Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Written Roots of the Oral Torah

In the first installment of this series on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, we concluded that the Rambam’s purpose in composing his magnum opus was to present the Oral Law in a textbook format rather than in the choppy, dialectical style of the Talmud. However, Maimonides did not simply reorganize the structure of the Oral Tradition. He also labored to provide a “bridge” between the poetic, intuitive, and concrete world of the Written Torah and the more abstract and conceptual realm of the Oral Law.

Nowadays, many people approach the Written and Oral Torahs as distinct fields of study. It is not uncommon for students with minimal knowledge of the Bible to be rushed into the advanced domain of Talmudic analysis. Indeed, more often than not, Yeshiva students first encounter many of the stories and passages of Tanach when they are cited in the course of a Talmudic debate. Since study of the Oral Law is prized as the highest form of Torah learning, time is allocated to it at the expense of the Written Law.

This approach, however, is seriously flawed. The Oral Torah is intended to serve as an explanation of the Written Law, and presupposes a relatively deep understanding of the various books of Tanach. The principles discussed in the Talmud cannot be fully appreciated unless they are seen as clarifications and refinements of our readings of the Torah, Prophets and Writings. Attempting to delve into the Oral Torah without a firm grounding in the Written Torah is akin to trying to master calculus without a thorough knowledge of arithmetic.

The Missing Link

Throughout his writings, the Rambam continually emphasizes the connection between the Written and Oral Torahs, and their intrinsic interdependency. One must begin with a solid foundation in Biblical study – a clear and well-organized understanding of the narratives and commandments presented to us in the texts of Tanach – before one can explore the principles of the Oral Tradition and fathom them. The first stage of learning is more experiential, intuitive and literary. It prepares the groundwork for the more nuanced and abstract analyses of the Oral Law.

An example will illustrate this point. Study of the laws of Shabbat should not begin with a reading of the Talmudic Tractate called “Shabbat”. It should first be rooted in an exploration of the Written Torah’s treatment of this area - the very first “Divine” Shabbat at the end of the Genesis narrative, the introduction of the Jews to the concept of Shabbat in the Wilderness, the presentation of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments and in the context of the civil laws of Mishpatim, the role of the Shabbat in the laws of the Mishkan, and the discussions of Shabbat observance in the Prophetic Books.

This provides the student with a more general, experientially-based sense of the purpose, method and legal principles of Shabbat, a foundation he can build upon as his knowledge progresses. He will gain an understanding of the various objectives embodied in Shabbat – social and theological – and why performance of “melacha” (i.e., creative activity) would undermine the achievement of these objectives. Deeper reflection upon the meaning of “melacha” and its interconnection with the other aspects of Shabbat observance will transition, smoothly and naturally, to more rigorous definitions and more precise legal formulas – the realm of the Oral Law itself.

(Ideally, individual commandments should not be studied in isolation as described. On the level of the Written Torah, the commandments are embedded in narratives and juxtaposed with descriptions of other mitsvot. The process of Written Torah study should be dedicated to perceiving the thematic unity of the text as a whole and understanding how the system of mitsvot emerges naturally from it.)

Because of the Rambam’s desire to underscore the interrelationship of Written and Oral Torah, he explicitly rested his presentation of the Oral Tradition upon the foundation of Tanach. One of the key methods he used to achieve this was crowning each of his books with a signature verse from the Bible. The chosen verses exemplify the Biblical themes that are going to be elaborated upon, expanded and explained in the associated segment of the Oral Torah. Understanding the message of the verses that adorn the Rambam’s books is a necessary prerequisite to understanding the content of the books themselves.

The Introductory Verses

The Rambam “crowns” the introduction to the Mishneh Torah with not one but two verses from the Tanach. The first is a fragment of a verse from the Book of Genesis that was a personal favorite of Maimonides’; he placed it atop all of his works – the Mishneh Torah, Moreh Nevuchim and Commentary to the Mishnah.

We will devote the remainder of this discussion to an analysis of this verse-fragment:

“In the name of Hashem, God of the Universe.” (Gen. 21:33)

In its original context, this phrase describes the activity of Avraham our forefather, who traveled throughout Mesopotamia, built altars in various locations and “called out there in the name of Hashem.” In the Guide for the Perplexed (3:29), Maimonides explains the activities of Avraham in greater detail:

“When Abraham, the Pillar of the World, appeared, he became convinced that there is a spiritual Divine Being, which is not a body, nor a force residing in a body, but is the Creator of the spheres and the stars; and he saw the absurdity of the traditions with which he had been raised. He therefore began to attack the beliefs of the Sabeans (i.e., idolaters) to expose the falsehood of their opinions, and to proclaim publicly in opposition to them, ‘the name of Hashem, God of the Universe’ – which proclamation affirmed both the Existence of God and the Creation of the Universe by God.”

Avraham dedicated his life to demonstrating the unity of Hashem and teaching people that His infinite wisdom is manifest in all of creation. His passion for truth moved him to reach out to individuals and communities, sharing his unique – and, at that time in history, shockingly radical – idea of monotheism wherever he went. Avraham’s primary message was clear and simple; namely, that everything in the Universe is an elegant and lawful reflection of God’s unified, supreme design.

Avraham’s vision had moral implications as well. Logically speaking, his view should lead us to expect that mankind too will reflect the Divine plan in his values and behavior. After all, the human species is a component part of the created order and should be governed by God’s wisdom like the rest of it.

However, as the first narrative in Genesis teaches us, Adam and Eve set a tragic precedent of non-compliance with God’s will that formed the basis for human culture as we know it today. Rather than pursue the divinely determined “good” for humanity – the pursuit of knowledge of God and emulation of His ways - they chose to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and to establish their own artificial, instinctually driven definition of “goodness”. This was the first step in the evolution of a society that viewed the entire world as nothing more than material for its own domination and enjoyment – a far cry from admiring it as the handiwork of an omniscient Creator, a Being to whom we should look for intellectual enlightenment and moral guidance!

The materialistic and self-serving orientation to the universe that ultimately took shape enabled human beings to feel comfortable with their position as the lords of all of creation and the epicenters of the cosmic drama. Values, goals, and strivings were determined by human sentiment and desire, without reference to any objective standards.

Even the idolatrous ‘gods’ – feared and dutifully worshipped by the masses – were never thought of as arbiters of truth or sources of ethical principles. In fact, these figments of human imagination actually served to further empower humanity in its pursuit of instinctual and egotistic gratification. Rather than be intimidated by the harsh and indifferent forces of nature, people were comforted by the notion that they could negotiate with the environment through prayer and sacrifice. This allowed them to feel secure as they went about their hedonistic lifestyles.

Avraham battled against the prevalent mentality and taught that human beings are mere creations of a transcendent God. They are part of the created order and should therefore seek to live in harmony with true principles rather than the impulses and fantasies of their hearts. By revolutionizing our concept of the universe, then, Abraham also sparked a revolution in our understanding of man’s position in the world.

The Mission of Maimonides

Maimonides’ choice of this verse-fragment as the header for all of his books gives us an insight into the way in which he perceived his own “mission”. He saw himself as an Abrahamic figure who sought to liberate human beings from a materialistic worldview and help them appreciate the Divine wisdom that permeates all reality, including its human component.

The Rambam’s efforts in this regard took two forms. In the Guide for the Perplexed, he attempted to formulate a coherent vision of the “macrocosm” of Hashem’s design – metaphysics, physics and providence - with mankind occupying a small but noteworthy place in the universe as a whole. The objective of the Guide was to demonstrate that all of the glorious elements of the cosmos - from its vast expanses to its tiniest molecules, and from its animals and plants through its homo sapiens – point to the existence of the Creator who designed and sustains them.

In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam is again occupied with “calling out in the name of Hashem, God of the Universe.” However, in this case the field he is working with is the field of Torah in particular, i.e., the Divine principles that apply to the realm of human existence in all its complexity.

As we mentioned in the previous installment of this series, exposure to the Talmud could mislead a person into thinking that the system of mitsvot is nothing more than an incoherent, disorganized and haphazardly arranged group of rules. On a superficial level, the Torah – like nature – does not immediately reveal its intellectual beauty, subtlety and harmony.

Neglect of the underlying conceptual unity of Torah is another, even more insidious form of materialism; it causes us to relate to specific regulations and laws as mechanical prescriptions for behavior to be implemented by the body rather than general principles for enlightened living that are to be apprehended by, and to uplift, the soul. This in turn disconnects us from the overarching purpose of mitzvah observance, which is to transform us into a wise and discerning nation dedicated to sanctifying God’s name in the world.

By presenting the Oral Law in a comprehensive, systematic and integrated fashion, Maimonides shows us how the Torah – just like the material world – is an exquisitely designed work of profound wisdom that bears witness to its transcendent, Divine Source.

In the next installment of this series, we will consider the second verse that the Rambam affixed to the Mishneh Torah’s Preface. We will discover how the second epigraph complements the message of the first, and how the two, in tandem, help us to better understand Maimonides’ Introduction and his magnum opus as a whole.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Introduction to the Mishneh Torah: Its Structure and Purpose

Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah is undoubtedly the most significant addition to Torah literature since the completion of the Talmud. A presentation of the entirety of the Oral Tradition in a single volume, formulated by one of the greatest halachic and philosophical minds of all time, the Mishneh Torah revolutionized the manner in which Torah was taught and studied world over. Authors of subsequent works of Jewish Law could imitate or attempt to criticize Maimonides’ contributions, but no one could ignore the decisive impact he had on the world of Jewish learning at large.

No one could deny the sheer breadth and depth of the Mishneh Torah, and these factors alone earned it a place in the vast library of Rabbinic literature. The opinions of the Rambam on halachic matters had to be reckoned with – and indeed, they were discussed, debated, analyzed and used as a lens through which the words of the Talmud could be better comprehended. The Mishneh Torah became an essential “companion” to the study of Mishnah and Gemara, a new and powerful tool in the hands of traditional Rabbinic scholars. Yet despite the fact that the influence of the Mishneh Torah on the world of Jewish learning was immeasurable, I would argue that the work ultimately failed to achieve the goals for which the Rambam composed it in the first place. What leads me to make such a bold statement?

Simply put, even a cursory examination of the format of the Mishneh Torah reveals that it was not meant to be used as an aid to Talmud study. Unlike any exposition of the Oral Torah that existed previously, the Rambam’s work is a “hibbur” – a free-standing, independent text designed to be studied on its own terms and without reference to or reliance upon other Rabbinic source materials. It is organized into books, subsections and chapters that do not mirror the divisions found in the Talmud. These features of the Mishneh Torah point to the fact that it was never intended to serve as a commentary on earlier Rabbinic volumes. Its purpose was far more radical – to completely revolutionize our approach to learning and teaching the Oral Torah.

From the Talmud to the Rambam

Anyone who has some familiarity with the Talmud knows that it is a daunting work. Aside from its sheer volume and complexity – themselves quite intimidating – the Talmud presupposes that its students possess vast amounts of background knowledge even before opening it. No introduction is provided. Premises are not spelled out in an explicit fashion. Advanced theoretical questions are raised and debates ensue, yet the importance of the issues involved is generally taken for granted. Anyone seeking an elementary Torah education will be seriously disappointed by the Talmud, which invariably seems to the newcomer like a disorganized hodgepodge of rather trivial arguments.

I have often observed in the past that reading the Talmud is like perusing the pages of an academic journal. One who has a foundation in the discipline treated by the journal will appreciate the meaning and significance of its articles, their context and purpose. He or she will leave further edified and maybe even enlightened. On the other hand, an uninitiated individual will be rebuffed by the abundance of technical jargon, unfamiliar topics, obscure references and technical methodology. He will close the journal more confused and frustrated than he was before opening it.

The reason for the difference in reactions is that professional journals are not the appropriate place to begin one’s education; they are published for people who have already established themselves as scholars and experts in their respective fields. Students who wish to become experts must start with a healthy diet of comprehensive and clearly organized textbooks. Such books are designed to introduce readers to the basic principles of a given area of inquiry in a more explicit manner. Only after traversing this elementary stage of training can they hope to explore the more abstruse and challenging aspects of their fields of interest – namely, the kinds of questions and problems that experts grapple with in prestigious journals.

The target audience of the Talmud is similar to that of an academic journal. It is intended for people who have already mastered the Written Torah – i.e., the Bible – and who have a well-developed grasp of the fundamentals of the Oral Torah. Indeed, even the Mishnah, which is widely regarded as a simpler, more basic presentation of the Oral Law, is only really accessible to a person who has elementary knowledge of its subject matter from the outset. The Mishnah deals with the application of Jewish legal principles to highly specific and sometimes very complex cases. Its arguments are far less extensive and confusing than those of the Gemara, so in a certain sense it is less intimidating. But the Mishnah rarely provides us with any context or background information before entering into abstruse discussions of difficult material. It is by no means a self-sufficient source of knowledge of the Oral Torah, and was certainly not designed to be an introductory work on the subject.

A brief example will clarify this point. The first Mishnah in the Talmud dives into a discussion of the official deadline for reciting the Shema in the evening. Three rabbinic opinions on this issue are cited, and one of them is illustrated with an anecdote. Yet the Mishnah never bothers to establish the existence of a mitzvah to read the Shema in the evening to begin with! How are we supposed to know that we are commanded to recite Shema at night, and that this commandment has a specific deadline? Apparently, the Mishnah was composed with the assumption that its readers would already be well aware of such basic facts, and therefore goes about the business of dealing with unusual cases that demand more intense analysis and lend themselves to scholarly debate. In summary, then, the resemblance of the Talmud’s style and content to those of an academic journal is striking.

The similarity of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah to a textbook is equally remarkable. It is sequentially ordered, beginning with the most fundamental principles in the Oral Torah and then proceeding to build upon them. It is organized around clearly identifiable themes derived from the Written Law – embodied in the names of its Books and the Biblical verses linked to each of them – and structured in a way that enables every student to perceive the logical consistency, coherence and beauty of the Oral Tradition.

Maimonides’ Mission

Maimonides saw that many Jews, and even some scholars, had lost their sense of the unity and cohesiveness of the Oral Torah. They studied the principles of halacha as if those principles were random, arbitrary rules rather than components of a comprehensive system. They were no longer guided by a vision of the overarching harmony of the Oral Law – a core vision which was taken for granted by the authors of the Mishnah and Gemara and which silently informed and shaped their scholarly discussions. The external features of the Talmud – its apparent disorganization, free associative style and focus on minutiae – had tragically begun to obscure the true nature of the Oral Law in the minds of its practitioners. The forest was slowly receding from view on account of the trees.

In light of our analogy to professional journals, we can appreciate the reason why this problem emerged in the first place. Imagine a world in which textbooks did not exist. With only libraries of academic periodicals to read from, how many students would form a comprehensive grasp of their fields of study? How many of them would be able to reconstruct the intellectual context in which the scholarly debates they read made sense? Without a doubt, most students would wind up with a hodgepodge of information and ideas about their discipline, but with little or no appreciation for the underlying unity of the field in question. This library collection of professional journals is exactly the kind of thing we are presented with in the Talmud and its commentaries – documents written for scholars by scholars, and in which the underlying conceptual framework is presupposed but never articulated.

As long as the Oral Tradition still existed in its original form, this phenomenon didn’t pose any problem – the fundamental principles of halacha were communicated verbally, from teacher to student, for generations, and the texts were looked upon as nothing more than erudite notes for reference and discussion. The difficulty started to foment when the process of oral transmission began to break down. People became overly reliant on the texts for guidance, and were forced to try and “reconstruct” the field of Oral Torah from the pages of the “professional journals” they had received from their predecessors. It should come as no surprise that an educational crisis ensued – and indeed, we continue to feel the effects of this disaster in the world of Torah learning today.

One illustration of the lamentable effects of this calamity will suffice. More people have completed study of the Talmud in our generation than ever before, thanks to the Daf Yomi movement. Yet for most of these individuals, the debates in the Gemara remain isolated “sugyot” – topics for discussion and analysis – and are never placed in any broader, more intuitive conceptual framework. The collection of details they have amassed is not transformed into a systematic understanding of any particular mitzvah, let alone an integrated vision of the Oral Torah as a whole. And this leads to a diminishing of the honor due to Torah – it is dismissed as somehow less majestic, intellectually impressive or coherent than other fields of knowledge, when, in reality, the opposite is the case!

The Sagacious Solution

Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, provides us with the solution to this dilemma. The textbook paradigm he employs serves to introduce the student to the vast world of halachic study in a pedagogically sound manner, before exposing him to the abstruse nuances and advanced technicalities of the Mishnah and Gemara. By presenting the entire Oral Torah as a unified system of thought – rooted in the intuitive wisdom of the Written Law, founded on clear theoretical principles, refined and synthesized into a comprehensive program for learning and life – the Rambam teaches our minds to swim gracefully and thus saves us from drowning in the Sea of the Talmud.

This is the first in a series of Mishneh Torah studies dedicated to using Maimonides’ magnum opus as the introductory textbook of Jewish Thought. By so doing, we hope to clarify and deepen our understanding of Judaism on multiple levels. In the next installment of our course, we will begin an in-depth examination of the Rambam’s preface. Specifically, we will focus on the verses from the Bible that Maimonides selected as epigraphs for the Mishneh Torah, and what they teach us about the philosophy behind Jewish Law in general.