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THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.
THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
On Rabbis and the Employment of Reason
I would like to start this week’s Drasha by describing the Reboinoisheloilum:
No, there is no typo, you Minuval! I did not fall asleep at my keyboard, or smoke too much Besamim, if you know what I mean. I simply followed the tradition of the RAMBAM who declared that you can only describe Hakadoshboruch by what He is Not.
Now, the RAMBAM of course was a Sefardi, so he was certainly hardly an Erlichah Yid. He worked as a physician to many, including to the principle advisers to Salah A Din, the Muslim conqueror of Eretz Yisroel who chased out the Crusaders Yemach Shmum. So instead of learning thirty hours a day like a good Jew, he was busy engaging in Bittul Toirah by saving lives. What a waste of time! All of his patients are undoubtedly dead by now, so the RAMBAN passed up the eternity of Toiras Moishe Rabbeinu to engage in what was only a temporary fix, at best. This is certainly not the choice any of OUR Gedoilim would have made, of course. Can you possibly imagine Reb Auerbach, SHLITA or Reb Kanievsky, SHLITA stopping leaning over their Gemarrah long enough to wipe up their drool?
But the RAMBAM cannot be all bad. After all, Art Scroll wrote at least one book about him. And he did, of course, only learn medicine from the Gemarrah and while sitting in the Bais HaKeesay. Which is where I developed my Value Investing strategy when I was a teenager: How to take something small and make it bigger until it shoots out a big payoff...
But RAMBAM’s basic premise requires a thoughtful analysis, at least long enough to fit three pages so that I can cross the line “Write a new Drasha” off of my To Do list, and I can get to the next item on my list: “Whatever is in the headlines, blame Hillary and Oibama”.
The RAMBAM, in his day, was confronting a reality that was in many ways quite similar to our own. Jews were persecuted in some places, yet found safety in others. Religious traditions within Klal Yisroel were becoming divergent. People were beginning to allow the beliefs of modernity to impact their Emunah in the Aimishteh. And women were beginning to assert their right not to be treated as sex objects by covering themselves with Burkas, donning metal chastity belts, immersing themselves in the Mikvah, and avoiding any man whose last name was “Weinstein”.
To the RAMBAM, a key concern was the literalism that had infiltrated the Jewish perception of The Divine. He believed that people who took Biblical references such as “the hand of God” or “the finger of God” as literal walked a treacherous path leading to a form of Avoidah Zarah, idolatry. He believed that anthropomorphism of the Reboinoisheloilum was a falsehood and was, in fact, dangerous, and that Hakadoshboruchhu could never be understood in human terms. He even went so far as to say that most prophetic confrontations with the Aimishteh in the Toirah were not actual encounters, but the product of inspired dreams, perceptual imagination, or LSD flashbacks.
At the center of the RAMBAM’s focus was the need to find the balance between faith and reason. For the RAMBAM, the Toirah was a one time gift given to Klal Yisroel through Moishe Rabbeinu. The Toirah was not a rule book designed to outline reward and punishment, as these were human concepts. To the RAMBAM, the Reboinoisheloilum exists beyond any human understanding and is outside of the realm of human activity. The RAMBAM believed that the Toirah’s primary purpose was to provide order and structure to society. That was the role of Faith. However, understanding of the Divine, while never fully achievable, was the essential higher objective of mankind. And the only way to approach that understanding was through Reason.
The RAMBAM faced struggle and challenge throughout his life. He was born into the golden age of Islam in Spain, where philosophy, mathematics and the natural sciences complemented his education in Kol HaToirah Kooloih. But his upbringing in the equivalent of the Upper West Side, the Five Towns, or Teaneck was cut short by the rise of a regime practicing an intolerant form of Islam that demanded that Jews convert or die. So the RAMBAM, his father, his brother, and presumably the rest of their family fled for their lives, not unlike many of our own parents, grandparents and great grandparents. Plus they had to shlep their pet dogs, cats, and hamsters, which must have made for a messy exodus.
After spending time in Morocco and witnessing the deprivations of the Land of Israel firsthand, the RAMBAM settled in Egypt. He lost his father. He lost his brother. He dealt with depression. But he also became an internationally renowned religious scholar, known for his seminal religious writings: His commentary on the Mishnah; the Mishnah Toirah, which was an audacious attempt at systematizing Halachic scholarship up to that date; and the Moireh Nevuchim, The Guide For The Perplexed, where he laid out his theology and philosophy. He also published medical textbooks. And he wrote a humorous comic strip syndicated in all the major newspapers of Egypt about a tortoise named Menachem Mendel and a hare named Yoili.
Given his knowledge of the science of his day and his keen awareness of the wretched state of Jewish existence, and perhaps troubled by his own personal suffering, the RAMBAM worked to reconcile the equation at the heart of the struggle between faith and reason: The punishment suffered by the Jews did not fit the actions of the masses. So rather than explain away the suffering by attributing blame to the Jewish People, he dispensed with the equation altogether. The Reboinoisheloilum was beyond understanding. There was no linkage between human action and reward and punishment. Hakadoshboruch could not be understood in either physical or rational terms. The world existed as a holistic whole, with its own ebbs and flows, and man’s best path to God was to embrace the Unknowable, through philosophical reasoning. Man could never truly know the Divine. Man could never even describe the Aimishteh. The only way to describe Him was to describe “what He is not”.
This view stands in contrast to everything we ourselves have learned since we were little children in kindergarten. (Maiseh Sheyoh: I do not know about you, but at the age of four I had a kindergarten teacher named Moirah Ginzberg who was so scary, the other kindergarten teachers would shit themselves every time she walked into the room. Mamish.)
Obviously, RAMBAM’s is not the only Da’ah, the only opinion, on the nature of the Reboinoisheloilum and the broader questions regarding human existential purpose. Indeed, his perspectives were at times considered so controversial, manuscripts of his writing were burned in some Rabbinic circles as heresy. Plus artistic renditions of his likeness were often defaced by Talmidim drawing Groucho Marx glasses, including a mustache and thick eyebrows.
But his is a voice than cannot be easily dismissed. Indeed, the RAMBAM is often cited today when Rabbis, including those engaged in Kiruv, want to highlight Judaism’s rationalist perspectives on issues related to Faith and Reason. Their renditions often shy away from the deeper implications of RAMBAM’s thought, however. But to be honest, Rabbis often shy away from meaningful implications, unless it involves the renewal of their contracts.
And what are those implications? The RAMBAM is dismissive of direct Divine engagement in the world, a view which stands in direct contrast to the belief in a world based on the values of reward and punishment in Oilum HaZeh and Oilum HaBah, this world and the next. Yet he strongly believes in a Halachic system, with a strong emphasis on moral laws Bain Adam LeChaveiroi, between human beings, as they are philosophically rational and necessary for an orderly society. And he believes that human engagement with the Divine through prayer and ritual is designed to suit human needs; though for him, intellectual contemplation of the Unknowable is what truly brings human beings closest to the Creator.
One of the most famous brief pieces of writing of the RAMBAM is his Teshuvah, his Rabbinic responsa, on the status of forced converts. As mentioned above, RAMBAM himself had to flee for his life when an oppressive brand of Islam replaced the progressive leadership of his native Spain. Years later, when consulted by a community in Yemen where some Rabbinic leaders were rejecting people who had converted to Islam under threat of death from returning to the body of the Jewish community, the RAMBAM spoke strongly of the need for embracing the many individuals who had been forcefully compelled to convert to Islam, if only publicly. In his Igeret Teiman, Epistle to Yemen, he strongly chastised those who would close their hearts to their fellow Jews, their fellow human beings, forced to continue to suffer a plight that no fault of their own.
If RAMBAM were alive today, I suspect that he would be sorely disappointed by much of our Rabbinic leadership and their unwillingness to act in a manner sensitive to the oppressed, whether the descendants of Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain for generations, Agunot, sex abuse victims, or those who have chosen a less observant path who are forced to fight to retain access to their own children.
For instead of embracing reason, a rational approach to managing an orderly, humane society, too many of our Rabbinic leaders have instead opted for the path of falsehood and idolatry.
Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.
Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess