Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tazria-Metzora (Rambam)

“This is the Torah of Man”

A central midrashic theme on this week’s Torah portion is introduced with the observation that the laws of impurity of human beings—the central theme of this double parsha, beginning with the moment of birth—appear after the laws of impurity (and by extension kashrut) of the various types of animals. “Just as his creation was last, so does his impurity appear last.” There then appears a series of midrashim about the nature of human existence and the paradox involved in the strange mélange of body and spirit, of biological needs and spiritual consciousness, that is the fate of all humankind. The Psalmist’s words, “You have formed me before and behind” (Ps 139:5), serves as a motto to sum up this strange mixture.

Hence, this week is a suitable occasion to address the issue of what it means to be a decent human being or, to use the expressive Yiddish term, what it means to be a mensch. Moreover, every Shabbat afternoon during these six weeks between Pesah and Shavuot we read a chapter from Pirkei Avot, that treatise of the Mishnah most directly devoted to this same question. Furthermore, this week, which began with Holocaust Remembrance Day, provided a reminder of the great need for simple humanity, menschlichkeit, specifically in our world.

The second section of Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mada, and thus of the Yad as a whole, may best be described as an overall handbook addressed to the question, what it means to be a decent human being. Hilkhot Deot, “Laws of Character Traits,” deals with the basic issues of ethics on both a theoretical and practical level. (Note: it is important to bear in mind that the term de’ot as used in Rambam does not mean “opinions” or ”beliefs,” as in the phrase “emunot vedeot,” but is closer to that concept that may be familiar to some readers from the jargon of the yeshiva world or from Mussar, Hebrew ethical literature—middot, i.e., character traits.) The location of this treatise immediately following Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, “The Laws of Fundaments of the Torah,” which is essentially a precis of Jewish theology, is thus significant and, one might say, complementary. Theology is followed by ethics. It is only after knowing the rudiments of what God is and what man’s duties are that we may turn to study the rest of the Torah, which is the detailed working out of the laws of how to serve God and how man ought to behave, both in private life and in society.

Hilkhot Deot is divided into four main sections: Chapters 1-3: the basic theory of ethical behavior and character building; Ch. 4: how to maintain the body in healthy fashion (see last week’s sheet); Ch. 5: an outline of the behavior, in all areas of life, expected of the “wise man”— Rambam’s ideal type (a term to which we shall return); Chs. 6-7—the specific laws of several basic ethical mitzvot. This week we shall give a brief introduction to the first section.

The basic rule promulgated here is that of the Golden Mean: that, in almost all things, the ideal is moderation, the intermediate position between two extremes. This approach is well known from classical Greek philosophy; its Aristotelian roots are well-known. The idea is developed at greater length in Shemonah Perakim (“Eight Chapters”), Maimonides’ major ethical exposition, which serves as an introduction to Pirkei Avot in his Mishnah Commentary. But the basic idea is presented here, in succinct form, in Hilkhot Deot 1.4:

4. The upright path is the intermediate aspect in each trait, regarding all the traits of a human being. And it is that trait that is equally distant from both extremes and is not close to either one or the other. Therefore the ancient sages [a reference to ancient Greek philosophers] commanded that a person should always set and guide his traits in the middle way, so that he may be whole in body.

How so? A person should not be hot-tempered and easy to anger, nor like a dead man who does not feel at all, but rather in between: he shall only get angry over some major thing, which it is fitting that he be angry about, so that [others] will not do so such a thing another time. Similarly, he should only desire those things that the body needs, without whose like it cannot exist, as is said, “the righteous eats to satisfy his soul” [Prov 13:25] Likewise, he should not toil at his occupation except so as to acquire those things that he needs for his temporal life, as is said, “A little bit is enough for the righteous” [Ps 37:16]. And he should not be excessively stingy, nor should he scatter his money about, but he should give alms in accordance to his wealth, and lend as is suitable to he who needs. And he should not be hysterical and joking, nor sad and mournful, but joyful all his days, in a pleasant manner and with a pleasing countenance. And likewise all his other traits. And this path is the way of the wise, and any person whose traits are intermediate is called wise.

Rambam’s use of the term hakham is interesting. “Wisdom” has nothing to do here either with erudition—whether extensive knowledge of Torah or of other sciences—nor with intellectual acumen, sharpness of analysis and the like. Rather, the word is used in an ethical–behavioral sense: the person who behaves in a decent, proper way, who has mastered his negative impulses and shaped his character is the proper way, is called “a wise man.” Theoretically, a person may be a hakham even is he is totally ignorant of any literary or cultural traditions—indeed, even if he is illiterate. Thus, unlike its common usage in modern Western culture, “wisdom” is not alienated or isolated from ethical behavior, but includes, even predominantly, ethical behavior. May this be an echo of the use of hakham as a central term in the Book of Proverbs or, lehavdil, of the centrality of Wisdom, the “Logos,” as a kind of apotheosis of the Divine in ancient Greek and related cultures?

Interestingly, Rambam uses the word hakham in a similar way in at least two other significant passages in the Yad. Further on in this treatise, in Deot 5, an entire chapter is devoted to the behavior of the hakham in various aspects of life, beginning with the heading: “Just as the wise man is distinguished from the rest of the people by his wisdom and his character…. So is he distinguished from them by his acts.” It seems significant that the model person whose everyday behaviors the Rambam chooses to present as exemplary is the hakham, rather than the hasid or the tzaddik. Similarly, in Yesodei ha-Torah 7.1, when listing the qualities expected of a person who becomes a prophet, he describes him as “a very wise man, of heroic character” (hakham gadol gibbor bemidotav). The discussion in Chapter 1 continues with a contrast between the “wise man” and the “pious.”

5. But he who is very particular with himself, and distances himself somewhat from the middle path to one side or another, is called a pious man (hasid). How so? One who avoids pride to go the other side and is very humble is called a hasid, and this is an exemplary trait. But if he distances himself from it only to the middle and is modest, he is called a wise man (hakham), and this is the trait of wisdom. And so on regarding all the traits. But the pious men of old would incline their traits from the middle way, towards one or another of the extremes… and this is called ”beyond the requirement of the law.” But we are commanded to walk in these intermediate ways, and these are the good and upright ways, as is said, “and you should walk in His ways” [Deut 28:9].

What is the attitude expressed here toward hasidut, exemplary piety? As I see it, there is a certain element of ambivalence. On the one hand, the pious man is clearly deserving of praise and admiration (and, as we shall see later, at least with respect to anger and pride everyone ought to act like a hasid); on the other hand, the proper path, that in which we are “commanded to walk,” is the middle way—that of the hakham, not that of the hasid.

In an important essay, Gershom Scholem describes what he calls “Three Types of Jewish Piety” —several different ideal human types expressed in Judaic sources. The first type, the talmid hakham, represents the intellectual ideal, of comprehensive knowledge of the tradition, clarity and power of mind in expounding and interpreting it. While a talmid hakham may also embody qualities of piety, religious emotion, and exemplary ethical behavior (and, in a certain sense, is even be expected to do so), these are not defining components of the type per se. (Interestingly, the Vilna Gaon was known as hagaon hehasid; significantly, the epitaph on Rav Soloveitchik’s tombstone begins with the same two words.)

The other two types—the tzaddik and the hasid—embody an ethical and spiritual ideal. (Note: I use here the classical Rabbinic terminology: in Hasidism, for reason we needn’t go into here, the respective ranking and meaning of these two terms was inverted 180 degrees.) The tzaddik is essentially the Jew who fulfills his duty according to the Law. There is a certain sobriety in this ideal, an absence of emotionalism, a sense of balance and calm, “however intense the passion to fulfill the divine commandment that drives him.” This type is similar to Soloveitchik’s “halakhic man” (see HY V: Shvi’i shel Pesah); he is cloaked with a certain sense of dignity, solemnity. There is also a sense of normality in this ideal: it is an ideal for which the ideal ba’al bayit, the family man and good citizen of the community, may reasonably strive.

The hasid, by contrast, is the exceptional, extraordinary Jew. He is the sort of person who, in following the call of the spirit, may go to extremes and perform unusual, bizarre acts. He is outside of the norm, above and beyond its stipulations; he strives to realizes the ideal of lifnim mishurat hadin, “beyond the call of the law,” mentioned above. he is not interested in merely following the law, but in serving God in the maximum possible way, taking the words “with all your heart, soul and strength” quite literally. His life is dominated by the passionate pursuit of and single-minded dedication to his goal.

There may also be an element of anarchism and rejection of the solid, conventional values of the bourgeois in the hasid. Thus, R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk is reported to have commented on the Maimonidean ideal of balance and “the middle way” with the quip: “A horse goes in the middle of the road; a person goes by the side.” In general history, this is an impulse that springs up now and again in various anti-establishment groups, such as the hippies of the 1960s, who in their finest moments sought to establish a purer, more honest, un-corrupt style of life, withdrawing from urban civilization to found their own communes in a pristine natural environment.

The same rejection of the conventional, perhaps self-satisfied path of the “middle-class” was expressed in ancient times by the Rekhabites—a group of people who rejected the urban life of the towns of ancient Israel, and lived as far as possible according to the way of life of their nomadic ancestors, eschewing wine, cutting of the hair (which implied a certain concern with external appearance), and even living in permanent homes (see Jeremiah 35, who praises their devotion to their principles). This impulse perhaps found institutionalized form in Naziritism (see Numbers 6:1-21).

But the feeling is, while the average person might admire and love telling stories about the hasid, he’s not so sure he’d want his daughter to marry one, as the hasid, in a gesture of radical generosity and empathy for the other, would be liable to give away all his life savings to some poor shlepper with a hard-luck story.

I believe that it is this tension that is reflected in §§4-5 above, in Rambam’s presentation of the ideal of the hakham vs. that of the hasid. The ideal of the hasid exists; those who choose it are no doubt deserving of admiration and praise, but the norm, “the way in which we are commanded to walk,” is that of the hakham (who is tantamount to the tzaddik of Rabbinic texts and of Scholem’s essay)—the middle way.

I will conclude by briefly mentioning three further passages that round out Maimonides’ approach to this issue. First, in Deot 3.1, he makes it clear that Judaism rejects asceticism or what James calls “world-rejection.” All one’s acts should be for the sake of heaven—but within a worldly context:

Lest a person say to himself: ”Since jealousy and lust and [pursuit of] honor and the like are a bad path and remove a person from this world, I shall separate from them greatly and go to the other extreme.“ So much so, that he does not eat meat, nor drink wine, nor take a wife, nor dwell in a pleasant home nor wear nice clothing, but sackcloth and rough wool and the like, like the pagan priests. This too is an evil path which it is forbidden to follow, and one who goes in this way is called a sinner…. Therefore our rabbis commanded that a person should only refrain from those things that the Torah prohibited, and not bind himself with vows and oaths concerning permitted things. Thus did our Sages say, “Is it not sufficient for you what the Torah forbade, that you prohibit to yourselves other things?” And this includes, that those who constantly fast are not on a good path. And our Sages forbade a person to afflict himself with fasts. And concerning all these things and the like Solomon commanded, saying, “Do not be overly righteous, and do not make yourself overly clever; why should you be desolate?!” [Eccles 7:16]

But, one must add, Rambam also mentions one exceptional case in which a person is justified in abandoning civilization and its discontents. In Deot 6.1, he states that one should always seek out the company of the righteous and the wise, and avoid that of the wicked. If the place where one lives is dominated by wicked people, one should move elsewhere; if that is impossible, or if all the places you know of are equally wicked, “as in our own days,” he tellingly adds, one should withdraw from society completely and isolate oneself in one’s own home and (presumably) within the narrow circle of one’s own family. But, he adds:

But if they were evil and sinful people who do not allow him to live in their city unless he is involved with them and follows their evil custom, he should take to the caves and clefts and deserts, and not behave in the way of sinners.

Finally, he lists an important exception to this golden mean, even for one who is not a hasid: namely, the need for extreme avoidance of pride and anger—a subject with which we shall begin our discussion next week.

What is Tumah?

All of the above has been brought here today on the basis of a homiletical interpretation of the opening of Parshat Tazria. But on the overt, literal level, the central subject of this week’s double Torah portion is purity and impurity—perhaps the most baffling and difficult subject in the entire Torah, particularly for modern people (all this, over and beyond the halakhic complexity of the material as such). Rambam devotes one of the fourteen books of the Yad, Sefer Taharah, to this subject. At the very end, as is his way, he gives a peroration, in which he reflects upon some of the broader philosophical issues raised by the concept of purity and impurity. Is impurity an objective, metaphysical reality, or is the entire elaborate halakhic structure an educational tool, intended for instilling certain values and ideas? Due to limitations of time and space, we shall present this passage, which is quite clear and self-explanatory, without any further commentary. Hilkhot Mikvaot 11.12:

12. It is clear and well-known that impurity and purity are Scriptural edicts, and are not among those things that human intellect can decide, but they are among the hukkim [divinely decreed, arbitrary laws]. Similarly, immersion from impurity is among the hukkim, for impurity is not like mud or filth that can be removed by water, but they are a scriptural edict, and the matter depends upon the intention of the heart. Therefore, our Sages said, that “If he immersed himself and did not establish a presumption [of purity], it is as if he had not immersed” [m. Hagiggah 2.6]. Nevertheless, there is also an allusion in his thing: Just as one who directs his heart to become purified, once he has immersed he becomes pure, even though nothing new has happened to his body, so does one who intends to purify his soul from spiritual impurities—namely, thoughts of iniquity and evil traits—once he has agreed in his heart to abandon that counsel and to bring his soul into the waters of knowledge, he becomes pure. As it sees “And I shall sprinkle upon you pure water and you shall be purified, from all your impurities and all your idols you shall be made pure” [Ezek 36:25]. May God in His great mercies purify us from all sin and transgression and guilt. Amen.


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