Wednesday, June 27, 2007

reasons behind doing mitzvos (ta'amei hamitzvos) - part 4

Some final thoughts:

I think the value of the Rambam/Ramban’s position is especially significant for those involved in kiruv. The truth of Torah becomes justified because of its correspondence to other already accepted values, e.g. our society accepts humane treatment of animals as a value, and if it can be shown that the Torah subscribes to the same value, Torah is validated. Precisely because the system is reductionist it is easy to “sell”. The only caveat I have is I am not sure how one distinguishes explanation from apologetics; believers often use the former label and skeptics the latter for the same ideas.

A comment asked why I take such a dim view of reductionism – don’t we need health, ethics, social law, etc.? A Torah that fulfilled those needs is one whose necessity is proven! I find that argument very hard to swallow because the same ends can be achieved via different means. The US Constitution does a good job of setting up an ordered society – why are the Torah’s laws better? The movement toward organic food shows great concern with what and how we eat – why do I need the details of kashrus? In fact, this is precisely the argument of reformers, e.g. see this article. Using the ends to justify the means only begs the question of why we cannot satisfy those same ends using more “modern” or appealing methods.

One critique that runs through the comments is that I am painting extremes – wouldn’t the Maharal agree that there is an economic utility to usury laws, or wouldn’t the Rambam agree that there is a spiritual dimension to certain mitzvos? I agree! But the question is what is cause and what is consequence.

The question of defining women’s role in Judaism illustrates another significant difference between these approaches. An example: Why are women exempt from mitzvos aseh she’hazman gerama? Some (Avudraham) argue that the duties of the home come first; women are freed from mitzvos to devote themselves to household chores. That rationalization presupposes a specific role for women as a value even higher than the service of G-d and reads that into the halachic structure. Going back to the Maharal’s analogy to a tree, one might suggest that just as there are oak trees and maple trees with different botanical needs, the same holds true of the spiritual needs of our different souls, and hence the differing obligations in mitzvos. If the Torah wanted to define social roles, it could have taken a much more direct route to doing so. My wife prefers the latter type of explanations as it removes halacha from externally imposed social values, yet, many a person has been drawn to Judaism precisely because they see strongly defined social roles as “family values” that they can identify with. Chacun a son gout!

Two quotes: 1) A critique a correspondant offered to my BIL: “What difference could it have rationally towards my moral refinement to discuss a stirah in rishonim in zevochim???? Or offer a lmudische disscetion of a machlokes.” 2) A response from another blog when I asked whether there was value to mitzvos performed in ignorance of their supposed reasons: "So in answer to your first question there is no value other than training or the idea of mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma." Whether you are sympathetic to the first critique or the second statement I think depends on whose side in this whole debate you are drawn to.

16 comments:

  1. I guess one thing that I didnt see in the discussion (maybe it was in some of the comments) was that even those who provide "reasons" for the mitzvos recognize that ultimately we do the mitzvos because it is the tzivui Hashem end period. There may be value (either inherent in that action as the Rambam suggests or to teach us a certain value - Ramban, or for the "spiritual benefits" per the Maharal) but the bottom line is that we do it because Hashem said. Cf. the famous Rambams at the end of Meilah and Temurah. Doesn't that answer the question about the details, exceptions, etc.? Even if there are reasons and values which are conveyed by the basic structure of the mitzvah, we still care about the details and the exceptions -- even if they dont fit perfectly with that explanation, because they are Hashem's chukim.

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  2. Mike S.11:10 AM

    I do not accept that one effect of the mitzvah is cause, and the others consequences. Even when people do things they have multiple motivations, how much more so can Hakadosh Baruch Hu have multiple reasons for His commandments.

    If I may offer a mundane analogy. I have my kids help around the house partly to teach them to be responsible, partly so they learn practical skills needed to run a household, and partly because my wife and I need the help. It is not correct to say that one of these is the reasons, and the others are side effects or consequences. They work together in our approach to childrearing and household management. The same is true with ta'amei hamitzvot, and the different approaches are different emphases among multiple purposes for the mitzvot.

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  3. RYBS in the end of halachic Mind shows that the Rambam in MT takes a different approach than the Rambam in M.N., so I'm not sure if the Rambam end of Temurah needs to fit into all this. Anyway,

    >>>even those who provide "reasons" for the mitzvos recognize that ultimately we do the mitzvos because it is the tzivui Hashem end period.

    What's the point of engaging in rationalization if you have to fall back on 'G-d said so' in the end? That's exactly what the Rambam is trying to avoid. I think Rishonim took rationalization far more seriously. And whereas the Rambam was willing to admit that the details need to be fudged, R' Hirsch extended the system and held even the details could be explained using rational inquiry alone.

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  4. >>>The same is true with ta'amei hamitzvot, and the different approaches are different emphases among multiple purposes for the mitzvot.

    The only problem is the Rishonim come right out and present their approaches as being at odds with each other, not complementary nuances. I don't disagree that what you say makes sense in terms of how you may personally approach the topic, but it glosses over the fact that the shitos are in disagreement over some pretty fundamental ideas. See Maharal in Tif Yisrael ch 6-8.

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  5. yehuda R12:24 PM

    The Rahsb'a (teshuvas 1:94) says that even when the Torah itself gives a reeason for a mitzvah its by far not the whole reason.The chinuch also says that the reasons he gives aren't really the main reasons.IIRC I've also seen achronim say explicitly on the Ramban in Moreh Nevochim that he only gave the one of the MYRIAD reasons for mitzvohs that would be easiest accepted.

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  6. What's the point of engaging in rationalization if you have to fall back on 'G-d said so' in the end? That's exactly what the Rambam is trying to avoid.

    _____________________
    I am not familiar with the Rav's piece about the Rambam in MT and MN being different, but that is exactly the point that I thought the Rambam in MT at the end of Meilah and Temurah was making -- we try to figure out the reason and there is value in out -- but that doesn't change that they are ultimately chukim and that's why we do them. That doesn't mean we can't look for the reasons and then the differences in the shitos you presented matter -- but I think keeping that approach in mind answers some of the kashas.

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  7. Re doing mitzvot as avodat hashem, I believe that that is why Chukim are there. Although the tachlis Mitzva is just as a service part of the kiyum requires finding a reason (could differ for each individual). Hilchot Me'ila reads well with this in mind.

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  8. >>>I've also seen achronim say explicitly on the Ramban in Moreh Nevochim that he only gave the one of the MYRIAD reasons for mitzvohs that would be easiest accepted.

    How achronim deduce this is beyond me, and smacks of an attempt after the fact to explain away problems, but you are missing the point - the Rambam, Chinuch consistantly appeal to external rational criteria to explain mitzvos. Maharal rejects that methodology. Do you mean to deny that there is any difference between the approaches (the Rishonim themselves say they disagree!)???

    >>>but that doesn't change that they are ultimately chukim and that's why we do them.

    Check out the last section of Halachik Mind.

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  9. >>>part of the kiyum requires finding a reason

    I believe the maharal and most modern ba'alei machshava (e.g. take a look at the end of vol 4 of Michtav m'Eliyahu for R' Dessler's discussion of specific mitzvos and why we do them) would disagree with this statement. Do you need a reason why a seed produces an oak tree and not a maple tree, or do you just accept it as the course of nature?

    I would distinguish between finding meaning in a mitzvah and asserting reasons for mitzvos - two different things. (cause vs. consequence)

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  10. >I believe the maharal and most modern ba'alei machshava

    I was referring to Rambam in Me'ilah and the comment about the stirah between there and MN.

    Your distinction between meaning and reason is not bad though Avodat Hashem would be meanuing enough. It would still require an additional reason for that particular mitzva.

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  11. yehuda r2:12 PM

    I never looked into this topic so I can't really discuss the specific view of the Rambam or Maharal.However see the Medrash Rabbah on last weeks Parsah (Chukas #8 IIRC)which says over how Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai gave a rational explaination to a nonjew about Paroh Adumah.However when the nonjew left and his talmidim started asking kashes on it ;he acknowldged that the reason doesn't suffice but thats the way the Torah made things.Point being RYBZ had no problem giving a rational explanation he didn't really agree (or of course disagree) with because that is what the person asking needed to hear.

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  12. Yehudah R - the Maharal discusses this very Midrash. Take a look!

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  13. Anonymous3:50 PM

    "Some (Avudraham) argue that the duties of the home come first; women are freed from mitzvos to devote themselves to household chores. That rationalization presupposes a specific role for women as a value even higher than the service of G-d and reads that into the halachic structure."

    This is a leap. Does freeing avadim from mitzvos also presuppose a higher role of avdus? The torah presupposes a norm of a situation that requires exemption, but it doesn't say anything about its desirablity.

    "If the Torah wanted to define social roles, it could have taken a much more direct route to doing so."

    But the torah is not defining social roles, much less as an ideal. It's basing itself on the expection of these roles being the norm. The torah was given to human beings as they were.

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  14. >>>The torah presupposes a norm of a situation that requires exemption, but it doesn't say anything about its desirablity.

    Take a look at a few english judaica books on male/female roles and I guarantee you will find the homemaker portrayed as an ideal which the halachic system is designed to foster with p'turim from mitzvot, not p'turim as a concession to greater demands on a women's time by the reality of life. I am not justifying this position, just noting that it is out there and what i think the roots of it are.

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  15. Of course they do, Chaim. It's called apologetics. If you go back a little further, you will find the same ideal of woman as moral anchor and "angel in the house" in both general, i.e., secular sources, and writers such as R'SRH.

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  16. Bob Miller8:28 AM

    HaShem gave us the Torah precisely because our powers of intuition, observation, deduction, etc., are not enough in themselves to make us actually know and carry out all aspects of His will.

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