Professor Yair Lorberbaum


On the evening of Monday October 19th 2015, Revel’s visiting scholar, Professor Lorberbaum, addressed an engaged audience on the topic of ta’amei ha-mitzvot in the thought of Rashba. Lorberbaum is currently a professor at Bar Ilan University’s Law School. He has lectured at Cardozo School of Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School, Princeton University, and Yale University. He is a renowned scholar of Jewish thought, Jewish Law, and political and legal theory. His publications include: Image of God: Halakhah and Aggadah and Disempowered King: Monarchy in Ancient Jewish Literature.

Lorberbaum discussed two major views of ta‘amei hamitzvot (reasons for the commandments) that stood in opposition to the rationalistic approach of Jewish philosophers such as Saadia Gaon and Maimonides, who provided naturalistic, sociological, and psychological reasons for the commandments. He characterized the first opposing view as “Halakhic Religiosity of Mystery and Transcendence,” i.e., that the reasons behind the commandments transcend human understanding. On this view, the mundane reasons given by Saadia and Maimonides undermine the religious depth of the commandments by stripping them of their mysterious, transcendent character. Lorberbaum termed the other view “Halakhic Religiosity of Obedience and Servitude,” i.e., that the sole purpose of observing the commandments is to subordinate ourselves to God’s will. This view argues that true devotion to God requires fulfilling a commandment only for its own sake (lishmah), rather than for some ulterior goal.

The major focus of the lecture was Rashba, who, according to Lorberbaum, was the first great Jewish author to present the position of “Halakhic Religiosity of Mystery and Transcendence” in a comprehensive way. Rashba thus applied this approach even to commandments that have an obvious reason, for example Shabbat, about which the Torah states explicitly that its purpose is to serve as a testimony that God created the world. As a Kabbalist, Rashba argued that the true purpose of observing the Shabbat — like all other commandments — is a mystical secret that transcends human understanding.

In the sources that Lorberbaum cited, Rashba polemicized against two other views: the mundane, rationalist view of Maimonides in the Guide of the Perplexed, as well as the attitude characteristic of early Ashkenazic thinkers that the exclusive purpose of the commandments is obedience and servitude. The latter view is described by the Provencal Maimonidean author David ben Samuel ha-Kokhavi, who speaks of the “sect of talmudists” who object to the entire project of seeking reasons for the commandments and insist on fulfilling them only because they are “the decrees of the King” (gezerot melekh). As Lorberbaum noted, the various medieval views reverberate in modern treatments of the reasons for the commandments. For example, even the great rationalist scholar Isaac Heinemann, in his monumental work The Reasons for the Commandments in Jewish Thought: From the Bible to the Renaissance, noted with a tinge of criticism that the mundane reasons for the commandments given by Saadia Gaon and Maimonides detracted from the “mystery” of true religious experience.

Lorberbaum offered a new insight brought out from the Rashba’s innovative perspective to the familiar notion of ta’amei ha-mitzvot in halakhah.

To read advice from Lorberbaum for those entering the field of academia click here to view a summary from the Revel PhD luncheon earlier that day.


This review was written by Blima Zelinger Maged, SCW ’15 GPATS ’17.


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