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Shiur #28: Kindness, Righteousness and Justice: Is Supreme Perfection Reflected in Knowledge or in Moral Action?

  • Rav Chaim Navon


We will conclude our study of the Guide with an examination of a subject that occupies a central place in chapters fifty-three and fifty-four. In the next and final shiur we will present a summary of our journey through this wonderful work.


  1. Defining “Chessed,” “Mishpat,” and “Tzedaka


In chapter fifty-three of Book III, the Rambam comes back to the linguistic analysis that occupied such a central place in the first part of the Guide. In this chapter he clarifies the meaning of three concepts: "chessed,” “mishpat,” and "tzedaka.”


"Chessed” denotes an excess in some moral quality. The expression is used especially to denote extraordinary kindness.


In other words, "chessed" (kindness) means exceeding or going beyond that which is necessary or mandatory, in a positive sense. As an example, the Rambam writes that the creation of the world was an act of chessed on God's part, for the world was not "deserving" of being created. Here we have an example of a kindness whose object is not strictly worthy of it.


"Tzedaka" (righteousness) is derived from the word "tzedek" (justice), but there is a difference between them: justice means giving everyone what he deserves, while "tzedaka" is employed when a person's good nature causes him to help someone else, even when that person has no right to ask for help. Nevertheless, “tzedaka” also contains an element of "tzedek,” insofar as by performing "tzedaka" a person gives his soul what it deserves; he is performing justice (tzedek) with himself. A person who engages in tzedaka merits positive traits, and thereby refines his soul.


"Mishpat" means performing justice and acting justly towards another person, whether this involves mercy or punishment.


The Torah describes God with the attributes of justice (mishpat), righteousness (tzedaka), and kindness (chessed): "the Judge (shofet) of all the earth" (Bereishit 18:25); "Righteous (tzaddik) and upright" (Devarim 32:4); "full of kindness (rav chessed)" (Shemot 34:6). As discussed, the Rambam emphasizes in the first part of the Guide that these attributes do not describe God's essence, but rather His actions, and it is these that a person is commanded to imitate and emulate.


B.        The Perfections of Man


In chapter fifty-four, the final chapter of the Guide, the Rambam asserts that "the ancient and the modern philosophers have shown that man can acquire four kinds of perfection." He then goes on to examine these as follows:


  1. The perfection of property – i.e., the acquisition of money, garments, furniture, servants, land, etc. The Rambam gives the human situation short shrift and declares that this is the lowest kind of perfection, since


There is no close connection between this possession and its possessor; it is a perfectly imaginary relation when, on account of the great advantage a person derives from these possessions, he says, “this is my house,” “this is my servant,” “this is my money,” and “these are my hosts and armies.” For when he examines himself he will find that all these things are external, and their qualities are entirely independent of the possessor.


If a person becomes extremely wealthy, then his bank account changes,


but his own essence has not changed at all: even if these possessions remain his property throughout his lifetime, they do not bestow any sort of perfection on their owner. Moreover, such perfection is by nature transient.


  1. The second level of perfection pertains to "the shape, constitution, and form of man's body; the utmost evenness of temperaments, and the proper order and strength of his limbs." This is more closely bound up with man himself, but even this perfection should be viewed as a means rather than as an end, since it pertains not to man's special essence – his intellect – but rather only to his body. The Rambam reminds the reader that "even if a person possesses the greatest possible strength, he could not be as strong as a mule, much less can he be as strong as a lion or an elephant." This is clearly opposed to the "healthy body culture" of our own times; it is very important to maintain a healthy body through exercise and proper nutrition, but a healthy body cannot be the ultimate aim. It must serve a higher purpose.


  1. Perfection of character is a goal that the Rambam holds in esteem, and he maintains that this is the purpose of most of the commandments. Nevertheless, even this is not our ultimate purpose. Why?


Since all moral principles concern the relation of man to his neighbor, the perfection of man's moral principles is, as it were, given to man for the benefit of mankind. Imagine a person being alone, and having no connection whatsoever with any other person: all his good moral principles are at rest, they are not called into action, and they therefore give man no perfection at all. These principles are only necessary and useful when man comes in contact with others.


The Rambam is surely not saying that perfection of character is of no benefit to an excellent individual (but rather only to those who benefit from his goodness). Just one chapter previously he argued that one who acts righteously is performing justice (tzedek) with his own soul. What he seems to mean is that positive traits are necessary both for the person who acts on them and for those around him, but only because society exists. Since there are other people around us, generosity is a beneficial trait, which enhances both our own lives (advancing us on the way to the final perfection) and the lives of those in our environment (thereby creating a society that conducts itself well). However, if no other people existed, generosity would be altogether superfluous and would never find expression. Perfection of character is an essentially social trait, which can be manifest only within a social context. For this reason it cannot be the final and ultimate perfection.


  1.  Perfection of the intellect is, in the Rambam's view, the true perfection of man. This perfection is unique to man qua man, rather than as a member of the animal kingdom, and it pertains to man as an individual rather than to his social system. In particular the Rambam refers to intellectual knowledge in the realm of metaphysics.


The Rambam argues that the proper order of priorities is set forth by Yirmiyahu (9:22-23):


So says the Lord: Let the wise man not glory in his wisdom, nor the mighty man glory in his might; let the rich man not glory in his riches, but let him that glories, glory in this: that he understands and knows Me….


"Wisdom" here refers to exceptional character traits; "might" is perfection of the body; "riches" is perfection of property. A person should not glory in any of these, but rather only in "understanding and knowing God" – i.e., metaphysical knowledge, which is true intellectual perfection. The Rambam adds that even "the religious acts prescribed in the Torah, i.e., the various kinds of worship and the moral principles which benefit all people in their social dealings,” only serve the final purpose, which is metaphysical knowledge.


C.        God Performs Chessed, Mishpat, and Tzedaka


Here the Rambam reaches a most important point. He cites the end of the above verse from Yirmiyahu:


But let him that glories, glory in this: that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord Who performs kindness, justice and righteousness in the earth, for it is these that I desire, says the Lord.


The Rambam's close reading of the verse concludes that knowledge of God is acquired through recognition of His actions ("I am the Lord Who performs…"). This precise analysis sits well with the Rambam's general approach, which maintains that it is impossible to know God's essence; one can only observe His deeds. We also learn from the verse how to characterize God's actions in directing the world: they are acts of chessed, mishpat, and tzedaka. Through the study of physics – i.e., the laws of nature – one may come to know God's positive attributes. The verse also suggests that God operates in this manner "in the earth,” and that His Providence does not and will not abandon the world, as some "brazen" types may suggest. The conclusion, "for it is these that I desire,” tells us, according to the Rambam, that God wants us, too, to perform chessed, mishpat and tzedaka in the world, thereby emulating Him. He concludes:


The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, that the perfection in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired – as far as this is possible for man – the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their creation and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek chessed, mishpat and tzedaka, and thus to emulate the ways of God. We have explained this many times in this treatise.


This paragraph is most surprising. It is the final paragraph of content in the Guide, followed only by a general conclusion. And what the Rambam chooses to emphasize in this final paragraph is that moral behavior is the goal to which God seeks to orient man. Seemingly this would suggest that man's final and ultimate objective is not intellectual perfection; rather, his intellectual perfection should lead him to an awareness of God, at which point he seeks to emulate God through his actions, as his knowledge motivates him to do. The same message arises from the beginning of the chapter:


Our Sages further say, that [at the end of his life] man has first to render account concerning his knowledge of Torah, then concerning the acquisition of wisdom, and at last concerning the lessons derived by logical conclusions from the Torah, i.e., the lessons concerning his actions.


The recognition of God's actions in nature leads a person to emulate those actions through moral behavior. This implies that intellectual recognition serves moral perfection, which is the true ultimate purpose. But this is precisely the opposite of what we have learned in this very chapter: that the perfection of the intellect supersedes the perfection of character and moral behavior – as the Rambam asserts in many other places, too (for instance, in III:27 – "Clearly, This second perfection (perfection of the soul) certainly does not include any action or good conduct, but only knowledge.")


Commentators and scholars of the Rambam have offered two different solutions for this contradiction. One maintains that morality is not part of one’s personal perfection, but rather part of his social and political existence. A wise person bears a socio-political obligation; he must come back to the people to lead and guide them.[1] We have already discussed at length the Rambam’s position that political leaders must emulate God and His attributes; that the prophet, having achieved intellectual perfection, is meant to lead the nation; and that this is one of the differences between a prophet and a philosopher, the latter having no social commitment.


The other possibility is that the morality arising from knowledge of God at its most supreme stage is on a higher level than the morality that precedes this stage.[2] The morality that exists prior to attaining the highest possible perfection is inferior to intellectual knowledge, but for a person who has achieved the highest possible perfection, morality is superior to intellectual knowledge. Even scholars who maintain this approach have acknowledged that it is not altogether clear how the Rambam would explain the value of this morality, how it is different from the morality of the masses, and why it is superior to knowledge itself.[3]


David Hartman’s response to the contradiction recalls the subject of our previous shiur on the significance of Halakha. For those who attain truths, Halakha becomes transformed: it is no longer a means for attaining proper views, but rather a value in and of itself, of focused attention on God. In the same way, Hartman argues, morality too becomes a value in its own right for people who achieve this level. However, this explanation gives rise to a certain difficulty. The Rambam discusses explicitly the power of Halakha to lead a person to focus his thoughts on God. What does morality lead to? Obviously – to emulation of God. But why emulate Him? Is this an ultimate purpose? It is difficult to answer in the affirmative, since we have already seen that the Rambam views emulation of God only as a means to acquire information about the proper way to live, rather than as an end in itself. In the Rambam’s view, the goal is personal perfection which entails cleaving to God. How does emulation of God through moral actions fit in with this purpose? There is room to suggest that here the emulation of God, too, undergoes a transformation; it is no longer just a source of information, but rather a way of life. However, the matter requires further clarification.[4]


The conclusion of the Guide remains veiled and cryptic, like the work as a whole. Nevertheless, one message emerges very clearly: whether they are viewed as part of one’s personal perfection or as part of one’s obligation to society, moral conduct and social responsibility occupy a central place in the spiritual life of those who achieve the most supreme levels of perfection. The Rambam chooses to conclude his Guide with a call to these supreme individuals not to ignore their obligation towards members of the rest of society who have not yet achieved their level.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  See, for example, Shlomo Pines, Bein Machshevet Yisrael Le-Machshevet Ha-Amim, p. 162.

[2]  See, for example, Julius Guttmann, Ha-Philosophia Shel Ha-Yahadut, p. 164.

[3] See, for example, Julius Guttmann, Dat U-Mada, p. 97.

[4] This explanation also gives rise to another difficulty: from the Rambam’s words (at the beginning of the Guide, I:2) about the sin of the Tree of Knowledge it would seem, according to the conventional interpretation, that morality falls into the category of “a priori knowledge” (mefursamot), rather than acquired knowledge (muskalot) (see shiur 3). It is therefore difficult to argue that morality is a fundamental characteristic of God and an end in itself.