Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Meiri On Taamei Hamitzvos (Reasons for the Commandments) and Rationalist Judaism

There are some very important points that the Meiri brings down in his Sefer Hamidos (Book of Characteristics). The best way to discuss this is to translate the first paragraph on page 61 of his book where the Meiri discusses the reasons for Mitzvos (Commandments). I will interject when I feel it is appropriate. The Meiri says:

Fulfilling the Mitzvos (Commandments) with the intent that they are being performed to serve the creator is sufficient for the masses and the nation.

The Meiri is subtly telling us something very important. The lowest level of performing Mitzvos (commandments) is to fulfill them WHILE having in mind to serve THE CREATOR. I think this language was not callously chosen. I believe that the Meiri is telling us that the most basic reason for the Mitzvos that a person needs to understand in order for their performance to have any value is appreciation. G-D created us and, therefore, when He asks us to do something we do it because He asked. This is important because anyone who realizes that the Mitzvos, at the very least, exist to show appreciation will be more aware of what others do for him or her. This is the most basic character trait a person needs, the trait of appreciation, to be a good person.

The Meiri continues:
However, it is proper for individuals to try and understand all that is possible, according to their capabilities, [of what are the reason for the Mitzvos]. As it says in Psalms (119:66), "Teach me good reason and knowledge; for I have believed in Your Mitzvos (commandments)." What [Psalms] means is that even though I believe in Your Mitzvos and I fulfill all of the Torah, I request to know the reason and wisdom [behind] them. This is not in order to doubt the witnesses that have testified that these Mitzvos are true, because I already believe in them. Also, my belief (emunah) does not rely on the study of these things to the extent that if I found a good connection I would believe or if I found something I considered a lie I would deny them, because this is Kefira (Heresy) and a removal of the religion completely.   

I think the Meiri sums up rationalist Judaism very well here. Judaism is based on laws that were given by G-D. One can not follow Judaism if he or she does not believe this idea no matter what. Without this simple tenant of faith there is no Judaism to follow. Once a person accepts the idea that G-D gave the laws then one must follow these laws whether or not they understand them. However,  the Meiri is telling us that a person SHOULD strive to understand the laws, but not make their beliefs contingent on their understanding of the laws.

This is what, I believe, Rationalist Judaism is all about, understanding the laws, understanding why we do things. In the end of the day everyone, from the Rambam to the Maharal, agrees that Jews follow the laws, simply, because G-D said we should follow them. However, the disagreement comes when we discuss the understanding of the laws. Some say we should not strive to understand the Mitzvos because they are not capable of being understood properly, rather they are just decrees made by G-D that we must follow. The other side is that we should strive to understand the Mitzvos on the deepest level that we can so that we can learn what G-D wants from us. The difference between these two opinions is, in my mind, clear. In a situation where the law goes against what G-D actually wants from us then we would go against the law and follow G-D's will. The best example is Pikuach Nefesh (When a life is in Danger). The law says straight out that we can not violate Shabbos. However, the Rabbis learn out that a person is supposed to desecrate Shabbos in order to save a life. This would, seemingly, be a situation where we use the idea of Reasons for the Mitzvos to contradict a straight out law.

I know, this is said in the Gemara, but the idea still stands. Would the Tannaim or Amoraim that hold there are no reasons for the Mitzvos also say that Pikuach Nefesh does push off the sanctity of the Shabbos? This is something worth exploring, but I don't know enough yet to adequately conclude anything with authority. However, the Torah Temmimah quotes the source for this idea, that Pikuach Nefesh pushes off the sanctity of Shabbos, and it is an Amorah in Tractate Yoma (85b):

וחי ב הם. תנ יא, מנין לפקוח נ פש שדחה את השב ת , אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל, דכתיב
ושמרתם את חקתי ואת משפטי אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי ב ה ם , ולא שימות בהם
And live by them- We learned in a Braisa, from where do we know that Pikuach Nefesh (A life in danger) pushes off [the sanctity of] Shabbos? Says Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmuel (an Amora), it is written (Vayikra 18:5) And you shall guard my ordinances and laws that you shall do them and LIVE BY THEM and not die by them.

If there is no alternate understanding, why does only one Amora say it?

Where is the source in the Mishna/Gemara for this argument of whether there is a reason for the Mitzvos or not? It is found in Babba Metzia (115a) among other places:

MISHNAH. A MAN MAY NOT TAKE A PLEDGE FROM A WIDOW, WHETHER SHE BE RICH OR POOR, FOR IT IS WRITTEN, THOU SHALT NOT TAKE A WIDOW'S RAIMENT TO PLEDGE. GEMARA. Our Rabbis taught: Whether a widow be rich or poor, no pledge may be taken from her: this is R. Judah's opinion. R. Simeon said: A wealthy widow is subject to distraint,but not a poor one, for you are bound to return [the pledge] to her, and you bring her into disreputeamong her neighbours. Now, shall we say that R. Judah does not interpret the reason of the Writ,whilst R. Simeon does?17 But we know their opinions to be the reverse. For we learnt: Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, [that his heart turn not away]; R. Judah said: He may multiply [wives], providing that they do not turn his heart away. R. Simeon said: He may not take to wife even a single one who is likely to turn his heart away; what then is taught by the verse, Neither shall he multiply wives to himself? Even such as Abigail! — In truth, R. Judah does not Interpret the reason of Scripture; but here it is different, because Scripture itself states the reason: Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, and his heart shall not turn away. Thus, why ‘shall he not multiply wives to himself’? So ‘that his heart turn not away.’ And R. Simeon [argues thus]: Let us consider. As a general rule, we interpret the Scriptural reason: then Scripture should have written, ‘Neither shall he multiply [etc.].’ whilst ‘and his heart shall not turn away’ is superfluous, for I would know myself
that the reason why he must not multiply is that his heart may not turn away. Why then is ‘shall not turn away’ [explicitly] stated? To teach that he must not marry even a single one who may turn his heart.

We see from here, as well as many other places, that Rebbe Shimon learns out that there are reasons for the Mitzvos whereas Rebbe Yehuda does not. However, according to the Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for The Perplexed) in Part 3 Chapter 48 we Poskin (rule) like Rebbe Shimon. As he says:

When in the Talmud (Ber. p. 33b) those are blamed who use in their prayer the phrase, "Thy mercy extendeth to young birds," it is the expression of the one of the two opinions mentioned by us, namely, that the precepts of the Law have no other reason but the Divine will. We follow the other opinion [that the Laws have reasons].

This is, most likely, why we decide the Pekuach Nefesh is Docheh Shabbos (Life Endangerment pushes off the sanctity of Shabbos), because we follow the opinion that the laws have reasons. One of the basic reasons for the Mitzvos is in order that we, as Jews, observe them. If the Mitzvos lead to our death then we can not observe them, therefore, we desecrate the Sabbath in order to live another day and observe the Mitzvos.

Getting back to the topic of Rationalist Judaism, if we truly hold of the idea that the Mitzvos have reasons, then doesn't it follow that everything in Judaism, stemming from the fact that Judaism is solely based on the written and oral Torah, should have a reason? This is what Rationalist Judaism is based on, finding reasons and questioning ideas that are, seemingly based on faulty logic. For example, science has shown that it is highly likely that the world is older than 5771 years old. Is Judaism forced into the position that the world must only be 5771 or is that just some idea that cropped up in the past that some antiquated people cling to as if it were a religious dogma? If reason and understanding is desired in our religion, as the Meiri points out, why are there people who call any form of reason and understanding Kefirah (heresy)?

It bothers me that some people make a topic, like the age of the universe, into such a big deal when, in truth, it matters very little to the Jewish religion. If the universe is 13-15 billion years old does that mean G-D didn't create it? That G-D did not speak to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai? That none of the prophets spoke to G-D? All this does is make the people who refuse to discuss these issues look foolish. Worse, it makes the pseudo-scientific explanations look idiotic. I dislike when people try to make their pseudoscience look like real science. Why am I so against it? Because I once fell for pseudoscience until someone actually took the time to explain to me why those pseudo-scientists were spewing nonsense. If one takes a logical approach then they can never go wrong.

The Meiri and the Rambam (my two favorite Rishonim) teach us a very valuable lesson with this whole reason for Mitzvos. True, one must follow the Torah whether they understand the reasons or not. However, we should always search for the true meaning. Why? Because, it is only through the true meaning that we will come to be better people and correct our character traits. It is only through understanding the deeper meaning of the Mitzvos that we can truly understand what it is that G-D wants from us. That does not come from closing our eyes and just doing what we are told, but rather it comes from opening our minds and ears and figuring out the deeper meanings of this complicated and intricate religion.

Think of it like this. A person who just performs the Mitzvos without understanding their deeper meanings is more likely to lie and cheat than someone who actually researches and understands the deeper meanings behind the Mitzvos. The former does not understand that lying and cheating in a way that is not explicitly forbidden in the Torah is still abhorrent to G-D. He figures there is a "loophole" for him to comfortably do these despicable atrocities in. However, the latter realizes that lying and cheating, whether explicitly stated is abhorrent to G-D and he or she will not allow themselves to take that evil path.

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