Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Rambam)

What Does it Mean to Be a Mensch? (Part II)

The latter of the two portions read this Shabbat is entitled Kedoshim, opening with the imperative: “You shall be holy, for I your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). That is, the human being is obligated to be holy, in imitation of God. What this means is explained in a comment of the Kotzker on another, similar verse: “You shall be to me holy people” (Exod 22:30), on which the Kotzker comments: “with a human holiness” (menshliche heiligkeit). This makes this parsha uniquely appealing to religionist and humanist alike; indeed, it might be fairly characterized as the most “humanist” chapter in the Torah. This same theme forms the core of Hilkhot Deot, which we began to discuss last week.

We shall now turn to Chapter 2 of this work. It is all very well and good if one is blessed with the proper, balanced personality traits to begin with, Maimonides’ “golden mean” or “middle path,” but how does one cure an imbalance? How does one go about changing oneself, correcting faults or flaws in one’s character? In 2.1-2, Rambam describes two steps one should take in such a case:

1. In illnesses of the body on tastes the bitter as sweet, and the sweet as bitter… In the same way, human beings whose souls are sick desire and love the negative traits and hate the straight path and are reluctant to follow it, and it is very burdensome to them because of their illness…. What is the remedy for those who are ill of soul? They should go to the wise men, who are the healers of souls, and they shall heal their illness by the [proper] ways that they teach them, until they return them to the proper path. But those who are cognizant of their bad traits, but do not go to the Sages to heal them, concerning them Solomon said, “fools despise wisdom and instruction” [Prov 1:7].

A thought about the turn of phrase in this halakhah, in which the wise man is described as “a healer of soul.” Israel today is filled with “healers of the soul,” must of whom seem to specialize in various kinds of “practical Kabbalah” and Kabbalistic magic—writing amulets, giving the “patient” blessed water to drink, lighting at a tzaddik’s grave, checking mezuzot, revealing esoteric secrets hidden in a person’s name or date of birth, performing various mystical ceremonies, etc. There is something pure and refreshing in the Rambam’s advice: he goes to the wise men to teach him the proper path. No more, but also no less.

2. And how are they to be healed? One who has an angry disposition is instructed to behave in such a way, that if he is beaten and cursed he does not feel anything at all. And he should adhere to this path for a long time, until he uproots the anger from his heart. And if he was haughty, he should behave in a disgraceful manner, and sit below everyone else, wearing torn rags that disgrace the one wearing them, and the like, until he uproots the haughtiness from his heart; and then he may return to the middle path, which is the correct path. But once he returns to the middle path, he should follow it his entire life; and he should act in the same way regarding the other traits: if he was at one extreme, he should turn himself to the other extreme, and behave thus for a long time, until he returns from it to the good path, which is the middle path in each and every trait.

One of Rambam’s central assumptions is that a persons’ behavior, and even his basic character traits, are under the control of his will. Thus, he merely needs to acquire knowledge of the right path (in which he is instructed by the Sage), and decide to do it, and this will inevitably lead to him doing the good. Many of us today are not quite so sanguine of the power of the will to overcome all obstacles. Modern psychology is much more aware of the persistence of habits, of the power of unconscious defenses and rationalizations to “fool” the conscious mind. At times, suppressed thoughts and traits can reemerge in a person even after years and decades.

And yet: this belief in the power of human will, in man’s ability to change, is one of the fundaments of Judaism. The belief in free will, in free choice, is an essential precondition of the very possibility of teshuvah, especially of the type of repentance in which a person remakes his personality in a radical way (see Teshuvah 7.1ff.; and cf. my discussion in HY V: Vaera). Without the ability to choose between good and evil, what meaning is there to any of the mitzvot, or to any of our ethical choices?

Rambam’s approach here seems reminiscent of behavioral conditioning. But unlike the behaviorists, who seem to conceive of man as no more than a collection of stimulus-response “brain wirings,” that can be altered and reconditioned by appropriate techniques (this idea was satirized in the rather violent ‘70s film, Clockwork Orange), the behavioral reconditioning suggested here by Rambam is the outcome of a conscious decision of the individual’s moral will.

We now turn to two traits which Rambam sees as exceptions to the general rule of the “middle path”—haughtiness, or pride, and anger:

3. And there are characteristics regarding which it is forbidden for a person to follow the middle path, but he must keep himself far away from the one extreme, going to the other extreme. And [one of these] is haughtiness, for it is not the good way that a person merely be modest, but he should be humble and extremely lowly of spirit. Therefore it is said of Moses our teacher that he was “very humble” [Num 12:3], and it does not merely say “humble.” Hence our Sages commanded, “you should be very very humble of spirit” [Avot 4.4]. And they further said, that whoever is arrogant, has denied the first principle [i.e., is a heretic]. As is said, “and your heart shall be lifted up, and you shall forget the Lord your God” [Deut 8:14]…

Likewise, anger is an extremely bad trait, and a person ought to keep away from it to the other extreme, and train himself never to be angry, even regarding a thing that it is fitting that he be angry. And if he wished to impose fear upon his children and the members of his household, or upon the public—if he is a communal official (parnas)—and wished to be angry with them so that they return to the good way, he should act before them as if he is angry so as to chasten them, but within himself his heart is calm, like a person who pretends to be angry but is not really angry. Our early Sages said, “Whoever is angry is as if he has worshipped idols.” And they said that whoever is angry, if he is wise, his wisdom departs him, and if he is a prophet, his prophecy leaves him. And those who are temperamentally angry, their life is no life. But the path of the righteous, is that they are insulted but do not insult others, hear their belittling, and do not respond. They act out of love and are joyful in suffering….

Interestingly, both these traits are associated by the Rabbis with apostasy, or with idolatry. In what sense is this true? It seems to me that the common denominator of both, is that in the case of both pride and arrogance, and anger, the person places him/herself, his/her own ego, in the center of existence. The haughty man believes that he is better than others; he cannot really be religious, because he is unable to humble himself even before God. The angry man is so engrossed in his own needs or wishes, seeing them as the most important thing in the world, that any frustration provokes a fit of rage. The object of their idolatry is thus… their own ego. The other negative traits mentioned earlier—gluttony, profligacy, lust, frivolity, etc.—are somehow not quite as all embracing as these two; they do not destroy any possibility of ethical living, of natural piety and love of the other, in quite as definitive a way as do these.

There is an interesting religious intuition here. During the Second Temple period, the old idolatries were to a large extent gone; people no longer engaged in the fertility cults of Baal and Ishtarte, with their lewd ceremonies, debauchery and human sacrifice. In its stead, the spirit, the essence of idolatry, persisted in the form of deification of the human being, such as the emperor, placing his persona in the center.

Two other points here are interesting: that the angry person loses his wisdom and, if he is a prophet, his prophetic spirit. Human wisdom, and even more so spiritual attainment, are based upon a certain calmness of spirit, a degree of ego-detachment. One moment of anger can undo hours of calmness and reflection. This does not only, or even mainly, apply to meditation or other-worldly mystical states; it applies equally well to study, or to peaceful, joyful work in the world. One who is constantly angry, even if he/she is highly intelligent (and I have known such people) can never attain the spiritual equilibrium needed for real higher levels of wisdom and the spirit.

Yet Rambam faces a dilemma here: at times anger can also serve an important social function, to admonish others. If one is always calm, and never upset by anything, others may think that nothing is important to you, and this may be a hindrance to effective teaching or parenting or other leadership functions. Hence, Rambam adds that under certain circumstances one may deliberately put on an outward display of rage, all the time being careful not to actually feel angry, but to maintain an inner calm. But real anger, as an emotion felt within oneself, is always destructive, and to be avoided.

Before leaving the subject of Maimonides’ “golden/middle path,” I would like to quote some reactions I received to last week’s page from David Greenstein, whose comments are always illuminating:

There is an important structural difference between the way the tum'ah / taharah system works and the way the de'ot system works. The former is a binary system: yes or no, tamei or tahor (doubts are simply that—situations where the real status is not known). What Rambam accomplished with his “middle way” theory was to create a tripartite structure. In and of itself this may not sound very deeply different; after all, it is only one more term. But the difference is profound. Establishing a third term actually establishes the concept of the “gray area.” Indeterminacy is recognized with regard to de'ot. Even though the language sounds quantitative, it is actually the opposite. This can be understood by re-reading the Rambam's description of what happens when one deviates from the middle path. In his view there is no way to deviate a little bit from the middle. He writes that once when leaves the middle, one automatically finds one's self at one of the extremes. This suggests to me that the middle path is the entire broad spectrum between those two extremes, the broad spectrum that includes something of both, but not in a definite 50/50 split. If it were limited to the 50/50 split, one could possibly deviate from the middle to 51/49, etc. Thus the establishing of the tripartite structure is really the abolition of the binary system of either/or.

This makes the Rambam's analogy between the two systems that you quote from the end of Sefer Taharah all the more touching. The problem with all indeterminate systems is that they may leave one unclear about direction and choice. Rambam uses the analogy from the clear system of im/purity to instill hope in the one who struggles with the daunting prospect of being lost in the gray complexities of spiritual/ethical living. Ultimately Rambam makes an equation between the “waters of knowledge” and “God’s mercy” as the medium of spiritual/ethical purification.

We shall conclude for now with the heading of Chapter 5, which may be taken as a practical application of “you shall be holy”:

Just as the wise man be recognized by his wisdom and his traits, and he is separated thereby from the rest of the people so must he be recognizable in his acts: in his manner of eating, and drinking, and his sexual life, and in his attending to his bodily functions, and in his speech, and in his walking, and in his dress, and in his managing his affairs, and on his business dealings, and all these acts should be most pleasant and correct.

We shall return to the fleshing out of this text, in the body of the chapter, at a later date.

Miscellaneous Comments

The first of the two Torah portions read this week begins with instructions for the expatiation ceremony performed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur on behalf of the entire Jewish people, to attain them forgiveness for all their sins. Rambam discusses this ceremony in two places: in Hilkhot Avodat Yom ha-Kippurim (“Laws of the Yom Kippur Service”; Sefer Avodah), where he gives the detailed sequence and laws of the Temple service for that day; and in Chapter 1 of Hilkhot Teshuvah, where he discusses the kaparah (atonement) affected by this, and by other forms of atonement. This passage, the important distinction it draws between kaparah and teshuvah, and the relation between the two, will be discussed, God willing, during this coming Elul, when we will return to the Laws of Teshuvah as we have done in previous years.

A second topic that is central in this double portion is that of sexuality. Two of the five biblical chapters that constitute this week’s reading deal with sexual behavior—specifically, the codex of forbidden sexual liaisons. The section in Aharei Mot (Lev 18) lists the prohibited kinds of intercourse that form the rubric of giluy arayot (mistakenly translated “incest,” the term also includes adultery, homosexuality, and relations with beasts); that in Kedoshim (Lev 20) lays down the sanctions prescribed for violations of these rules. The seeming duplication is required by the juridical rule, “one does not punish a person unless he has been forewarned,” which is taken to mean that the Torah always gives separate verses for the statement of a prohibition and its punishment.


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