A Sound Mind

by Mordecai Plaut - Part 1

One of the interesting things about the Mesorah is its homogeneity. It is all one unit, without a central creed or favored part. This, of course, does not mean that all parts will affect a person in the same way, but that with respect to importance it is all the same. For example, the Decalogue is not said daily lest it come to appear more important than other things which are left out. (1)

In this context it is somewhat surprising that Rambam (Maimonides) would formulate thirteen particular principles that he maintained are the main part of the belief system.(2) In what way these are singled out is not clear. Their function, how they are to be used, is far from obvious.

There was much opposition to the idea and to the formulation. It was protested that Torah cannot be divided or condensed. In general, there are two senses in which principles might be considered essential for a system. In a positive sense, a set of principles could be considered the core of the structure, so that acceptance of them is considered acceptance of the whole, as if these statements were axioms which in some sense “contained” the entire system as consequences. In a negative sense, a set of principles could have the character that a denial of one of them is considered a denial of the main part, or tantamount to the denial of the whole, as if the statements were all columns necessary to support the entire system. These, at least, are the obvious reasons one would call statements essential to a system.

The assertion that these thirteen are uniquely essential in the negative sense was questioned by Rabbi S. R. Hirsch. He argued that a principled rejection of any of the commandments is legally sufficient ground for excluding one from the community. Furthermore, the rejection of any part of the text of the Torah as being of Divine origin is also considered denial of an essential. This is in fact the content of one of Rambam’s thirteen (number 8). From this point of view, thirteen seems an excessive limitation.

On the other hand, there are some who have argued that thirteen is just excessive. Looking at the positive aspect of essential principles, the Ikarim includes a long argument that the thirteen are not independent.(3) The number suggested there is three, on the grounds that the other ten can be deduced from them. It is not clear that Rambam would argue with that claim. He does not say that his thirteen are rationally independent. However, if they can make no claim to exclusive essentiality, and if they are not even rationally independent, then what is it that is claimed for them?

Every person is a world apart. Everyone is a complete system, body plus mind, adequate for persistence. A given body and the contents of the associated mind form a complex that is sufficient to allow it to maintain itself in the larger world.

On this basis, it would be proper to call the contents of a person's mind a theory of the world. Every one must construct an abstract, theoretical representation of the world, such as he interacts with it in a rational manner. This theory will be very broad, including ideas about everyday objects as well as more lofty principles of action and belief. It will be integral to planning and memory and similar operations involving mental manipulation of objects not present tangibly.

We are not here interested in general analysis of these theories or in making claims for or about them. It is worth pointing out, though, that such thought worlds have been discussed quite extensively. We can point to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics and anthropology,(4) and to the work of Quine on the indeterminacy of translation and background theories,(5) among many other works. The existence of such personal thought worlds is recognizing by many, and is easily seen with a little personal reflection. They are, however, difficult to talk about since they are so private and individual. Everyone has a particular and unique theory, although there may be enough similarities and points of contact between those of persons with similar environments to construct theories of these theories. Nonetheless, these points of contact will be difficult to locate and discuss meaningfully. As Quine puts it, “radical translation begins at home,” and not just in trying to translate exotic tongues.(6) We are all essentially inscrutable.

The kinds of theories that people will construct are conditioned by the parts of the world with which those people interact with the world. For example, the Argentinian gauchos regularly use about two hundred expressions for the various colors of the hides of horses, yet in their usual speech only four plant names occur.(7) Clearly too, the report of a botanist and of a civil engineer after a routine visit to the same site may have very little in common. They each may not even have noticed objects that the other considered important.

A more subtle, but by that same attribute more instructive, example may be had from a fairly well-known passage in the Mesorah. Among the things Hillel is reported to have said are, “If I am not for me, who is for me? And if I am for myself, what am I?”(8) Modern readers have almost invariably seen these two as thesis and antithesis, and worked at enunciating the synthesis. The usual result is that one must look out for oneself because no one else will, but that we should not overdo it. However, as they were read by Luzzato about 250 years ago, they had a different tone.(9)

Luzzato interprets the first question as an answer to one who pays no critical attention to his deeds from a moral point of view. This is one who might well behave with due regard for his material interests, yet would rely on G'd's benevolence to take care of the moral issues in his life. The import of Hillel's reply is similar to “G'd helps those who help themselves”: one should not expect G'd to ensure the moral health of one who shows no concern of his own. This sense of self-concern is similar to that which we have discussed in our preface. This heightened consciousness of one's moral responsibilities has nothing to do at all with concentration on self, which is the point of the second rhetorical question.

Using this framework, we can interpret Freud (with a dash of Levi Strauss) as arguing that certain questions and problems have a privileged position in the thought worlds of people. These questions may be generally characterized as issues of origins and parenthood (Oedipal-type stuff), and the power of some basic human drives. However, the material which is considered material to the questions of origins is entirely material (in the sense of physical). In other words, the world of the mind, as described by Freud, is constituted entirely of questions of the body: Where does the body come from and what is it to do about its wants. Physical issues dominate overwhelmingly and condition all mental operations. It is an analysis which can fairly, almost literally, be called subsolar narrow-mindedness.

The easy criticism of the Freudian analysis of the human mind is that it leaves out the intellectual and spiritual parts. We have referred to related issues in “The Rise of the Science of Economics and the Idea of Gain,” and in “The Scientist as Poet; The Baal Mesorah as Scientist.” Freud may not have been original in the undersight, but the problem is more sharply felt in his task of analysis of our mental universe. One would think that the mind, being much more immediately present to itself than is the body, would occupy some important place of interest. It would seem reasonable to expect that mental matters would be the material about which the mind would meditate, at least some of the time. To confine the mind to the body is to leave it with a much narrower range than it really has. One is naturally led to suspect that this approach is “born of same,” that is, of an unduly narrow mind.

This limitation has deeper consequences too. The question of origin identified by Freud are important, and they do insist on answers. The pervasiveness of attempts to answer the question of our origin is enough to indicate its place in our thoughts, recognized or not. Without entering into the question of whether the whole discussion of human origins is adequate or effective, we protest that the origin of intellect is not even mentioned. Since our intellect is certainly no less an important part of us than is our body, this is not a slight oversight. Since too, it is our intellect which is engaged in the search for sources, it is not likely to be a forgettable nor a forgivable oversight.

In the Mesorah, the higher parts of man are not overlooked. While, in the Western tradition, man is commonly defined as the rational animal, in the Mesorah, Adam is a “speaking spirit”.(10) The animal of man is valued but not part of the essence. Thus, the issue of the origin of the spirit is most seriously felt, addressed, and answered within the Mesorah. It is this concern which is the stimulus which elicits the thirteen principles.

Continues . . .

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Related essay: How to Succeed in Knowing Without Really Seeing