why invoke G-d’s command as the justification for the mitzvah when one can offer a reasonable explanation for disliking pig?

    This gemarah is non binding.

    > 5) The principle of mitzvos lav le’henos nitnu implies that the only benefit accrued by doing mitzvos is religious in nature. According to the Rambam, the telos of religion is the many benefits like good health and ethics that it inculcates – isn’t this the greatest form of hana’ah?

    Depends on the exact meaning of 'lav lehenos nitnu'. Maybe you can say it means a selfish type of hanaah? Not sure about this one.

    Still, you know I can't stand it when people say mitzvot are non rational. And Rambam says such people have a 'sickness of the soul'.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Mike S.1:38 PM

    If one is to avoid attacking strawmen, one has to accept that mitzvot have multiple purposes. And an author who presents a philosophical approach emphasizing one aspect or another does not thereby imply that he has exhausted the reasons behind the mitzvot. Thus even mitzvot which serve an obvious rational purpose, e.g. the prohibition of theft permits a better society than one in which the had of all against all is the norm, have the additional purpose of submitting to the Divine will. Similarly, something which is classically a chok, say parah Adumah, has aspects that can be understood. For example, various rabbinic attempts to understand why contact with a corpse precludes one from entering the Beis Hamikdash, and why there is a need for some ceremony to restore taharah, beyond immersion in a mikveh, even if some of the details of the ceremony make no rational sense.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Chaim,
    The Rav in the end of Halachic Mind essentially asserts your first argument. He differenitates between the Ta'amei Hamitzvos in the Moreh which he disapproves of, which subordinates the mitzvos for a higher ethical good, and the extra halachic motivations in mishna Torah which the Rav cites approvingly as they seek to enhance one's performance of the mitzva.

    ReplyDelete
  4. With regard to all three comments (all good points) - see beginning of next post

    ReplyDelete