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Shiur #21: The Mitzvot (Part III)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     The main ramification of the distinction between rational and received laws relates to the reasons for the commandments. This is an interesting and complex issue and it fits in well with R.YehudaHalevi's overall outlook.


I will relate separately to the rational and the received mitzvot, and I hope to provide an understanding of Rihal's approach to the reasons for these two sets of commandments.




     We saw in the previous lecture that the rational mitzvot, which include the social laws, are rooted in reason, and they are necessary for anyone who wishes to live a proper life on both the individual and the societal levels. We have already noted that in light of this assertion, it would seem that the Torah's rational mitzvot introduce nothing new into the world; since we are dealing with actions that are dictated by reason, anyone who employs his intellect can attain them and establish a legal code that includes them all. The same is true about Israel, for whom this category of mitzvot also includes the recognition of God. The rational mitzvoth are actions that follow directly from the revelation of God's Shekhina at Mount Sinai, and they are dictated by reason for all descendants of those who witnessed that revelation.


The truth, however, is that what we have said here is imprecise, and that Rihal has reservations about such a sweeping assertion. This is the way he formulates the matter:


The Rabbi: The social and rational laws are those generally known. The Divine ones, however, which were added in order that they should exist in the people of the "Living God" who guides them, were not known until they were explained in detail by Him. Even those social and rational laws are not quite known, and though one might know the gist of them, their scope remains unknown. We know that the giving of comfort and the feeling of gratitude are as incumbent on us as is chastening of the soul by means of fasting and meekness; we also know that deceit, immoderate intercourse with women, and cohabitation with relatives are abominable; that honoring parents is a duty, etc. The limitation of all these things to the amount of general usefulness is God's. (III, 7)


     Here Rihal retreats from his fundamental argument that there is no novelty in the rational mitzvot and that human beings could have arrived at them through their rational faculties. Indeed, their content is clear and subject to human understanding, but their scope and degree is not known to man, but only to God.


     This retreat results in reservations not only about the reasons for the rational mitzvot, but also about the very assertion that it is in the power of non-believers to reach the summit of natural existence. If rational mitzvot allow society to exist in the most perfect natural manner (as we saw in the praise that Rihal heaps upon the philosophers for their establishment of the social laws), but the precise knowledge regarding their scope and thus their most perfect impact on man is limited to God alone, and this knowledge is provided by the Torah – then a non-Jew has no possibility of reaching perfection on the natural level unless he studies the rational laws through the Torah, and not by way of reason. Furthermore, according to what is stated here, the measures that the Torah gives for the rational mitzvot are relevant for all the nations of the world, and that certainly is a far-reaching novelty!


     It seems to me that we have no choice but to invoke the distinction made in the previous lecture between a Jew and a non-Jew even on the natural level. The fact that a Jew bears the unique Divine essence and descends from someone who had been present at the revelation at Mount Sinai raises the level of comprehension that he can reach through his intellect.


     The specific measures of the rational mitzvot are meant to bring the Jew to his most perfect natural existence, which includes, as we saw in the previous lecture, a stratum relating to the relationship between him and God. For the Jew, we are dealing not merely with social laws, but with the ideas that he attained in the wake of his unique essence and the revelation at Mount Sinai.


     For this reason, as we saw in the previous lecture, the rational commandments include, in the case of a Jew, the obligation to recognize God and express thanksgiving toward Him. For this reason, they include, in a certain sense, prayer, Shabbat and festivals, which are mentioned as falling into the category of rational mitzvot for the pious man, the Jew alone.


     It seems to me that this is also the way to understand the Rabbi's words regarding the scope and measures of the commandments with respect to theft, murder, and fraud - they relate solely to Israel. The company of thieves, which according to Rihal also needs the prohibitions of theft, murder and fraud, does not need these measures. According to this approach, the rational mitzvot that appear in the Torah are relevant only to Israel, and they bring Israel to the highest level of natural existence that is unique to them. This is before they come to the received mitzvot,which are directed at attaining the Divine level.




     As we saw already in lecture no. 19, Rihal asserts that "in the service of God there is no arguing, reasoning, and debating" (I, 99). In lecture no. 20, we saw that he applies this principle to the received mitzvot, which belong to the Divine stratum of the Jew.


     When we discuss the received mitzvot that are not dictated by reason, it is possible to offer three fundamental definitions:


1)   Mitzvot that reason does not dictate, but after they have already been given, it is possible to understand the logic underlying them.

2)   Mitzvot that reason does not dictate, and even after they have been received, they remain utterly incomprehensible.

3)   Mitzvot that not only are not dictated by reason, but are rejected by reason.


I wish to emphasize that these are not merely formal definitions. Each of these formulations has a direct impact on the religious experience of the one who fulfills these mitzvot. One cannot compare the experience of one who fulfills mitzvot based on understanding to one who fulfills them lacking any rational approach toward them. And neither of them can be compared to one who fulfills them with the feeling that we are dealing with conduct that goes against reason. Rihal himself seems to go back and forth between these three formulations.


On the one hand, we see that Rihal adopts the most radical formulation among the three, and in the continuation of the passage cited above regarding Divine guidance with respect to the scope and measure of the rational mitzvot, he asserts:


Human reason is out of place in matters of Divine action, on account of its incapacity to grasp them. More than this, reason pushes them away, and only obeys them, as a sick person who must obey the physician in applying his medicines and advice. Consider how little circumcision has to do with philosophy, and how small is its social influence. Yet Abraham, in spite of the hardship the very nature of this command must have seemed at his age, subjected his person and children to it, and it became the sign of the covenant, of the attachment of the Divine influence to him, as it is written: "And I will establish My covenant between me and you and your seed after them in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto you" (Bereishit 17:7). (III, 7)


     In this passage, Rihal opens with the intermediate formulation, and immediately moves on to the radical formulation. Not only does human reason have no understanding of these things, but in many cases it rejects them. The example that Rihal offers is circumcision. In this sense, someone who observes mitzvot is like a person who takes a medicine without understanding how it works, and whose faith in doing so stems from the experience that taking the medicine leads to positive results.


     Rihal compares the lack of understanding of received mitzvot to the very issue of revelation:


Through this they received the advantage of the Divine Influence, without knowing how it came to pass that the "Glory of God"' descended upon them, and that "the fire of God" consumed their offerings; how they heard the allocution of the Lord; and how their history developed. These are matters which reason would refuse to believe if they were not guaranteed by irrefutable evidence. (II, 48)


     The revelation at Mount Sinai is counted among those things that reason rejects; but just as it is impossible to deny, inasmuch as it was seen with Israel's eyes, which gives it the force of rational proof, it is also impossible to deny the fact that the received mitzvot have an impact, even if reason rejects them.


     It seems to me, however, that the comparison that Rihal draws here is not total, and that he merely wishes to offer an example of something that, despite our lack of understanding, is effective. I do not believe that he sees the contradiction between logic and the mitzva of circumcision as being as strong as the contradiction between the issue of the personification of God and the account of the revelation.


     The formulation that Rihal adopts to describe the contradiction between the personification of God and revelation is "Heaven forbid that I should assume what is against sense and reason" (I, 89). The formulation that Rihal adopts regarding circumcision is far less extreme.


     It is perhaps for this reason that Rihal labors to resolve the contradiction between the issue of the personification of God and the matter of the revelation, even though he is not certain that the explanation that he offers is the true explanation; he has no doubt that such an explanation exists. In contrast, regarding circumcision, he makes no effort to explain the contradiction between the intellect and the received mitzva of circumcision. It seems to me that Rihal does not feel the force of the contradiction and therefore does not find it necessary to pacify himself and the reader.


     This distinction also stands to reason in light of other formulations that Rihal uses regarding the received mitzvot, including the mitzva of circumcision that is mentioned here.


What has he, who fails in this respect, to do with offerings, Sabbath, circumcision, etc., which reason neither demands, nor rejects? These are, however, the ordinations especially given to Israel as a corollary to the rational laws. Through this they received the advantage of the Divine influence. (II, 48)


     These commandments, reason neither demands, nor rejects. Without the moderating explanation proposed above, there is a contradiction in Rihal's words, at least with respect to circumcision. Does reason push these mitzvot away or does it merely not demand, but also does not reject?


     In light of our explanation, the both can be said at one and the same time. Reason pushes these things away, but it does not reject them in such a manner that makes it impossible for the two to live alongside each other.


     In order to illustrate this complex position, that on the one hand reason distances these mitzvot, but on the other hand it does not reject them, let us return to the example that Rihal himself uses to explain the principle that there are certain actions that we do even though we fail to understand their significance because they have an impact beyond our comprehension.


Suppose you have heard nothing of cohabitation and its consequences, but you feel yourself attracted by the lowest of female organs. If you consider the degradation of a woman's surrender, or the ignominy of surrendering to a woman, you would say wonderingly: this is as vain as it is absurd. But when you see a being like yourself born of a woman, then you marvel and notice that you are one of the preservers of mankind created by God to inhabit the earth. It is the same with religious actions fixed by God. You slaughter a lamb and smear yourself with its blood, in skinning it, cleaning its entrails, washing, dismembering it and sprinkling its blood. Then you arrange the wood, kindle the fire, placing the body on it. If this were not done in consequence of a Divine command, you would think little of all these actions and believe that they estrange you from God rather than bring you near to Him. But as soon as the whole is properly accomplished, and you see the Divine fire, or notice in yourself a new spirit, unknown before, or see true visions and great apparitions, you are aware that this is the fruit of the preceding actions, as well as of the great influence with which you have come in contact. (III, 53)


     The act of sexual intercourse does not outright contradict reason, just as occupation with the entrails of a sheep and its blood does not absolutely contradict logic, though we are dealing with actions that human reason pushes away and at times even recoils from and despises. The force of these actions is therefore not in the logic that stands behind them, which we do not have the capacity to understand, but in the impact that they have and in the prosperity that rests on those who perform them.


     We could have ended here were it not for the fact that we find that Rihal deviates from this fundamental assertion and tries to provide reasons not only for the rational mitzvot, but for the received mitzvot as well.


1)   Regarding Shabbat:

We have already seen that Rihal explains the reason for Shabbat in the framework of the natural service of the pious man, together with prayer and the festivals. We noted the fact that Rihal relates to the rational aspect of Shabbat (III, 5) regarding rest, and we therefore need not see it as a deviation. He even expands upon this idea in the continuation:


The Khazar king: I have often reflected about you and come to the conclusion that God has some secret design in preserving you, and that He appointed the Sabbath and holy days among the strongest means of preserving your strength and luster. The nations broke you up and made you their servants on account of your intelligence and purity. They would even have made you their warriors were it not for those festive seasons observed by you with so much conscientiousness, because they originate with God, and are based on such causes as "Remembrance of the Creation," "Remembrance of the exodus from Egypt," and "Remembrance of the giving of the Law." These are all Divine commands, to observe which you are charged. Had these not been, not one of you would put on a clean garment; you would hold no congregation to remember the law, on account of your everlasting affliction and degradation. Had these not been, you would not enjoy a single day in your lives. Now, however, you are allowed to spend the sixth part of life in rest of body and soul. Even kings are unable to do likewise, as their souls have no respite on their days of rest. If the smallest business calls them on that day to work and stir, they must move and stir, complete rest being denied to them. Had these laws not been, your toil would benefit others, because it would become their prey. Whatever you spend on these days is your profit for this life and the next, because it is spent for the glory of God. (III, 10)


     In these words Rihal applies the well-known principle that more than Israel kept Shabbat in the exile, Shabbat kept Israel. This is not necessarily a deviation, for we may not be dealing with a reason, but rather with a result. We find, however, yet another reason regarding Shabbat:


The observance of the Sabbath is itself an acknowledgment of His omnipotence, and at the same time an acknowledgment of the creation by the Divine word. He who observes the Sabbath because the work of creation was finished on it acknowledges the creation itself. He who believes in the creation believes in the Creator. He, however, who does not believe in it falls a prey to doubts of God's eternity and to doubts of the existence of the world's Creator. The observance of the Sabbath is therefore nearer to God than monastic retirement and asceticism. (II, 50)


     With this reason, Rihal goes beyond his classic position, and he even uses a method that is amazingly similar to the spiritualization of the mitzvot found in the Rambam's writings. The mitzva of Shabbatis understood here as an educational mitzva. The action itself is liable to be understood in such a presentation as lacking value, the main point being the principles that man learns from performing this action. It seems to me that we are discussing a deviation, and later I will try to explain this and similar deviations.


2)   Regarding Tefillin


He wears the phylacteries on his head on the seat of the mind and memory, the straps falling down on his hand, where he can see them at leisure. The hand phylactery he wears above the mainspring of his faculties, the heart. He wears the tzitzit lest he be entrapped by worldly thoughts, as it is written: "That you may not go astray after your heart and after your eyes" (Bamidbar 15:39). (III, 11)


3.   Other mitzvot:


Rihal relates to several mitzvot the reasons for which are known, but whose scope is not known. These might be considered rational mitzvot, to which Rihal applied this rule, as we already saw, but it is possible that at least some of them fall into the category of received mitzvot that he nevertheless provides a reason for:


Forbidden mixtures, terefot, physical blemishes, zivot: The distinction between different plants, different animals, between an animal that is about to die and an animal that is not about to die. "Man is not able to determine these matters by reflection alone, without Divine assistance" (II, 64).


     Charity and ma'asrot: "It is, however, the duty of the individual to bear hardships, or even death, for the sake of the welfare of the commonwealth. He must particularly be careful to contribute his 'portion of the whole,' without fail. Since ordinary speculation did not institute this, God prescribed it in tithes, gifts, and offerings, etc., as a 'portion of the whole' of worldly property" (III, 19).


Regarding ritual purity and impurity: He explains that the ritual impurity of a leper and of a zav and zava are connected to death, as is the ritual impurity caused by seminal emission. Here, however the explanation is preceded by an apology:


I told you that there is no comparison to be made between our intelligence and the Divine influence, and it is proper that we leave the cause of these important things unexamined. I take, however, the liberty of stating… (II, 60)


     This apology is of great importance, first, because it puts all the explanations into a "be-di'eved" framework, and second, because it emphasizes Rihal's refraining from coming to a clear statement. That is to say, providing a reason is meant to satisfy reason and the intellect, but since we are dealing with something Divine, Rihal emphasizes that his ideas are solely conjecture. He adopts the same approach here as he had adopted in his attempt to explain the contradictions in the theological realm between the intellect and the Torah regarding revelation, prophecy and the like.


     This issue is best explained in Rihal's comments regarding sacrifices.


4)   Regarding sacrifices:

Rihal tries to give a detailed and systematic explanation for the entire service in the Mishkan (the fire and the fat; the significance of the burnt-offering altar – the revealed fire - and the incense altar – the concealed fire; the menora – wisdom and understanding, the table – material bounty; the ark and the keruvim, and the rest of the vessels; the order in which they were carried, etc.). But at the end of the passage, he once again offers an apology, and this time he explains why he is giving an explanation:


I do not, by any means, assert that the service was instituted in the order expounded by me, since it entailed something more secret and higher, and was based on a Divine law. He who accepts this completely without scrutiny or argument is better off than he who investigates and analyses. He, however, who steps down from the highest grade to scrutiny, does well to turn his face to the latent wisdom, instead of leading it to evil opinions and doubts which lead to corruption. (II, 26)


     Once again, Rihal emphasizes that the explanation that he proposes is just an option, and not binding. Moreover, Rihal once again emphasizes that we are dealing with hidden Divine wisdom that is above any human reason. Since we are dealing with God's Torah, one who accepts it without argument is better off than one who investigates it.


Follow not, therefore, your own taste and opinion in religious questions, lest they throw you into doubts, which lead to heresy. (III, 49)


     This assertion pulls the rug out from under all those who give reasons for the commandments, and especially for the received commandments. The ideal person is one who simply accepts them out of recognition that they are rooted in God's wisdom, to which human reason has no access. But Rihal lives among his people and he knows that many "stepped down from the highest grade to scrutiny." For such people, it is better that they be provided reasons than that they abandon the mitzvot for evil opinions and doubts.[1]


     What Rihal says here is similar to his method regarding questions in the theological realm. All of the medieval thinkers who try to explain the revelation and the prophetic vision by way of the "Divine glory" and the creation of the word  do so, according to Rihal, be-di'eved, and out of recognition that an explanation altogether different from that which had been proposed is possible. This should be done, according to Rihal, only in order to prevent someone who enters the field of the intellect, where all standards for truth and falsehood pass through logic and reason, from stumbling, and to provide him with a life rope, so that he should be able to hold onto the world of faith and the mitzvot, despite his submission to human reason and intellect.


     With these words, Rihal shifts the weight away from the reasons for the mitzvot.


     It should be noted at this point that other thinkers have similarly moved away from the reasons for the commandments, but for different reasons.


     This is what YeshayahuLeibowitz did when he shifted the focus from meaning to obedience. His position is so sweeping that even mitzvot with clear substance and meaning, such as prayer, are left out of the realm of meaning and reason.


     This approach is totally different than that of Rihal, as it assumes that it is impossible for a religious act to have any impact on God. This underlying assumption leads to the conclusion that the mitzvot are meant to bestow upon man the status of one who is commanded and one who accepts the yoke of heaven. All of Rihal's efforts are directed at establishing that the religious act is what makes the resting of the Divine influence possible, and that the Divine influence, as Rihal repeatedly states, waits for the religious act to be performed so that it can rest upon the performer.


     Rihal, as we have seen, is not afraid to say that human action impacts upon the Divine; he even sees the natural world as confirming this argument. Rihal removes meaning and reason from the religious act, or at least from some religious acts, not in the essential sense, but from the perspective of man.


Both Rihal and YeshayahuLeibowitz give absolute force to the religious act with all its details. Leibowitz does this through the command – this is what God commands and therefore I am obligated to the command with all its details. Rihal does this through the recognition that every detail has a role in the framework of preparing a person to receive the Divine influence.


Both Rihal and Leibowitz stand in opposition to the Rambam and Rabbenu Sa'adya Gaon, who maintain that the mitzvot are full of content and meaning, but a deep chasm separates between them.


Leibowitz faces the mitzvot with a vacuum of arbitrariness standing before him; that vacuum is only filled through the force of the command and the acceptance of authority. For Rihal, the vacuum created by the removal of reason and content is not at all arbitrary; it is rather filled with humility, faith, and innocence that cast the content and meaning of the religious act toward God.


(Translated by DavidStrauss)



[1] Already in the previous apology regarding ritual purity and impurity, Rihal alludes to this idea in the words that he puts into the Khazar king's mouth: "Your explanation suffices for the uncertainty that arose in my soul" (II, 61). Had the uncertainty not arisen, there would have been no need for the explanation and reason.