Friday, March 27, 2009

Surrendering Our Minds To God

Countless times I have cited or quoted from the Rav's essay, "Surrendering Our Minds to God" as found in Reflections of the Rav. I have also cited from his essay about Korah's Common-Sense Rebellion. These are essays that have always resonated with me.

From "Surrendering Our Minds to God:"
    The religious Jew accepts the entire Torah as a hok, both in regard
    to its immutability and also its unintellegibility....To be a loyal
    Jew is to be heroic, and heroes commit themselves without intellectual
    reservations. Only one who lacks the courage of commitment will
    belabor the "why"....

    Why the Divine Imperative for Mishpatim? We have spoken heretofore
    primarily of the hok, the inexplicable precept. In fact, we perform
    all mishpatim (mostly social laws) in the same manner as the hukkim.
    The Torah does not assign separate sections to the hukkim and
    mishpatim respectively; they are interspersed throughout Scripture. We
    make no distinctions between the two as regards the quality and
    totality of our commitment. Why, we may ask, is it not enough for the
    mishaptim to be intellectually motivated? Why the need to add a hok, a
    non- logos dimension, to social laws which conscience itself dictates?

    Apparently, reason is not a reliable guide even with respect to
    mishpatim. There are borderline situations which confuse the mind, and
    consequently it finds itself helpless in applying its moral norms.
    Since our intellect must weigh pros and cons and is slow and deliberate
    in deciding, society starts to nibble away at the edges of marginal,
    borderline problems. Life must be lived; before our logic can
    formulate an opinion, society will already have weakened all
    restraints. Permissiveness will have replaced orderliness and the
    amoral in man will have emerged triumphant.

    For example, the mind certainly condemns murder. This is particularly
    true of the killing of a young working mother who leaves behind
    orphaned children. But does the abhorrence of murder also apply when
    the victim is an old, cruel, miserly woman who in the eyes of society
    was a parisitic wretch, as in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment ? May
    we murder her in order to save a young girl from the clutches of
    degradation? May euthanasia be practiced to relieve the elderly or
    terminally ill of further suffering? Here the logos hesitates, is
    uncertain, and imparts no decisive guidance. We can easily rationalize
    in either direction and no external norm is compelling. As a mishpat,
    a social norm, murder may at times be tolerated; as a hok, the
    prohibition against murder is clear and absolute.....

    We have assumed that mishpatim are prompted by reason. Yet, in our
    modern world, there is hardly a mishpat which has not been repudiated.
    Stealing and corruption are the accepted norms in many spheres of
    life; adultery and general promiscuity find support in respectable
    circles; and even murder, medical and germ experiments have been
    conducted with governmental complicity. The logos has shown itself in
    our time to be incapable of supporting the most basic of moral

    The Torah, therefore, insists that a mishpat be accepted as a hok; our
    commitment must be unshakable, universally applicable, and upheld even
    when our logos is confused. Without hok, every social and moral law
    can be rationalized away, leaving hte world a sophisticated jungle of
    instincts and impulses...."

    ~Reflections of the Rav, 103-105
Imagine my surprise and fascination, then, when I found this idea expressed by the Rav in Sichot Mussar by R' Chaim Shmulevitz! R' Chaim writes about surrendering our minds to God in very similar terms in his essay on Parshas Zachor entitled "Eved Hashem: The Servant of God."

He is explicating the idea that on Purim, men are told to drink ad d'lo yada, until they cannot distinguish between "blessed is Mordechai" and "cursed is Haman." He explains that this seems to be an extremely peculiar mitzvah, especially in light of the fact that Purim is comparable to Yom Kippur; how then is this mitzvah to be understood? He then segues into what initially may seem an unrelated catalogue of examples of places where people's sins were not forgiven, even though it would seem as though they should have been forgiven.

1. Moshe was punished for hitting the rock as opposed to speaking to it

2. The Meraglim (spies) were sent into the land with the best of intentions, and yet returned with evil tidings, which could only have happened if something was amiss in the original plan

3. Saul was faulted for not having killed Agag, and as a result lost the monarchy. The Gemara notes that David erred twice and yet did not lose the monarchy, whereas Saul erred once and lost it; why such severity by Saul?

Explains R' Chaim Shmulevitz, in fact, the key to these sins which seemed relatively minor and yet were not forgiven lies in a dialogue held between Isaiah and Chizkiyahu.

    In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet, son of Amoz, came to him and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Set thy house in order, for thou shalt die and not live34 etc. What is the meaning of 'thou shalt die and not live'? Thou shalt die in this world and not live in the world to come. He said to him: Why so bad? He replied: Because you did not try to have children. He said: The reason was because I saw by the holy spirit that the children issuing from me would not be virtuous. He said to him: What have you to do with the secrets of the All-Merciful? You should have done what you were commanded, and let the Holy One, blessed be He, do that which pleases Him.
    ~Berakoth 10a
In the words of R' Chaim Shmulevitz, as translated into English:
    The Gemara teaches us a new dimension of sin. Chizkiyahu was not accused solely of not begetting children: that transgression is not punishable by death. The sin lay principally in the use of his own reasoning to disobey the Divine command. One's attitude in doing mitzvos should be that of a servant to a master- he does as he is told, leaving aside his own reasoning. Trying to use one's own logic to qualify or bypass the Divine command is a breach in the relationship between Creator and creature, Master and servant.

    This is the essence of the aforementioned incidents. The unforgivable sin of Moshe Rabbeinu was not that he had disobeyed Hashem's directive; it was that he had used reasoning and logic to reinterpret it. [Chazal explain that the motive for Moshe striking the rock and not speaking to it was in order to enhance kiddush Hashem, sanctification of the Divine Name (see Bamidbar Rabbah 19:5)].

    The spies, too, were sent on the basis of Israel's own reasoning which did not stem from complete faith in God. This ultimately led to their slanderous report about Eretz Yisrael.

    With this we can understand the dimensions of Saul's sin. David sinned terribly, but the transgression was self contained. Nothing was disrupted in the basic relationship between Hashem and David. Not so Shaul, who neglected to kill Agag because he felt that it was not in keeping with the Divine emphasis on the sanctity of life. This constitutes rebellion against the Divine command. There too, Shaul disobeyed Shmuel by dint of his own reasoning. That is why they are considered one sin, for essentially, they are one.

    This ability to totally subjugate oneself to the Divine will, forgoing even one's rational conclusions, is the hallmark of Israel's men of greatness.

    ~Reb Chaim's Discourses, 141-142
R' Chaim goes on to mention the extreme greatness of Abraham, who chose not to rationalize away the command to offer up his son to God. Here he was being tested on exactly this precept, for he had spent his life teaching a monotheism that did not demand such sacrifices, but he obeyed God rather than reasoning away the commandment. The same applies by Moses, who told the truth when he had forgotten the halakha prohibiting the consumption of sacrificial meat while in a state of mourning prior to burial. He told the truth rather than attempting to reason out the halakha. He also notes the fact that this is the reason we say na'aseh v'nishma; we will obey, even if we do not understand.

R' Chaim also references a discourse in Sanhedrin 100a:
    R. Johanan was sitting and teaching: The Holy One, blessed be He, will bring jewels and precious stones, each thirty cubits long, and thirty cubits high, and make an engraving in them, ten by twenty cubits, and set them up as the gates of Jerusalem, for it is written, And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles.12 A certain disciple derided him saying, 'We do not find a jewel even as large as a dove's egg, yet such huge ones are to exist!' Some time later he took a sea journey and saw the ministering angels cutting precious stones and pearls. He said unto them: 'For what are these?' They replied: 'The Holy One, blessed be He, will set them up as the gates of Jerusalem.' On his return, he found R. Johanan sitting and teaching. He said to him: 'Expound, O Master, and it is indeed fitting for you to expound, for even as you did say, so did I myself see.' 'Wretch!' he exclaimed, 'had you not seen, you would not have believed! You deride the words of the Sages!' He set his eyes upon him, and he turned in to a heap of bones.13
Explains R' Chaim:
    This story requires clarification. At the onset when his disciple mocked him, R' Yochanan did not respond nor punish him. It was only after he returned and admitted the veracity of R' Yochanan's statement that R' Yochanan was incensed. The reason is that as long as R' Yochanan's discourse was beyond his disciple's comprehension, he was not to be blamed for his disbelief. It was only after he had seen it, understood it and still persisted in emphasizing the role of his rational faculties that R' Yochanan became angry. At this point, emunah, faith in God, was called for; anything less was apikursus, heresy.

    Having explained the uses and limitations of reason in the Divine service, we can begin to understand the essence of Purim. Reason is used year-round as a means to emunah. Once a year, on Purim, we strip away all traces of reasong (ad d'lo yada) and serve God with our faith alone.

    ~Reb Chaim's Discourses, 144


Ezzie said...

Very good post.

(You learn Sichos Mussar?)

Gavi said...

Why the surprise?

Dirshu et hashem behimatze'o - dirshu la'amito. That truth can be the same for two people of differing philosophical backgrounds...

Anonymous said...

Hashofet kol haaretz lo yaaseh mishpat????
Joel Rich

Anonymous said...


Jewish Atheist said...

The religious Jew accepts the entire Torah as a hok, both in regard to its immutability and also its unintellegibility....To be a loyal Jew is to be heroic, and heroes commit themselves without intellectual reservations. Only one who lacks the courage of commitment will belabor the "why"....

That just strikes me as CRAZY. How could it be heroic to check your intellectual reservations at the door in order to believe something you ADMIT is unintelligible?

I think this is the Big Lie that intellectual religious people tell themselves.

Jewish Atheist said...

Heads up, I turned this into a post at my place: How Smart Intellectuals Believe In Orthodox Judaism

Holy Hyrax said...

I wonder if Chana will actually respond to JA, or his post.

Anonymous said...

JA has been trolling this blog for years. It's past the point of ridiculousness already.

Rabbi Lars Shalom said...

i love calvin too

Anonymous said...

JA is not trolling. He's more like a bar plugta.

Jewish Atheist said...

Thanks, second anon. :-)

Mikewind Dale said...

Great post. Regarding hukim and mishpatim:

Rav Saadia Gaon, following the Muslim Mutakallimun, long ago asked the question, if certain laws are rational, why do we need the command? He answered that (1) Revelation gets us the information soon, even if reason will get it to us eventually, and (2) Some of the details are not elucidable by reason, and can be arrived at only by revelation. This second aspect would parallel Rav Soloveitchik's gray areas; reason can dictate that murder is wrong, but it takes revelation to know some of the finer details of the obscure grey areas.

Rav Hirsch, on the pasuk in Vayikra, "Which if a man do, shall live", inter alia (check his perush here; it is chock full of sundry topics), says that while man may indeed be able to intellectually deduce the social mishpatim (as Sifra says, quoted by Rav Hirsch, they are laws that even if not written, would still be obligatory), man will usually deduce them as a social expediency, and they will lack moral grandeur. When social expediency is most pressing, man is liable to discard these laws. It takes the Torah to teach us that man is created in G-d's image, etc.; i.e., the lofty theological and moral underpinnings for these laws.

Rav Hirsch said that when the social expediency is lacking, man is liable to violate these laws. Rabbi Dr. Leo Adler, in The Biblical View of Man (Urim Publications), gives a book-long treatment of this topic. Hovot haLevavot asks the same question as Rav Saadia Gaon, and he answers that the men of the Exodus were simply intellectually feeble, and so they had to be told the mishpatim. Rav Adler says that if nothing else, this answer of Hovot haLevavot shows the pernicious effects of Greek philosophy. Rav Adler says while the Greeks elevated the intellect, and believed that technical education will inexorably lead to morality, and while the Christians despair altogether of man perfecting his own moral behavior, the Torah rather teaches that both the Greeks and Christians are partially right: man DOES have a yetzer tov, and he CAN perfect himself. All the same, he has a powerful yetzer hara, and without training, his intellect will merely justify that which his yetzer already desires. (As my friend R' Micha Berger puts it, "The mind is a wonderful tool for justifying that which the heart has already arrived at.") The Torah's method, says Rabbi Adler, is a pedagogical one combining hashkafa (such as tzelem elokim, etc.) and practice (the deeds lead the heart) in such a way as to educate man to use his yetzer tov and win over the yetzer haRa.

Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, in G-d, Man, and History, reviews the machloket of the Mutakallimun. Actually, there were two factions, the Mutazilites and the Ashirites. The former included Rav Saadia Gaon, while the latter were much more orthodox and fatalistic. The former held that reason indeed trumps revelation, save for the fact that revelation is faster. (Homer: "There are three ways to do anything: the right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way." Bart: "Isn't that the wrong way?" Homer: "Yes, but it's faster!") The Ashirites say that G-d is capricious and inscrutable, and whatever He does is ipso facto good, and there is no questioning Him. (Do not confuse this with Job; for the Ashirites, Job's question isn't even a question. For the Ashirites, if G-d were to kill all the innocent on earth, and announce that they didn'd didn't deserve it, but that He simply enjoys death and suffering, this would actually be "good". For the Ashirities, theodicy isn't a question to be asked.) Rabbi Berkovits says both are wrong. Regarding the Ashirites, he says that in fact, there is nothing preventing G-d from being evil; He is good, but an evil omnipotent G-d isn't inconceivable. As for the Mutazilites, Rav Berkovits brings up Kant, that what is good is logical. Rav Berkovits says that even if so, whence is the obligation to be logical? It may be logical and reasonable to just and moral, but there is no obligation save G-d's command. And it is G-d's command which saves us in the grey areas (cf. Rav Soloveitchik), and when our yetzer hara threatens to overcome our intellect and yetzer tov (cf. Rav Adler).

Mikewind Dale said...

Rav Hirsch, ad. loc., notes a peculiarity in the wording of the pasuk.

I forget the exact wording, and I don't have a Hirsch Humash on hand, but he says something about how the mikra emphasizes studying the mishpatim and doing the hukim. Why?

Says Rav Hirsch: we are liable to do the mishpatim out of reason, and forget to study what G-d and the Torah have to say.

Conversely, we are liable to study all the "ritual" laws, but forget to actually keep them properly.

Thus, the Torah must emphasize studying mishpatim and performing hukkim.

Unfortunately, amongst Orthodox today, the mishpatim have been forgotten altogether. See Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg's famous letters to Professor Samuel Atlas at, Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz's Eyes to See (Urim Publications), Dr. Yitzchok Levine's "Orthodoxy, Then and Now" at, and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's A Code of Jewish Ethics.

Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel's Conversations magazine is a veritable G-dsend. I might note that students can receive a free subscription. When you ("you" in the general sense) sign up at, just check that you're a student (assuming "you" are one), and you'll receive a free subscription.

Mikewind Dale said...

Personally, I've begun to stop referring the Haredim as Orthodox. The Reform at least retained bein adam l'havero, whereas the ultra-right has discarded bein adam l'havero, and twisted bein adam laMakom beyond recognition; witness the recent conversion crisis, precipitated by the wholesale invention of a "shita" that conversions can be annulled.

Also, as I wrote in response to Dr. Levine's piece, ad. loc.:

Regarding the humanization of Orthodoxy and the depreciation of yashrut, I'm particularly a fan of Rabbi Marc D. Angel's works, and I'll refer to him on these matters, for words more eloquent than mine. Suffice it to say, Dr. Levine's quotations of Rav Hirsch, resound within me. As Rav Hirch was fond of noting, "Glatt kosher? Glatt yoshor". If the sine qua non of being Jewish is (as Rav Hirsch has it, in turn as interpreted by Rabbi Shelomo Danziger and Dr. Judith Bleich), tikkun olam, i.e. of the building of mankind's socio-political reality under the aegis of G-d's kingdom, I fail to understand how anyone can undervalue derech eretz. If one discards that which the mitzvot are intended to engender, of what use are the gufot of the mitzvot? Whether one follows Rambam that the mitzvot are utilitarian, engendering the Mean and correcting certain historical behaviors of man, or whether one follows Rav Hirsch that the mitzvot have pedagogical and symbolic lessons, the fact remains that it is an inescapable conclusion that the mitzvot bein adam laMakom, divorced from the mitzvot bein adam l'havero, the former have very little value indeed. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (quoting his friend Dennis Prager) and Rabbi Benjamin Blech (following the Midrash) put it, G-d would much rather that His children have peace with each other and war with Him, than vice versa - any human parent would agree, the respective punishments of the Mabul and Babel corroborate this, and the midrash on Yeremiyahu explicitly states this (saying that G-d would be thrilled if we kept His Torah, even if we denied belief in Him).

End quote.

I'll note that Dr. Levine's article contains a quote of Rav Hirsch that reinforces Rabbi Danziger and Dr. Bleich that for Rav Hirsch, tikkun olam was temporal.

Now then, given what I've said above, I believe it clear that the Reform are more "Orthodox" than the Haredim are.

I've reached my breaking point, and I cannot restrain my pen from vitriol any longer. I've been a baal teshuva for all of five years, and already, the state of Orthodoxy today is burning me out. Thank G-d that like Yeremiyahu, my bones burn within were I to restrain myself from Torah, or else I would have long ago abandoned Orthodoxy.

Mikewind Dale said...

However, I am having great difficulty with Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz's words.

The aggadah in Berachot, regarding having evil children, and doing the mitzvah without being concerned with G-d's secrets: Until I arrive at a better understanding of this aggadah, I cannot accept it.

Surely we are to evaluate temporal conditions in our performance of mitzvot. For example, if one is needs to eat for health, does one fast on Yom Kippur and leave the secrets to Hashem? Surely not! Rather, as we are taught in connection with R' Eliezer and the oven of aknai, "it is not in Heaven", and the Torah is now on earth for us to evaluate. Even when G-d Himself declares His will, our own intellect trumps His, as the Gemara there teaches. G-d made us His partners, and precisely what He desires is that we use our intellects; it is this which constitutes our being "wrestlers with G-d", in contrast to the declaration "Allah Akbar" at a time of murder (Islam/Muslim means submission to G-d, quite the opposite of Yisrael).

As for Avraham's not questioning G-d at the Akeidah, surely we must notice that Avraham did quite the opposite at Sodom! Barring a reconciliation between these two opposite events, I'd rather think that Sodom is the rule and the Akeidah the exception, although I cannot prove it.

Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein explains, following the Kuzari's explanation that Elokim is the abstract G-d of metaphysics and Hashem the living G-d with personality, that the Akeidah involved Elokim and Sodom Hashem; this explains why Avraham questioned G-d at the latter and not the former. And clearly, I believe, Judaism more often involves itself with Hashem.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks elaborates in Conversations volume 2, Avraham's questioning G-d at Sodom strikes the keynote of Judaism. G-d has His supernal truth, and He knows why the good suffer, etc. But here on earth, we do not know these secrets, and we are not to be concerned with them; we are rather to conduct ourselves according to what we see here on earth, temporally. But this does not mean rejecting our intellect in favor of G-d's will, as per Rabbi Shmulevitz; quite the opposite, Rabbi Sacks says that, without knowing G-d's secrets, we are to conduct our lives according to the dictates of our own human wisdom. G-d, says Rabbi Sacks, is like any human parent; He has given our His directives, and He wishes us to execute them as we see fit, growing as children, even when that means tripping and falling. In fact, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, regarding "it is not in heaven", says similar words of parent and child. Rabbi Sacks cites Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch that Moshe refused to look at G-d, because he didn't want to know why the good suffer; G-d has His reasons, but they are Divine reasons; for humans, our concern is not with why the good suffer, but rather, our concern is with helping those poor to cease suffering. The secrets are for G-d, and the revealed things are for us, to perform His mitzvot. Rabbi Sacks says that according to Marx, religion is an opiate, but Rabbi Sacks says this is false of Judaism; he says Judaism is the most intellectually revolutionary philosophy yet, and seeks, not to garb the norm in religious piety and faith, but rather to create upset and upheaval and dissonance, to create an entirely new paradigm of religion, of man in partnership with G-d.

Regarding the midrash of carbuncle gates, this midrash also troubles me. I have seen it cited as supporting the fact that midrashim and aggadot are dogmas whose rejection is heresy, but we know that this contradicts what we have been taught explicitly by the Gaonim and Rishonim (see Rabbi Saadia Gaon and Rabbi Hai Gaon, followed by Rabbi Shmuel haNagid and the rest of the rishonim (ALL the rishonim), all say that when a midrash offends our intellects or sensibilities, we should rather reject this midrash out of hand, than pervert or neglect our reason.

If I find a better explanation for the midrash of Hizkiyahu and the midrash of the carbuncle gates, I will be pleased. But until then, I do not know how to accept these midrashim.