Character Follows Faith

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Twenty-Seven

People of Torah values build their faith foundation first, then construct the content of their character, R. Arama intends this sha’ar to explain, in contrats to philosophers, who allow their intellectual examination of issues to shape their pre-exidsting character [an idea and issue certainly acute in our times, when many people assume the validity of what happens to be innate to them. R. Arama wants us to see the Torah calls for us to first put the question objectively, to mold ourselves to the model of what objective and dispassionate consideration determines to be good].

We’re Trying to Get to Knowledge of Gd

Instead of a Midrash, R. Arama opens with a Mishnah in Avot 3;9, where R. Hanina b. Dosa asserts the importance of actions outnumbering wisdom. To explain, R. Arama starts with what was considered ancient wisdom, people are similar to ordinary nature, such as trees, in some ways, for example bearing fruit in their own type and image, while also having an intellectual side, with many branches.

The two sides of the human being combine to produce recognition of Gd and true faith, the ultimate goal [two mouthfuls: our intellectual and physical sides together bring us fuller knowledge of Gd, and such knowledge is the goal]. For trees, a healthy trunk usually means healthy branches, although it’s by far not guaranteed. People who take care of their physical human sides will similarly be as set as possible for good outcomes intellectually and religiously. He repeats it’s not certain, but, as with Ya’akov’s ladder, setting the base of the ladder on firm ground makes it easier to climb.

More, while a solid foundation may not guarantee progress, a faulty base makes it almost inconceivable, for three reasons. First, evil actions and improper character (he uses the word kilkul, damaged or ruined) interfere more than anything else with the acquisition of wisdom and all the more so the yoke of faith.

[I am especially struck by the “all the more so,” a reminder R. Arama thinks—and I agree, FWIW—accepting faith (the reason he calls it a “yoke”) is harder than intellectual insight, I think because we are asked to adopt perpsecitves we did not, maybe cannot arrive at on our own.]

Second, the physical is the more easily perfected, it can be accomplished with regular practice. Intellectual and faith perfection requires a greater effort, lowering the odds someone unwilling to do the work needed for the first will do the work needed for the second. [Logical as the idea is, I don’t think it holds in practice, because different efforts are different, and people often are willing to make herculean efforts of one kind while not of another, seemingly easier, kind. There are people who run marathons who give no attention to their intellectual or spiritual sides, as well as the reverse, giants of Troah knowledge who do not pay significant attention to their physical health.]

Third, the physical health is constantly needed for support, as the branches cannot survive without a trunk. R. Hanina b. Dosa’s dictum about actions and wisdom, for R. Arama, made a similar point, the actions (the physical) serving as the necessary support for the wisdom.

The Valuable Character Discussions in Secular Literature

The vital role of character was clear to non-Jewish scholars, too, the reason for the voluminous literature on the topic, especially Aristotle’s Ethics, a work R. Arama reminds he has quoted frequently.  In addition to personal ethics, R. Arama mentions political philosophy, by which I think he means the ways people should act for society to run fruitfully for all. (There are, for him, two parts to physical perfection, personal physical perfection, and social perfection, man being a political animal, as Aristotle said, the perfection of human polities part of each individual’s physical life as well.)

They came up with four traits to emphasize above others, each supported in Scripture. First, forbearance. People of high character, Aristotle says, have the courage to face hard times without being notably put off, to the extent the foolish think they are insensitive. [This isn’t as popular a view today, but let’s see where he is going with it.]

For example, R. Arama adds as support from Scripture, the death of the first child David had with Batsheva had the opposite effect on David from what his staff expected. In response to their questions, David made clear he held onto hope as long as feasible, and left it behind when there was no more, when the divine decree had been enacted.

Emotions are to be entertained only when and as they have value, R. Arama is saying. [We might think emotions are valuable in more situations than he would have, but the point still seems true to me, they are worthwhile where they contribute rather than detract or distract.]

To him, this raises a first question about Va-Yishlah’s portrayal of the brothers, who are notably saddened when they hear of Dina’s abduction and rape. Why weren’t they like David, stoic about what they could not change?

Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve?

Second, to be up front about one’s dilikes. Hiding is for cowards, Aristotle said, better to be more concerned with truth, say openly how one feels and thinks. He applied it to war as well, where to trick the enemy was the behavior of the fox, evidence of a lack of heart and courage. R. Arama offers the example of Nahash, the Ammonite king of I Shemuel 11, whose threat to Yavesh Gil’ad led them to turn to the new king Sha’ul for assistance, giving him a chance to demonstrate his leadership and military prowess.

R. Arama seems to think Nahash had it right in brazenly telling the people of Yavesh Gil’ad how he intended to embarrass them, gave them seven days to seek help from other Jews, confident no such help would be forthcoming.

[He is less convincing here, to my mind, because we have a long history of fighting wars in other than the most straightforward way, our Jewish disadvantages in numbers making it unwise to fight head on (I wrote the first draft of these words on Hanukkah, and the Maccabees certainly did not defeat the Greeks by taking them on frontally).]

It gives him another reason to wonder about the behavior of Ya’akov’s sons, who tricked the people of Shekhem, then attacked them. In his first consideration of the issue, the brothers should have weighed their odds, and if they could not defeat Shekhem in a straight-up war, refused the deal, and left [it’s not clear to me Shekhem was willing to give up Dina without a fight; R. Arama is assuming the verse objects to the brothers’ trickery because trickery is wrong, although he himself was fine with trickery when it came to Esav and Lavan.]

I find his second point more convincing, the brothers’ not noticing when the people of Shekhem acquiesced, to R. Arama a sign they had repented somewhat. After they agreed to circumcise, he is saying, the brothers owed it to them to see if they were more prepared to act appropriately before they killed them.

Acquisitiveness and Recklessness

The third problematic trait, acquisitiveness, shows itself in the various prohibitions the Torah sets up for wrongful self-enrichment, theft, overcharging, forced sales. The Torah placed lo tahmod, do not covet, last of the Ten Pronouncements to make clear it was the root of all the others, R. Arama says.

Yet the brothers chose to loot the city of Shekhem after destroying it, another stain on their character. Avraham was known for his generosity, the Jews of the time of Purim did not take any booty from their victory over their enemies. Had Ya’akov’s sons burned the city, they would have raised fewer questions about the purity of their motives.

Finally, he objects to endangering oneself. Heroism, to his mind, includes realizing when a fight would be futile and waiting for better odds. He does carve out exceptions, where death is better than living and one might as well try to fight; he names the three sins for which the Gemara obligates a Jew to forfeit his/her life rather than transgress, murder, worship of powers other than Hashem, and gilui arayot, sexual sins. Other than those, he thinks putting oneself in mortal danger is tantamount to suicide.

David HaMelekh gives us an example, in II Shemuel 22, where three of his mighty warriors put themselves in danger to get water for a very thirsty David, who then refused to drink it, libating it to Hashem instead. In verse fourteen, David says he could not let himself drink what the men endangered themselves to secure for him, Because our lives are entrusted to us by Hashem, not ours to do with as we please (a statement clear in traditional sources yet very much countercultural in the Western world). For as long as Hashem does not take our lives, we are required to do all we can to protect it.

Here again, the brothers seem to fall short, because their destruction of Shekhem would usually have brought retribution from surrounding people (as Ya’akov says in his rebuke to them). Only because Hashem put the fear of Gd into them did the Ya’akov family travel unhindered.

Four central and significant character traits the sons of Ya’akov seem to miss; how can we/he explain their behavior?

About Gidon Rothstein

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