Shiur #28: Ta’amei Ha-Mitzvot (2)

  • Rav Assaf Bednarsh
Adapted by Leora Bednarsh
In the previous shiur, we analyzed a dispute between Rashi, on the one hand, and Rambam and Ramban, on the other, regarding whether there are reasons for the commandments. This dispute has several practical implications.
Intellectual Implication: To Study or Accept Blindly?
The first implication is in the intellectual realm of Torah study. Should we be investigating the logical basis of each mitzva as part of our study of the Torah? The Rambam (Hilkhot Me’ila 8:8) writes that it is fitting for one to investigate the laws of the holy Torah and to discern their final purpose in accordance with one's ability. Of course, he adds that if one cannot discern a logical motive for a certain commandment, one should not therefore reject or denigrate that commandment, but should relate to it with the utmost seriousness. Just because we do not understand the logic behind a certain commandment does not mean that God, in His infinite wisdom, does not have a logical basis for commanding.
In contrast, according to Rashi, who holds that mitzvot were not commanded for any rational reason, it would be meaningless to inquire as to the reasons for the mitzvot.
However, even if one were to admit that there were reasons for the commandments, one could hold that it is inappropriate to investigate those reasons. R. Yehuda Ha-Levi (Kuzari 2:26) writes that there are reasons for even the obscure commandments, such as the details of the sacrificial order, and he explains those reasons to the best of his abilities, but he concludes that one who accepts and fulfills the commandments on faith alone is actually greater than one who investigates the philosophical reasons behind the mitzvot. If someone feels the need to investigate philosophically, then it behooves him to learn properly and try to discern the actual reasons. But it would be better if he had never asked such questions in the first place. 
Support for R. Yehuda Ha-Levi’s position can be brought from a Talmudic passage (Sanhedrin 21b). Assuming that there are reasons for the mitzvot, the gemara asks why those reasons were not revealed to us. The gemara answers that the reasons for two mitzvot were revealed explicitly. The Torah commands a king not too marry too many wives, lest they lead his heart astray, and not to purchase too many horses, lest they lead the Jews back to Egyptian patronage. Shlomo Ha-Melech, the wisest of all men, concluded that he could safely marry many wives and amass a large cavalry without leading his heart astray or being drawn into the Egyptian orbit, and he was tragically mistaken. Perhaps for this reason, even if we were to assume that every mitzva in the Torah has a reason, one would be better off not investigating those reasons, lest one mistakenly conclude that those reasons do not apply and violate the Torah.
Psychological Implication: Motivation
The second implication of this dispute lies in the psychological realm. Mitzvot should be performed with intent.[1] But what should one's intention be when performing a mitzva? The Rambam discusses this issue in a celebrated passage in Shemoneh Perakim (ch. 6), his introduction to Tractate Avot, in which he analyzes an apparent contradiction between the view of the philosophers and that of the Talmudic Sages. The philosophers (i.e. Aristotle and his students) hold that it is ideal to possess a virtuous character, and thus to have no desire to do evil. According to the philosophers, one who desires to do evil but restrains himself is on a lower moral level than one whose personality is virtuous. Chazal, on the other hand, write that the strength of one's evil inclination is proportional to his spiritual level. Those who are morally advanced have a greater desire for sin, but manage to restrain themselves.[2] The heavenly reward for such restraint is greater than that of one who never desired to sin, as we are taught that the reward is proportional to the difficulty involved in refraining from sin.[3] The midrash teaches that one should not say, “I have no desire for forbidden food or clothing or sexual relations,” but rather should acknowledge his desire but refrain due to the commandment of his Father in Heaven.[4]
While the approaches of the philosophers and the Sages appear to be mutually exclusive, the Rambam explains that they are in fact not disagreeing. The Rabbis spoke here only of the chukim, those actions that would not have been prohibited without revelation and whose reasons we do not understand clearly. If we do not understand the reason for a particular prohibition, then regardless of whether it has a reason, we must refrain from it due to the divine command, and not any other irrelevant motivation. The philosophers, according to the Rambam, were discussing those moral commandments that even the philosophers consider binding, i.e., the mishpatim, whose reasons are clear and apparent. Both the philosophers and the Rabbis, according to the Rambam, would agree that one should not refrain from evils such as theft and murder as an exercise in restraint, but rather should purify his character so that he becomes a kind and unselfish person who is not even tempted to perform such evil deeds.
A similar idea is expressed by the Maharal (Gur Aryeh, Shemot 20:22). The Maharal wonders why the Torah commanded us to lend money to a pauper using the language, "if you lend money to your nation, to the pauper amongst you." Since we are in fact obligated to give money to the poor, why does the Torah describe it as an optional act and not use clear language of obligation? The Maharal explains that although we are commanded to be charitable towards the poor, one should not lend money to the poor because one is obligated to do so, but rather out of an inner desire that stems from a kind and generous heart. He finds support for this notion from a verse in Devarim (15:10) that commands us that we not feel bad in our hearts when we give to the poor. The Torah is emphasizing that charity should not be undertaken out of a feeling of religious obligation that contradicts our natural desires. Rather, one should perfect his character so that one naturally desires to help others.
R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg points out that we never recite a blessing before performing a mitzva bein adam le-chaveiro (between man and his fellow man). Why is this? R. Weinberg explains, based on the aforementioned Rambam, that if we were to recite the blessing of "Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us," we would then be performing the mitzva as a purely religious obligation. But in fact we are expected to perform the mitzvot between man and fellow man out of an inner feeling of caring and kindness. We should naturally desire to act kindly and justly and not have to be commanded to do so.[5]
According to this Maimonidean approach, if one performs the mishpatim out of the natural desires of a virtuous character, what makes them religious acts? How does one connect to God through their performance? According to the Rambam himself, the answer is clear. In the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot De’ot 1:5-6), the Rambam develops a doctrine of virtue ethics based on the commandment, "And you shall walk in His ways" (Devarim 28:9). We are commanded to develop a virtuous character as a fulfillment of the directive of walking in God's ways: Just as He is gracious, we must be gracious; just as He is merciful, we must be merciful. According to the Rambam, then, performance of the chukim is a religious act, because we are obeying the divine command even if we do not understand it, and performance of the mishpatim is religious because we are acting in a Godly way and training our characters to be God-like.
According to Rashi, however, it would be irreligious to perform these commandments out of a general virtuous inclination. Rashi would have us discount the opinion of the philosophers and generalize the statement of our Sages that commandments should be performed as acts of obedience to God and acceptance of the divine yoke – and for no other motivation.[6]
Many Chassidic sages have indeed adopted this approach. One early Chassidic thinker, R. Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, quotes the aforementioned midrash and concludes that even the mishpatim should be performed only out of a sense of obedience and subservience to God, and not because of their rational justification.[7] Similarly, it is told that R. Simcha Bunim of Peshischa once encountered a pauper whose poverty was so wretched that one's heart bled for him. He gave him an exceedingly generous donation, and then after the pauper was able to purchase his immediate needs, R. Simcha Bunim called him back and gave him another generous gift. R. Simcha Bunim explained that when he helped this pauper the first time, he was compelled to give charity; his conscience would not allow him to refuse the request. However, since his motivation was virtue and the pangs of conscience, he had not performed this mitzva out of pure motivation. Therefore, he called the pauper back once again, now that his conscience no longer bothered him, and gave him more money purely for the sake of fulfilling God's commandment to give charity. Fascinatingly, R. Simcha Bunim derived this approach from the exact same words the Maharal used to support the opposite approach. When the Torah commands a Jew not to feel bad in his heart when he gives charity, according to R. Simcha Bunim, the intention is that one should not give charity because one feels bad for the pauper's plight in one's heart, but rather only in order to fulfill the commandment of one's Creator.[8]
Practical Implication: Treatment of Gentiles
This philosophical dispute also has implications in the practical realm. Many commandments of the Torah refer specifically to a Jew's moral obligation towards his fellow Jew. How should a Jew treat his gentile neighbor? There may be no strict obligation to engage in a particular moral behavior towards gentiles in all times and places, but what is the right thing for a Jew to do under favorable circumstances?
This question may hinge on the fundamental dispute that we are examining. If the mitzvot of interpersonal behavior are arbitrary expressions of divine will and we are supposed to fulfill them as acts of blind obedience, it would be reasonable to conclude that if the Torah commanded us to treat a certain class of people in a certain fashion, then we should treat that class of people in such a fashion and not extrapolate. Just as we would not forbid fabrics other than those the Torah forbade to mix in our clothing and we would not forbid animal species other than those the Torah forbade us to consume, there is no reason to extend an arbitrary commandment beyond the exact circumstances in which it was commanded.
Rashi himself says precisely this in order to explain a perplexing passage in Sanhedrin (76b), which teaches that one who returns a lost object to a gentile commits an unforgivable sin.  What is wrong with returning a lost object to its gentile owner? Rashi explains that it is not the benefit to the gentile that is so problematic, but rather that one who returns a lost object to a gentile in the absence of a commandment to do so demonstrates that even when he returns lost objects to a Jew, he does so for rational, moral reasons and not in order to fulfill the command of his Creator. According to Rashi, not only is there no reason to extrapolate the Torah's moral obligations to gentiles, but it is irreligious to do so. A truly religious person would treat his fellow Jew kindly only because he was commanded to do so in the Torah, and therefore would have no basis for treating a gentile in such a fashion.
According to the approach of the Rambam, however, who maintains that our fulfillment of the commandments between man and his fellow man should ideally flow from virtuous character traits, it is hard to imagine how one could have character traits such as kindness, caring, and generosity only towards some people and not others. Of course, there may be circumstances under which, for various reasons, we may not act on our virtuous character towards certain people under certain circumstances. However, fundamentally, all else being equal, a virtuous person acts virtuously in all circumstances.
This is precisely the halakhic ruling of the Rambam regarding slaves (Hilkhot Avadim 9:8). The gemara rules that a master must share his own food and drink with his Jewish slave, and the Rambam writes that although there is no strict halakhic obligation, one should act this way towards his gentile slave as well. He adds that it is proper to speak kindly to a slave, without anger or shouting, to take care to avoid humiliating him even verbally, and to consider carefully his petitions or complaints. The Rambam explains that only idolaters act cruelly. Jews, under the educational influence of the laws of the Torah, are merciful to all. In this way, they emulate God Himself, Whose mercies extend to all of His creatures.
Likewise, the Rambam writes (Hilkhot Melakhim 10:12) that we must relate to a ger toshav, a gentile who observes the seven Noahide laws, with the same kindness and graciousness that we show our fellow Jew. Even with regard to idolatrous gentiles, although we are not required to treat them with extraordinary kindness, we are nonetheless obligated to visit their sick, bury their dead, and support their poor. The Talmud (Gittin 61a) tells us that we are obligated to do so because of the "ways of peace." The Rambam explains that the motivation of "ways of peace" is not to avoid antisemitism,[9] but rather because we are bidden to walk in the ways of the Torah and the ways of God. Those ways are peaceful ways, which include mercy and kindness towards all creatures.
The practical gulf between Rashi's stance and that of the Rambam is vast. According to Rashi, it would be irreligious to extend the Torah mandates of kindness to a gentile unless there was a particular technical reason to do so, whereas according to the Rambam, it would be irreligious not to extend them to the gentiles unless there were a particular countervailing factor which made it inappropriate.[10]
We have seen that the philosophical dispute between Rashi and the Rambam about ascribing reasons to the commandments has a number of implications. In the intellectual realm, they differ as to whether the obligation of Torah study includes philosophical investigations as to the reasons for the commandments. In the psychological-experiential realm, they dispute whether the proper motivation for performing those commandments whose reasons are apparent is natural feelings of goodness or obedience and subservience. This leads to a much deeper dispute about the nature of the religious experience – whether one becomes close to God only through subservience to Him, or also by emulating Him and becoming similar to Him. In the practical realm, Rashi and the Rambam disagree regarding how a religious Jew is supposed to relate to his gentile neighbor. Rashi holds that we are forbidden to act virtuously towards gentiles – not out of animosity towards gentiles but out of animosity towards virtue ethics – while the Rambam believes that a true servant of God acts virtuously towards all creatures, just as does God Himself.

[1] See Mishna Berura 60:7.
[2] See Sukka 52a.
[3] See end of Avot 5.
[4] Sifra, Kedoshim, perek 9.
[5] Responsa Sridei Eish volume 1 section 61 page 172 
[6] In the next section we will quote Rashi himself to this effect.
[7] Maor Va-Shemesh, Parashat Vayakhel
[8] Kol Mevaser, vol. 1, Parashat Re'eh, section 7; vol. 3, Tzedaka.
[9] See the commentaries of Rashba and Ritva on this gemara, and the commentary of Ri Corcos on Rambam, Hilkhot Matnot Aniyim 7:7.
[10] See Rambam, Hilkhot Gezeila Va-Aveida 11:6, who justifies the Torah's prohibition against returning a lost item to a gentile based on the fact that it is not actually beneficial to give resources to the wicked who would use them for evil purposes. According to the Rambam, we must explain why it is that with regard to charity the virtue of kindness outweighs the danger that the charity will support wickedness, but when it comes to returning a lost object the danger of supporting wickedness outweighs the virtue of kindness and sensitivity towards one who lost a precious object. One could attribute this difference to the difference between the suffering of a poor person who has nothing to eat versus that of a rich person who loses money, or to the different moral experience of encountering the needy face to face versus the abstract intellectual knowledge that every lost object has an owner who lost it. Alternatively, if we assume that the obligation to support the gentile poor only applies in the context of supporting Jewish poor, then the difference lies in the context. One who is engaged in supporting the Jewish poor would be acting cruelly if he turned down a needy gentile, but one who is not engaged in the returning of lost objects at all would merely be forgoing an opportunity to act kindly. See Kesef Mishneh, Hilkhot Melakhim 10:12; Bayit Chadash, Yoreh Deah 151:11; Turei Zahav and Biur Ha-Gra, Yoreh Deah 151:12.