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…