Communities, Combination and Creation

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Series Introduction: Practical Highlights of Derashot haRan

Welcome to a new feature, a weekly discussion of R. Nissim of Gerona’s Derashot HaRan. (While there has been some suggestion that the author of the work was someone else, Prof. Leon Feldman put that to rest in his 2003 Mossad HaRav Kook edition of the Derashot, in the introductory pages, 11-14). Better known as Ran (1320-1380), R. Nissim’s thirteen sermons, fascinating as they are, are almost the least of his legacy. He was the leading halachic authority of his generation, author of influential commentaries on Gemara and on Rif.

In this series
* 1: Communities, Combination and Creation
* 2: What Science Doesn’t Know
* 3: What’s the Best Way to Physical Health?
* 4: The Permanent Friction Between Esav and Yaakov
* 5: Changing the World with Evocative Acts
* 6: Predicting and Locking In the Future
* 7: Moshe’s Speech Defect and the Dangers of Demagoguery
* 8: Drasha 3: Aharon and the Rewards of Sincere Humility
* 9: Drasha 3: Embracing the Metaphysics in the First Mitzvot of the Torah

My own theory, which I can justify better after we’ve gone through these Derashot, is that Ran delivered these as a unit, in reaction to the Black Death of 1348 (historical aside: 1348 was the first appearance of what historians identify as bubonic plague, which reappeared frequently until the 1700s. It often killed a third or more of the populations it hit, and was only conquered once quarantining became the norm).

Whatever led him to write it, Derashot haRan offers an hashkafic alternative to Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim. Ran is a rationalist, in that he does not cite kabbalistic ideas or deep or esoteric mysteries to explain the world, but he does delve into the interaction between the purely physical realm we see and the impact of the metaphysical on that world.

Ran makes it easy to want to study his work, since he builds his ideas through original, creative interpretations of the biblical and halachic texts

Ran makes it easy to want to study his work, since he builds his ideas through original, creative interpretations of the biblical and halachic texts he cites to support his claims. We could productively study the Derashot only as an exercise in exciting exegesis. The Derashot were also often quoted by later rabbis, among them Abarbanel, Malbim, Shelah, Penei Yehoshu’a, and Aruch laNer. Studying these Derashot thus also expands our understanding of the library that would have informed traditional Jews as they built their own worldviews.

All of that might still sound a little academic, a little removed from real life. The clinching reason to study the Derashot is that Ran fills them with enlightening insights that often challenge us to rethink how we see the world around us. It is the ideas that are immediately and obviously relevant to our understanding of the world today I want to engage in this series, which is why I have titled it “Practical Highlights.” To make it as comfortable as possible to read, I hope to do this in about 1000 words a week.

Practical Highlight Number One: Combinations and Their Importance

Ran’s begins with the first verse of the Torah, that Hashem created Heaven and Earth, and launches into a discussion of the consensus of his time, that underlying everything was one basic type of matter (we might today call it a fundamental particle, from which all other matter is built). That’s not to say that Ran denied the four-element theory, the common understanding (until the 1800s) that everything in the world is made up of earth, wind, water, or fire, or a combination thereof.

A side note: Ran will make many claims about the physical universe, some of them contradicted by later scientific discoveries. As we go through the Derashot, we’ll have to keep track of them, and see whether and when those clashes affect our ability to relate to his central idea. This is not one of them, however—while science keeps finding a multitude of elementary particles, it has not yet shown there isn’t something even more basic that turns into all of those.

Bringing together different elements forms a better whole

Ran is more obviously right about his next claim, that most of matter is a combination of other building blocks. While he expressed it in terms of the four elements and we would say it in terms of subatomic particles and then elements of the Periodic Table, we still recognize that most matter consists of combinations of smaller matter.

That was purposeful and deliberate, according to Ran. Bringing together different elements forms a better whole by suppressing or covering flaws in the component materials, while also allowing new, positive qualities, not found in any of the original materials, to emerge. Combination is not only necessary, it is helpful, and that was why God made such a world.

The Value and Failings of Community

That’s true in Nature, Ran says, but also in communities (we’ll see that Ran likes when human structures mirror the physical universe; we’ll have to think about why that would appeal to him). Human communities combine lesser individuals into a greater whole, diluting members’ failings, just like natural materials join together to produce a greater whole. I have this flaw, you have another, but none of these are characteristic of the whole, and are therefore lost in the bigger picture.

For Ran, that is why Sotah 40a adjures us to treat communities with awe. It was also one reason Moshe Rabbenu was punished for hitting the rock—he had, just before, called the Jews’ morim, rebels, which Ran saw as disrespectful to the community. (We’ll see the rock again in a later Derasha.)

When members of a group share a positive quality, their combination will reinforce that

Ran further says that the קטורת, the incense offered in the Temple, taught us this lesson. חלבנה, galbanum, was an ingredient of the incense despite its intense and somewhat foul odor. Despite its flaws on its own, it contributes constructively to the overall pleasant aroma of the incense when it is combined with them.

Combination isn’t always a boon; it can be dangerous. For Ran, the Tower of Babel was an example. Since the people building the Tower were all evil in similar ways, joining them made that even more prominent. Hashem dispersed them as a preventive measure, not a punishment, to avoid the concentrated amplification of a group united in idolatry.

This works in reverse as well—when members of a group share a positive quality, their combination will reinforce that. Friends who share a set of common positive goals and values will, in their combination, achieve a synergy that is greater than the sum of their parts.

So What’s So Good About Community?

Ran would seem to have painted himself into a corner, yet he doesn’t realize or address it. If communities and other combinations heighten shared qualities, good or bad, and dampen uncommon qualities, good or bad, it would seem to be a wash. Isn’t it equally likely that combining will lead to worse results? Why should Hashem favor communities?

I suspect he would give two answers. First, he never explicitly said communities suppress the good qualities of the individual, and he may not have believed that—it makes sense that communal judgment plays a role. A community would encourage the expression of good qualities, even if they’re not widely shared. And it would discourage bad qualities, thereby removing their combinatory force.

Second, Ran may have assumed that good qualities are more often shared than bad ones—there are many, many ways to be lacking, but good occupies a narrower band. If so, groups of people will be more likely to share good qualities than bad.

Aside from the utilitarian value of communities helping us highlight the good and avoid the bad within ourselves, Ran also seems to see an imitatio Dei element. He doesn’t focus on it here, so neither will I, but his talk reveals a clear pleasure in the fact that our social activity mimics nature’s workings. For someone who believes that Hashem set up nature, human beings’ imitating that was also a positive.

The Question for Us

This is only the first piece of this derasha, but it already leaves us a set of questions to ask ourselves, in this case regarding our own communities. Are those communities– do we even want them to be– groupings that highlight shared (or even our unique) good qualities? Or are they, like the generation of the Tower, a grouping that brings a negative quality to the fore?

Ran’s idea suggests we might also ask ourselves whether we have sought and/or found a community that best serves our needs. If, for example, we have personal weakness x, Ran would seem to say we should be careful to find a community where that is not common. The community we are part of might be good in general, but bad for us personally in that it will support and build on our poor qualities, not discourage them.

That’s our first foray into Ran, where he tries to link the natural and the social, arguing that combinations are crucial to both. It leaves us reminded to consider well who we combine with, not only whether they are good people themselves, overall, but also whether they are the kind of people who will help us become as good as we can be, and with whom we can build the greatest possible whole.

About Gidon Rothstein

10 comments

  1. I have seen a very nice edition on Derashos HaRan, presumably Mossad HaRav Kook’s edition, but perhaps you can point out an online source for those of us who cannot browse/do business in Ivrit?

  2. It would be interesting to know more about what the trends were in non-Jewish thought concerning similar community related issues. Obviously the relationship between the community and the individual was debated among later social thinkers who had to come up with ideas such as “the general will” as a replacement for Hashem.

  3. Yirmiyahu: I don’t think an English translation has ever been published. I’ve seen manuscript attempts but the Ran’s style is very hard to translate.

  4. from hebrewbooks.org, here’s a fairly compact version: http://hebrewbooks.org/31849

  5. My own assumption about motivation for Derashos haRan involves the similarity of worldview between the ideas found there and those of his talmid, R’ Chasdai Crescas (Or Hashem) and even through to his talmid, R’ Yosef Albo (Seifer haIqarim). I am therefore inclined to believe that not only was there a strong mesorah in the content of their aggadic works, but also in the belief that one should write an aggadic work. IOW, I think that the Ran’s primary motivation was ideological and possibly specifically against the Aristotilian loyalty of the Rambam and the Ralbag (an early contemporary of the Ran).

    I therefore look forward to the argument that the derashos were written in response to an event, so see if it causes me to question my current theory.

  6. Re Rabbi Rothstein’s question: “If communities and other combinations heighten shared qualities, good or bad, and dampen uncommon qualities, good or bad, it would seem to be a wash. Isn’t it equally likely that combining will lead to worse results? Why should Hashem favor communities?”
    It may not be sufficient to fully resolve the problem, but it is worth noting the general principle that negative elements tend to resist combination and nullify one another, whereas positive elements naturally coalesce to form a greater good. Rabbi Shlomo Fisher develops that principle in reference to this derasha of the Ran at http://www.yeshiva.org.il/midrash/shiur.asp?id=2661.

  7. To follow up on peeping Tom’s comment, there is a mishna in Sanhedrin which says a gathering of the wicked is bad for them and bad for the world. I believe there are sources which explain that the wicked are typically selfish. They will not sacrifice their assets or opportunities for the greater good. SO any community of the wicked is doomed to splinter and disband in quick order. This ough to be the norm.
    I think the Tower of Babel was an exceptional event which requires a special explanation as to why these wicked were motivated to unify and endure sacrifices.

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