Wednesday, July 17, 2013

First a Mensch: The Kuzari on True Religiosity

The following is the text of the derasha I gave this past Shabbat Chazon.
On February, 4th 1961 my father, fifteen years old, landed in Florida as a refugee from Castro’s Cuba.  His only sister, her husband and son had made it out a few months before.  His mother was still in Cuba and it would be another six months until he would be reunited with them all in Brooklyn.  The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) made the arrangements for his escape and placed him with a foster family somewhere in the Everglades.  He spoke no English.  
He had some friends who had also made it out of Cuba and one day he boarded a bus to meet some of them in Miami which was about 25 miles away.  About six miles into the trip an elderly woman, who was black, got on the bus.  As she walked down the aisle my father noticed, promptly stood up and motioned for the woman to take his seat.  Perhaps the bus-driver thought my father was a lone freedom rider—whatever the case may be, he stopped the bus and kicked my father off yelling some expletives that my father was not able to understand.
My father explained to me that in Cuba he was not taught to distinguish between black and white but he was taught how to be courteous and respectful. 
Americans had forgotten something that even a fifteen year old boy knew: how to treat another human being…human dignity.  This theme of human dignity is a (perhaps the) central motif which must occupy our thoughts before Tisha B’Av.
As my father walked back the six miles through the Everglades aside from feeling tired and hot he probably felt confused: how could he be punished for doing something nice?  His consternation was probably similar to the utter dismay experienced by the Neviim: how can the heirs of Avraham and Sarah forget the most basic tenets of civil society?
At this time of year the haftorot do not, as is the usual custom, emphasize a theme in the weekly Torah portion.  For the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av (this being the third) we read haftorot of puranut, punishment, each emphasizing how our evil deeds led to the destruction of Israel and our Temple. This week we read the first chapter of Isaiah.  Its first words give us the name of this Shabbat: Shabbat Chazon—the Vision.     It is an unsettling vision; it is an indictment; it leaves no room for equivocation.  God’s chastisement was to no avail and Israel had to suffer the consequences.  In outward appearance the Jews of that time were very religious. Israel gave plenty of sacrifices and offered many prayers—but they were called worthless—they were accused of having blood on their hands; they had become like Sodom and Gemorah.  Israel was lacking the basics: how to treat their fellow human being.
God implores Israel:
Our Rishonim categorized the mitzvoth of the Torah into two groups: mitzvoth sikhliot, mitzvoth that one could (or should) know from one’s own mind and mitzvoth shimiot, literally, mitzvoth that are heard—mitzvot that are known through Revelation. 
Rav Yehuda HaLevi, in his Kuzari, uses this distinction to help us understand the nature of true religiousity.
Rav Yehuda HaLevi was born in Spain at the end of the 11th century.  We know very little about his life but he has left us with a veritable treasure trove of Hebrew poetry—the most famous expressing his deeply felt yearning to return to Zion.  In fact, perhaps one of the most famous of all the kinot was his composition: the moving ציון הלא תשאלי
However, he is probably even better known for his masterpiece: the Kuzari—a dialogue between a Chakham representing Judaism and the king of the Khazars who ultimately converts to Judaism.
At one point the dialogue turns to what I would characterize, in modern terms, as the nature of religiosity. 
The King of the Khazars, impressed with the great spiritual accomplishments of the Jewish people asks the Chakham:
I should expect to see more hermits and ascetics among you than among other people. (II, 45)
The Chakham responds:
I regret that you have forgotten those fundamental principles to which you already agreed. Did we not agree that man cannot approach God except by means of deeds commanded by him? Do you think that this can be gained by meekness, humility, etc., alone? (II, 46)
“Certainly, and rightly so.” the king responds,
I think I read in your books as follows: 'What does the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God' (Deut. x. 12) and 'O man, what is good, and what does HaShem require of thee: only to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy G-d. (Mic. vi. 8), and many similar passages?
The King is under the impression that one needs to take extraordinary measures in order to reach the highest levels of enlightenment. He imagines that this path must necessitate separation from society and involve some kind of self-abnegation and affliction.  It’s as if he read the last phrase of the verse “walk humbly” and missed the first two: “do justice and love mercy!”  The Chakham’s interpretion of these verses cannot be more different from the Kings.  He responds:
These are the rational laws, being the basis and preamble of the divine law, preceding it in character and time, and being indispensable in the administration of every human society. Even a gang of robbers must have a kind of justice among them if their confederacy is to last.
Shockingly, what the King interprets as a call to asceticism the Chakham interprets as the rational laws that even a gang of robbers must keep (at least to some degree)! The Chakham is teaching the King an important lesson. The way to enlightenment, religiosity, does not demand one to close oneself up in a cave and reject society.  It is, in fact, the very foundation of society.  The Chakham continues:
When Israel's disloyalty had come to such a pass that they disregarded rational and social principles (which are as absolutely necessary for a society as are the natural functions of eating, drinking, exercise, rest, sleeping, and waking for the individual), but held fast to the sacrificial worship and other divine laws, He let them know that He would, in fact, be satisfied with even less. Telling them: “If only you would observe those laws which even the smallest and lowliest community accepts: maintaining justice, helping one’s fellow, and acknowledging God for His kindness.”
For the divine law cannot become complete until the social and rational laws are perfected. The rational law demands justice and recognition of God's bounty. What has he, who fails in this respect, to do with offerings, Sabbath, circumcision, etc., which reason neither demands, nor rejects?
These are mitzvoth through which Israel gained its uniqueness as an addition to [the more basic] rational laws.

In short, as we say in Yiddish, if you’re not a mensch your frumkeit is worthless.  If you’re a mensch then and only then the commandments that we know through revelation can lead one to the highest heights.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

Really beautiful post Yehuda!

The first expression of recognizing Chochmaso as a reality in our world must be a sense of gap between the self centered pursuit of pleasure "bread alone" vs an awareness of "all that comes Hashem's mouth".

From an all encompassing sense of universal sense of His Chochma preserving all species of Creation comes an urge for justice and mercy to be the cornerstones of governing the affairs of the State.

This urge expresses in the desire to imitate Him in some sense in every domain of human interaction.

יא וּמְצֻוִּין אָנוּ לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכִים אֵלּוּ הַבֵּינוֹנִיִּים, וְהֶם הַדְּרָכִים הַטּוֹבִים וְהַיְּשָׁרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר "וְהָלַכְתָּ, בִּדְרָכָיו" (דברים כח,ט). [ו] כָּךְ לִמְּדוּ בְּפֵרוּשׁ מִצְוָה זוֹ: מַה הוּא נִקְרָא חַנּוּן, אַף אַתָּה הֱיֵה חַנּוּן; מַה הוּא נִקְרָא רַחוּם, אַף אַתָּה הֱיֵה רַחוּם; מַה הוּא נִקְרָא קָדוֹשׁ, אַף אַתָּה הֱיֵה קָדוֹשׁ. וְעַל דֶּרֶךְ זוֹ קָרְאוּ הַנְּבִיאִים לָאֵל בְּכָל אוֹתָן הַכִּנּוּיִין, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר תָּמִים גִּבּוֹר וְחָזָק וְכַיּוֹצֶא בָּהֶן--לְהוֹדִיעַ שֶׁאֵלּוּ דְּרָכִים טוֹבִים וִישָׁרִים הֶם, וְחַיָּב אָדָם לְהַנְהִיג עַצְמוֹ בָּהֶן וּלְהִדַּמּוֹת כְּפִי כּוֹחוֹ.

Yehuda said...

When I wrote "how can the heirs of Avraham and Sarah forget the most basic tenets of civil society?" I was thinking about the halakha that follows in the same perek:
וּלְפִי שֶׁהַשֵּׁמוֹת הָאֵלּוּ שֶׁנִּקְרָא בָּהֶן הַיּוֹצֵר, הֶן הַדֶּרֶךְ הַבֵּינוֹנִית שֶׁאָנוּ חַיָּבִין לָלֶכֶת בָּהּ, נִקְרֵאת דֶּרֶךְ זוֹ, דֶּרֶךְ ה'. וְהִיא שֶׁלִּמְּדָהּ אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ לְבָנָיו, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר "כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה', לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט"
וְהַהוֹלֵךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ זוֹ, מֵבִיא טוֹבָה וּבְרָכָה לְעַצְמוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר "לְמַעַן, הָבִיא ה' עַל-אַבְרָהָם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר, עָלָיו"

Anonymous said...

Is the pragmatic 'rationality' of a band of murderers comparable to the derech of avraham avinu based on knowing God's ways?

Wouldn't the view of some mitzvos as sichlios mistakingly view those parts of torah as expressions of a 'yedias tov vera' of convention? Don't all mitzvos need to be based on yedias Hashem as opposed to social convention and utility?

Yehuda said...

Later (III, 11) the Kuzari develops a third category of mitzvot. The chevratiot (=social):
The social laws are such as the following: 'Thou shalt not murder,' 'Thou shalt not commit adultery, steal, give false testimony against thy neighbour,' 'Honouring thy parents,' 'You shall love the stranger,' 'You shall not speak untruth and not lie'; such as concern the avoidance of usury, the giving of correct weights and measures; the gleanings to be left, such as the forgotten grapes, the corners, etc.

And the sikhliot:
The mitzvot haSikhliot are: 'I am the Lord thy God,' 'Thou shalt have no other God,' and 'Thou shalt not take the name of thy God in vain,' with its corollary that God is all present, and penetrates all the secrets of man, as well as his actions and words, that he requites good and evil, and 'that the eyes of the Lord run to and fro' (2 Chron. xvi. 9), etc.

So, the "gang of robbers" would seemingly only keep the chevratiot amongst themselves.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

Nice point Yehuda. The one thing you may want to consider is making the connection between Avraham and Sarah's calling out in Yichudo of Shem Hashem and the "most basic tenets of civil society" more explicit.

In making this connection more explicit, one begins the process of Talmud by which we come to expect that our first intuitions about "most basic tenets of civil society" are rooted in our emotions. It is this recognition that allows for Torah umitzva and "halacha" gradual clarification from first intuitions toward the objectivity we need to be imitating the source of Chochma in Creation.

NR said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yehuda said...

I'm unclear on your last point. Could you explain?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

I was reflecting on what it was that caused the anonymous commenter to say what he did about your post, Yehuda.

It seemed to me that anonymous feared that your dresha might be perceived as supporting the notion that Torah presents illustrations of our first intuitions about "most basic tenets of civil society".

In fact, Torah shows the way to resolving the problems true justice presents to our first intuitions about "most basic tenets of civil society".

You answered this well by explaining that our first intuition is to deal nicely only with people we love and identify with and deal poorly with the "other".
By treating the "other" we move past first intuitions toward true justice in a Torah way.

I am suggesting that you complete this point. In itself, the fact that one treats all people well, does not differentiate between a Christian philosophy and a Jewish one.

Christian philosophy treats all people well, because our material being is divine intrinsically. Therefore any and all material improvement of man, is in itself a good thing.

A Jew treats all people well because a proper material state of man can be instrumental to maturing as a mind who knows Chochmaso and Yichudo.

To make clear that you meant that treating peope well is essential in Torah it is therefore important not merely to move past selfishly treating ones loved ones well and the "other" poorly. one must do so for an essential reason. Namely, that it is contrary to recognition of His Universal Chochma to apply one principle to one instance of a species and another to another instance.

NR said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yehuda said...

Thank you for the clarification. What impressed me about this piece from the Kuzari was how explicitly he states that a way of life based on universal principals (chokhma) must precede the way of life known from revelation. The Kuzari only conflates the sikhliot and chevratiot to drive home the point of how distant Israel was from the proper path.
I tried making a similar point a number of years ago in my post on Yitro.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

The post about Yitro is wonderful Yehuda. Yet we must have sypathy for anonymous as well.

The difficulty lies in the fact that we are locked into a mindset which equivocates the term "basic tenants of society" into our first intuitions.

This mindset creates a Protestant sense of reading Torah in which every man's perception is, by definition , the valid reading. In so reading, we remove the mussar to ikkrim and Chochma that we need to move from feelings to thought about justice.