This week, I have spent a lot of time thinking about a pretty classic and well known debate between two famous medieval commentaries. I’m sorry if I’ve made you jealous that I’m living the thug life. I don’t mean to brag; that’s just the way it is.
[For the purpose of this note I shall refer to one of the commentaries as Maimonides (1134-1208) and the other as Ramban (1194-1270). I know that in doing that I’m sort of mixing apples and potato chips in terms of names, but I think it will be easier to follow this way for the novice.]
The week’s Torah reading is the first of four that will deal with aspects of the building of the Mishkan, the portable temple used for sacrificial worship while the Jews were in the wilderness and for a while as the Jewish people were settling the land. The mishkan, and the Beit Hamikdash that will follow it during the times of Shlomo Hamalech (King Solomon), are the focus of religious life in biblical times and for several generations after the biblical period. We know that the story of Chanukah is animated by the rededication of the Temple and how forcefully the Jewish people worked for that. The question is, why? Why was sacrificial worship something that was so important? And how are we to understand it in our 21st century world?
Maimonides, in the Guide to the Perplexed, is famous for writing that sacrificial worship is NOT the ideal form of worship of the Creator. In fact the worship that we have today, that of prayer, that has no real physical component, and which happens only in the mind and heart of the worshiper, is loftier than the course, physical, actions involving the slaughtering, butchering and offering of animals. He writes (this is my synthesis of his point, not a quote) that the Jewish people of the Exodus were embarking on a brand new path. As a monotheists they had many challenges in front of them in terms of solidifying a theology and faith that is different than EVERY OTHER NATION IN THE WORLD. To also tell them that G-d did not want physical service would have been too big a breach for them. It would have been impossible for that generation to imagine, one, non-corporeal G-d, who is not affected by Mankind, yet desires obedience, but does not desire physical offerings. The idea would have been too much. The need to fit in and to do “what is normal” was too great. They would not have been able to start a new religious community. In summary, Maimonides writes that sacrificial worship is not an ideal, it was a concession to the people at that time.
One generation later, Ramban (and others) wrote vehemently against this thesis of Maimonides. The Ramban asks a series of questions on Maimonides, not the least of which is that sacrifices pre-date the exodus. We see that Noach, Avraham and others all brought sacrifices before the Egyptian exile. The Ramban also notes that sacrifices are called a Reiach nichoach – a sweet scent – to the Creator. That’s not the language of something that is a second string, back-up plan. That’s the language of something that is ideal.
The Ramban instead favors either a symbolic explanation for sacrifices or a mystical one. In his symbolic explanation he says that the sinner transgressed with is thoughts, emotions, and his body. The penitent, when he brings his sacrifice, can imagine that the body that is being burned is to make up for his body that sinned, and the organs of emotion and of thought are in place of his sinful thoughts and so forth. In the mystical explanation the Ramban notes how the Hebrew word for sacrifice, Korban, is related to the Hebrew word Karov and how sacrifices are there to bring us closer to the divine and create unity between the physical and spiritual worlds. At the heart of this position is an understanding that the Torah, that the Creator, did not give us laws as concessions but as acts that are intrinsically good. Either they are intrinsically good for the individual or for the community or for all of creation, either because faithful service to the Creator is intrinsically good or because the acts themselves have a mystical, mysterious component that impacts the world, though we don’t necessarily see it.
At the risk of making an Everest out of a Kilimanjaro, I think that this debate, and the philosophical positions behind them, are at the heart of what is happening in Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy today. Do we see the Torah, and Torah life, as an ideal or do we see the values of society as ideal? Do we seek to explain to ourselves how Torah fits our modern sensibilities or do we say to ourselves, though things might not make sense at first, our faith in the Creator and His word inspires us forward?
Let me acknowledge that there are two great Jewish values; mesorah and engagement. All Jewish communities struggle with a tension between these two values. Mesorah, in English “tradition”, but to be sure “tradition” reminds the reader of Tevye fiddling on his roof whereas Mesorah has a much more serious and austere connotation. Mesorah is the idea that we want to know that the way we’re doing Jewish is authentic and the way we do that is by making sure what we’re doing is just like what was done by our holy ancestors in the past. Engagement is the idea that we want as many Jews as possible to be actively, passionately involved in Jewish life. Sometimes these two values rub up against each other. Sometimes the feeling is that to get more Jews involved we need to roll back some aspects of “the way we’ve always done things.” People argue that if we want Jewish practice to appeal to people with certain sensitivities or certain philosophies we should adjust our synagogue life or application of the law so that they’ll feel comfortable. The counter force is the concern that if we change too much then we’re not being true to our real heritage, to the precious Judaism that was gifted to us by our parents and ancestors.
In a sense that tension is an echo of the debate between Maimonides and the Ramban. Is the Torah modeling for us the idea that we can accept laws in a non-ideal state because they are a tool to move us from where we are to some higher morality? Or is the Torah teaching us laws in an ideal state? Are the mitzvot authentically true and good or are even if the form they take is not ideal? Is the goal engaging Jews, even if the form of engagement is not ideal or is the goal the ideal activity, even at the risk of not bringing some of the people along? Do we see the mitzvot as an ends or a means?
Together with my colleagues at school this week we asked another set of questions. Which of these approaches is more likely to inspire our talmidim (students)? Maimonides’s idea will show that G-d wants people to move to perfection and sets up an accessible process to do that. Ramban’s thinking will teach that the Divinity and holiness of each mitzvah is an ideal worth striving for because it is inherently good. Our discussion was good natured, animated, and just a tad heated. (And now “footnote 21” has become a bit of an inside joke because of how agitated it made me.)
If I were smart enough to know when to stop I would end here with good wishes that we each find a way forward that inspires us. Alas, knowing when enough is enough is not my thing.
There is a great danger in the approach of Maimonides and that was widely known in his day and it is widely known today. If you say that the Torah’s commands are not ideal but just a path toward some “higher morality” then who is the judge of what that higher morality is? In the case of Maimonides was it Aristotle? Today who would it be? The legislators of New York State? Third Wave Feminism? The MAGA crew? Once we step away from the idea that the Torah is how G-d communicated to Mankind what right and wrong are then we run the risk of our Mitzvot not being a service of the Creator’s will but of our own will.
Still, I hope that each of us will find a path that inspires us in service that is a reiach nichoach – a sweet smell to the Creator.