Shiur #20: Are There Reasons for the Commandments?

  • Rav Chaim Navon


A good portion of Book III of the Guide is devoted to the question of the reasons for the mitzvot. We shall look at some of what the Rambam writes on this topic in chapter twenty-six and in chapter thirty-one.


The Rambam introduces the discussion in chapter twenty-six by presenting a fundamental dilemma in religious thought: does God act out of wisdom? This dilemma has arisen over and over again since the time of Plato, who presented it in the following manner in his dialogue Euthyphro:


Socrates: Consider, if you will, this question: is piousness beloved because it is piousness, or is it because it is beloved that it is piousness?


Euthyphro: Socrates, I do not fully understand you.


Socrates: I shall try to state it more clearly…


Socrates: What, then, shall we say concerning piousness, Euthyphro? All the gods then love it, according to what you are saying.


Euthyphro: Yes.


Socrates: Is that because it is piousness, or for some other reason?


Euthyphro: For that reason.


Socrates: If so, the gods love piousness because it is piousness. It is not that it is piousness because the gods love it." (Euthyphro 10a)


Plato raises a fundamental question here: does a religious world-view leave room for morality and goodness as an independent yardstick? Plato formulates the question thus: does God seek goodness because it is “objectively” good, or do we refer to as “good” whatever God wants? Do good and evil have any independent status, unrelated to God's position on them, such that God prefers that which is good? Or is there actually no such independent concept as “goodness,” such that the word 'good' actually means “that which God has chosen” for His own arbitrary reasons? According to the second possibility, there is no essential difference between charity and murder; neither of these actions is in itself either “good” or “bad.” The difference between them is simply that God desires charity and hates murder, but by the same token He could have preferred things the opposite way around.


Many, many generations later, the same dilemma was formulated as follows in the words of Rav Charlap (as quoted in Malki Ba-kodesh Responsa 4, p. 80):


Does the verse asserting [of the Torah], "Its ways are ways of pleasantness" (Mishlei 3:17), mean that the ways themselves are, by definition, pleasantness and truth, peace and tranquility, but our human consciousness does not perceive their value, so God revealed them to us? Or does it mean that their pleasantness and sweetness is the consequence of our having been commanded in them?


It is not a simple question to answer. On one hand, from a religious perspective it is difficult to assert that there is an objective, universal “good” that is not dependent on God's will, since this would imply that God is subservient, so to speak, to laws of morality. On the other hand, it is equally problematic to suggest that there is no objective system of good and evil, and that God commands us one way or the other arbitrarily. While both approaches exist in Christianity as well as in Islam, it is difficult to find Jewish philosophers who have claimed that there is no good and evil except for God's will.[1] 


Why is the tendency in Jewish thought to assume that there is an objective good, despite the theological questions that this position raises? Perhaps because as early as Sefer Bereishit we find an unequivocal position in this regard, expressed by Avraham in his argument with God:


God said: “The cry of Sedom and Amora is great, and because their sin is exceedingly grave, I will go down now and see if they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which has come to Me; and if not, I shall know it”… And Avraham drew near and said: “Will You then destroy the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous people within the city – will You still destroy, and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in its midst? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to kill the righteous together with the wicked, such that the righteous will be like the wicked. Far be it from You; shall the Judge of all the earth not perform justice?” And God said, “If I find in Sedom fifty righteous people, within the city, I shall spare the entire place for their sake." (Bereishit 18:20-26)


Avraham's argument is clearly based on the assumption that God operates in accordance with moral standards – and that these moral standards are comprehensible to human beings. One might have thought that absolute good and evil do exist but that man is incapable of comprehending them. But Avraham rejects even this idea. He approaches God with a moral demand: shall the Judge of all the Earth not perform justice?! And God does not rebuke or silence him, but rather accepts his argument. It would appear that this is the foundation of the Jewish view which accepts the existence of an absolute standard of good and evil, and rejects the idea that these concepts are established arbitrarily by God.


In his discussion in chapter twenty-six, the Rambam sides strongly with the position we have presented above as the commonly held Jewish view. It would appear that he tended towards this view not only for religious reasons, but also as a philosophical conclusion. (Of course, the Rambam himself would deny any distinction between religion and philosophy; for him they were one and the same.) The philosophical God, Who is perfect intellect, cannot be posited as operating in an arbitrary fashion. His greatness is expressed in action which is absolutely logical and insightful.


However, even if we adopt his view, there is still room to discuss the question of the reason for the mitzvot. There is room to suggest that God acted with wisdom in commanding the mitzvot, but that at the same time it is the system as a whole that is important, rather than the specific content of each mitzva. In other words, one might argue that there is logic and reason for us to be given commandments whereby we can serve God, but there is no reason or logic in one or another particular mitzva. Instead of the mitzva of tefillin, God could have commanded us to perform thirty push-ups every morning; the main point is the fulfillment of God's will.


To illustrate this idea, we might consider the military framework in which recruits are taught to salute their commanders in a very precise manner. In truth, there is no real importance in the detail of whether a salute is performed with the right hand or the left. However, this does not suggest that teaching soldiers to salute is a meaningless whim. The obligation to salute in the precise regulatory manner inculcates obedience to army orders and respect for commanders. The manner of the salute is not an end in itself, but it is important that the army choose some particular technique for saluting, and then observe and enforce it very strictly. It is possible to understand the system of mitzvot in the same way: the mitzvot educate a person to obey God and to fear Him, even if there is no specific, exact meaning for each mitzva. Some scholars have applied this interpretation to the teaching of the Yefeh To’ar on the Midrash:


If you see mitzvot whose reason makes no sense, such as the requirement that ritual slaughter be from the throat rather than from the back of the neck, then know that God's word is pure, and it is meant to purify us, and to test whether we will obey Him or not, and to provide reward for those who observe His word, so as to offer a shield for all who take refuge in Him. For even the commandments that have no logical reason, have a reason that accompanies them: for God commanded them in order that we might cleave to Him, and always remember that it is God Who commands and order that they be fulfilled." (Yefeh To’ar on Bereishit Rabba 44,1)


The scope of this assertion is not clear. Does this mean that all the mitzvot lack individual reasons and logic, or only some – and if only some, then which? Either way, the more widely accepted Jewish view maintains that the mitzvot also have their own individual reasons and logic, aside from the general logic of the system of mitzvot as a whole, the concept of obedience to God. The Rambam was a firm supporter of this view. He maintained that the fact of God's supreme wisdom demands that we assume that all His words and all His commandments are likewise expressions of supreme wisdom. In chapter thirty-one, the Rambam launches a fierce attack on those who deny reasons for the specific mitzvot:


There are people who find it difficult to suggest a reason for any of the commandments, and consider it proper to assume that the commandments and prohibitions have no rational basis whatever. They are led to adopt this theory by a certain disease which affects their soul, 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 verse, "for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day" (Devarim 6:24). Likewise the verse, "which shall hear all those statutes (chukkim), and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (Devarim 4:6). This tells us 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 regarded as so wise, reasonable, and excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations?


The truth must therefore undoubtedly be 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. (Guide, III:31)


The Rambam explains that people hesitate to offer reasons for the mitzvot because laws that are logical and manifestly meaningful appear to them too simple, too human, to attribute to God. In response, the Rambam argues that mitzvot that are arbitrary would indeed be inhuman – but in the negative sense, meaning that they are below the level of man, rather than elevated far above it.


What does the Rambam mean when he asserts that "even every one of these ‘statutes’ convinces all nations of the wisdom and understanding it includes?” Rav Sa'adia Gaon explains that there are two types of mitzvot. Some are required by reason; others are given through Revelation. Concerning the latter category, he asserts:


The human intellect does not necessarily love these [commanded] things in themselves, nor hate these [prohibited] things in themselves. God added these commandments and prohibitions in order to increase our reward and our rejoicing in them.


Nevertheless, even concerning those mitzvot whose reason is not clearly apparent to us and whose obligation is based only on Revelation and not logic, he agrees:


It cannot be that they do not possess a certain supreme insight and some logical reason (Emunot Ve-de'ot, ma'amar 3, 1).


Even when it comes to chukkim – the laws that we must obey simply because we are so commanded – it is possible to find some faint particular reason for each one. Generally speaking, however, the essence of these laws is the fact of obedience to God, with no particular importance attached to the specific logic of each one of them.


The Rambam opposes this distinction, suggesting a different way of looking at the system of mitzvot. Instead of "rational" and "Revelatory" laws, he proposes distinguishing between "mishpatim" – i.e., commandments whose reasons are manifest, and "chukkim" – commandments whose reasons are unintelligible to us. (This terminology is employed already by Chazal.) Rashi understands "chukkim" as laws that have no independent reason: "Chukkim – these are statutes of the King; they have no explanation" (Rashi on Vayikra 19:19). The Rambam, in contrast, emphasizes that "chukkim," too, express Divine wisdom and insight; it is simply harder for the human intellect to understand their significance, but we must make the effort:


Even though all the chukkim of the Torah are decrees, as we explained at the end of the Laws of Me'ila, it is appropriate to analyze them, and wherever a reason can be given for them, it should be given." (“Laws of Transfer,” 4:13)


It is proper that man meditate upon the laws of the holy Torah and to comprehend their full meaning to the extent of his ability. Nevertheless, a law for which he finds no reason and understands no cause should not be trivial in his eyes. Let him not “break through to come up against the Lord, lest the Lord break forth upon him” (Shemot 19:24). Nor should his thoughts concerning these things be like his thoughts concerning profane matters… For the Torah teaches: "Therefore shall you observe all My statutes, and all My judgments, and perform them" (Vayikra 19:37). The Sages said: [This means,] to make the observance and performance of the statutes like that of the judgments. “Performing” is that which is known, namely, that he should perform statutes. And “observing” means being watchful in their regard, and not imagining that they are inferior to the judgments. (Rambam, Hilkhot Me'ila, 8:8)


Prof. Yitzchak Twersky views this excerpt as a great and innovative teaching of the Rambam. In general, we speak of the danger of neglect of mitzvot as a result of philosophical understanding: there is a fear that once a philosophically-minded person understands the conceptual purpose of a mitzva, he will no longer see any need to perform it, since he has already arrived at the perception and understanding of its Divine purpose, even without the practical observance. Here, the Rambam addresses the opposite danger: a neglect of the mitzvot owing to a lack of understanding of their reasons.[2] In his great faith in the power of intellect and logic, the Rambam believes that an understanding of the reasons for the mitzvot will strengthen a person's commitment to their observance.


While adamantly opposing the view that the particular mitzvot have no reasons, he does express the view that the details of each mitzva have no importance in themselves, and are arbitrary:


Each commandment necessarily has a reason … but with regard to its details we hold that there is no ulterior object… The law that sacrifices should be brought is evidently of great use, as will be shown by us; but we cannot say why one offering should be a lamb, while another is a ram; and why a fixed number of them should be brought. Those who trouble themselves to find a cause for any of these detailed rules, are in my eyes void of sense: they do not remove any difficulties, but rather increase them. Those who believe that these detailed rules originate in a certain cause, are as far from the truth as those who assume that the whole law is useless. (Guide, III:26)


The commandments have reasons, but not the details of them. Why, then, it is necessary that the Torah formulate the mitzvot in such detail? If it makes no difference whether an ox or a lamb is sacrificed, why does the Torah not suffice with a general command, "Offer an animal?" According to the Rambam, it is with reference to these details that God is said to have given the commandments "in order to purify us." In other words, it is through observance of the details that the general purpose of fulfilling God's word is realized in an exact manner. It is essential that the commandments have details, formulated with precision, so as to educate a person towards discipline. The actual substance of the details, however, is of less importance.


The Maharal attacks the Rambam directly on this point:


There is certainly no basis to this interpretation, since concerning the entire Torah the verse says, “For what nation is there so great, that has statutes and judgments so righteous as all of this Torah” (Devarim 4:7-8). Furthermore, it says, “And you shall observe and perform them, for they are your wisdom and understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes…” (Devarim 4:6). Everything in the Torah – the general ideas and the details – everything is wisdom. It is not as he [the Rambam] thought, that there is no reason for the details, for otherwise it would not be a Torah of wisdom." (Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 7).


To a considerable degree this is an argument between rationalists and those who recognize the limitations of the human intellect and logic. To the degree that we rely on the intellect as a tool for understanding the reasons for the commandments, there will be a greater tendency to surrender the search for reasons for the details – for it is difficult to find a logical reason for them, or even to propose any sort of logical reason that might justify them.[3]


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  The Admor of Piaseczna does express himself in this spirit: "The nations of the world, even the good among them, think that truth is something that exists in its own right, and that God commands truth because the truth itself is true… This is not what Jews believe: ‘You, O Lord, are Truth.’ God is truth and there is no truth but Him, and every truth that exists in the world is only such because God so commanded and desired it, and since God is truth, therefore that too is true. It is forbidden to steal because God, Who is Truth, commanded thus. And because of God's true command, that [negation of stealing] also becomes true. And when God commands the opposite – that something declared ownerless by the Beit Din becomes ownerless – then that becomes truth: the property of the person in question is ownerless. And when God commanded Avraham to bind Yitzchak, his son, it was the truth to bind him, and had He not told him afterwards, 'Do not do him any harm' (Bereishit 22:12), it would have been true to slaughter him." (Aish Kodesh, p. 68) However, it would seem that the teachings of the Admor of Piaseczna cannot be severed from the context in which they were written. The horrors of the Holocaust confounded any attempt to explain God's actions – as he himself wrote further on in the same teaching: "The will of God is Truth and Justice, and even if we suffer, Heaven forefend, we do not question, Heaven forefend… We conclude that it is a troubling question, whose answer we do not understand, and it is above our comprehension. But there is no truth and justice other than what God wants, commands, and performs" (ibid., pp. 68-69).

[2] Y. Twersky, "Beirur Divrei Ha-Rambam Hilkhot Me'ila 8:8 Le-parashat Ta'amei Ha-mitzvot La-Rambam,” in A. Atkes and Y. Salmon (eds.), Perakim Le-toldot Ha-chevra Ha-Yehudit Bi-yemei Ha-beinayim U-va’et Ha-chadasha, Jerusalem 5740, pp. 30-33. A precise explanation of this excerpt is also given there.  

[3] Obviously, this generalization is not rigid, and there are many exceptions. One such exception is Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who – despite his rationalist approach – proposes reasons for many of the details of the mitzvot.