Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Insight into Judaism, Torah to Maimonides

1. "Understanding The Tanach (Bible): Through a careful analysis of the content of the Tanach, its history and its purpose, a radically new approach to Bible study is revealed."
2. "The Oral Torah and Why We Need It: Dispelling common misconceptions about the nature of the Oral Tradition."
3. Commentary
4.Midrash and Aggada (legends)
5. Kabbalah
Maimonides Series

Rambam Shiur #1: April 26, 2006

Introduction to the Mishneh Torah: Its Context and Objective

A Summary of the First Rambam Lecture

Prepared by Rabbi Joshua Maroof

Part One: The Verses

The Rambam “crowns” the introduction to his magnum opus with two verses from the Tanach. The first is a fragment of a verse from the Book of Genesis that was the “signature line” of the Rambam; he placed it atop all of his works – the Mishneh Torah, Moreh Nevuchim and Commentary to the Mishnah.

“In the name of Hashem, G-D of the Universe.”

This statement describes the mission of Abraham our Forefather, who dedicated his life to demonstrating the unity of Hashem and the fact that all of creation is a manifestation of His infinite wisdom. Of course, we as human beings are also a part of the Universe and we would expect that mankind would also reflect the Divine plan in his values and behavior. However, the first narrative in Genesis teaches us that Adam and Eve, rather than pursue the divinely determined “good” for humanity, chose to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and thus to establish their own artificial definition of “good”. This was the first step in the evolution of a human culture that viewed the entire world as nothing more than material for mankind’s domination and enjoyment. This idolatrous view of the universe – no different than the materialistic perspective of ‘modern’ man – enabled human beings to feel comfortable with their position as the lords of all of creation, the centers of the cosmic drama. Even the idolatrous ‘gods’ were only products of human imagination that allowed people the comfort of believing they could negotiate with the harsh forces of nature that otherwise seemed so indifferent and threatening to them. By revolutionizing our concept of the universe, then, Abraham also sparked a revolution in our perception of man’s place in that universe.

The second verse that adorns the Introduction is taken from Psalm 119:
“Then I will no longer be ashamed – when I gaze upon all of your commandments.”

Our recognition of the wisdom of Hashem manifest in the orderly and lawful function of the universe causes us to feel a sense of deficiency – why don’t we exhibit, in the context of our own lives, principle-based action organized so beautifully? Instead, we are bundles of contradiction and conflict, at times being guided by wisdom and other times allowing our fantasies, whether hedonistic, egotistic or otherwise, to replace true knowledge as our guide. The verse in Psalms emphasizes the idea that our sense of shame will only be removed once we possess a clear vision of ALL the mitsvot. This means we must acquire a ‘big picture’ perspective on the Torah that will enable us to apply its wisdom systematically and thoroughly to every aspect of our lifestyles – including the way in which we pray, the way we eat and drink, the way we interact socially and politically, etc. Any dimension of our existence that remains unilluminated by Hashem’s wisdom will of necessity be hijacked by our own inner desires that are expressions of our wish to, in the words of the Torah regarding Adam and Eve, “be like gods, knowing good and evil.”

Thus, the two pesukim reflect two dimensions of our religious outlook. “In the name of Hashem, G-D of the Universe” – this is our view of the “macrocosm”, the principle that the existence and order of all of creation is a manifestation of Hashem’s wisdom and providence. The second verse “Then I will no longer be ashamed” speaks to our view of ourselves as deficient parts of the creation that have not yet come under the governance of Hashem’s design and need the educational system of the mitsvot to enable us to do so.

This is reminiscent of the first two chapters of Genesis: In the first, the beautiful and idyllic universe is created. In the second, human beings come on the scene and begin grappling with the question of what values and lifestyle to adopt. Compare this to “The heavens declare the glory of G-D, and the firmament tells of His handiwork…The Torah of Hashem is perfect, reviving the soul, the testimony of Hashem is trustworthy, making the simple one wise.”

We can understand the appropriateness of these verses to the Mishneh Torah: The purpose of the book is to provide us with a proper outlook on all of existence – of which we are, of course, a small part – and then to offer us a systematic understanding of the mitsvot that will guide us to the true removal of the “shame” of unprincipled living.

Part Two: The Introduction to the Oral Torah - Questions

Rambam opens his introduction with a description of the history of the Oral Torah, beginning with Moshe Rabbenu and concluding with the composition of the Mishneh Torah. He mentions several details that are worthy of further consideration:

1 – The fact that Moshe wrote a Sefer Torah for each tribe and then deposited one next to the Ark of The Covenant – why do we need to know this? How is it germane to our understanding of the Oral Tradition?

2 – The account of the primary Prophets and Sages who transmitted the Oral Torah from one generation to the next is provided twice: Once going from Moshe to the closing of the Talmud, and a second time, going from the closing of the Talmud back to Moshe and then to Hashem. Why the repetition?

3 – Initially, the Oral Tradition was transmitted in purely verbal form. Then Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi composed the Mishnah, which served as a textual basis for lectures. The Gemara was compiled several generations later. How did these compositions differ from the Rambam’s?

4 – Why does the Rambam enter into a lengthy discussion of the fact that the communities were dispersed and that each one developed its own set of customs? Why is this the place to discuss this issue?

5- Why does the Rambam need three reasons why the Talmud is binding on all Jews: The fact that it was compiled by the majority of the Rabbis, it was accepted by the majority of Jews, and the rabbis involved were direct recipients of the oral tradition. Isn’t one reason sufficient?

6- How exactly did the learning style of the Geonim differ from the earlier generations? Was it simply the quantity of people involved, or did the quality or form of study change?

7 – Why does the Rambam emphasize how difficult the language of the Talmud is? Why does he again underscore the proliferation of different opinions?

Part Three – Rambam’s Message

The essential purpose of the Rambam’s introduction is to diagnose a pervasive problem with our understanding of the Oral Torah that he has attempted to solve through the Mishneh Torah. Simply stated, the problem is that we fail to see the Torah as a form of hochma (wisdom) that is orderly and systematic. We instead perceive Torah as a disorganized conglomeration of concrete details, viewpoints and arguments that are the products of human opinions and attitudes. There is one fundamental reason for this misconception of the Torah, which can be summarized as follows:

The separation of rabbinical authorities by distance and the lack of a centralized Bet Din result in independent Torah traditions. Serious intellectual disciplines are characterized by the presence of a community of researchers who pursue understanding together based upon a common foundation of knowledge. This distinguishes science from realms of subjective opinion where no common ground among people is necessarily presumed. The fact that each rabbi or group of rabbis now develops his/their own independent vision of “Torah” seems to indicate that there is no fundamental core of knowledge that unites them, and that Torah is more an expression of personal opinion than objective wisdom. The constant emphasis in Talmudic study on rabbinic disagreement also contributes to this false impression. In addition, the consequent proliferation of local customs divide Jewish communities from one another and seems to suggest that, like other forms of cultural practice, Jewish practice is “all relative”.

The Rambam recognized that this perspective on Torah was more than a simple intellectual error. If the Torah is not acknowledged as hochma, and is relegated to the status of human opinion, then the whole purpose of the Torah has been undone! For, as explained above, the purpose of the Torah is to redeem us from the artificial, subjectively fashioned values that have formed the basis of human culture and to enable us to see how divine wisdom can be the guide of human life. If Torah itself is reduced to subjective taste, the whole purpose of its existence is thereby defeated, since the false view – that man is the “measure of all things” – has been reinstated!

(For another example of this kind of problem, consider the ‘social sciences’ and ‘humanities’ – psychology, sociology, philosophy, etc. Many serious thinkers avoid these subjects because they assume that, since there are so many different opinions and schools of thought in these disciplines, there is no real “field of study” to speak of. Cynics view the humanities as arenas for the expression of personal bias and subjective opinion. Of course, there must be truth in philosophy, psychology, etc., though it is much more difficult to establish consensus in these areas. The point is that people’s respect for a scientific discipline becomes diminished when they see that the so-called experts can’t seem to agree on anything and are constantly locked in debate.)

Thus, the Rambam emphasizes the fundamental unity of the Oral Torah and its initial transmission. He counts the Masters of the Tradition twice to underscore the fact that the Oral Torah proceeded from, and can be traced back to, the Almighty. He observes that, although a Sefer Torah was presented to each tribe of Israel, an additional one was kept beside the Ark. This was in order to demonstrate that, despite its application to many tribal “cultures”, the Torah itself remains the same – a pure expression of Hashem’s wisdom. Similarly, Moshe communicated only one Oral explanation of the mitsvot – a comprehensive, systematic and unified vision of the meaning, method and proper application of all the mitsvot – and it was this core “perush”, or explanation, that was transmitted in an unbroken chain from the times of Moshe until the closing of the Talmud. Whatever disagreements, new applications, etc., evolved over time, emerged in the context of a serious intellectual discipline of the highest order – in the same way that differences of opinion emerge in physics or mathematics, not in the way that differences are manifest in discussions of what TV shows are best or which ice cream flavor is tastiest.

At a certain point in time, people were no longer able to devote sufficient energy and focus to the study of Torah. As a result, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi created the Mishnah, which served as a textual basis for lectures. The format of Oral transmission remained in place; what Mishnah did was allow students to prepare material in advance. In the end, though, the real learning took place when the teacher helped the student see the correct understanding of the Written Torah in light of the framework of the Oral Torah – a framework that itself was not committed to writing. The Mishnah is not the Oral Torah – it is a set of conclusions that emerge from the Oral Torah. The bona fide Oral Torah is the understanding of the principles that illuminate and interconnect all the mitsvot. No real change in pedagogy was introduced with the Gemara; it was simply a further extension of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s work.

The major dispersion that followed the closing of the Talmud ushered in the period of the Geonim. At this time, no unified body of scholars existed anymore. There wasn’t even a unified community to speak of. Yet, the Oral Torah needed to remain a unified body of knowledge in some sense; this was accomplished through the study of the Talmud itself, which was the last vestige of the body of scholars that had recorded it and the community that had accepted it. Thus, the oral tradition now centered on a tradition of comprehending the structure, method and content of Torah that was implicit, but not explicitly described, in the Talmud. Each one of the Geonim went about constructing his own integrated vision of the totality of the Oral tradition and its relationship to Written Torah through the study of the Talmud, clarifying and interpreting its words. Though the number of students had greatly diminished, enough were present to keep the chain of transmission alive. By the Rambam’s time, even this approach had begun to disintegrate. Even the words of the Geonim – let alone those of the Talmud – were exceedingly difficult to grasp. The multiplicity of opinions was daunting, and mastering the language of the Talmud required a separate course of study. Lack of time and a waning dedication to intellectual pursuits yielded scholars who were less and less capable of forming any unified vision of Judaism or the mitsvot through the study of traditional texts. They were slowly losing the thread that had held the structure of Torah together for generations – the thread of Oral Tradition.

The Rambam’s solution was an awesome undertaking – the presentation of the entire oral law as a unity, in its fully integrated and systematic form, in writing. Ideally, he hoped to “rehabilitate” Torah as a field of hochma. In order for the Rambam’s plan to be successful, three things would need to be accomplished:

1) The composition he produced would have to be universally accessible, written in a language and style that transcended the culture of any specific diaspora community. Therefore, he selected Hebrew as the language of the Mishneh Torah

2) The structure and format of the Torah in its totality would have to be readily discernible to the reader, even in the complete absence of any Oral Tradition. Any “background information” or context that would normally be provided by a teacher would need to be explicitly discussed in the text of Mishneh Torah.

3) The composition would have to eliminate reference to differences in opinion and practice, focusing instead on the presentation of the Torah as a single, all-encompassing and systematic approach to the world and to life. Distinctions between communities, whether in halachic opinion or in custom, were, in the Rambam’s eyes, the unfortunate result of the lack of an integrated NATIONAL Torah study program. With Mishneh Torah, the Rambam hoped to institute a single course of Torah learning for the entire Jewish people, thus restoring the honor due to the Torah as a serious intellectual discipline (placing it at least on the same level as any one of the sciences) and rejuvenating our appreciation of the Torah’s depth and significance.

A point of clarification: Rambam did not intend to show any disrespect to the Talmud, nor did he believe that there was no possibility of a meaningful difference of opinion among scholars. There is room for differences in interpretation in every discipline, no matter how rigorous. However, the Rambam understood that the inclusion of different opinions and competing perspectives in the Mishneh Torah would dilute the impact of seeing Torah as a seamless and comprehensive body of knowledge, distracting us with nuances and subtleties better left to advanced scholars. This holistic vision of Torah is a necessary prerequisite to reinstating the Torah as a serious body of knowledge shared by the entire nation of Israel. Therefore, he eliminated mention of disagreements and arguments among Rabbis, choosing instead to emphasize the final product, the system as a whole in its finished form. In this sense, he teaches us in the manner that any introductory-level instructor in physics, mathematics or even history would - he provides us with a single, consistent and complete treatment of his subject before exposing us to problems or ambiguities in interpretation that might be debatable.

(Without a solid sense of context and an intellectual framework in which to operate, it is impossible to really appreciate the “cutting edge” of a field. The kinds of issues addressed in professional journals that might be the focus of a debate among experts are the kinds of issues argued about in the Talmud – and it is precisely such issues that are reserved for the student who has already mastered his discipline. Mishneh Torah was composed to help us establish a unified intellectual “field” of Torah, and this must exist before any theoretical debates can be meaningful.)

The revolution wrought by the Mishneh Torah was the replacement of increasingly localized “oral traditions” as the integrating force in learning with a single, unified and universally accessible textbook. Rather than depending upon teachers to guide, shape and develop our understanding of the system of mitsvot comprehensively, we can simply open the Mishneh Torah and study it carefully. Thus, the loss of Oral Tradition did not spell the loss of the opportunity for the Jewish people to appreciate the wisdom, sophistication and magnificence of the Torah.

Had the Rambam not provided us with the Mishneh Torah, we, in an age bereft of any Oral Tradition that could present the mitsvot systematically, would be lost in the complex and overwhelming Sea of Talmud, desperately seeking a foundation of principles to orient and guide us. Frustrated, we might have been tempted to reject the Oral Torah as nothing more than the expression of human opinion and give up any hope of having Divine Wisdom illuminate our lives. The Rambam allows us to see the infinite wisdom of the Creator in the well-ordered and systematic design of the corpus of mitsvot, reestablishing the Torah’s status as a branch of knowledge that is a fitting reflection of the Divine Mind. In so doing, he follows in the footsteps of Avraham - calling out in the name of Hashem, God of the entire universe, whose Unity and Wisdom are manifest in the order of creation as well as the order of His Torah. Rambam also helps us to see how this grand system can be applied consistently to every area of our lives, bringing all aspects of our existence in line with Hashem’s purpose – so that we can declare, together with King David, that now “we are not ashamed, for we gaze upon all Your commandments.”