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.


Yehuda said...

Great post.

Two minor corrections:
1) The Rambam does not use that epigraph in the Peirush haMishnayot (at least not in any of the versions I own).
2)You wrote in the second paragraph, last section:
"The objective of the Guide was to demonstrate that the all of the glorious elements of the cosmos", I think you can see the typo - I know you are a perfectionist.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


1 - Please see the first footnote in Qafih's version of the Moreh Nevuchim, in which he states that the Rambam placed this verse fragment at the beginning of the Moreh, the Commentary on the Mishna, the Mishneh Torah, the Sefer Hamitsvot (R' Qafih ends the list with "etc.", implying that there are even more instances of this in the Rambam's work.)

2 - Thanks for the correction, I have admittedly prepare these pieces with a deadline so sometimes I am left with minimal editing and revision opportunities.

Yehuda said...

Strangely, in Qafich's own edition of the peirush haMishnayot he does not include it. R' Sheilat does not include it either. Perhaps it was a slip of his pen.