Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Vayehi (Rambam)

“He Wished to Reveal the End”

This week’s parsha centers upon the events surrounding Jacob’s death, and particularly his deathbed blessing to his sons—once again, a scene of prophetic, if not messianic vision. He begins by telling his sons, “Gather together and I shall tell you what will happen to you at the end of days” (Gen 49:1). But this is immediately cut short, and he turns to specific, more narrowly focused blessings and, so to speak, “medium-range” prophecies addressed to each of the sons/tribes individually, one after another, without an overall, “world-historical” eschatological vision of the future. Rashi quotes here the midrash that “he wished to reveal them the End, but it was hidden from him.” If one may put it thus, this is a truly Maimonidean remark.

A bit later, in the blessing of Judah (the tribe which was to embody the monarchy and, according to tradition, the hopes for King Messiah), there is an enigmatic phrase, generally understood as pointing in a messianic direction: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the [judge’s] staff from between his legs, until Shiloh will come and nations shall gather to him” (ibid., v. 10). The identity of this “Shiloh” is unclear: Shiloh was of course the site of the first fixed Sanctuary during the pre-monarchic age of Eli and Samuel; it is read by Christians as an allusion to their redeemer; and, in Rabbinic tradition, is seen as the name of the Davidic Messiah—albeit couched in cryptic form, perhaps as the words shay lo, “he to whom is the gift [of majesty]” [alluding to Ps 76:12, “they shall bring a gift to the Awesome One”].

Rambam devotes the final two chapters of his Mishneh Torah—“Laws of Kings and Their Wars,” Chs. 11-12—to the doctrine of the Messiah, whom he describes in essentially naturalistic terms: as a mortal human being, a descendant of King David, who will ingather the exiles, rebuild the Temple, restore the Sanhedrin and the role of Torah law in Israel (11.1-2)—and ultimately die. In this portrait, there are no blatantly supernatural miracles heralding the Redemption: no mountains splitting in two, no rivers running in the desert surrounded by lush fruit trees, no lions and wolves queuing up to join the Jewish Vegetarian League (“these things are all metaphors,” he writes in 12.1, explaining Isaiah 11:6-7 and like passages). The laws of nature will remain in force. The only essential difference will be the restoration of sovereignty to the Jewish people. “There is naught between This World and the days of Messiah save [the absence of] subjugation to other nations alone” (12.2a). Albeit, he does add that , within the realm of the natural, there will be an abundance of all good things, and such evils as war, famine, jealousy and strife will disappear (12.5).

I will return to these texts in more detail on another occasion. For the moment I will confine myself to the subject of messianic speculation, implied in the above-mentioned midrash about Jacob, as presented by Rambam in the latter half of one halakhah. Hilkhot Melakhim 12.2b:

And all these matters and their like, no person shall know how they shall be, until they shall be. For these things are expressed cryptically [or: hidden] in the prophets, nor do the Sages have a tradition in these matters, but rather [they interpret them] according to the sense of the verses. Therefore there are disputes concerning these matters.

And in any event, neither the order of occurrence of these things nor their details are fundaments of religion. And a person ought not to engage in words of the aggadot, nor devote much time to those midrashim that deal with these matters [i.e., eschatology] and the like, nor should he make them the main thing. For they lead neither to fear nor to love [of God].

Nor should one calculate the End. For our Sages said, “Cursed is the spirit of those that calculate the End” [Sanhedrin 97b]. Rather he should wait with forbearance and believe in this matter in general terms, as we have explained.

Why was Maimonides so adamant in his rejection of messianic speculation? Why such strong language? (Incidentally, Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, one of the foremost and consistently rationalist Jewish thinkers of the last generation, was singularly fond of this passage, quoting it constantly, even in a casual conversation on the bus. See HV IV: Yom Ha-Atzmaut) First and foremost, he was concerned about the concrete harm to the morale of the Jewish people caused by unwarranted speculation. Throughout Jewish history, great hopes were raised by would-be messiahs, each one of whom had his own calculations to prove that “the End” was nigh. And as each one was proven wrong, the people sunk into deeper despair than they were originally. It was to counter one such charlatan that he wrote his famous Epistle to Yemen.

Indeed, Rambam didn’t live long enough to know the half of it: 36 years after his death the sixth millennium, considered the millennium of Messiah, began, and messianic dates and pretenders began to come fast and furious. These movements eventually culminated in the chaotic episode of the Sabbatianism of 17th century, and continued with the Frankist heresy, which utilized Kabbalistic convolutions and inverted thinking to turn sins into mitzvot. In its own sweet way, we are witnesses of the same tendency in our own day, with the messianic sect around the persona of the dead-undead Lubavitcher Rebbe (who in his lifetime was a great man).

But there is more to his objection than that. There is something unproductive, irrelevant in excessive speculation about the future. The Torah is given hayom la’asotam—“today, to do them” (Deut 7:1). Rambam expresses this by constantly reiterating that the important thing is “the love and fear” of God. One might draw an analogy to the old question: Suppose a person were to know exactly when he will die. Would it improve his life in any way? Would he try to cram all possible pleasures into the time he knew that was left? Or to set right relationships? Or perhaps turn to piety and “become a better Jew”? Or, if the date is distant, might he live in reckless fashion, squandering his time? Moralists are fond of saying that the fact of death ought to be a stimulus to live each day as if it were one’s last. (see, e.g., Avot 2.15, and its commentaries). But more than that: life has to be lived as it is, not in anticipation of something beyond. Uncertainty about the future is one of the great givens of the human condition. The attempt to rebel against that, whether on the individual or national-historical level, is seen as somehow inappropriate and unfitting.

But there may have been another factor, even more important, contributing to Rambam’s approach to “calculating the End” (and here I am to some degree engaging in speculation): namely, a rejection in principle of pre-determinism in history. That is, it is not that the date of the Redeemer’s coming is a secret known only to God, but that God himself does not know, because there is no such date. The popular conception of things is that there is a particular date, determined even before the creation of the Universe, for the Eschaton; in like fashion, God determines, before each person is born, how long he or she is going to live, whom they will marry, etc.—but that all these things are concealed: so as to preserve the illusion of free will, so that each person may be constantly confronted with the (subjective) challenge of choosing between good and evil, and so that they not despair knowing, for example, that they will die young. (A friend of mine was killed in a car crash last summer. What would his life have been like, knowing that he would die suddenly on such-and-such a day, and that nothing he could do would change it?)

It seems to me that an alternative reading of Jewish thought is possible: that God runs the world in an ongoing way, judging mankind, each nation—including the Jewish people—and each individual in an ongoing way, in “real time,” so to speak, executing His judgments and sentences and decisions in response to events “on the ground.” Certainly, it seems to me that there are many passages in Maimonides that may be plausibly read in this way. Thus, when he says “no person shall know how [these things] shall be, until they shall be,” he may simply mean to say that history unfolds as it happens (with Divine Providence, of course). And when he says that: “these things are expressed cryptically [or: hidden] in the prophets (devarim setumin hen etzel hanevi’im), nor do the Sages have a tradition in these matters,” it may mean that these things, too, are not told, because there’s nothing specific to tell. Of course, there is Divine providence, but this too is manifested and takes place in an unfolding way, not as a master blueprint executed in precise detail step by step. Even the belief in Messiah need not confute this: God guides history in a general way to reach its redemptive goal, albeit not in a rigidly predetermined way.

(There is much more to say about this; the entire issue of divine foreknowledge ad human freedom is a complex and central issue, in Jewish theology generally and in Maimonidean thought in particular, touching upon some central paradoxes. We will return to this in some detail in Vaera, where it arises in connection with Pharaoh’s deprivation of free will.)


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