Written by student
Chapter 1, Mishna 3: “Ontignos, the man from Socho… said: Don’t be like servants who serve their master to receive ‘pras’ but rather be like servants who serve their master not to receive ‘pras’ and let Fear of Heaven be on you”
We last left off with questions on the commentary of the Rambam on our mishna. In explaining the concept of love of God, the Rambam says that love of God is tied to fulfilling positive commandments whereas fear of God is tied to safeguarding the prohibitions of the Torah. We asked why this should be the case; if they are all the commandments of God, why should it matter which one is being performed? The only factor would seem to be the attitude of the person involved!
It is interesting to note that the Ramban uses the same idea to explain a famous legal ruling of the Talmud. Whenever a person is confronted with a situation in which he must choose between safeguarding a prohibition or fulfilling a positive commandment, the Talmud rules that the positive obligation overrides the prohibition so that one may transgress on the prohibition in order to fulfill that commandment. In his commentary on Exodus (Chapter 20, verse 8) the Ramban explains that this ruling is based on the idea that positive commandments are greater in that they are tied to love of God whereas Prohibitive commandments are tied to fear of God. Here, too, we need to understand how this works; for example, why can’t a person avoid transgressing a commandment out of love?
Let us start by examining a relationship between two people. When two people want to interact, there needs to be some positive activity between them; just avoiding negative actions will not create anything. While it is true that once a positive relationship is forged, avoiding negative actions will maintain that relationship. However, a lack of action to avoid transgression, alone, will not create a relationship.
When we speak of a person pursuing perfection, we must refer to positive actions. Why? Because the very nature of perfection is a relationship with God. The avoidance of transgressing the word of God sets the stage for the experience of relating to God, but that experience demands positive action on the part of man.
Now we can understand the meaning of the comments of the Rambam and Ramban. Fulfilling positive commandments is a means for man to be actively involved in his relationship with God. This is what is meant by love of God, where the person can engage and enjoy his relationship with God. If he isn’t active, then the prohibitive commandments keep man in a state where he can maintain that relationship and not violate it. This is what is meant by fear of God, where man safeguards the word of God in order to uphold his relationship with God. These prohibitions, however, can’t be a source of love of God since, by nature, they demand of man to be passive. It then follows that man’s greatest involvement, that of perfection, will only be through the positive commandments.
The Rambam, commenting on our mishna, continues with the story of Tziduk and Bitus, students of Ontignos, the author of our mishna. He says that they misunderstood the statement in our mishna to mean that there is no system of reward and punishment at all according to the Torah. They tried to gather a following; known as “Tzidukim” and “Bitusim”. However, they failed to convince people of this belief so they began to argue that they believed in the Written Torah but not in the Oral Law of the Torah, arguing that the Oral Torah transmitted was incorrect. The Rambam says that they did this in order so that they could excuse themselves from many obligations and so that they could choose how to explain certain verses in the Torah according to how they liked, and not according to the interpretations and rulings of the Rabbis.
In this account given by the Rambam, there is a seeming contradiction regarding the motives of Tziduk and Bitus. First, the Rambam says that their motivation was to lead a movement, trying to convince people to follow them. Then the Rambam says that they were motivated by their desire to rid themselves of the obligation to keep many of the Rabbinic laws. How do we resolve this seeming contradiction? We may also ask another question on the Rambam: how did he know that they had these motivations? Perhaps they were sincere in their doubt about the validity of the Oral Law that was in the hands of the Rabbis! To be continued.