Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Amongst majestic mountains

One of the great things about being a Shliach, as opposed to being a regular Bochur, is that I have the ability to follow my whims to a certain extent. For example, I decided this morning that I had to find the ultimate Maamar which deals with the concept of "The heavens did not come down to the earth and the earth did not rise up unto the heavens." Why did I decide on this topic specifically, as opposed to all the other Shavuos topics out there? I'm not quite sure. I remember learning a bunch of Maamarim on this subject when I was in YOEC a couple years ago, and I figured I'd have no problem coming up with a good one. Boy, was I wrong. After extensive research into the subject, I've only found one Maamar which really deals with this. Admittedly, my search has focused on the Rebbe's and the Friedriker Rebbe's Sefarim, but still.... It's been particularly frustrating, because whenever it's brought down in the footnotes it mentions the same couple places and then says "V'chulo", "etc." It's mentioned all over the place, but usually only briefly. Still, I'm convinced that A. A little more searching will bring up what I'm looking for, and B. My faithful readers will have lots of good suggestions. And don't think I didn't check the index at the back of Melukat, or look up every referenced Maamar from the Rebbe and Friedriker Rebbe.

Anyway, I'm sure you're wondering what the Maamarim talk about. G-d came down on a little mountain and revealed himself, with visible thunder, audible lightning, and plenty of fire and smoke. No, this wasn't an acid trip, it was the greatest thing that ever happened. So what did G-d say when he revealed himself? Don't murder. Don't commit adultery. Respect your mother and father. Don't steal other people's people, or their shtuff. Don't be envious of other people's cows, donkeys, or even Cadillacs.
Incredible, no? Well, no. G-d used this most awesome occasion to run through some basic laws? We don't need G-d for this. Anyone with half a brain could figure this shtuff out. In addition, what was the whole point of the giving of the Torah? The holy books state that Avraham Avinu kept the entire Torah, even the rabbinic enactments. He probably didn't even eat gebrockts! Why did G-d have to give the Torah?

In general, the Mitzvos are divided into three categories: Mishpatim, Eduth, and Chukim, which means understandable laws, testimonys, and non-understandable law. Naturally, people enjoy doing things they understand, while they don't enjoy doing things which they don't understand. Therefore, some people think that a person should keep the Chukim with the same fervor as they keep the Mishpatim. The Friedriker Rebbe says that this is incorrect; a person should strive to fulfill the Mishpatim with the same Kabbalos Ol, acceptance of the yoke of heaven, as they keep the Chukim.
Therefore, we need to have G-d commanding the Mishpatim. Who were the perpetrators of the Holocaust? One of the most intelligent, cultured, and refined people. They were among the first in the world to have laws prohibiting animal abuse. And yet they murdered a heck of a lot of people. Why? Because their laws were based on human intellect. They believed in "Thou shalt not murder", but they also believed that they were not murdering.

These two answers are nice, but they only answer one part of the question, "Why did G-d need to issue these obvious commands"? We're still left wondering what the whole production was for. Couldn't G-d have just called the Jews into a conference room, made a nice Powerpoint presentation, and left it at that?

Back in the day, there was a rule: "The heavens can't come down to the earth, and the earth can't go up to the heavens." Before the giving of the Torah, nothing spiritual could become physical, and nothing physical could become spiritual. Our forefathers kept the whole Torah, but it was an entirely spiritual service. Yaakov did the Mitzva of Tefillin with wooden sticks, but the sticks didn't become holy in the process. The Mitzvos that were done before the giving of the Torah are called "Fragrances", because they smelled really nice, but there was nothing tangible.

After the giving of the Torah, when the heavens came down and the earth went up, things were very different. When we do the Mitzva of Tefillin, the actual cow hide becomes holy. Are Mitzvos are called "Fragrant Oil", because they smell nice and they're tangible.

This is why G-d made a whole big thing to give the Torah; it takes a lot to bring heaven down to earth, and even more importantly, to raise earth up to heaven. And why was it necessary? Because the whole purpose of creation is to make a dwelling place for Hashem down here, to make the physical spiritual, to unify the two with the coming of Moshiach, may that be right now.


Leo de Toot said...

Dear Mr. TRS:
so what you're saying is, is that by "personally" stating the "rational" commandments, G-d infused them with holiness? If I'm right, that's a really great lesson! Wow!

As always, hoping to get it right, Leo de T.

Just like a guy said...

Sounds about right to me. The goal is to keep these rational commands not because we understand them, but because Hashem commanded them. Once we only keep them because we understand them, then it's possible that we'll cease understanding them properly, which, as the Rebbe constantly said, is what enabled the Holocaust to happen.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mister Toot,

I have noticed an interesting construction in a sentence of yours which I am wondering if you can explain: "so what you're saying is, is that by 'personally' stating the 'rational' commandments, G-d infused them with holiness?"

What's up with this "is, is" form? An acquaintance of mine speaks the same way, and I have recently begun to ponder this phenomenon. (What I'm saying is, is he also uses to ises in his speech) L'cheorah, the subject of the sentence is "What you're saying"; the verb, or simple predicate, is "is"; and the object is "that by 'personally'...." (I know this isn't really an object, but I don't know the correct term; the point is that that clause takes the place of the object.)

For what does one need the second "is"? The said acquaintance has not been blessed with a plethora of intelligence nor with the patience to analyze his unique sentence structure. Perhaps an educated gentleman such as you, or any of the other TRS readers, could share their thoughts about this tendency and its correctness vis-à-vis standard English usage.

Sincerely yours,
The guy who swiped your identity

Nemo said...

I don't think the point is that every one of the Mishpatim is apparent and that we didn't need G-d to give it. There are many countries with vastly different laws. In truth no law, even that of murder is self-evident. In fact, some of the things which are deplorable by today's standards could have been entirely legitimate at some point in history.

My understanding of Mishpatim, is that the idea of having civil law is has a logical basis in human logic. People understand that there is a need for society to be run by a single standard for behavior, and therefore willing to accept the rule of law.

What Hashem did by giving the Law at Sinai was that he gave permanence to a single form of law; saying murder, theft, adultery, etc. are bad. Without a supreme command, the law would be alterable on a whim or with changes in society. Specific laws be at-once logical and illogical, depending on the situation. In natural law, murder, for example, can be necessary as a matter of self-preservation, but it can also cause chaos if everybody was able to murder.

When Hashem gave the Torah, he made an absolute, immutable command that murder is wrong. So no matter what happens, and what idealistic changes happen to society, the law will never change, by dint of being commanded as the will of G-d.

Just like a guy said...

"There are many countries with vastly different laws. In truth no law, even that of murder is self-evident"

A. Many states have different tax laws, but they're all based on a single premise. B. Even if murder etc. are legal, they're still wrong, just like abortion in this country is legal, but many say that it's wrong.

"In fact, some of the things which are deplorable by today's standards could have been entirely legitimate at some point in history."

i.e., slavery. The question is not whether we deplore it, but whether it makes sense.

"In natural law, murder, for example, can be necessary as a matter of self-preservation, but it can also cause chaos if everybody was able to murder."

A minor quibble, but I believe most would consider this to be killing, which of course is not prohibited by the Torah. No one claims that WWII was murder, though much killing was involved, just like no one claims the Holocaust was merely killing, though that's essentially what it was as well. Where to draw the line is debatable, but I believe that every society does legislate, even with the law of the jungle, a difference.

In general, I think we argue on one point. We both support moral equivalence, but I would say that the human species, no matter the location in time and space, does have an inherent knowledge of right and wrong, even if they refuse to abide by it. You would say that nothing is inherently evil, and that only Hashem's giving of the Torah brought any specific standard into play.

Nemo said...

"Even if murder etc. are legal, they're still wrong"

What makes them wrong? Your conscience? Your convenience? Your need to survive and not be murdered, raped, robbed and beaten?

None of that is objective, meaning law and morality are left to whatever society deems appropriate or the individual sees as appropriate. You take for granted that everyone has a built-in moral compass, but that isn't necessarily true. Before there was a Torah to standardize law and morality, and also to standardize what is good and bad, there could be no way to behave - incontrovertibly - right.

Law and morality aren't inherent; only because our society has been conditioned to understand subjective right and wrong, and the "self-evident" truths of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we don't imagine that anyone would want otherwise. But without a definitive Torah as a guide, non-Jewish philosophers have waxed greatly not only on what is considered good and bad, but whether there is the very existence of good and bad to begin with.

Just like a guy said...

When Aristotle was caught with a horse, contrary to his professed opinions on the matter, he said, "This is not Aristotle." It would seem that he knew there was a right and wrong, even if he refused to abide by it.
I knew when I wrote that there is absolute truth that I'd get in trouble for it, but I'm willing to bet that the Torah perspective on this issue would be that there is innate human morality which is based on absolute truth.
Does the Torah really hold this? Ich Vais Nisht. My mashpia said it does...

Nemo said...

That's a skewed way to look at the story (whichever version of it you believe). The point was that Aristotle always professed some form of morality and here he was clearly breaking from HIS norm. Mashpiim use this story to illustrate that even the most intelligent, ethically upright person is still human at the end of the day, and can still succumb to base pleasures.

I'm not saying that the only morality comes from Torah- there were others that lay claim to morality and believe in no deity at all. But that isn't absolute; every premise can be contradicted through all sorts of sophistry- making the "worse" argument the better. In absolute, objective terms though, there is no one right answer.

In the premise that Hashem gave the Torah, the logic is infallible, because we believe all the great things we believe about Hashem. His giving us the Torah was a transmission of His will. That's why in Judaism something is incorrect on the otherwise trite logical basis that that's "what it says."

"Does the Torah really hold this? Ich Vais Nisht. My mashpia said it does..."

Look, I'm always open to the possibility that I'm wrong. My writing here is based on my memories of understanding the Rebbe's Sichos and a little bit of independent thinking.

I believe that morality could exist sans Torah, but that morality would be relative. People have many non-religious reasons to uphold morality.

Don't forget the famous Gemara about us learning moral traits from animals were it not for the Torah. This indicates two things according to the Torah (correct me if I'm wrong): humans have an affinity for morality, but not an innate sense of what it is.

Nemo said...

Nemo said: "That's why in Judaism something is incorrect on the otherwise trite logical basis that that's "what it says.""

Should read: That's why in Judaism something is correct ...

Just like a guy said...

In fact, I base myself on that Gemara. I believe it's mashma that we would have looked at the animals and come up with Torah's morality. I would think this because the world is based on Torah, "Hashem looked into Torah and created the world", and therefore any learned morality would naturally skew towards a Torah-based approach, since animals have no Bechira, so they're actions are based on Torah.
To argue, "what if there was no Torah" is a moot point, because there is a Torah.
I believe that the Aristotle story shows that there is morality, even if it is relative and even if it is disregarded.

"That's why in Judaism something is correct on the otherwise trite logical basis that that's "what it says.""
This is what makes us great, and causes people like Christopher Hitchens to hate us. And by the way, I know you're a stickler for grammar, so the following should be taken in that vein: As far as I can recall, when there are quotation marks in the middle of a quotation, as you have in the above sentence, the nested marks should be single, i.e. '. That's one, like an apostrophe, not two.

Anonymous said...

Mister TRS,

I'm glad to see that you're standing up for the rights of abused, minority punctuation marks! Now, if we could only get you to follow American conventions about putting the period inside the quotation mark...

Leo de Toot said...

Dear Mr. R. Shliach:

I had thought that the point about the Mishpatim was not so much that they were logical but rather that if people worked hard enough at it they would be able to create them, if for no other reason than these laws made life easier, safer and more predictable. The Chukim, on the other hand, would not, in of themselves, achieve this. While it is possible for society to come up with irrational laws, these would merely be contrivances and not add in any meaningful way to human existence. (Witness, for example, the various strange rituals and procedures incorporated into various social clubs such as the Masons.)

To Mr. Identity Thief: I understand your problem completely - you speak American, I speak English.

As always, from across the pond, Leo de Toot.

Just like a guy said...

Mr. Identity Thief, sounds like you've been shteched. As for LdT, point is, at this point, I've lost track of what exactly the point is supposed to point out to us. Mishpatim are everything we've claimed for them, at least to a certain extent.

Nemo said...

TRS- As a matter of fact, I had the mental deliberation whether to change the ("") to ('') in that quotation, but (a) that's too much effort in copy-pasting and (b) I decided that this being a blog, I'm going to conform to un-official blogging standards and not alter what has already been published. But you are technically correct, although it's an issue of punctuation, not grammar. Kudos.

... "we would have looked at the animals and come up with Torah's morality."

(stokes beard) Even if we would have come up with the Torah's morality by analyzing animals behavior (which is the Mashma'us of the Gemara; didn't say it wasn't), we wouldn't have it on authority as the ultimately and essentially correct morality.

"To argue, 'what if there was no Torah' is a moot point" (quotation marks adjusted)

Please explain.

Just like a guy said...

First of all, please don't set fire to your beard, and if you've already done so, certainly don't stoke the flames. There are many ways of committing suicide, but this way is probably one of the more unpleasant ones.
Fine, so we wouldn't know if our morality was ultimately and essentially correct. Thing is, without religion, there would be no ultimate and essentially correct morality, because how would anyone know? So once we know that there is a Torah, we know that there is a standard of morality, which means that the human invention would have been the correct one. How do we know that? Because the Torah said so. To argue about a possible world without Torah, and hence with no ultimate and essentially correct morality, is useless, because such a thing doesn't exist.

Nemo said...

It annoys me when my joke goes totally wrong. Geez, and I try so hard ...

I see some merit to your argument: If we would have been perceptive enough to learn morality from all the animals around us, that would have satisfied knowing what right from wrong without having ever been told explicitly. This also assumes that we would have been perceptive enough to know what NOT to do, which animals not learn our habits from, i.e. the Chasida bird. So humans could have determined absolute morals.

From a logical standpoint it's honestly a little weak - hence "philosophy" - but I'm willing to assume that it works based on Torah.

But it still doesn't go against my initial point. One distinction that I intended to make clear was the difference between laws and morality. True that they work hand in hand, but you can have morality that goes above the law, and laws that go against what might be considered moral. Matan Torah gave a permanence beyond reproach to what the law should be and how it should be enforced. It taught what should be ethical and what should be evil, based on 613 commandments. The commands are timeless and concrete and no force or opinion can vitiate it.

True that our attitudes shift and even within Torah things may be considered inappropriate at certain times, but that must substantiate itself through the Torah itself.

(sorry if this is unclear, but I'm starving hungry and no time to think or change anything)

Anonymous said...

Was I shtechted somewhere in the great philosophical debate between TRS and Nemo? I haven't noticed any shtechage.

Just like a guy said...

Laws and morality are different. I agree. Identity Thief, LdT shteched you, not Nemo or I.

Anonymous said...

r u a fan of the shpy?

Just like a guy said...

Who isn't?

Anonymous said...

this comment is totally random but i have a question for you. this is my first time reading this blog and i saw that you are a shliach in twin cities. do have any involvement in the yeshiva there? if so, what?

Just like a guy said...

I am, in fact, a Shliach in the Yeshiva High School of the Twin Cities, otherwise known as MyYeshiva, Yeshiva Done Right. If there's any way I can help you...