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Shiur #21: The Purpose of the Torah and the Reasons for the Mitzvot

  • Rav Chaim Navon


A.        Wholeness of Body and Wholeness of Spirit


In the previous shiur we saw the Rambam's firm view that there are reasons for all of the mitzvot. We may now go on to ask: what kinds of reasons do they have? In chapter twenty-seven of Book III of the Guide, the Rambam starts analyzing this question. He introduces the chapter with an assertion concerning the purpose of the Torah:


The general object of the Torah is twofold: the wholeness (well-being, perfection) of the soul, and the wholeness of the body.


The well-being of the soul entails the acquisition of correct views, which – according to the Rambam – is the most supreme perfection to which a person can aspire. The perfection of the soul


certainly does not include any action or good conduct, but only knowledge, which is arrived at by speculation, or established by research.


This assertion is of great importance, and we shall discuss it in future chapters.


As to the perfection of the body, this entails maintaining human society in a state of optimal functioning, without conflict and hostility. The Torah seeks to achieve this "perfection of the body" through two complementary strategies: first, the setting down of proper and correct laws for social functioning; second, educating the individual towards harmonious cooperation with his fellow man.


Are these two aims – the perfection, or well-being, of the soul, and that of the body – equal in weight? Obviously not:


Of these two objects, the one, the well-being of the soul, or the communication of correct opinions, comes undoubtedly first in rank, but the other, the well-being of the body, the government of the state, and the establishment of the best possible relations among men, is anterior in nature and time. The latter object is required first; it is also treated [in the Torah] most carefully and most minutely, because the well-being of the soul can only be obtained after that of the body has been secured.


In the Rambam's view, perfection of the soul, through attainment of correct views, is man's most supreme aim. The perfection of the body is simply a tool for obtaining perfection of the soul. Nevertheless, the Torah addresses itself far more extensively to the perfection of the body – i.e., to proper and efficient social relations. Here the Rambam addresses a difficult question: if philosophical contemplation and profundity of insight are so important, then how is it that the Torah gives almost no attention to views and opinions, focusing much more intensively on practical guidance? We might suggest, in response, that perhaps inter-personal relations have a greater value than the Rambam thought. However, the Rambam's response was that the perfection of the body precedes – chronologically – perfection of the soul, and is a necessary condition for a productive life of study. Therefore, the Torah devotes its primary energies to achieving perfection of the body, without which no serious intellectual progress can be made.


B.        Are Tranquility and Rest Preconditions for Perfection?


Why did the Rambam maintain the view that "perfection of the body," or the functioning and well-being of society, is a necessary precondition for perfection of the soul? He explains as follows:


It is clear that the second and superior kind of perfection can only be attained when the first perfection has been acquired; for a person who is suffering from great hunger, thirst, heat, or cold, cannot grasp an idea even if communicated by others, much less can he arrive at it by his own reasoning. But when a person is in possession of the first perfection, then he may possibly acquire the second perfection, which is undoubtedly of a superior kind, and is alone the source of eternal life.


Here the Rambam adopts the Aristotelian idea that man is incapable of attaining lofty intellectual achievements in conditions of physical distress. Taking care of one's basic physical needs is a prerequisite for a life of study and contemplation. The sage, or philosopher, is therefore obliged to attend to the state of his society and environment. Only after these are in order, can he and his colleagues achieve wisdom.


This is somewhat reminiscent of the "hierarchy of needs" developed by the 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow argued that human needs may be presented in the form of a pyramid: the bottom level is occupied by the most fundamental physical needs, such as food, sleep etc. Only once these needs are met can a person proceed to take care of his needs on the next level – such as security, and so on. Maslow, like the Rambam, believed that if the "lower," more fundamental needs are unmet, one cannot move upwards to tackle the "higher" needs. However, the apex of Maslow's pyramid belongs to the category of "self-fulfillment," and here the Rambam would not have agreed.


In any event, the Rambam maintains that perfection of the soul cannot be achieved without perfection of the body. He expresses this idea elsewhere, too. In the ninth chapter of his “Laws of Repentance,” the Rambam discusses the World to Come. He asserts that it is only there that the reward for performance of mitzvot is given. But if this is so, he goes on to ask:


What is the meaning of what we find written throughout the Torah: If you obey, you will receive such-and-such, and if you do not obey, such-and-such will happen to you – and all of these consequences pertain to this world; for example, satiety or hunger, and war or peace, and Jewish sovereignty or debasement?


The reconcilement that he proposes is that a person who fulfills all the commandments will indeed earn all of this good fortune in this world – but not as a reward; rather, it is given to him in order to allow this righteous person to continue engaging in Divine service and the performance of God's will:


The Torah assures us that if we fulfill it with joy and pleasure and always act according to it, then all things such as illness, war, famine, etc., which could prevent us from doing so, will be removed; and all things such as satiety, peace, richness, etc., which will aid us in fulfilling the Torah, will be sent our way so that we will not have to occupy ourselves all day in [attending to] bodily needs, but will be free to sit all day, studying and gathering knowledge and fulfilling commandments, in order to merit life in the World To Come… for when someone is troubled in this world by illness, plague or hunger he does not busy himself with study or mitzvot, through which one merits life in the World To Come. (“Laws of Repentance” 9:1)


The Rambam goes on to explain that it is for this reason that the Jewish people longs for the Messianic period, "to be free of the monarchies that do not allow them to engage properly in Torah and practice of the commandments" (ibid., 9: 2). He also repeats the same idea in the two famous concluding laws of the Mishneh Torah:


The sages and the prophets did not long for the Messianic era so that they might rule over the whole world or have dominion over the pagans, nor in order to be exalted by the nations, nor in order that they might eat, drink and be merry; but rather only to be free to engage in the Torah and its wisdom, with no one to oppress and disturb them, so that they might merit the life of the World to Come, as we explained in the “Laws of Repentance.”


In that era there will be neither famine nor war, neither envy nor strife, for there will be an abundance of goodness, and all delights will be as common as dust. The entire world will be preoccupied solely with the aim of knowing G-d. The Jews will therefore be great sages and know hidden matters, and they will attain as great a knowledge of their Creator as a human is capable of, as it is said: “The earth shall be full with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the sea” (Yishayahu 11:9). (“Laws of Kings” 12:4-5)


The Rambam's assumption was that Divine service was dependent on peace of mind and the satisfaction of all of one's bodily needs (in moderation). When a person is preoccupied with matters of this world, "he does not busy himself with study or mitzvot."  His elaboration in the “Laws of Kings” hints at why he viewed the need for peace of mind regarding mundane needs as so important. It forms part of the dominant position occupied by the intellectual activity of the study of Torah and wisdom in the Rambam's world-view. Apparently, it is possible to give charity while one is preoccupied and concerned with everyday matters, but to be "great sages, knowing hidden matters, and attaining knowledge of their Creator" one has to have quiet and equanimity. Times of crisis, war, and troubles harm man's ability to engage profoundly and effectively in study. External troubles demand time, and – more importantly – they harm one's concentration. The Rambam writes over and over about the need to "be free" (in the sense of having time and availability) – i.e., to be able to devote minimal attention to this-worldly needs.[1] The mind of the scholar must be focused solely on the theoretical study in which he is engaged, without disturbances from external sources.


Our experience would seem to indicate that sometimes the situation is exactly the opposite of the Rambam's view. Historical experience shows that times of crisis have sometimes been characterized by intellectual developments far speedier and more impressive than those arising during times of peace and quiet. During quiet times, scholars tend to rest on their laurels, to chat with elderly colleagues at periodical conferences, and to ponder the world's problems with a general sense of interest. Times of crisis, in contrast, cause scholars to "gear up": they think faster and more intensively, spurring intellectual creativity.


The first area in which we see the result of this process is the scientific creativity that is needed in the practical sense, in order to address the crisis. The great progress in nuclear research during the Second World War arose from the critical need on the part of the Allies to develop an atom bomb before Nazi Germany did so. However, other areas of knowledge also receive a significant push specifically during times of difficulty. The First World War, for example, shook the world of European philosophy to its very foundations, leading to dramatic and far-reaching change. New, innovative, original ways of thinking arose and flourished, and German philosophy, which had been slowly decaying, was jolted back to life.[2]


The same applies, to a considerable extent, in the realm of literary creativity. The famous Jewish Austrian writer Stefan Zweig testifies that it was the experience of the First World War that prodded him out of the mediocrity in which he had been mired:


Today I know: Without all of my suffering in the war, out of feelings of identification and premonition, I would have remained the same writer that I had been prior to the war… Now, for the first time in my life, I felt that I was speaking in my own voice and in the voice of the times.[3]


Israeli author Amos Oz accepted this assumption and complained that an atmosphere that was too optimistic made things difficult for Israeli writers:


I think that the greatest creations in world literature were almost always created in twilight eras… Here in Israel, at this time… this time is not suited for the flourishing of great literature… the light in the Land of Israel right now is the light of noon, the light of mid-summer, the light of bright blue.


In the interests of historical accuracy it should be noted that Oz wrote this in 1972. Today, it seems, he is less optimistic concerning the "light in the Land of Israel."


The same idea that applies to the conditions prevailing in a period of history, applies also to one's personal living conditions. Let us leave aside for a moment the intellectual realm, and look at personal progress in general. Studies have shown that most of Britain's Prime Ministers, and a third of the Presidents of the United States, were orphaned of one of their parents by the age of sixteen. Winston Churchill even stated that "Famous men are usually the product of an unhappy childhood."[4]


A quick look at Jewish history likewise undermines the Rambam's view. During the 12th century, suffering terrible persecution, the Jews of Germany and France produced the extensive and revolutionary Tosafot literature; while preoccupied and suffering they produced works that guide us to this day. The sons and disciples of Rabbi Yitzchak Ze’ev of Brisk testified that his best shiurim and most profound insights came during times of trouble. They quoted him as saying that the best shiurim he ever delivered were in Vilna in 1940, while he was fleeing from the Nazis.[5]


Perhaps we might explain the Rambam's position by focusing on the nature of the intellectual activity to which he aspired. In the eyes of the Rambam, the most supreme perfection is represented not by a new and original creation, but rather by the revealing of an absolute, eternal truth. Nowhere do we find the Rambam encouraging creativity. He assumes that the absolute truth exists as a defined body of knowledge, a great quantity of which was already known to the sages of previous generations. A person must study the truth that is known to the Sages, and – to the extent that he is able – try to fill the gaps that are still unknown. For this sort of task there is no need for the creative energies that erupt in times of crisis; rather, one needs quiet and concentration. While crisis may encourage creativity, it is quiet that allows for focused study.


C.        The Purpose of the Torah and the Reasons for the Mitzvot


Let us return to our topic in the Guide. In chapter twenty-seven of Book III, we saw that the purpose of the Torah is to lead to perfection of the body and perfection of the soul, with the former meant to serve the latter. In chapter twenty-eight, the Rambam goes on to present a general sketch of how the various laws play their role in this overall system.


There are mitzvot which explicitly include the internalization of certain truths. When the Torah calls for faith in God's existence, the reason for this requirement is clear: it is a vital element in man's ultimate perfection. The Torah also

demands belief in certain truths, the belief in which is indispensable in regulating our social relations: such is the belief that God is angry with those who disobey Him, for it leads us to the fear and dread of disobedience [of His will].


The Rambam maintains that there are additional views which the Torah commands, and these are all the pure sciences, which are included in the commandment to "love God" (Devarim 11:13 and elsewhere), for love of God can be achieved, according to the Rambam, only through concentrated scientific contemplation of all of creation, which entails studying the various branches of science.


Thus, there are some kinds of mitzvot whose purpose is evident to all. First, there are mitzvot that inculcate certain knowledge or faith. Some of these are categorized by the Rambam as possessing supreme importance in their own right (such as faith in God's existence); others are important in terms of their influence on society (such as the faith that God punishes sinners). To these the Rambam adds those mitzvot which forbid oppression and injustice in society, and those which encourage a person to develop positive traits, which have a beneficial effect on society.


Concerning such commandments there is no occasion to ask for their object: for no one questions the reason why we have been commanded to believe that God is one; why we are forbidden to murder, to steal….


However, there are other commandments whose logic baffles us:


But there are precepts concerning which people are in doubt, and of divided opinions, some believing that they are mere commands, and serve no purpose whatever, whilst others believe that they serve a certain purpose, which, however, is unknown to man. Such are those precepts which in their literal meaning do not seem to further any of the three above-named results: to impart some truth, to teach some moral, or to remove injustice. […] Such are the prohibitions of sha'atnez [wearing garments containing wool and linen]; of sowing diverse seeds, or of cooking meat and milk together; the commandment of covering the blood [of slaughtered beasts and birds]; the ceremony of egla arufa [breaking the neck of a heifer, where a person is found slain, and the murderer is unknown]; the law concerning redemption of the first-born of a donkey, and the like.


There are commandments whose reasons are very difficult to understand. Some people have even concluded that they have no inherent reason at all; they are simply "requirements" that God institutes, with a view to educating us towards discipline. As we saw in the previous shiur, the Rambam rejects this approach outright. In his view, it is unthinkable that God would simply impose an arbitrary, meaningless law. God, the epitome and source and perfection of intellect and logic, does not operate in an arbitrary manner. The Rambam is willing to accede that there is no reason behind the specific details of the laws, and these are established arbitrarily (such as the law that a certain sacrifice must be a lamb, while a different category of sacrifice requires a goat), but the fundamental basis for all the commandments is one of reason and meaning:


All these and similar laws must have some bearing upon one of the following three things, viz., the regulation of our opinions, or the improvement of our social relations, which implies two things, the removal of injustice, and the teaching of good morals.


We will examine the Rambam's exposition on these commandments in the shiurim to come.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  See further: Hilkhot Dei'ot 4:1; Guide I:34, the Fifth Cause.

[2]  See, for example: S. H. Bergman, Toldot Ha-philosophia Ha-chadashaShitot Be-philosophia Shele-achar Kant, Jerusalem 5752, pp. 193-194.

[3] S. Zweig, The World of Yesterday (original title: Die Welt von Gestern; Stockholm, 1942) – autobiography.

[4]  Z. Giora, Ha-Dibbur Ha-achad Assar, Tel Aviv 2002, pp. 25-26.

[5]  Y. Hershkowitz, Torat Chayim al Seder Chamisha Chumshei Torah, Jerusalem 5765, Kuntres Limud Ha-Torah, p. 76.