Sunday, August 11, 2013

Guide for the Theologically Perplexed

The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim argues that the reason for sacrifices in the Torah, as opposed to say worshiping God exclusively through prayer, is that we were so accustomed to these practices that the Torah couldn't just take them away from us entirely. All the world had Temples and sacrifices to their gods, and so the Torah allowed us to worship via sacrifices as well, as a way of sublimating the drive to follow idolatrous practices.

What I want to do is take it a step further and say as follows: All the world had gods. It was unheard of not to believe in and worship a god. And so the Torah effectively sublimates the drive to believe in gods by packaging its own narratives and commands in God-language. Instead of going from many gods to none, which would be too big a jump, at least we can take it down to one mega-god, and a less corporeal one.

To be clear, I don't believe that this was the actual intent of the Torah. Just like I don't agree with the Rambam that the Torah viewed sacrifices as a concession, I don't think that the Torah viewed Hashem as a concession either. I think it's fairly clear that both God and sacrifices are taken for granted in the Torah as being the optimal belief and practice. However, just as the Rambam wants to make sense of the Torah in retrospect as being a step in the right direction, implying what the optimal state would be - a "clean" worship of God without sacrifices, I'd like to do that as well, and say that the Torah constitutes a stepping stone toward a more optimal state - where we act in accordance with the highest standards of personal/societal conduct, while "clean" of any god-worship whatsoever.

My apologies to the Rambam if he'd be upset at my appropriating his words, but since he already says something very close to what I want to say, I'd like to take part of Moreh Nevuchim 3:32 and "tweak" it to illustrate my point.

(The crossed out/greyed out text is the original wording, and the bold text is my emendation.)
When [a mammal] is born it is extremely tender, and cannot be fed with dry food. Therefore breasts were provided which yield milk, and the young can be fed with moist food which corresponds to the condition of the limbs of the animal, until the latter have gradually become dry and hard. Many precepts in our Torah pertaining to a supposed "God" are the result of a similar course adopted by the same Supreme Being the Torah. It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. ...

But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship belief in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in the worship of gods, for instance sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images gods, to bow down to those images gods, and to burn incense before them. Religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the so-called "divine" service in the temples erected to the stars to various gods, as has been explained by us. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God the Torah, as displayed in the whole Creation [as in the example above of mammals], that He it did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service belief; for to obey such a godless commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used. ...

For this reason God the Torah allowed these kinds of service beliefs to continue. He It transferred to His service "the one god" that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings many gods, and of things likewise imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him keep the Torah in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple." ...

By this Divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry, i.e. god-worship in general, were on their way toward being blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith Torah, the Existence and Unity of God loving one's neighbor as oneself, was firmly established. This result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service beliefs to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.

I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange: you will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that the Divine God-oriented commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake (i.e. out of the sincere belief in God and desire to worship Him), but only for the sake of some other thing (i.e. upright behavior and loving one's neighbor): as if they such beliefs were only the means which He the Torah employed for His its primary object? What prevented Him the Torah from making His its primary object a direct commandment to us, i.e. "You shall be a holy society, and without the false belief in a god", and to give us the capacity of obeying it? Those precepts and beliefs which in your opinion are only the means and not the object would then have been unnecessary.

Hear my answer, which will cure your heart of this disease and will show you the truth of that which I have pointed out to you. There occurs in the Torah a passage which contains exactly the same idea; it is the following: "God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people reconsider when they see war, and they return to Egypt; but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea," etc. (Exod. xiii. 17). Here "God" (quotes added) is described as having led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object.

In the same manner God the Torah refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying, and gave the above-mentioned God-oriented commandments and beliefs as a means of securing His its chief object, viz., to spread a knowledge of Him the principles of justice for the oppressed, compassion to the stranger, and other laws which pertain to the betterment of the individual and society, and to cause them to in the hopes that they would eventually reject idolatry, i.e. any worship of a god or gods. It is contrary to man's nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs and beliefs in which he has been brought up, and which have been so general, that they were considered as a matter of course. It would be just as if a person trained to work as a slave with mortar and bricks, or similar things, should interrupt his work, clean his hands, and at once fight with real giants. It was the result of God's the Torah's wisdom that the Israelites were led about in the wilderness of erroneous belief in a god till they acquired the courage to let go of that belief and abide by the principles of the Torah for their own sake. ...

In the same way, the all portions of the Torah under discussion whereby a "god" is referenced, either as Commander, as a character in the narrative, or as an object of worship, is the result of divine the Torah's wisdom, according to which people are allowed to continue the kind of worship and belief to which they have been accustomed, in order that they might acquire the true faith create a just and compassionate society, which is the chief object. 
(The original translation by M. Friedlander, Ph.D., 1904, can be found here.) 


  1. this was tough to process, on a pure comprehension level....


  2. i have been toying with such an idea for a while but we can not come to this realization before we are indeed mature enough to be weaned from this. the way religious ppl insist there is no morality without god and openly admit that they would kill and steal ect.. if TMS wasn't a historical fact shows you how far we are from being ready for this.
    honestly when i try to analize my self i am not sure if i would be able to handle it
    agav it occurred to me that a truly religious person would be moral even if there was no god, since he is striving to emulate god who is perfectly moral (vehalachta bedrachav) now as far as i know god is not perfectly moral because anyone commanded him to be so or because he wants to follow anyone who is so, so it follows that one who truly wants to emulate god has to be doing what he does with the same motivation as god, simply because he is perfectly moral

    1. Have you actually heard religious people say they'd steal or kill (?!) without Torah mi-Sinai? Mind-boggling!

      Regarding your last point, that's a fascinating idea. To truly emulate God means to be moral without having to be "commanded" as such. In essence, God has no God - and our task is to try to be like God. A bit of a brain-twister, but I like it!

  3. I guess the Rambam didn't know any Baalei Teshuva.
    And he brings a raaya to the "diseased" people from a strange passage in the Torah. So Hashem shouldn't have had the Egyptians pursue, or have those giant Canaanites - the people clearly weren't ready for those things.
    And would it be so hard to not allow sacrifices; I imagine by the following generation or two the lack of it wouldn't seem so strange.

    1. John,

      Re: Baalei Teshuva, I assume you mean that they willingly leave behind the customs of their upbringing? It's a good point. In fact, isn't that the whole idea of לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך? So why couldn't we just leave sacrifices behind too, if that were really preferable? My guess is the Rambam would say "ein hachi nami" - for special individuals who can totally abandon the customs and beliefs they've been raised with, absolutely they can/should. But the Torah is meant for the "hamon am", and we can't expect everyone to be able to do this.

      As for pursuing Egyptians and giant Canaanites, these don't represent challenges to our "customs" but rather to our courage and to our faith that Hashem will protect us. At least that's how those narratives function.

      But here's the question that comes to mind for me: A quick perusal of Nach reveals that for the 700 years following Moshe's death we were utterly inept insofar as keeping the Torah for any prolonged period of time. And these were (according to the yeridat hadorot tradition) "spiritual giants" compared to us. So it sounds as if the whole proposition of Torah might be something we were not - and never will be - ready for!

      Thanks for the comment.

    2. I was trying to compare the chasing Egyptians and giant Canaanites to what the Rambam brought about Hashem not leading Bnei Yisroel derech HaPlishtim - that it would be too hard for them. So I was trying to point out that in other places Hashem had no problem doing just that. So I didn't understand his raaya. The answer I guess would be that in my examples Hashem wanted to test them or perform that miracle and by the path of the Philistines Hashem didn't care to just go another way (didn't feel a miracle or test was necessary at that point.
      I'm just not convinced of his svara though. One, could have had the bridge involve bringing incense and meal offering and wine libations. It's hard for me to conceive that they had this burning (pardon the pun) need to burn animals. Two, I think Rashi says that they cried about being assur to arayos and they were in the land of shtufei zima, where was the bridge for that inyan?

      I like your thought about yeridas hadoros and our early ancestors' deficiencies.

  4. That sounds Kantian. Our morality is autonomous and cannot be imposed by others.