Thursday, February 12, 2015

What's the Goal Behind Keeping the Mitzvot? (Audio Shiur)

In this week’s shiur we discuss the concept of Taamei HaMitzvot. After briefly examining the idea of finding reasons for specific mitzvot, we move on to discuss the general goal of the system of mitzvot. Starting in ancient Alexandria we work our way up to the Middle Ages, followed by the Modern era. By the end of the shiur we see various approaches to the goal of shemirat hamitzvot, as well as Judaism as a whole.

The shiur can also be accessed on YouTube by clicking here.

Running Time 1:10


  1. I understand the history of philosophy and Jewish philosophy somewhat differently than you present it here.

    Back when Islam settled down from its initial futuch (wars of conquest), a subset found Greek philosophy and found ways to merge it with Muslim teaching. They were the Metakallamun, their teachings -- Kalam (literally: Dialectics). And of course there was a counter-force among the traditionalists.

    Rav Saadia Gaon lived in Iraq at the time (Sura and then Baghdad) and was part of that Zeitgeist. In some circles of teaching Jewish Philosophy he, R' Hai Gaon, the Rambam, Ralbag are "Jewish Kalam". They had access to the Greek Philosophers primarily through translations into Arabic by Kalam like ibn Rushd (Averroes). I am singling him out, because his translation of Metaphysics included parts of Plotinus's Enneads as a last volume, creating the illusion of Aristotle being more neo-Platonic than he really was. And that seems compellingly indicated in the Rambam.

    From the Jews, Kalam reached the Christians, who called the movement Scholasticism.

    All of which ended as Epistomology developed, and people lacked that confidence in (1) knowing when a proof was solid, and (2) determining which givens really are self-evident, and what does self-evident even mean. Two camps emerged: the Empiricists (rather than Kant) said that the only thing we can prove is the empirical. Which had an oppositional group called the Idealists who believed that the only thing you can prove are ideas. One pretty much said all knowledge on physics (and other hard sciences), the other on math and logic.

    This is the scene when Kant gets there. His notions of what can be proven are quite far from the empiricists. For example, he believed that things like space, time and atoms (or we'd say "fundamental particles") were more a product of how humans perceive things, the phenomenological universe, rather than what's really out there, the noumenal.

    1. Now getting to the Jewish side of things:

      The whole dispute among rishonim between the "philosophers" and the "non-philosophers" is really between the Kalam/Scholastics and their opponents.

      For example, I would characterize the Kuzari as a philosophical work. But it's an anti-Kalam response to Rav Saadia Gaon's Emunos veDei'os.

      Similarly, R' Chesdai Crescas's Or Hashem was called by his contemporaries as "anti-philosophic), but what they mean is it's anti-Kalam.

      But as you note (even if I disagree with the when and how) that Scholasticism / Kalam is dead. Which is why I find it odd that I have gotten requests to give shiurim on the Rambam's Guide, and a lack of similar interest when I counteroffer with the Kuzari, Or Hashem, or someone more recent. If I did someday have the time to give a shiur on Moreh Nevuchim, much of it would be using the Rambam as a foil.

      The Maimonidian Controversy conflated the opposition to Kalam with opposition to how the Rambam wrote his code. But in reality, there is a common cause to both. The Mishneh Torah is written by someone who believed that halakhah is a set of facts about the Will of G-d or of the legislating rabbis about what to do. The role of the poseiq is to determine those facts as best possible. The only time there can be more than one right answer is when legislating new rabbinic law, not in interpretation. (What Halbertal calls the "accumulative approach".)

      Whereas most rishonim believe that multiple interpretations are true. In fact, winowing out the false ones is the easy part of a poseiq's job. Rather, his job is more about finding which true pesaq is functionally most useful.

      This is why the Yad is written as though this is a single final answer -- the Rambam in his responsa admits he made mistakes, but the whole book is about finding that single right answer. The merits of the argument and sources are secondary if it's not one opinion among many.

      This impacts the Rambam's approach to pesaq, but I'm running out of time to commit to this comment. (I already exceeded Blogspot's limit on comments and had to split this in two.) It's pretty far afield, anyway.

      What I was getting to was, just as the Rambam's Kalam approach to philosophy is getting more attention than I think it warrants in our post-Scholastic world, I wonder if the trend the Briskers started of giving more weight to the Rambam's ruling than were given in the past is a good idea either.

    2. I understand that Kant was an idealist and not an empiricist, but on the religious side of things, his approach led to a recognition that God/religion could not be proven.

    3. Actually, that was decided a century earlier -- neither the Idealists nor the Empiricists were Scholasticists.

      What Kant added to the discussion is that not only can't we give a Kalam-style proof that G-d exists, we cannot even meaningfully talk about him. And not for reasons like the Rambam's, but because we only know phenomena, and do not know what noumena are really like. (And this would be true of knowing "how they really are" about things that can be split into essence and properties.)

      He was thus neither Empiricist, although he believed the phenomenological universe of empirical science was "real" in its way, nor was he an Idealist since he curtailed the space of meaningful ideas. He starts the trend that leads to Phenomenology and (when overdone) Deconstructionism.

      I wrote "Kalam-style proof" because another point o contention I had with your shiur is your conflation of scientific/mathematical proof and justification in general, and thus between non-scientific knowledge and belief, as well as that distinction and those between belief-that vs belief-in as well as emunah vs bitachon.

      I thought yesterday's comment about the difference in how we use "emunah peshutah" and Prof Carmy's disinterest in proving his friend -- or G-d -- exists was enough on that point. Disagree on too many things, and you'll just write me off as a curmudgeon; dialog decreases.