Thursday, October 12, 2006

Simhat Torah (Rambam)

“And the Earth shall be filled with Knowledge of the Lord”: A Kind of Hadran

Just as on Simhat Torah Jews in synagogues throughout the world conclude the reading of the Torah and begin it again, so will this final number in our series on the teachings of Maimonides serve as a kind of Hadran: a reading of the very last passage in his magnum opus, with comments and reflecting back to the very beginning.

The last two chapters of the Laws of Kings deals, as will be remembered (see HY V: Vayehi), with the doctrine of the Messiah, including some acerbic comments against those who devote excessive time and energy to speculations about when Messiah will come, how things will be when he comes, or in hysterical anticipation of him in the here-and-now. Rambam then concludes with some remarks about the telos, the ultimate purpose of the age of Messiah. Hilkhot Melakhim 12.4:

4. The Sages and prophets did not desire the days of Messiah, either in order to rule over the entire world, nor in order to dominate the pagan nations, nor so that those nations might raise them on high, nor in order to eat and drink and be merry. But rather, that they might be free to engage in the Torah and its wisdom, without any oppressor or one who might counteract it, that they might merit the life of the World to Come, as we have explained in the Laws of Repentance [see Teshuvah 8-9].

The aim of the Last Days is neither the invidious pleasure of seeing our enemies defeated and humiliated, nor to enjoy physical pleasures (in Teshuvah 8.6 he strongly denounces the corporeal conception of the Afterlife of Islam, held by “the foolish, wicked Arabs, immersed in lechery”). Rather, the goal is that all human beings might be free to engage in the pursuit of wisdom, without the hindrances of either political strife or economic necessity.

5. And at that time there will be neither hunger nor war, neither jealousy nor competition, for there shall be very great abundance, and all dainties shall be as common as dust. And the entire world shall be engaged in knowing the Lord alone. Therefore, Israel will be great sages, knowing hidden things, and they shall attain knowledge of their Creator according to the human capability. As is said, “for the earth be filled with knowledge of the Lord, like water flowing to the sea” [Isa 11:9].

I would like to return briefly to our earlier discussion of Rambam’s concept of Torah study. In our Shavuot issue, we suggested that, if three particular Maimonidean passages are read in tandem with one another, a remarkable picture emerges. In Talmud Torah 1.12-13, Rambam includes Pardes under the rubric of gemara, which he describes as the attempt to understand and integrate Torah on a deeper level within his own mind: to ponder and reflection upon the contents he has already learned, to understand their interconnections and relations; moreover, in §13 he says that, once a person has learned mastered the subject matter of Torah, most of his time should be devoted to study on this level. In Yesodei ha-Torah 4.13, Rambam equates Pardes with Ma’aseh Merkavah / Ma’aseh Bereshit (“Works of the Chariot” and “Works of Creation”), traditionally seen as the esoteric teaching within Judaism, which may only be taught to select students, who have reached a deep level of comprehension, under circumscribed conditions. Unlike the Kabbalistic view, which equates these areas with Kabbalah, Rambam identifies these subjects with the essentially neo-Aristotelian cosmology and metaphysics that he outlines in 2.2-4.12. Moreover, in Yesodei ha-Torah 2.2 and in 4.12, he states that study and reflection upon these matters are the path to the love and fear of God; indeed, it is this ultimate goal that serve as the justification for presentation of these cosmological and metaphysical doctrines in those chapters. Finally, in Teshuvah 10.6 (which we presented here for Yom Kippur), he reiterates the point that the true love of God is to be attained through knowledge of Him, the intensity of the love being directly proportional to the depth of ones knowledge.

Taking all these elements together, one arrives at a simple but radical conclusion: Thus, Rambam Maimonides sees the highest good as knowledge of God, acquired first and foremost through understanding of His ways in the cosmos, and through a clear philosophical conception of the nature of God. Talmud Torah is thus seen as an instrument for attaining meta-halakhic goals, namely, spiritual intellectual-knowledge of God. Talmud Torah in the more usual, “yeshivish” sense of halakhic and Talmudic studies, is important, both to sharpen the mind and so that a person may know his practical obligations in this world, but they are in a certain sense secondary to Pardes, in the sense of cosmological and metaphysical knowledge. Thus, his ideal differs profoundly from that of, e.g., Rav Soloveitchik’s halakhic man, who derives intellectual and spiritual satisfaction from ever deeper understanding of the ideal, almost “Platonic” world of the halakhah per se, but is almost indifferent to metaphysics and mysticism. No wonder, then, that in the century or two that followed Maimonides, many of the champions of unsullied Rabbinism mocked the followers of Rambam who, in their words, “study a chapter of Aristotle and recite Rabbanan Kaddish!” (i.e., treat such “outside” teachings with the reverence reserved to Torah).

Interestingly, the hierarchy of values implied in Rambam’s approach is also found in the Hasidic school of Habad. Starting from the assumption that the love and fear of God are among the greatest mitzvot, ones incumbent upon a person at all times, they have developed an entire discipline of Torah study (which they refer to as Hasidut), intended to lead to religious consciousness through contemplation of God’s greatness, and from there to ecstatic love and awe of Him (see, e.g. HY IV: Vayishlah; Vayakhel). The difference, of course, is that the Habad system is rooted in Zoharic, and especially Lurianic, Kabbalah, filled with the terminology of sefirot and partzufim, all of which are totally alien to Rambam’s world.

Rambam’s Great Circle

Thus, the description of Messiah in Hilkhot Melakhim 12, which ends the Yad as a whole, concludes with the love and fear of God as the ultimate end: Messiah will come so that all people may be free to engage in Torah and wisdom, to attain knowledge of God. “The world will be full of knowledge of God, like water flowing to the sea” [Isa 11:9]. Readers will remember the principle mentioned here a number of times in the name of the late Yaakov Levinger: that the peroration of each book is a kind of link to the one that follows, providing a kind of hint, literary or subject, to the one that follows. Interestingly, this is also true of the work as whole: its conclusion takes us back to the very beginning, to the words with which he opens Hilkhot De’ot: “The foundation of foundations and the pillar of all wisdoms is to know that there is a First Cause—[God]“ In its initial context, it seems that this is presented as a the first and most basic axiom in a theology that is necessary for the individual to perform all the rest of the mitzvot of the Torah. But at the end of the book, we see that knowledge of God is not only an initial premise needed to go further in the enormous edifice / structure that is Torah, but that it is also the its ultimate telos: at the End of Time, the goal of the whole elaborate business of human life and society and culture is that the earth may be filled with the knowledge of God, the many individual minds flowing in a vast torrent, like the drops of water from all the streams and rivulets being gathered in the vastness of the oceans. Like the Ouroborus, the serpent of ancient Greek myth which circles around upon itself to swallow its own tail, so too may we say of Rambam’s great oeuvre that, “its end is inherent in its beginning, and its beginning is anchored in its end.” The hadran alakh (“We shall return to you”) recited upon finishing a tractate of Talmud, or the great custom of beginning to read the Torah again as soon as one finishes it on Simhat Torah, is here inherent in the very structure of the book itself!

Completed are the Laws of Kings and the work as a whole. Blessed be He who spoke and the world was, in its details and in its wholeness.


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