Kavanot: פרשת משפטים תש״פ

Thoughts on Tanach and the Davening

Much of this shiur is based on Heshey Zelcer and Meir Zelcer’s article in Hakirah, A Note on the Original Title for “The Halakhic Mind”. They point out that Rav Soloveitchik, in a 1939 letter, mentioned an essay entitiled “The Neo-Kantian conception of subjectivity and objectification of the act and its application to the analysis of the ta‘amei ha-mitzvot problem”. There is no record of an essay with that name. They are writing a book about Soloveitchik’s The Halakhic mind and claim that this title would be a perfectly accurate, if wordy, title for that book. I unfortunately don’t own Rav Soloveitchik’s actual book, so my understanding of what he said is second hand.

The Mechilta cited by Rashi on the first pasuk of this week’s parasha is the source of a famous phrase:

ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם׃

שמות כא:א

אשר תשים לפניהם: אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּבָּ״ה לְמֹשֶׁה: לֹא תַעֲלֶה עַל דַּעְתְּךָ לוֹמַר, אֶשְׁנֶה לָהֶם הַפֶּרֶק וְהַהֲלָכָה ב׳ אוֹ ג׳ פְּעָמִים, עַד שֶׁתְּהֵא סְדוּרָה בְּפִיהֶם כְּמִשְׁנָתָהּ, וְאֵינִי מַטְרִיחַ עַצְמִי לַהֲבִינָם טַעֲמֵי הַדָּבָר וּפֵרוּשׁוֹ, לְכָךְ נֶאֱמַר אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם כְּשֻׁלְחָן הֶעָרוּךְ וּמוּכָן לֶאֱכֹל לִפְנֵי הָאָדָם.

רש״י, שם

The Sfas Emes is struck by the idea that Moshe didn’t want to tell the people the טעמי המצוות. It’s not that he didn’t want to; it’s that he didn’t feel it was necessary:

וז״ש רש״י לא תעלה על דעתך כו׳ רק לפרש להם טעם הדבר ופירושו כו׳. וכי מרע״ה רעיא מהימנא, שמסר נפשו עבור כל אחד מכלל ישראל, רצה למעט ידיעת התורה מישראל? אך כי רצה שיהיה המשפט מפורש בלי הסתר [שזה ענין מרע״ה אספקלריא המאירה]; רק באמת ניתן התורה בלבושים לפנינו. רק ע״י שנמסר טעמי התורה לישראל יכולין למצוא פנימיות רצונו ית׳ ע״י אותיות התורה כנ״ל.

שפת אמת, משפטים תרל״א

If there are טעמי המצוות, logical reasons for the commandments, how does that connect to the פנימיות? Rav Soloveitchik would say that we are misunderstanding the concept of טעמי המצוות. But explaining that takes some philosophizing. According to people who are much smarter than I am, Rav Soloveitchik’s philosophy was based on “neo-Kantianism”.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is generally considered the greatest of modern philosophers. I cannot myself agree with this estimate, but it would be foolish not to recognize his great importance.

…According to Kant, the outer world causes only the matter of sensation, but our own mental apparatus orders this matter in space and time, and supplies the concepts by means of which we understand experience. Things in themselves, which are the causes of our sensations, are unknowable…

Bertrand Russel, A History of Western Philosophy, pp. 704-707 passim

According to Kant, it is vital always to distinguish between the distinct realms of phenomena and noumena. Phenomena are the appearances, which constitute the our experience; noumena are the (presumed) things themselves, which constitute reality.

Garth Kemerling, Kant: Experience and Reality

Neo-Kantianism was the dominant philosophical movement in Germany from roughly 1870 until the First World War…Neo-Kantians thought of themselves as reviving, defending, and extending Kant’s philosophy. They self-consciously adopted Kant’s vocabulary, and some of his key ideas and arguments.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Neo-Kantianism

Rav Soloveitchik wrote his PhD dissertation on Hermann Cohen, a prominent neo-Kantian, who, as I understand him, emphasized that our “knowledge” of the real world consists of our sensations of that world, and the structure that our own minds place on those sensations. “Objects” exist only in our minds. It is that structure that the neo-Kantians try to study. For Rav Soloveitchik, that structure was the halacha.

A halakhic person approaches the world with halakhic laws, a priori, to determine how to structure his reality. Imagine a man as steeped in the Halakhah as R. Soloveitchik, standing in the wilderness. This halakhic man looks around. All sorts of sensory input enter his eyes, ears, and nose. His halakhic mind takes this all in. As he does so, he makes the groupings and distinctions his mind knows how to make: halakhic groupings and distinctions. He first notices that there is no trace of an artificially constructed boundary. So he mentally “creates” a reshut harabbim…A reshut ha-rabbim is not, however, a thing found in objective nature until there is an “act” that objectifies it. The act of objectification makes a halakhic object, a reshut ha-rabbim (i.e., an object with halakhic ramifications), out of the landscape he sees. He then notices water collected in the expanse before him. It is of a certain size and it also seems to exhibit no trace of having been artificially amassed. He assesses its volume. He correlates the information the Halakhah gives him about bodies of water, with the water he sees. There is enough water! Lo, this act of assessment creates a mikveh…They may be kosher fruits (as opposed to orlah) not because there are objectively kosher fruits in nature, but because they are material objects that have been cognized by someone who can impose halakhic structure upon them.

Heshey Zelcer and Meir Zelcer, A Note on the Original Title for “The Halakhic Mind”, p. 76

What does that have to do with טעמי המצוות?

A central problem of Jewish philosophy is articulating the reasons for the mitzvot (commandments): Why were they commanded? What purpose do they serve? Most famously, Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed…attributes moral, ethical, or scientific considerations to individual mitzvot in an attempt to explain that G-d was rationally justified in commanding them.

R. Soloveitchik argues in the The Halakhic Mind, and he is not the first to do so, that such an approach is misguided. If every mitzvah has a moral, ethical, or scientific purpose then we have reduced Judaism to a set of moral, ethical, or scientific ideals. Our religion thereby becomes a mere ‘handmaiden’ to these ideals. R. Soloveitchik argues that we should not try to identify how a mitzvah came about or why it was commanded. Looking for a reason or rationale for commandments is the wrong way to look at the goal of the ta’amei ha-mitzvot problem. Since all we can do is describe the ‘what’ of a mitzvah, we have no reason to try to look for its ‘why.’ The ‘what’ is the mitzvah and the objects it creates. We can align the subjective experience of one who performs the mitzvah with the objective content of the mitzvah, and then describe the halakhic man’s experiences. We can match up the performance of the mitzvah using the objects that a halakhic man ‘creates’ by his acts of objectification, with his subjective experience of performing the mitzvah. We can hope to describe the relationship between the world of a halakhic man and the subjective experience of his mind.

Thus for Soloveitchik, ta’amei ha-mitzvot refers not to the reason G-d caused the mitzvah to be commanded (such as adherence to some theory of rationality) but rather to the effect the mitzvah has on the person fulfilling it. What is the experience of one who performs the mitzvah? How does performing the mitzvah impact him or change him?

Heshey Zelcer and Meir Zelcer, A Note on the Original Title for “The Halakhic Mind”, p. 77

[I]n each mitzvah we must carefully discriminate between ma’aseh ha-mitzvah (the piecemeal process of actual execution) and kiyyum ha-mitzvah, compliance with the norm. Ma’aseh ha-mitzvah denotes a religious technique, a series of concrete media through which the execution of the mitzvah is made possible, while kiyyum ha-mitzvah is related to the total effect, to the achievement itself, to the structural wholeness of the norm realization.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart, pp. 17-18

An ‘analysis of the ta’amei ha-mitzvot problem’ reveals that the question must not be: Can we give ‘reasons’ for the commandments, but rather, we are being challenged to think about the ta‘am of the mitzvah, its ‘taste’ [footnote: Although ta’am translated as “taste” would flow naturally from Soloveitchik’s understanding of the ta’amei ha-mitzvot problem, he does not articulate it this way. ], the experience evoked within the person performing it.

…Hardest to understand…is how each mitzvah—its objects and performance—shapes the subjective phenomenological character of the halakhic man. And therein lies the task of Jewish philosophy.

Heshey Zelcer and Meir Zelcer, A Note on the Original Title for “The Halakhic Mind”, pp. 78-79

The Sfas Emes expresses a similar thought (without the nineteenth century philosophical jargon) based on the most famous line in this week’s parasha:

ויקח ספר הברית ויקרא באזני העם; ויאמרו כל אשר דבר ה׳ נעשה ונשמע׃

שמות כד:כז

מַגִּיד דְּבָרָיו לְיַעֲקֹב; חֻקָּיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו לְיִשְׂרָאֵל׃

תהלים קמז:יט

ובנ״י הקדימו נעשה לנשמע פי׳ שהיה חביב אצלם יותר מה שזוכין לעשות רצון עליון ממה שיבינו הטעם של המצוה. ועי״ז זכו שיבינו גם הטעמים כי מקודם ניתנו הדיברות אח״כ המשפטים. וכ״כ מגיד דבריו הוא הנהגתו יתברך בלי הבנת הטעמים אח״כ חוקיו ומשפטיו כו׳ וכן הוא בכל מצוה בפרטות כמו שמקיים האדם בפשיטות בלי השגה כראוי רק שרוצה לקיים מצות השי״ת זוכה אח״כ להבין הטעם.

שפת אמת, משפטים תרל״ד

And that, I think, is what Rashi means by כְּשֻׁלְחָן הֶעָרוּךְ וּמוּכָן לֶאֱכֹל (the מוּכָן לֶאֱכֹל is not in the original Machilta). לַהֲבִינָם טַעֲמֵי הַדָּבָר doesn’t mean lecturing about the logical bases of the commandments, it means giving us the opportunity לֶאֱכֹל, to internalize the mitzvot to the point that it changes the very way we think, the way we see the nature of the world. That is Rav Soloveitchik’s “Halachic Mind”.