Monthly Archives: February 2013

That Kant be a Dinosaur: Immanuel Kant and Rabbi Time

In the following, we will expose the parallel that exists between the Rabbinic concept of ‘time’ and Kant’s concept of transcendental idealism. To start, I will offer a brief outline of Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic in which he concludes that the physical world is dependent upon man’s construction of the phenomenal world out of the noumenal presentation. Subsequently, I will offer two examples of how Rabbinic Judaism deals with time and bifurcates it into two categories, namely, Chronological time and Historical time. Then, I will show that the two approaches of time, the philosophical and the rabbinic, can really be understood as one and, consequently I’ll shed light on a novel way to view history.

According to the Biblical account of creation in Genesis, the formation of the world took place over six days and on the Seventh Day God rested. Not surprisingly, astro-physicists and theologians offer contradictory pictures of the earliest workings of the universe and the manner in which it evolved to exist as we experience it today. While scientists estimate that the universe is roughly fifteen billion years old, a literalist read of the Biblical account indirectly offers a more conservative estimation of less than six thousand years. Many scholars, conversant in both science and religion, have tackled this type of question in recent years, though more often than not, the proponent’s conclusions only reflect his or her original biases before attempting to tackle the problem. Nonetheless, usually one will find that the Biblical account is bent, through metaphoric or other non-literal interpretations, away from its apparent meaning in order to fit with modern scientific claims. Generally it is assumed that the biblical and the scientific accounts are mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, we will offer another remedy to this conflict: the transcendental idealist’s answer to this problem. Namely, when one views the world through Kant’s transcendental idealistic lens, all time discrepancies disappear.

I will start by offering a quick background from sections of Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic. We all have been exposed to versions of Kant’s vision of the noumenal world and the phenomenal world. Things are classified as either transcendentally ideal or phenomenally real. Those things that are part of the phenomenal reality are objects that exist in time and space. The noumena are, by contrast, neither temporal nor spatial. So how does man interpret the noumenal world? Kant argues that mankind must unconsciously perform various elaborate processes of synthesis upon the crude data of the senses. These various processes must function according to certain general rules and principles universal to all normally functioning minds. Thereby, the human mind combines a priori concepts and noumenal presentations to arrive at the crude sensation of experiencing a physical, interactive world of independent persisting things. Spatial and temporal characteristics are imposed by humans on the objects in which they perceive.

So in other words, when you put on your ‘time and space goggles,’ you see reality not as it is, but with a slight alteration. So when a foreign object affects a person’s mind and produces a modification, the human percipient reacts and thereby sees a world of physical objects.

So, objects act upon us and produce various mental modifications. But what is the relationship between these objects and what we see? I do not want to go into the various opinions of the one world vs. two world theories, but I think a beautiful insight can be drawn nonetheless. Kant says in the Critique, as opposed to the Leibnizian or Newtonian views of his day, that things ‘belong only to the form of intuition, and thereby to the subjective constitution of our minds, apart from which they could not be ascribed to anything at all’ (A23/B38).  Because the noumenal world can only be understood through negative categories, exactly like negative theology, the positive characteristics of spatiality and temporality cannot be applied to it. Kant sums this up by saying that in regards to both the spatial and temporal frameworks, ‘they belong only to appearance’ (B55/A38).

Because the noumenal world could only be understood through the veil of negative characteristics, one would assume that there shouldn’t be any division, or spatiality, or temporality within the noumenal world. Just as the Judeo-Christian transcendental God is Not spatial/ is Not temporal, the noumenal universe should be the same. So, regarding the foreign object which is presented to the self, how is it possible that only one single thing is presented; we just said that the noumenal world shouldn’t have any division! I propose, instead, that we look at the noumenal world like an algorithm. Because we should be agnostic about detailing any of the positive characteristics of the noumenal world according to Kant, I believe that the less guessing or random hypothesizing about the noumenal, the better, and this algorithm presents the least guess work.

According to Kant, mankind’s experiences in the physical world are due to his self arranging, systemizing, and interpreting the information presented to him from the noumenal. So because time is not an objective entity, and only once mankind has the faculties to phenomenologically interpret the noumenal universe, and thus create the physical world, does time have any practical existence or ramifications for mankind.  Therefore, can historical events truly be said to occur if no human experienced the physical event?

Technically, one could argue the same point by dinosaurs (but I do not want to get into the question of ‘if they could construct the physical universe’), namely, did they ever walk the earth if there is was no one to interpret the data, or, more classicly, did the tree make a sound when it fell in the forest? 

When we apply the aforementioned idea, that man’s faculties create temporality to Judaism, the dates and locations of countless events included in the Pentateuch seem even more superfluous than we at first thought. For example, the revelation at Mount Sinai took place in the third month, exactly fifty days from the Exodus from Egypt; also, in regards to the desert encampments enumerated in Numbers chapter 33, it says that the Israelites traveled from Ramses to Succos to Eisam to Pi-HaChoros etc., the splitting of the Red Sea took place at “the Red Sea”; all these events are spatially marked by a named location – they take place within the space-time continuum – marked by geographical and sometimes temporal descriptions. But, once we try to understand the Pentateuch from a Kantian perspective on time, it seems ridiculous and overly verbose to name all of this minutia when these categories are only a consequent of the human participants.

To understand why the Pentateuch needs to be grounded in the space-time continuum, we need first to understand two distinct concepts that Jose` Faur explicates in Homo Mysticus: chronological time and historical time. In rabbinic Judaism, the first official commandment found in the Pentateuch is “HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem” which is found in Exodus, (“It constitutes for you the firsts of the months of the year”) – that the new moon must be sanctified by the Sanhedrin, the high court. Rabbi Josef Soloveitchik explained that this commandment was the Jewish equivalent of the “emancipation proclamation.” This is because the Jewish nation was physically enslaved to their Egyptian masters: in mind as well as in body. They could not decide their own fate; their task masters defined their daily and life obligations. With the giving of this commandment, chronological time began for the Jewish nation and with that, freedom, not only freedom of time, but also of mind and body. Before this commandment, from the Jewish perspective, chronological time did not exist. In fact, because chronological time is understood as a consequent of this commandment, chronological time cannot be understood, or even exist, as independent of human construction; chronological time is man-made. Now we will offer two examples to see how this is manifest in Rabbinic Judaism.

Interestingly, when the high court in Jerusalem wishes to sanctify a new moon, as is required by rabbinic Judaism, the court never calculates in advance when the new moon will occur; instead, two witnesses testify before the court that they saw the new moon, and only once their testimony is accepted, is the new month proclaimed. So, the calendar is fully dependent upon man for sanctification and establishment; it does not exist independent of human constructions.

We should not be fooled by the practice of contemporary traditional Judaism in which the exact opposite is done – namely, the calendar is fixed and the months are already defined. But, this is only because in the fifth century, a sage named Hillel saw that the Jewish High Court was on the verge of being disbanded and without a High Court, there would be no way to sanctify the new month, and without the new month, rabbinic Jews would not be able to able to celebrate holidays which are contingent upon the sanctification of the new month. To enable the Jewish people to continue to celebrate Biblical holidays, Hillel sanctified all new months ad infinitum. So only by default are the new months inherently sanctified today, and if the High court was around today, the court would still need to sanctify the new moon. Without Hillel’s intervention, chronological time would have been lost forever.

In Tannaitic Literature, tractate Sanhedrin Chapter 5, the Mishna lists the seven questions a witness must answer before his testimony about an event is accepted: 1. Which jubilee cycle was the nation in; 2. which year of the jubilee cycle; 3. which month of the current year; 4. what day of the month; 5. what day of the week; 6. what hour of the day and; 7. what location did the event transpire. Surprisingly, these questions seem redundant to the point of silliness. Who cares if the witness doesn’t know which jubilee cycle the nation is currently in? Also, once we know the exact place and time, what other details do we really need?

The answer lies in the fact that in Judaism, time and location form the basic backbone and foundation for human discourse. If a witness is unable to identify the spatial and temporal framework in which he testifies about, if he cannot construct his thoughts and experiences in this space-time continuum, then he is excluded from testifying and is excluded from being a subject in the dialectical process of Israel.

Furthermore, the Mishna ends by asking what the requirements are for testifying about someone who worshiped an idol? The Mishna answers that the witness is only asked two questions: 1. Which idol did he worship and 2. how did he worship the idol. But, why would the Mishna leave out the other seven requirements of testimony when referring to idolatry? Really, it is because the case of idolatry is anomalous. The testimony asserts that another individual, the one who worships the idol, is not only not involved in the dialectical process, but is repudiating it. His action of worshiping the idol places him outside the rubric of rabbinic time; therefore, the normal categories of thought that apply to a Jew, the rabbinic space-time continuum, is inapplicable in this case. But why would Judaism construct a time contingent upon human perception?

Really, Judaism was responding to Pagan time. In contrast to the Judaic idea of time and revelation, the Pagan, or mythical, viewpoint on time allows cultures to abrogate the burdens of a causative and ‘responsibility accepting’ reality. The Torah insists on identifying the above mentioned locations, the Red Sea, the encampments, etc., in contradistinction to pagan and idolatrous cultures of the Biblical and rabbinic era. Pagans experience revelations and supra-psychic events, not in time and space, but in extratemporal time and in mythical time. Eliade explains in Sacred and the Profane, in chapter 1 “Myth of the Eternal Return,” that in the Pagan world, revelations take place at some primordial event in time; this time is cyclical in that the pagan culture attempts to repeatedly relive that event. Through the proper ritual, Pagans believe that it is possible to reverse time, to relive the mythical event that in some way is the root of the culture’s cosmology. Pagan revelations relate to events of the past that took place at the very earliest beginnings of the society.

Yet, in Judaism, aside from chronological time, there is Historical Time, which when understood as working together with chronological time, stand in stark opposition to the pagan idea of time. We will first connect the two to Kantian time in order to illustrate this point. While chronological time corresponds to the phenomenal universe, historical time corresponds to the noumenal universe. Just like chronological time exists only once the Jewish nation is commanded to sanctify the new moon and only as long as there is sanctification, phenomenal time only exists once a person’s mind exists to create the phenomenal world. If there is no human participation, these constructs cease to exist. On the other hand, historical time is as it is independent of human constructions, but because of it lacking any inherent impact on humanity, it is also without religious importance or significance. It exists as a staple for reference, in that all religious and sacred events take place against the backdrop of historical time; but, intrinsically this time cannot have a sacred or holy meaning. It exists only for reference: to differentiate it from the holy.

Accordingly, the Jewish Sabbath does not mark a primordial cosmological moment, but the beginning of historical time. According to rabbinic tradition, the first day of the Jewish calendar was the Sabbath, the Seventh Day, when G-d rested. So, not only was the Sabbath marking sacred/holy time, but also the beginning of desacralyzed time – the first day of historical time. The Jewish nation does not attempt to relive the first Sabbath, but rather commemorates it every week. Thereby, by setting up the two types of time constructs, the Pagan understanding of time is repudiated. Historical time allows for the mundane/the everyday, and chronological time allows for the holy to be imposed upon the mundane; but never do we allow the person to transcend the bounds of his or her own reality or spatial/ temporal framework.

Therefore, the Biblical account and the scientific account could be resolved, not by relegating the truth of one before the supremacy of the other, but by showing that the two estimations really are calculating time from two different vantage points and assuming two different foundations. Scientists measure time from the inception of the natural order; this natural order, though, only exists physically once humans impose a structure upon it; scientists could never say for sure that any events ever took place historically – that’s the philosophers job. Ironically, the empiricist David Hume would also be forced to agree and his belief that science only tells us about the past should be amended to say that science only tells us about the past events that have been studied, and any further back in time, we should be just as lost as in regards to future events. From a scientific perspective, one just assumes certain events took place without any deliberation about the philosophic consequences of this assumption. Yet, when one views time from the Kantian perspective, one cannot say that any event physically occurred unless there was some being who imposed a spatial/temporal framework on that event. Similarly, according to the rabbinic and biblical picture, unless one enters into the temporal framework of the Pentateuch, no individual could be said to take part in the dialectical process of Israel. In other words, their experiences are valueless religiously unless they could enter into the right temporal framework, namely chronological time. All desacralyzed time and events will fall into the framework of historical time and all religious events take place against the backdrop of historical time, but without human intervention and understanding, the events are profane.

So through analyzing time through the lens of Kant’s transcendental idealism, not only was the disparity between science’s and religion’s estimations found to be a misnomer, but we have gained a profound insight into the nature of the geography and temporal dating throughout the Pentateuch, and also the nature of rabbinic time.


1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy

Esther: The Ultimate Jewish Role Model

This Dvar Torah originally appeared in Elana Sharp’s compilation of insights into the Megillah. Contact her on Facebook if you want to be added to her weekly Dvar Torah email list. Additionally, the thought I’ve written here was sparked by theories discussed in Dr. Baruch Alster’s class on the Megilot, though of course any shortcomings are mine alone.

I) The 7th chapter of the book of Esther is a perfectly contained whirlwind of events, and, I think, the climax of the story. The perek (chapter) begins where we have just left off: Haman has just publicly honored his enemy Mordechai, and his wife Zeresh has warned him that he may fall to his ruin. Having just enough time to mourn and hear such depressing news from the person he relies on the most, the kings servants come and bring him to Esther’s banquet, to which he had previously been invited.

This is where we begin. As we all know, it is at this banquet that Esther tells her husband that she and her people have a grave enemy who seeks to destroy, massacre, and exterminate herself and her people


Achashverosh, boiling over with anger, eyes narrowed, turns to Esther and bellows those those short, powerful words:“Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?” He is angered. He is                                                                                     shocked, and amazed. Who would do this?

We all know, of course, who it is:

“The adversary and the enemy, this evil man Haman!”

This is all the more shocking. The evil man is Haman? The king leaves the room. He needs some space to consider what has happened.

The very enemy had been there at the table the entire time. He was a guest now, and he was a guest in the past. A trusted adviser for some time, he had influenced exceedingly important matters of policy and was given broad powers. If Achashverosh thought that Haman had crossed some lines, shouldn’t he have noticed before? After all, was it not he who had given Haman the very power he was using to try and destroy Esther and the Jewish people?

II) I think there is a simple lesson here which we are supposed to learn, but first let me describe each major acting force in the Megilah, before the lesson unwraps itself before us.

Achashverosh is a fool, pushed this way and that by others, his eyes closed to obvious consequences and responsibilities. He holds great power, Haman is evil, vindictive and prideful, but clever and sometimes fearful. He tries to control his surroundings because he realizes the threat and challenges in them, and this allows him to influence his king.

Mordechai is steadfast and confident, the consummate and calm hero who faces whatever comes. Esther is less confident, wavering at times, and often passive, but she comes through in the end. She rises to meet the incredible challenge before her, and she is met with the success she deserves. She is the only person in the Megilah who changes, and as she evolves she becomes a stronger person.

What is the lesson in all this, which we are taught from the 7th chapter, and the events we have described?

III) I think it is in the 7th chapter that we, the readers of the book of Esther, look ourselves in the mirror. We are very complex, so sometimes it’s hard to see things the way they are.

Perhaps, like Achashverosh in our chapter, something challenges us to open our eyes for a moment, and to protest against the status quo. We have closed our eyes to our actions like the king, and maybe we allowed our less desirable qualities, the Haman ins us, to come out.

We’ve been ignoring the fact that we hurt someone else, perhaps that we have done so often. That’s how Haman got to the table. We invited him, we asked him to advise us and to sometimes act on our behalf. All the while our eyes were closed.

Mordechai is not at the table. He is steadfast, and strong- stronger than we usually are in fact, and he does not usually come to the table. He holds the knowledge of tradition and a strong faith, and so do we. But it’s hard to be so strong all the time, and sometimes, it seems like our strongest qualities do not even come with us to greet a challenge. It’s just us, our desire to abdicate ourselves from free will, and our lesser qualities as people.

This is why we must be like Esther. Esther is the hero of the Megilah, and in fact, she is the hero of our day to day lives. She shows us that even though we may start off with many weaknesses, we can work on ourselves until we meet the challenges that we come upon. She takes control, pointing out the enemy. Indeed, he has been at the table the entire time. Is Achashverosh not a little bit of an enemy as well? Compliant in evil, allowing it to happen? Is that who we are?

She turns to Mordechai for advice, and she grows. So do we.

IV) We have, however, left out God. God is not mentioned in the book of Esther, at least not explicitly. Why is that?

I think the Megilah reflects an obvious aspect of our every day lives when it does not mention God’s influence explicitly. We don’t always notice God in the background, even as we might celebrate a holiday thanking Him for saving us! Usually this is a bad thing, but the truth is, the Megilah teaches us a valuable lesson when it does not mention God.

Leaving out God teaches us that we may not simply say “God will take care of this”, whatever the situation may be. He has given us free will, and therefore responsibility, and we, the weak, the vindictive, the good, must rise to the task. Esther is the paragon of accepting responsibility upon herself. She teaches us not to simply give up and say God will deal with it, but to meet each challenge, and when necessary, point out evil.

This is what she does in the 7th chapter. The stage is set, and everyone will be there, each part of our personalities. We have something to do, and we could try and ignore it, or we could even do something immoral. Who’ll know?

The Mordechai in us will know. The Esther in us will know too. It is our job, like her, to look in the mirror, decide what needs to be done, and to do something about it.



Filed under Miscellaneous

Na’aseh ViNishma, the Diaspora, and the Failure to Make Aliyah

By Eytan Meyersdorf

“And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the LORD hath spoken will we do, and we will hear (na’aseh vinishma).‘” Exodus, 24 7.

As Jewish intellectuals and modern-rabbis broaden their search for ta’amei hamitzvot (reasons behind the commandments), this passage grows more and more problematic. “Na’aseh vinishma,” the Jewish people’s blind acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai, poses serious questions for many independent-thinking Jews.

However, when examining the context and history more closely, one can see how this “blind acceptance” by the Jewish people was not so blind after all: God had just performed ten extraordinary miracles that devastated the world’s superpower, split the sea, and engulfed the remainder of the Egyptian army in its waters. After seeing all of these miracles, it is not hard to understand the Jewish people’s willingness to accept God’s Torah without knowing its contents. It is actually logical.

With all the imperfections attributed to the generation of
Matan Torah, they managed to grasp something that our generation fails to understand – the recognition of God’s will and intervention.

The very existence of the State of Israel is God’s modern-day splitting of the Red Sea. God sent us miracles and signs in the form of the IDF, the Six Day War, and Israel’s thriving world of Torah, yet we still insist on waiting, we still insist on “hearing.” God sent us the weatherman, the boat, and the plane to save us from the storm, but we are waiting for God Himself to save come and rescue us – meanwhile, God is crying out, “This is me saving you, get on the boat, get on the plane!”


We pray three times every day, “Sound the great shofar for our freedom and raise a banner to gather our exiles and unite us together from the four corners of the earth” – the shofar has been sounded and the banner has been raised – we just need to open our eyes.

People give many reasons for not making Aliyah, but whatever their reasoning, they’re waiting for more, they are waiting for nishma, and only then vina’aseh. But the time where God will cast ten plagues on our enemies is over – we are no longer living in a time where God performs open miracles. Rather, He communicates to us through nature, mundane occurrences, and messengers, and it is our obligation as Jews to identify them.

If there is only one thing that we can learn from the generation of Matan Torah, let it be their ability to recognize and credit divine intervention for what it is, divine. From the ashes of the Holocaust to the miraculous victories of 1948 and 1967, the boat and the plane have come to us in the forms of Nefesh B’ Nefesh and the Jewish Agency. It is our job, our obligation, as Jews to recognize all these miracles and exercise the appropriate action – na’aseh vinishma.

Eytan is studying Political Science at Bar Ilan University and runs the My Nation Lives (עמי חי) group on facebook.

1 Comment

Filed under Miscellaneous

The Wrongness of Rape

Last week I read a very interesting essay from John Gardner’s book Offences and Defences called “The Wrongness of Rape”, where the author seeks to pinpoint what exactly it is that makes rape so wrong. Everywhere in the civilized world, he tells us, we are in agreement that rape is a terrible crime that should be punished by the law. We are further in agreement that “no reasonable person could advocate” the decriminalization of rape1.

“In view of all this, one might expect it to be obvious to every reasonable person what is wrong with rape. Many…seem to imagine that this is indeed obvious, and do not give the question detailed attention.”

Gardner continues on to write that not only do many authors not consider what is wrong with rape, but they often will argue that an action should be illegal because it is similar to rape. But, Gardner asks us, if we don’t know what exactly is wrong with rape, then how do we know that being similar to it makes another action wrong? Maybe it’s similar to a part of rape that is not wrong. For example, consensual sex is fine, despite the fact that it bears obvious similarities to rape. So what is it that makes rape wrong?

We’ll just summarize some of the main points of Gardner’s discussion here, and I hope you find them as thought provoking as I did. Obviously, if you want to get the full arguments, you’ll have to read the essay yourself, and it is about 30 pages, a doctorate, and many years of teaching more nuanced and complete than my presentation will be. Additionally, I found some links online that discuss his essay a little further, if you’re interested, and I’ll include those on the bottom.

Now, as Gardner notes, you might argue that a man should not write about rape at all, and that to dissect it rationally might desensitize us to its unspeakably horrible qualities. It is true that I could never fathom how truly awful rape must be, and I definitely do not want people to become desensitized to the incredible pain involved for the victim. I’m writing about this because I don’t think most people will come across the essay, and it really is thought provoking and, I think, important. I think that’s enough to justify me passing on his insights to you.

So what makes rape wrong?

1) Rape causes terrible harm to the victim: We all know that rape can cause tremendous harm to the victim, but Gardner asks if we should really argue that rape is criminal because of the harm. What if the rape (quite unusually) takes place with no harm at all?

Say, the victim has no idea she has been raped (perhaps she has been drugged) and therefore suffers no trauma. In fact, the rapist is killed and there is no trace at all of the rape, and the victim continues her day to day life as though nothing as happened, since- as far as the world is concerned- nothing has. Would you say then that rape is OK?

Presumably not. Gardner therefore argues that rape should be considered wrong because of the act itself, and not dependent on the harm it does or does not cause.

The same applies, in Gardner’s opinion, to the argument that rape is bad because it makes the victim feel bad. A) Again, what if she does not feel bad after the rape, and B) Maybe we’re wrong that she should feel bad about it. If we don’t explain what makes rape so bad, then perhaps it is irrational for a victim to feel bad, and we should try and educate victims not to feel bad after a rape2.

Gardner argues that we must have a rational reason that victims should feel bad. So what is it?

2) Rape is a violation of the victim’s rights: But which rights? It is in the victim’s interest not to be raped, and it is her right not to be. But what makes this her interest?

You might argue it is victim’s right to deny use of her body, which she owns, to someone else. It is basically a property right then. However, Gardner argues that property rights are based on their “use-value”, that is to say, the value of things we own is determined by how much use we get out of them. When there is not much of a thing to go around, we start to ask if it’s OK for the owner of an object to waste it, or if society may have the right to step in and limit the freedom involved in ownership of property. We tend to ask “could this thing be better used by someone else?”3. If so, what if that person is the rapist who does not cause damage?4

We might avoid discussing that question by arguing that people identify with their property, so that when someone uses our property without our knowledge and consent, that person has criminally violated the victim’s sense of self.

This would make rape wrong, but not necessarily more wrong that someone coming into my house and using my CD’s without my consent, or stealing them entirely. But we all agree that rape is a much worse crime than simply stealing something valuable to another person that the victim of the theft identifies with. So what makes rape more wrong than these cases?5

3) Use and abuse of the person: In Gardner’s opinion, rape is wrong because it means we have treated a person as an object in an extreme form. Treating a person as an object is always wrong, but rape is one of the gravest forms of this crime. In this case, the rapist indeed views the victim as a kind of object or property to be used, and whether or not the victim knows about it or suffers from it, it is a terrible crime. In Gardner’s words:

Rape, in the pure case, is the sheer use of a person. In less pure, but statistically more typical cases, this use is accompanied by violence, terror, humiliation, etc. The important point is that when someone feels terrified or humiliated by rape itself this feeling is justified. Rape is terrifying and humiliating…because the sheer use of a person…is a denial of their personhood. It is literally dehumanizing.”

Now, as I said, all of this is food for thought. The essay seems to have generated a lot of discussion, so critiques are available. For instance, Daniel Statman reviews the paper here, and he raises some very interesting questions himself, such as why rape as sheer use should be any wronger than other kinds of sheer use. A little further discussion can also be found in the essay Consent, Mistake and the Wrongfulness of Rape by Jordan Franks, which I thought was interesting, and several reviews of the book the essay is from are available on Gardner’s website.


1This quote is cited by Gardner from Feinberg, Joel, Harm to Others, 10.

2“The alternative view, that these harms are what make rape wrong, turns the victim of rape, n a way, into a victim twice over: for she is now, in her reactions to the rape, additionally a victim of irrationality, a pathological case. She has no reason to react the way she does since, absent that reaction, she was not wronged by the rapist. Here is the basic philosophical objection to MacKinnon’s (admittedly ‘political’) proposal that rape occurs ‘whenever a woman has sex and feels violated’. Pace MacKinnon, the victim’s feelings of violation must be epiphenomenal to rape, or else there is nothing in rape to give her cause to feel violated.

3Though this point hardly goes without some controversy. I can’t imagine John Locke would have any of this.

4Perhapsזה נהנה וזה לא חסר?

5Gardner anyway makes the point that the analogy from property to our bodies does not make sense. We may compare what we own to our bodies, but how can we compare ourselves to what we own? What we own is dependent on our self! This argument takes away the self that does the owning, which is problematic

Leave a comment

Filed under Miscellaneous, Philosophy

Is Tzedaka (Charity) Destructive To Society?

In the first Halakha of Chapter 10 of Hilkhos מתנות עניים  (Gifts to the Poor), Rambam says:

חייבין אנו להזהר במצות צדקה יותר מכל מצות עשה, שהצדקה סימן לצדיק זרע אברהם אבינו שנאמר כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה את בניו לעשות צדקה…

 We are obligated to be cautious (להזהר) in the commandment of Tzedaka more than any other positive commandment for Tzedaka is a sign for the righteous that [they are] are from the seed of Abraham our father.

This statement is quite amazing for several reasons; but before we explain the statement’s excellence, we will make three inquiries into the statement’s meaning.

(1)   Since when is a Jew obligated to specifically execute actions that point to the fact that Avraham is his/her progenitor? We all know that it is a virtue to love and fear God and to do His commandments, but since when is exemplifying that we are Avraham’s descendants by doing certain actions also identified as an end in of itself?

(2)   Why is Tzedaka the commandment that best exemplifies that we are Avraham’s descendants? We all know that Avraham epitomizes the characteristic of chesed (kindness), and Tzedaka is a high ranking form of chesed, but that does not explain why it would be chosen as the commandment that epitomizes our relationship to Avraham. Indeed, the Talmudic text that Rambam culled the statement from does not even use the word ‘Tzedaka,’ but rather גמולי חסד (Bestowing acts of kindness). Furthermore, we never even find Avraham giving out Tzedaka, at least not in its classic form, which is giving out charity to the poor. While he once tithed his spoils from war by giving ten percent over to Malkhitzedek, wouldn’t הכנסת אורחים  (welcoming guests into your home) or קירוב  (outreach) be greater examples of emulating our esteemed forefather? The Torah also goes out of its way to mention these cheseds; maybe we should choose הכנסת אורחים as the commandment which best exemplifies our relationship to Avraham for most Jews associate that commandment with him?

(3)   If we’re supposed to be more careful in the commandment of Tzedaka than any other positive commandment, how come this halakha never plays any importance in evaluating halakhic issues? For example, we have a principle of תדיר ושאינו תדיר תדיר קודם (when two obligations come to hand, the matter that is done more often should be done first) and מעלין ואין מורידין (one must solely progress in holiness and never regress) in regards to evaluating the order of executing commandments, so shouldn’t this halakha be placed along side those two principles when evaluating the order of any positive commandments? Or, given the opportunity to do only one of two positive commandments, let us employ the former principle!

Let us start to answer these questions by inquiring into what the word ‘להזהר’ (Leheezaher) really means. At first glance, most would not think twice about asserting that they know what it is to be cautious, but let us not forget that the Mishneh Torah is a halakha book which teaches one not only how to act, but how to think. To be cautious is not only to act a certain way, but to think in very certain terms. So what is Rambam prescribing by including this caution in the Mishneh Torah? He easily could have relegated the loosely quoted Talmudic material to Aggadic material and not recorded it at all!

Let us look at the way individuals in the common vernacular use the term for clarification. Examples of ways one might advise you to be cautious is to warn you by saying: ‘Be careful near the edge of the cliff’ or ‘Be careful crossing the street.’ By this, the warner is not just telling you to look at your surroundings, but informing you it is not just good enough to look at the surroundings. One must also be aware of how s/he interacts with the environment and how the environment interacts with him/her. To be cautious is to possess a certain awareness. S/He should not view her/himself as a passive entity of the environment, but should be able to distinguish the line that separates her/him from his environment, and accordingly, play an active role in determining the best and safest route for her/him to travel upon. S/He must take into account all things that are impediments, detrimental or advantageous to her/his safe arrival and all things that could be potentially good or bad to her/his ultimate goal. ‘What if I slipped on the rock near the edge’ or ‘What if a car suddenly turned the corner, would I still be safe?’ All these questions must be dealt with to be cautious. So to be cautious is to be an active player in one’s environment such that s/he’s able to internalize and respond to any given situation.

Rambam uses the term ‘להזהר’ (Leheezaher) many times throughout the Mishneh Torah, but we need only to look at a few examples to prove this point. We will identify two kinds of caution that both have already been subsumed under our former definition.

(1)   Hilkhos דעות (Characteristics) 4:17:

כשיצא אדם מן המרחץ ילבש בגדיו ויכסה ראשו בבית החיצון כדי שלא תשלוט בו רוח קרה, ואפילו בימות החמה צריך להזהר…

When a person leaves the bath house, he should put on his clothes and cover his head in the dressing room so that he does not catch a cold, and even in the winter, one should be careful about this…

In this example, we are given a classic example of caution because of the unlikely scenario. One should be cautious in this case because of the undefined future ramifications of the person’s wardrobe selections and the effects of weather on the immune system.

(2)   Hilkhos Dei’ot 6:10

חייב אדם להזהר ביתומים ואלמנות מפני שנפשן שפלה למאד ורוחם נמוכה אע”פ שהן בעלי ממון אפילו אלמנתו של מלך ויתומיו מוזהרים אנו עליהן…

A person needs to be cautious in his dealings with orphans and widows because their exceedingly downcast and are downhearted even if they might be rich, or the widow and orphans of a king, we should all be careful in our dealings with them…

This example more closely parallels our case from Hilkhos מתנות עניים (Gifts to the Poor). First, because it obligates the person to act (both cases uses the term obligatory), but more so because it shows us how we are supposed to treat another. There are no formal rules about how to treat an orphan or a widow, but we are enjoined to be cautious or be aware of them and their downtrodden situation. We are commanded to take their situation into account whenever we deal with them. We are prescribed to be aware.

Accordingly, in our case we are not prescribed to act in any specific fashion; therefore, when dealing with a halachic issue, this rule should not be taken into account. What we are prescribed to do is to be aware of this issue.

Now let us turn to the relationship between Avraham אבינו  (our Father) and Tzedaka in order to answer the first two questions. We will do this by trying to figure out the goal of Tzedaka; what is it? Some are inclined to mistranslate it as charity; but this is an impossibility, for in Hebrew we have the word ‘מתנה’ (gift), which in certain instances can be subsumed under a general title of Tzedaka (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 10:7), but more specifically refers to something you receive that you have not earned; this is charity. A better translation of our term would be ‘righteousness.’

The bare minimum action necessary to accomplish the commandment of Tzedaka is to give one-third of a shekel at least once a year (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 7:5), but at its highest level, one puts another in a situation where he need no longer rely on the support of others (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 10:7). When one finds a job for another (and to a lesser extent loans him/her money or goes into a partnership with him/her), you are not giving him/her anything; everything that s/he receives, s/he has coming to her/him based solely on the work and effort that s/he put forth. So we now know that it is not inherent within the meaning of ‘Tzedaka’ that a transfer of funds from one to another who has not earned it must take place.

But what is the root of Tzedaka? Why did God prescribe it? If anything it is destructive. By creating a communist or welfare state, we show people that they need not accomplish, they not set goals for themselves, their lives need not a purpose, for they can get by though the goodwill of others. But it is not our job to simply throw away money, for if a person claims that he is in need of clothing, we first check out his story to make sure that he is not swindling you out of a few bucks, and then provide him with the necessary clothes (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 7:6).

Let us turn to Avraham and why he is our forefather to understand what Tzedaka really is. Avraham was naturally a giver. Even when he spoke to God, he was willing to interrupt in order to take in guests. But what Avraham did not initially understand was that giving money to another in the name of מתנה (gift) is destructive: all it does is make the giver feel like a saint and it makes the receiver feel like a charity case. Given that giving was in Avraham’s nature it should not be surprising that most of Avraham’s tests involved hurting another or dealing with some pain inflicted on another. It was of the utmost importance for the sake of Avraham’s perfection for him to realize that giving to others for no greater purpose was useless, at best, and a low level of self gratification at worst.

It is within the very nature of Tzedaka that the meritoriousness of the action depends on the giver’s intentions. The Talmud says that when a non-Jew and a Jew both donate Tzedaka, they are not accomplishing identical acts. The Talmud asserts that when a non-Jew gives Tzedaka, he’s sinning, but when a Jew gives, he is acting righteously. Is this a double standard? Absolutely not! It is quite possible that when a non-Jew gives charity, s/he is acting righteously, but the Talmud questions her/his motives. Naturally it goes against human instinct, survival of the fittest and capitalism to arbitrarily give out to others who are not deserving of such benefit. Accordingly, the Talmud assumes that if a non-Jew is giving to another, without God first commanding her/him to do so, s/he must desire to give because s/he is getting something out of it; and s/he is, namely, undeserved self worth. S/He is boosting his own ego through the downtroddenness of another. This is how this despicable individual gives meaning to her/his life. By pointing out others failings and by supporting others, s/he merely attempts to reinforce her/his own greatness and superiority over others.

This explains why when Rambam enumerates the highest level of Tzedaka as an action which make another self-sufficient, he goes on to explain that the newly self-sufficient individual does not beg anymore (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 10:7). One would think that once one is self sufficient, a cessation in her/his begging would be the natural consequent in her/his new found freedom! What Rambam is explaining is that some people, even when they’re self sufficient, can’t see within themselves that they’re no longer a beggar; they need to also re-evaluate their situation such that they redefine their very existence; one must impart that they need not beg anymore, one must impart this new self definition, for until you do, they are now truly self-sufficient.

Now we could understand what it is that Tzedaka must accomplish in the giver and the recipient. When one gives Tzedaka to a poor person, he is not giving charity; he is offering that person another day: another day to put his own affairs in order and to get on the right track. When a person needs food or when a person is on your doorstep, the Torah commands us, unconditionally, to give to this type of destitute individual (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 7:6); they need the money just to get by or they wouldn’t be coming to you with such demeaning claims. But the second highest level of Tzedaka, after making a person self-sufficient, is to give in a way where the intended receiver is unaware that he is receiving (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 10:8). This is because Tzedaka is really a commandment that is between man and God, not between man and man. It is not our obligation to give in order to better our relationship with another; ideally there should be no relationship with the other person when the commandment of Tzedaka is being executed. Tzedaka exists in order that a person can see a reality outside her/himself. It is best if the giver is totally unaware of the recipient’s hand as well. The recipient is just the pawn in the Divine schemata to arrive at this abstruse point.

We can see this clearly within the actions of our forefather. By the tenth test, Avraham was worshiping God, not because of any benefit to himself, but because worshiping the Deity was truth; no one would deny that Avraham would have happily sacrificed his own life in order to spare the life of his beloved son, but that would be too easy. To live through the death of the son who God had promised would be one’s progenitor – that paradox is itself the test: Will one do more than is in his own nature to do? Giving up his own life would have been no test at all!

But if only after the tenth test was Avraham purged of any peripheral desires and ulterior motives, how did Avraham get started on the track towards truth? In the beginning of his section on the rules that deal with idolatry, Rambam offers a truncated version of the very beginnings of Avraham’s philosophies (הלכות עבודת כוכבים 1:3):

כיון שנגמל איתן זה התחיל לשוטט בדעתו והוא קטן והתחיל לחשוב ביום ובלילה והיה תמיה היאך אפשר שיהיה הגלגל הזה נוהג תמיד ולא יהיה לו מנהיג ומי יסבב אותו, כי אי אפשר שיסבב את עצמו, ולא היה לו  מלמד ולא מודיע דבר אלא מושקע באור כשדים בין עובדי כוכבים הטפשים ואביו ואמו וכל העם עובדי כוכבים והוא עובד עמהם ולבו משוטט ומבין עד שהשיג דרך האמת והבין קו הצדק מתבונתו הנכונה, וידע שיש  שם אלוה אחד והוא מנהיג הגלגל והוא ברא הכל ואין בכל הנמצא אלוה חוץ ממנו …

After this mighty man was weaned, he began to explore ideas even though he was but a child. He started to think day and night and wondered: how is it possible that the astronomical sphere to continually revolve without someone controlling it? Who is causing it to revolve? For it is impossible that it caused itself to revolve! He had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him of anything [of these matters]. Rather, he was entrenched in [the city of] Ur Kasdim (in Iraq) among the foolish idolaters. His father, his mother, and all the people [around him] were idol worshippers, and he would worship with them. [However,] his heart would explore matters and he would gain a depth of understanding in which he apprehended truth and understood the path of righteousness through its accurate understanding. And he knew that there was one God who controlled the sphere, and He created everything, and there is no other god save Him in all of existence.

Avraham concluded God’s existence based on St. Thomas’ cosmological argument (the first way). Everything must have a cause; therefore, there is a Prime Mover of everything who “everyone understands to be God.” A regular person would probably not make such fantastic inferences about metaphysical reality, for most people are so self indulgent, so self absorbed, that the very fact that they recognize other people’s existence at all can truly be called a miracle, let alone such a remote Being as the Creator of the Universe. Avraham was a person, who not only was aware of a reality external to his own being, but cared about it enough that he felt justified in making life altering and life threatening decisions based on it, so much so that the Gemara (Makkos 24A) says “He who goes after Righteousness (Tzedakot), this refers to Avraham our father.” And this is the characteristic that we as Jews must strive to emulate: to realize that the world external to ourselves exists, matters, and can be relied upon to define our lives by.

Far from being a capricious or theoretical matter, this worldview has many practical ramifications. Here are a few: Rambam (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 7:13) says that there’s a hierarchy of distribution to the recipients of charity: first one must supply for his own relatives (also 10:16), then his household, then his city, and only then should he give Tzedaka to other cities. One is incumbent to first deal with his own surrounding social reality and pressures and only then with others. Two halakhot later (7:15), we learn that one must supply for the synagogue that he most frequents before others. The pressures and burdens of reality should be dealt with in a bottom-up way: deal with the smaller matters, in your own vicinity, that are most closely related to yourself, and then, after that is finished, go on to fix the rest of the world. The point can be seen in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:8): “He who increases Tzedaka, increases peace.”

This explains why Tzedaka was chosen as the commandment that best acts as a sign that we are from Avraham’s seed. One who gives Tzedaka recognizes that it does not make sense to give Tzedaka, that it would be best to keep your money in your pocket and save it for a rainy day, that your money should be spent however it best benefits yourself; but that does not matter from the Jewish perspective. The Talmud (Sotah 5A) relates how weighty the commandment of Tzedaka is when it states that “anyone who has relations with another fellow’s wife, even Tzedaka done in private will not absolve him from the rule of Hell.” Tzedaka is the commandment chosen that, at least potentially, could save one from the fires of Hell given one of the most heinous crimes! Tzedaka teaches us that matters external to out own scope of interests, worldviews and reality can and do have great significance in the world: let it be a homeless man, an orphan, a stray guest, a possible convert, or even God. One must be conscious of their existence and care enough to be in a situation where you could change their life and deal with the issues as they come up; this awareness is ‘Tzedaka’ and this is what epitomized Avraham’s life. He was a man solely concerned with matters external to his own ego and sense of self. This is why a poor person, who is supported by Tzedaka, must also give Tzedaka (Gittin 7A); it is incumbent upon all of use to be inculcated with this worldview, with Avraham’s worldview.

Possibly this explains Rambam’s statement in Hilkhos מתנות עניים  7:2 that when “one sees a poor person begging, if you turn your eyes and do not give him, then you’ve committed a sin.” Rambam could have omitted the earlier phrase and simply written that if you desist from providing for the indigent, then you are held culpable. It seems Rambam is informing us that the crime is to deny the existence of suffering that is directly in front of you. Rambam is not trying to exclude the case where one refrains from giving the beggar, for if you don’t have money on you, that could hardly be called a sin; in such a case, you must only do your best with the situation and appease the beggar in some fashion (10:5). But, to ignore the reality around you, and to close your eyes to the world, that is the sin mentioned in this halakha. Furthermore, Rambam says (10:3) that “anyone who turns his eyes from Tzedaka is called ‘Belial,’ just like one who worships idolatry is called ‘Belial.’” This is because the root of the two sins is identical: just like idolatry is self worship and the denial of the true external reality, so too one turns his eyes from Tzedaka is identified under the same title.

So it is not our job to exemplify that we are from the seed of the Tzadik Avraham; it is our job to epitomize the realization of the nature of his quest for truth. His quest is our quest. Unless one attempts her/his whole life to epitomize the trait that made Avraham chosen as our forefather, then s/he is wasting away her/his life with a barrel full of lies. S/He misplaces her/his allegiances, her/his own significance, and the impact that s/he could have on the world with self delusions of grandeur. Accordingly one who forces another to give Tzedaka is greater than he who gives himself (Hilkhos מתנות עניים ),10:6 for he is opening up the patron to a world and to a reality that until a couple of moments ago, was completely closed and unknown to him.

Now we could understand the subsequent line in the Rambam. He says that:

…ואין כסא ישראל מתכונן ודת האמת עומדת אלא בצדקה שנאמר בצדקה תכונני…

“…neither the throne of Israel is founded nor the true religion stands except on Tzedaka…”

for the Mitzvah of Tzedaka is the proof that Jews value things outside themselves, and only once you recognize the external world, the world of God, can one truly be called from the seed of Avraham.

Leave a comment

Filed under Halakha, Philosophy