Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Translator's Intro. to "Eight Chapters" (Part 1)


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Translator's Introduction (Part 1)

Anyone of a sensitive and inquisitive nature has to be overwhelmed in our day and age-- overwhelmed by the richness of ourselves, others, and of the world at large we’ve come to be exposed to.

After all, we now know ourselves to be bustling, elbowing, and boisterous hallways of thoughts and emotions, processes and reactions who spend whole lifetimes in the company of others just like us. Can anyone blame us then for being skittish and easily distracted?

Consider as well the fact that we now know that the lot of us are mere rivulets in a resounding, mammoth universe. Thus it comes as no surprise why a sensitive soul would find him- or herself awash in data, feelings, and thoughts, and would need direction.

Reflect as well upon the fact that while it’s clear that we simply can’t take it all in, it’s also clear that we’d forfeit far too much if we didn’t take in enough... and we’re simply done for.

It seems the only solution is to somehow or another narrow things down; determine what matters most, what matters less so, and what really doesn’t matter; and to concentrate on the first especially, the second less so, and the third not at all (if we can help it).

That’s where The Eight Chapters comes in.

For it’s my contention that Rambam has provided us herein with a list of priorities outright, a veritable “guide for the overwhelmed” of any epoch in time, including our own. In that it’s here that he engages in an early effort to set order to the grand scheme of things so that we might know what to concentrate upon in the face of it all.

Later works expanded upon many of the themes offered here. But it was here, in The Eight Chapters, that Rambam addressed the very most vital existential issues we’d all do well to concentrate on, including: just who we are, at bottom; what’s expected of us as Jews specifically, as well as all human beings; how we’re to serve God in the world; etc.

And he took this opportunity to delve into all that at this point in his writings because, as we’ll find, The Eight Chapters serves as Rambam’s introduction to his comments to Pirke Avot (“The Ethics of the Fathers”). And much of all this is touched upon there.

Pirke Avot is usually taken to be a rather straightforward setting out of many of the moral ideals our sages held out for us all. Yet as Rambam points out in his introduction to this work, Pirke Avot is clearly something far deeper than that, far more engaging. For our sages said that whoever wanted to be pious would have to live by its words (Babba Kama 30A).

We’re struck by that, and many questions spring up as a consequence. What exactly is piety? Does it come down to other-worldliness, religious zealotry, monkishness, and the like? Can one live in the modern world and be pious? Is there a characteristically Jewish brand of piety or is it a generic type? Are there degrees higher yet than piety? Why would anyone want to be pious?

To begin with, we’ll learn that piety touches upon self-perfection (among other things).

But what’s that all about? Any discussion about self-perfection would certainly have to be preceded by an analysis of the “self” itself. What are we, in fact? Are we each a melange of separate independent parts? Or is each individual a “unified field” of sorts defining the cluster of all of his or her parts?

And are we really so in control of our beings that we can perfect ourselves? Aren’t there extenuating circumstances and other things out of our control, like our inborn natures? Is there such a thing as “predestination”, in light of the fact that an All-knowing God would certainly know beforehand if I’m to be good or bad, and could thus force me to act one way or the other?

If we imply that we’re capable of perfecting ourselves, we must now be imperfect. But, how so? What’s right about us, and what’s not? And how do we ever improve ourselves?

Then back to piety. If, as it turns out it does, piety involves going beyond “the letter of the law” and extending one’s religious reach, then can one ever go too far? Does piety imply blind and artless faith?

All that having been said, what are we ultimately meant to do in this world? And what do we do with “the rest of our day”, if you will, i.e., how do we live in the world and fulfill our God-given mission at the same time?

What role does the mitzvah system play in all that? Are we to concentrate most especially upon personal growth, and to only backhandedly adhere to the mitzvot?

The subject of prophecy arises at several points in this work, in connection with piety. What differentiates the pious from prophets? Did Jewish prophets differ from non-Jewish ones, and how so? And if, as we know, Moses was the greatest of prophets, what made him so great? How does that affect my own spiritual station?

Hence we see that The Eight Chapters touches upon certain deep and vital existential questions if would do us all well to concentrate on if we’re ever to live a life of content and challenge, growth and spiritual excellence.

Undoubtedly the most vital existential questions of them all touch upon our relationship to God. And Rambam goes into detail about that here, as well.

He answers questions like, How does one in fact draw close to God in a human context? What exactly does “drawing close to” or “knowing” God entail? What separates us from God in the first place? And, if God is indeed All-Mighty, then how can I ever draw close to or separate myself from Him-- or do anything at all!-- on my own?

(c) 2004 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman