Friday, September 22, 2006

Maimonides' Evil Twin

Last winter we were privileged to have as scholars-in-residence a group from the Stern College Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmud Studies. One of the shiurim they gave was "To know Him is to love Him: Ahavat Hashem in the teachings of the Rambam".

In one of the works we were studying, Rambam cites the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 14a,

Rav Hama son of Rav Hanina said: "After the Lord your God shall you walk" (Deuteronomy 13:5). But is it possible to walk right behind the Presence? . . . what the verse means is that you are to follow the ways of the Holy One. He clothed the naked: "The Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin and clothed them" (Genesis 3:21). So should you clothe the naked. The Holy One visited the sick: "The Lord appeared unto him in the terebinths of Mamre" (Genesis 18:1). So should you visit the sick. The Holy One buried the dead: "He buried Moses in the valley" (Deuteronomy 34:6). So should you bury the dead. The Holy One comforted mourners: "And it came to pass after the death of Abraham that God bestowed blessing upon Isaac his son" (Genesis 25:11). So should you comfort mourners.

This led me to ask a perennial question of mine, for which I had not yet received a satisfactory answer. Imagine, I said, Rambam's evil twin. He also thinks we should walk in Hashem's ways. He cites the Mirror Mirror Universe Babylonian Talmud

. . . what the verse means is that you are to follow the ways of the Holy One. He destroyed cities full of sinners: " God made sulphur and fire rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah - it came from God, out of the sky. He overturned these cities along with the entire plain, [destroying] everyone who lived in the cities and [all] that was growing from the ground." (Genesis 19:24-25) God declares wars that last forever "God shall be at war with Amalek for all generations" (Exodus 17:16) - So should we war with out enemies until we exterminate them. The Holy One punished complaints with plague: "Moses then said to Aaron, 'Take the fire pan and place on it some fire from the altar. Divine wrath is coming forth from God. The plague has already begun!'" (Numbers 17:11) So should you punish those who complain.

Why do we follow the first set of examples and not the second?

The class and the teacher discussed this for a while. Here's the answer we came up with, which was primarily inspired by Ms. Susan H.:

Hashem is altogether good. Even those acts of Hashem which appear evil to us are actually good, we simply don't understand the reasons why this is so. We are obligated to walk in the ways of Hashem. We understand why the plainly good acts Hashem does are good, so we imitate them. Since we don't understand why the apparently evil acts Hashem performs are good, we do not imitate them, because otherwise thinking to do good we may do actual evil.


ADDeRabbi said...

that's essentially the approach of the Pachad Yitzchak (R' Hutner).
It's also 'pshat' in Jeremiah 9:22, which states that to know God means to know His love, justice, and integrity.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


I used that text (the real one, not the mirror universe one of course ;-) ) for model lessons when i was looking for a teaching job.

Discussing why those specific ones and not "punishing sinners" for instance was also part of the lesson.

And i also brought in an excerpt from JRR Tolkien's poem Mythopoeia:
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned...
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, 'twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we're made.

and asked why does R' Hhama b. Rav Hhanina only bring certain positive attributes/actions, and not others such as creating?

Anonymous said...

It is also why rambam says that a prophet who foretells bad things and they don't come to pass does not lose his legitimacy while one who foretells good things cannot fail or else...

Emulating God is a very tough thing. It works well when it involves personal matters and do not involve others and becomes dangerous when it does involve others. It therefore requires a rational way of thinking, a lot of study and self improvement. Self doubt never leaves such a person. Moshe was the humblest of man!