Sunday, July 5, 2009

Rambam on Reasons for Mitzvos

In a previous post, I highlighted the radical divergence between Rambam and Netziv on the reasons for mitzvos. Someone raised a quote from the Mishneh Torah which seemed to conflict with the citation from the Guide Of The Perplexed with regard to Chukkim. Here is another citation from the Guide which shed further light on the topic.

CHAPTER XXVI

As Theologians are divided on the question whether the actions of God are the result of His wisdom, or only of His will without being intended for any purpose whatever, so they are also divided as regards the object of the commandments which God gave us. Some of them hold that the commandments have no object at all; and are only dictated by the win of God. Others are of opinion that all commandments and prohibitions are dictated by His wisdom and serve a certain aim; consequently there is a reason for each one of the precepts: they are enjoined because they are useful. All of us, the common people as well as the scholars, believe that there is a reason for every precept, although there are commandments the reason of which is unknown to us, and in which the ways of God's wisdom are incomprehensible. This view is distinctly expressed in Scripture; comp. "righteous statutes and judgments" (Deut. iv. 8); "the judgments of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether" (Ps. xix. 10). There are commandments which are called ḥuḳḳim, "ordinances," like the prohibition of wearing garments of wool and linen (sha‘atnez), boiling meat and milk together, and the sending of the goat [into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement]. Our Sages use in reference to them phrases like the following: "These are things which I have fully ordained for thee: and you dare not criticize them"; "Your evil inclination is turned against them"; and "non-Jews find them strange." But our Sages generally do not think that such precepts have no cause whatever, and serve no purpose; for this would lead us to assume that God's actions are purposeless. On the contrary, they hold that even these ordinances have a cause, and are certainly intended for some use, although it is not known to us; owing either to the deficiency of our knowledge or the weakness of our intellect. Consequently there is a cause for every commandment: every positive or negative precept serves a useful object; in some cases the usefulness is evident, e.g., the prohibition of murder and theft; in others the usefulness is not so evident, e.g., the prohibition of enjoying the fruit of a tree in the first three years (Lev. xix. 73), or of a vineyard in which other seeds have been growing (Deut. xxii. 9). Those commandments, whose object is generally evident, are called "judgments" (mishpatim); those whose object is not generally clear are called "ordinances" (ḥuḳḳim). Thus they say [in reference to the words of Moses]: Ki lo dabar rek hu mi-kem (lit." for it is not a vain thing for you, "Deut. xxxii. 74); "It is not in vain, and if it is in vain, it is only so through you." That is to say, the giving of these commandments is not a vain thing and without any useful object; and if it appears so to you in any commandment, it is owing to the deficiency in your comprehension. You certainly know the famous saying that Solomon knew the reason for all commandments except that of the "red heifer." Our Sages also said that God concealed the causes of commandments, lest people should despise them, as Solomon did in respect to three commandments, the reason for which is clearly stated. In this sense they always speak; and Scriptural texts support the idea.

...The repeated assertion of our Sages that there are reasons for all commandments, and the tradition that Solomon knew them, refer to the general purpose of the commandments, and not to the object of every detail. This being the case, I find it convenient to divide the six hundred and thirteen precepts into classes: each class will include many precepts of the same kind, or related to each other by their character. I will [first] explain the reason of each class, and show its undoubted and undisputed object, and then I shall discuss each commandment in the class, and expound its reason. Only very few will be left unexplained, the reason for which I have been unable to trace unto this day. I have also been able to comprehend in some cases even the object of many of the conditions and details as far as these can be discovered. You will hear all this later on...


Now let us look at the later chapter that we quoted a few days ago:

CHAPTER XXXI

THERE are persons who find it difficult to give a reason for any of the commandments, and consider it right to assume that the commandments and prohibitions have no rational basis whatever. They are led to adopt this theory by a certain disease in their soul, the existence of which they perceive, but which they are unable to discuss or to describe. For they imagine that these precepts, if they were useful in any respect, and were commanded because of their usefulness, would seem to originate in the thought and reason of some intelligent being. But as things which are not objects of reason and serve no purpose, they would undoubtedly be attributed to God, because no thought of man could have produced them. According to the theory of those weak-minded persons, man is more perfect than his Creator. For what man says or does has a certain object, whilst the actions of God are different; He commands us to do what is of no use to us, and forbids us to do what is harmless. Far be this! On the contrary, the sole object of the Law is to benefit us. Thus we explained the Scriptural passage, "for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day" (Deut. vi. 24). Again, "which shall hear all those statutes (ḥuḳḳim), and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (ibid. iv. 6). He thus says that even every one of these "statutes" convinces all nations of the wisdom and understanding it includes. But if no reason could be found for these statutes, if they produced no advantage and removed no evil, why then should he who believes in them and follows them be wise, reasonable, and so excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations? But the truth is undoubtedly as we have said, that every one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits. All this depends on three things: opinions, morals, and social conduct. We do not count words, because precepts, whether positive or negative, if they relate to speech, belong to those precepts which regulate our social conduct, or to those which spread truth, or to those which teach morals. Thus these three principles suffice for assigning a reason for every one of the Divine commandments.


Rambam's view is that chukkim, like mishpatim, serve to "inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits." The only difference between chukkim and mishpatim is that it is often more difficult to figure out how chukkim do this.

12 comments:

  1. "Some of the (philosophers) hold that the commandments have no object at all; and are only dictated by the win of God. " -- whim?

    OK, now that the typo is out of the way, may I ask you to provide a more detailed quote from the Netziv on the topic. So far you provided just a couple of lines. Maybe some expansion of his ideas will show a closer jiving with the Rambam.

    In addition, I noticed something about the Rambam's words, as the translation goes:
    "Thus these three principles suffice for assigning a reason for every one of the Divine commandments." vs.
    "I will [first] explain the reason of each class, and show its undoubted and undisputed object, and then I shall discuss each commandment in the class, and expound its reason."

    In one case it says "a reason" and in the other it says "the reason." I wonder how much there is to make out of that.

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  2. What does this have to do with Rationalism?

    Rambam didn't say the only reasons for Mitzvot are the reasons that can be understood by man.

    In Moreh, Rambam writes extensively how the purpose of Mitzvaot are to forge a connection between humans and G-d, when a person stops thinking about G-d for one second, part of the connection is lost, etc.

    Is that also rationalistic?

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  3. The only difference between chukkim and mishpatim is that it is often more difficult to figure out how chukkim do this.

    One might ask: Doesn't this distinction seem accidental? Isn't it odd that the Torah would identify chukim as an entirely different class of mitzvos, simply because their reasons are harder to figure out?

    The best answer I have seen for this question was given by Rabbi Joshua Maroof, in his post Hukkim and Mishpatim. Although I highly recommend reading the whole post, here is the main idea:

    I believe that the concept the Rambam is identifying here is of crucial significance for a proper understanding of the Torah in general. Human beings have an intuitive sense of good and bad and right and wrong when it comes to matters of material importance. There is no question in our minds that these issues are very real and very serious. For this reason, all societies have laws that regulate commerce, prohibit murder and theft, and generally protect the physical welfare of their members. These laws - mishpatim - have a purpose that is manifestly obvious to the nations of the world, precisely because the values that mishpatim promote - i.e., material values - are acknowledged as significant by all people, everywhere.

    This is what makes the hukkim seem so mysterious. Any search for a mundane explanation of hukkim would necessarily be in vain. This is because hukkim are not designed to promote the material welfare of the Jews and cannot be fathomed in that context. On the contrary, hukkim serve to facilitate intellectual and moral growth alone. Whether it is through restricting our instinctual gratification or directing our minds to the perception of God's hand in nature, the hukkim serve to move us closer to the philosophical goal for which we were divinely chosen.

    From the perspective of the committed Jew, the hukkim are the very lifeblood of a meaningful, grounded, spiritually attuned existence. Yet they are rooted in ideals and principles that seem otherworldly and even counterintuitive to an outsider. Precisely because the benefit of hukkim cannot be explained in terms that make sense to a materialistic person, they are scorned and derided by the nations of the world. . . .

    Now we can fathom why the Rambam extols the hukkim above the mishpatim. Safeguarding the physical welfare of society is the most basic aim of any legal system; indeed, for most legal systems, it is the only aim. The Torah shares this objective and legislates mishpatim accordingly. However, with its introduction of the hukkim, the Torah demonstrates its uniqueness as a guide to human life. The hukkim do not enhance our mastery or our enjoyment of the physical world per se. If anything, they stand in the way of the endless pursuit of instinctual gratification and material wealth; indeed, their whole function is to contradict our natural inclination to measure goodness and substance in physical terms. They require us to pull our energies away from the concrete and channel them into the intellectual, metaphysical and transcendent . . . hukkim ask us to break free from the narrow confines of the pragmatic and make the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and sanctity our highest priority.

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  4. Pliny -

    "Maybe some expansion of Netziv's ideas will show a closer jiving with the Rambam."

    You are welcome to check it - I did not see any such thing.

    "In one case it says "a reason" and in the other it says "the reason." I wonder how much there is to make out of that."

    It's a translation, and a poor one at that, so I don't think you can make anything out of it without checking the original Arabic.

    Richard -

    "What does this have to do with Rationalism?"

    This is the very definition of it (at least in medieval times).

    "In Moreh, Rambam writes extensively how the purpose of Mitzvaot are to forge a connection between humans and G-d, when a person stops thinking about G-d for one second, part of the connection is lost, etc.
    Is that also rationalistic?"

    Yes.

    Matt -

    Thanks for the reference, that's grea!

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  5. What exactly is the position of non-Rationalists? How do they disagree?

    Does Rambam hold that the internal truths can be inculcated even if the actor is unaware of the message? It would seem so, because even a hok that can not be understood still is intended to convey a message, right?

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  6. Which of the following do think the Rambam would say:
    "I provide very good reasons for almost all the commandments."
    or
    "I provide /the ikkar/ reasons for almost all the commandments."

    If the former, then is there a contradiction between him and the Netziv?

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  7. He would say the latter. But even the former would contradict the Netziv.

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  8. "M'ohd amkoo mach'sh'vosecha"
    If the Rambam felt that he was giving the /ikkar/ reasons, then it's as if he is claiming that he knows God's deepest thoughts. That's why I think he was saying the former, not the latter. And it appears to me that the Netziv never said to completely avoid offering sound reasons for the mitzvos, just that you mustn't think that you've got the /ikkar/ reason (as per his words you pasted). That's why I don't see them contradicting each other.

    I'm sorry if I'm just repeating myself. I'm not sure if I said anything new here.

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  9. He didn't think that there is any concept of "God's deepest thoughts" here. Rather, the mitzvos have a clear purpose. Whereas Netziv held that one can never give ANY genuine reason for a mitzvah, just insights to make them easier to observe.

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  10. Correction: the Netziv seems to hold that we can give secondary reasons, but not primary reasons. Whereas Rambam holds that we can give primary reasons.

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  11. OK, but this contrast you point out between them doesn't seem to be behind what you wrote at http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2009/06/reasons-for-mitzvos.html

    "One of the differences between rationalist and non-rationalist schools of the thought is the issue of reasons for mitzvos. This is sharply brought to light when one compares the following comments of Netziv with Rambam. ... The contrast is remarkable!"

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  12. I just read that chapter of Moreh Nevuchim again. I see the chukim similar to traffic lights. The color of the traffic light has no intrinsic meaning. There is no reason why red can't mean go and green can't mean stop. If you didn't have the law saying red means stop and green means go, traffic lights would have no use.

    Similarly, with chukim. If Hashem didn't command them, they would be meaningless.

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