Sunday 6 March 2022

374) Stagnation in the inquiry into reasons for the commandments


 R. Shlomo ibn Aderet, El Rab d'España (The Rabbi of Spain) 1235-1310.


It is sometimes of great benefit to view theological ideas and concepts within their historical context. This way, one would not mistakenly think that the idea or concept has always been there since antiquity. So, for example, when it comes to the notion of ta’amei hamitzvot, or reasons for the commandments - whatever one’s personal view on the matter is - it does help to realise that it was only as late as around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that the idea developed that the reasons for the mitzvot are beyond human comprehension. Until that time, it was quite common for rabbis to give rational or logical reasons for the mitzvot. But then the theology changed and the preferred approach became one of ‘transcendence’ whereby the reasons behind the Torah’s commandments were considered beyond human comprehension.

This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Yair Lorberbaum[1] of Bar- Ilan University, deals with this change in the theology of ta’amei hamitzvot, or reasons for the commandments.

Rationalist thought disappears from around the 15th century

Before exploring Loberbaum further, I want to share two quotations that point to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as the effective demise of rationalist thought as it gave way to mystical thought, which ever since then, became the dominant approach within Jewish theology.

Aryeh Kaplan, a rabbi and a nuclear physicist, who researched Kabbalah from original texts, writes about his discovery of the polarity between rationalism and mysticism within the Jewish theological discourse:


I gradually realized that Jewish philosophy [i.e. rationalist thought and philosophy][2] almost comes to an abrupt end in the 14th and 15th centuries. And from there on, almost all of Jewish thought and theology is dominated by Kabbalah(Kaplan 2017: n.p.)[3].


James Robinson similarly identifies the fifteenth century as the period when the abrupt demise of rationalist Jewish philosophy occurred. He writes:


Thus with [Yitzchak] Arama [1420-1494] and [Don Yitzchak] Abarbanel [1437-1508][4] we can recognize the beginning of the end for philosophical exegesis” (Robinson 2011:475)[5].


It is, therefore, not surprising to see that suddenly around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a shift from earlier more rationalist approaches exploring the reasons for the mitzvot, gives way to the dominating mystical approach where:

the very nature of the commandments is defined by transcendence and mystery…” (Lorberbaum 2018:1).

The challenge of transcendence

Turning every mitzva into a transcending experience does present some challenges. Certainly, regarding those mitzvot where the reasons are unclear, its relatively easy to accept the notion of transcendence. But where the reasons seem clear (such as the moral laws between humans, bein adam lechaveiro) and where the reasons are even suggested by the Torah itself, what purpose is there to create an aura of transcendence?

Of course, the response is most often that we are mere mortals and do not understand the deeper reasons for things that just appear to be rational, as Lorberbaum (2018:3) explains:

Alas, because of the limits and inferiority of our capabilities and the ‘sins of the generation,’ those reasons are now beyond attainment – even for the wise and learned… [and this attitude][6] has affected the approach to legal decision-making in Jewish law.

It is difficult to navigate and adjudicate within a legal system where the very reasons for the laws are obscured.

The dangers of reason

The mystics produce a number of arguments against investigating the reasons for the commandments:

a) According to the mystical approach, reasons harm one’s spiritual wellbeing and therefore one:

must ‘forget’ the reason and blindly fulfil the commandment as a ‘decree of a King’, i.e. a decree with no reason…the commandments are aimed at constituting a consciousness of servitude of God and an acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, they are truly divine decrees with no purpose at all” (Lorberbaum (2018:4).

b) Another mystical argument for rejecting reason is that Kabbalisticaly, mitzvot do not originate from G-d’s ‘mind’ but from His ‘will’, and G-d’s ‘will’, or ratzon is much higher than His ‘mind’ or sechel.

c) A third mystical argument is that adopting a more rationalist attitude may lead to a flippant approach to religion and:

“[T]his outlook sets out to hide the reasons for the commandments and laws from the public eye… and invalidates their legal standing” (Lorberbaum (2018:6).

 A counter argument in favour of reason

Lorberbaum (2018:7) argues, however, that reasons are sometimes important to maintain adherence to laws, and reasons are used by halachists when determining the legal parameters of laws. The reasons for laws are often connected to their purpose whch may be:

utilitarian, ethical, social, or [even][7] spiritual/religious.”

This way reasons do not have to detract from the spiritual value of mitzvot because in some cases the reasons are indeed ‘spiritual’. Reasons can become the very essence of the law. To illustrate this principle, let us look at one example:

You shall not destroy the edges of your beard (Lev. 19:27)

The Torah says וְלֹ֣א תַשְׁחִ֔ית אֵ֖ת פְּאַ֥ת זְקָנֶֽך, “you shall not destroy the edges of your beard”. The reason for this law, according to Maimonides was pragmatic and simple:

because it was a usage of idolatrous priests.”[8]

Sometimes the mystics do give reasons for the laws but their reasons reflect a very different reality:

In contrast, Kabbalists thought that the reason for the prohibition is rooted in the notion that humans are created in the image of God: Since God has a beard, and since Jews are commanded to imitate God, marring the beard is essentially marring the image of God[9] (Lorberbaum 2018:7).

These two approaches are very different from each other. But it goes even deeper than just differences. Maimonides and the Kabbalists were more than theological poles apart. According to Maimonides, if you observe this commandment because you believe that G-d has a beard, you would be guilty of idolatry and corporeality (believing that G-d has a body).

This is why Maimonides maintained that reasons were fundamental to the essence of the mitzvot and:

he emphasised that all the commandments – even those that are deemed by other writers as statutes without reasons [hok, pl. hukim] – they too have reasons ‘and aims at some end, and that all Laws have causes and were given in view of some utility’[10]” (Lorberbaum 2018:9).

Without understanding the reasons behind the commandments, one could sometimes come to infringe on basic Jews law.

Maimonides and the ‘mental illness’ of some mystics:

Maimonides, typical to his sharp and stark approach to rationalism, writes strongly against the mystical approach:

There is a group of human beings who consider it a grievous thing that causes should be given for any law; what would please them most is that the intellect would not find meaning for the commandments and prohibitions. What compels them to feel thus is a sickness that they find in their souls, a sickness to which they are unable to give utterance and of which they cannot furnish a satisfactory account.[11]

Lorberbaum (2018:11) paraphrases this Rambam as follows:

According to those people: in order for laws to be divine, they must be beyond human attainmentWith caustic criticism, Maimonides described here a religiosity whose essence is a life defined by blind obedience to mysterious decrees of a transcendent God who is beyond comprehensionA person who has internalised the outlook that the reasons of all the commandments – i.e. of the halakhic rules that affect every part of his personal and communal life – are beyond comprehension, such a person’s life is foundationally irrational.”

And Lorberbaum (2018:11) can’t help but add:

from the fourteenth century, and particularly in more recent times, many have been struck by this ‘mental illness’”.

Prior to the 14th century

One should not get lost in Maimonides’ sarcasm because he has good reason to oppose the mystical approach which has been dominant for the past few centuries and still is today. This mystical negation of rationalist foundations to the mitzvot:

does not appear in the Bible and in the literature of the Second Temple period. It is not to be found in the Midrash, nor in the Talmud, nor in the writings of the Geonim(Lorberbaum 2018:12).

Lorberbaum (2018:13-14) does show that in certain cases it was necessary to hide some reasons for political and educational purposes but stresses that we should not:

"confuse these sayings and statements with the view that the reasons of the commandments are beyond comprehension."

This is another example of how the innovations of the mystics have made their way into mainstream Judaism and then, additionally, perpetuating the perception that these innovations were always part of it from the most ancient of times.

Yet, until around the fourteenth century:

no writer expressed, even implicitly, the idea that reasons for commandments in general, or even reasons for particular commandments, transcend comprehension…Rabbi Shlomo ben Avraham ibn Aderet (Rashba, Barcelona 1235-1310) was the first to develop the idea that the reasons for commandments – all the commandments – are ‘secrets of the Torah’ (sitrei torah) that are beyond human comprehension” (Lorberbaum 2018:14).

To the contrary, before the Rashba in the fourteenth century, the opposite is actually true. Beginning with the Torah text itself, the book of Deuteronomy states:

Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’”[12]

Maimonides emphasises how widespread this practice of attempting to ascertain rational reasons behind the commandments was:

It is, however, the doctrine of all of us – both of the multitude and of the elite.”

In other words, at that time, essentially all Jews adopted the common sense approach of trying to understand the meanings behind the laws. But then things began to change:

The turning point

Rashba writes:

Do not heed the reasons of the commandments that the Rabbi [that is, Maimonides] of blessed memory wrote … And beside the honour of the Rabbi of blessed memory, one should not pay attention to these reasons…And blessed is the One who knows the reasons for His decrees.[13]

Fascinatingly, Lorberbaum (2018:17-24) goes through quite an exhaustive list of typical teachings of important rabbis from the time of Rashba until recently, who all adopt the notion that reasons for the commandments are unknown and transcendent. These include the Vilna Gaon (from the school of the Mitnagedim) and R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (from the school of the Chassidim), the Maharal, the Shelah, R. Cordevero from the Safed Kabbalists, R. Chaim of Volozhin and the Chatam Sofer, as well as R. Natan of Nemirov (the student of R. Nachman of Breslov) and the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch.

Two things become immediately apparent from all these sources: a) in theory, there are reasons for the mitzvot, but b) the reasons are hidden from us:

Despite this commonality, the writers belong to varying ideational schools and ideological camps; some were at loggerheads with others. These differences explain variations of the view that the reasons of the commandment are beyond comprehension” (Lorberbaum 2018: 25).

Kabbalah (from the end of the thirteenth century), also initially accepted that there were reasons for the mitzvot but they were Kabbalistic reasons or ta’amin elyonim (higher reasons). R. Ezra of Girona writes in an early Kabbalistic explanation of reasons for mitzvot:

we can explain that each and every commandment comes from a particular mystical attribute.”

However, (Lorberbaum 2018:44) explains that:

Kabbalah never realised its revolutionary potential; instead, an opposite “reaction” occurred: Kabbalah’s deepest level – the reasons for commandments – were seen as beyond human grasp. The revolutionary energy contained in the kabbalistic reasons was now loaded onto the belief that “reasons for commandments to their fullest extent have not yet been revealed to any person in the world”… From here on, reasons would no longer have a place in halakhic discourse – not the kabbalistic reasons, and certainly not the simple, mundane, reasons.”

This way Lorberbaum argues that the emergence of Kabbalah around the fourteenth century, is the point in Jewish history from which no further investigations occurs into ta’amei hamitzvot, or reasons for the commandments, and leads to a “stagnation” (Lorberbaum 2018:44) in this endeavour of inquiry.

[1] Lorberbaum, Y., 2018, Halakhic Religiosity of Mystery and Transcendence, Halakhic Religiosity of Obedience and Servitude, and Other Forms of Rejecting Reasons for the Commandments, 32 Dine Israel 69, 1-44.

[2] Parenthesis is mine. Rationalist Maimonidean thought is frequently referred to as ‘philosophy’ and Maimonides (1135-1204) is referred to as haPilosoph, the Philosopher, as he was influenced by Aristotelian (384-322 BCE) thought.

[3] Kaplan, A., 2017, Conversations in the Spirit: Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Online source:             Conversations In The Spirit: Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan - New York Spirit, Retrieved on 27 January 2020.

[4] Parentheses are mine.

[5] Robinson, J. T., 2011, ‘Philosophy and Science in Medieval Jewish Commentaries on the Bible’, in Science in medieval Jewish cultures, Edited by Gad Freudenthal, Cambridge University Press, New York, 454-475.

[6] Parenthesis is mine.

[7] Parenthesis is mine.

[8] Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed III ch. 37. See also Maimonides’ Sefer haMitzvot, negative commandments, 34 and 43.

[9] See Zohar III:130a.

[10] Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed III ch. 26.

[11] Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed III ch. 31.

[12] Deut. 4:6, see also Deut. 30:11-14.

[13] She’elot uTeshuvot haRashba, vol. 4, no. 253.

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