Tuesday, June 26, 2007

reasons behind doing mitzvos (ta'amei hamitzvos) - part 3

The final approach to ta’amei hamitzvot is that of the Maharal. I would call this the “segulah” approach, and it is the one closest to mysticism. The Marharal offers an analogy that I think captures the essence of his position: just like a seed produces a certain type of tree, and it makes no sense of ask why it produces specifically this type of tree and no other (at best we can explain what processes occur that lead to the result, but not why specifically those processes and no others exist), so too, the nature of a spiritual soul demands a certain type of behavior and attitude, and it makes no sense to ask why these elements are essential for the soul’s existence and nourishment and no others.

This does not mean that there are not benefits to mitzvos that meet our physical needs. However, those benefits are not external reasons for the mitzvos; those benefits are outcomes of the spiritual goodness which is inherent in the mitzvah itself. One need not wonder (as we asked on the Ramban) what value a mitzvah has if the doer is ignorant of the crucial didactic element – how does “bala matzah yatzah” work? – any more than one would wonder how an antibiotic cures an illness for someone who has no knowledge of science. Yes, that didactic element can result from doing the mitzvah, but it is not the reason behind the commandment.

The appraoch also avoids the reductionist elements of the Rambam and Ramban. The Torah is not a book of medicine or psychology alone – the Torah is a book of spiritual growth, sui generis, which may happen to pay dividends in other areas. It is understandable why one should not say “ee efshi b’basar chazir” because the prohibition against pig has nothing to do with it being an unhealthy animal or with inculcating certain ethical eating habits – it has to do with the interaction between the soul and the environment, something which is not reducible to simple rational rules that apply in other areas.

As an example of a debate that may depend on these issues, take a look at this exchange between by BIL, R’ Yosef Bechoffer, and a on whether mitzvos’ value is “salvic” (i.e. to save one’s soul, which sounds very Xstian), or to improve moral character.

So far I’ve set out the shitos with some argument, mostly in favor of the “segulah” approach because I find it appealing. But there is more to be said in defense of the other side, and some practical upshot which I’ll save for a summary. Stay tuned….


  1. Miks S.12:12 PM

    I have a good deal of trouble with each of the shittos, if you treat them as being exclusive. After all, while the Torah is given to foster spiritual growth, it also is supposed to foster character development and contains a blueprint for a society designed to meet man's needs in a just fashion. Any reasonable approach to ta'amei hamitzvot includes elements off all three approaches. And the Rambam, Ramban and Maharal would, I am pretty sure, all agree to that. In the case of the Rambam, we can be quite sure, because he discusses the matter explicitly in his peirush hamishnayot (intro. to Cheilek) where he explicitly endorses the view that mitzvot have a spiritual purpose as a major component of their ultimate purpose.

    And you can take the Maharal's approach to a ridiculous extreme, too. Do you really want to argue that the societal benefits of prohibiting murder are a mere side effect to the "spiritual goodness residing in the mitzvah itself"? Or that it makes no sense to understand what the issur of ona'at mammon says about the type of economic system favored by the Torah? Indeed, if the reasons for the mitzvot are mystical truths of spirituality beyond our comprehension, how can we learn Halacha by attempting to be "m'dammeh milsa lmilsa"? The whole enterprise assumes that the mitzvot are subject to reasoning.

    In truth, the difficulties you assert in the Rambam and Ramban's approach arise, in my opinion, from the attempt to take them to an unreasonable extreme, beyond what was intended by those giants.

    Consider the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah, for example. It serves the practical end of teaching us to observe mitzvot. It serves the didactic purpose of teaching us God's will, and refining our characters and it serves the further purpose of spiritual development. To suggest that any one of these goals is a mere epiphenominon is incorrect, and could lead one to erroneous conclusions of halacha (for instance respectively that a ba'al hora'ah, a tzaddik gamur, or a navi has no further need for Torah study)

  2. >>>Indeed, if the reasons for the mitzvot are mystical truths of spirituality beyond our comprehension, how can we learn Halacha by attempting to be "m'dammeh milsa lmilsa"?

    Halacha in internally consistant. What would be rejected is attempts to justify it by appeal to an outside standard. Its like doing Euclidean geometry - the math consists of using axioms from within the system to reach conclusions, but justifying those axioms against the 'real world' is not what geometry aspires to do.

    I don't deny T"T can refine character, but the question is whether that is an consequence of the mitzvah of a cause of the mitzvah?

  3. Anonymous5:35 PM

    whether mitzvos’ value is “salvic”

    the correct term is salvific