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Issue 198: Rambam or Ra’avid?
Spiritually Preparing for “Wal-Mart”
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
This article orignally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine

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Rambam or Ra’avid? Spiritually Preparing for “Wal-Mart”

By: Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

Recommended Reading:

Walmart is Coming

Kiruv for OUR Children

All Dressed up With Nowhere to Go

There is a fascinating discussion among our chazal, sages, regarding the topic of bechira, free will, which has profound ramifications for us as we parent and educate our children in these rapidly changing times.

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) in his classic Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Teshuvah 5:5), discusses the inherent tension of reconciling Hashem's foreknowledge of future events with human bechira. Since Hashem knows long before a man is born how he will behave throughout his life, how can he be punished for his averos, sinful acts, and rewarded for his mitzvos, virtuous acts?

The Rambam (ibid) explains that the answer to this question is, “Longer than the earth and wider than the sea,” meaning that humans are simply not capable of understanding Hashem’s capacities (see Yeshaya 55:8). Referencing others writings of his on this topic (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 2), the Rambam explains that there is clear empirical evidence that each of us does, in fact, have free will. Therefore, we are accountable for our actions and cannot claim that His foreknowledge ‘forced’ us to act in a particular fashion.

Rabbi Avraham ben Dovid (1125-1198), known by his acronym, the Ra’avid, (Hilchos Teshuvah 5:5) uses rather strong language in questioning the wisdom of the Rambam in publishing his thoughts on this subject. The Ra’avid wonders why he chose to, “Begin [a difficult philosophical subject such as this one] with a question and then leave it unanswered, since the Rambam infers that one needs to rely on bitachon, faith, as mere mortals cannot understand the workings of Hashem to reconcile this matter.” The Ra’avid concludes that it would have been better to leave this topic unaddressed and rely on the “temimus,” simple faith, of Jews to resolve this conflict.

Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575), in his commentary Kesef Mishneh, defends the Rambam’s decision to squarely tackle this challenging subject. He writes that one may become spiritually disoriented if and when this question of how-can-one-have-bechirah-if-Hashem-sees-the-future crosses his mind. It was with this in mind that the Rambam penned those lines. Rav Caro writes that one who will raise this question in future generations would surely gain comfort from the fact that the Rambam discussed it and concluded that, “this type of question cannot be answered conclusively due to our limited, human, understanding of Hashem.”

It would be fair to say that nowadays many or most parents and educators follow the approach of the Ra’avid; that challenging hashkafa, philosophical, questions are better left unasked and unaddressed, especially in a school setting. However, I propose that we should seek the counsel of our gedolim and consider – at least in part – embracing the Rambam’s thinking on this matter.

For so long as our children are young and in our exclusive domain, they will, in all likelihood, unquestioningly accept all the hashkafa values we teach them. But in this rapidly changing “Wal-Mart” world in which we live (I recently wrote a column in Mishpacha, Walmart is Coming, where I compared the advent to Internet/technology to a Wal-Mart moving down the road from a small hardware store), the proliferation of digital information and instant communication makes it far more likely that our children will be asking – or be asked – these types of questions as they grow and leave the shelter of our homes. It is therefore important that we consider providing them with the answers at an early age, perhaps as early as ninth or tenth grade, even if it means exposing them to questions that we would prefer not to address until our children have grown to adulthood.

Rabbis Daniel Mechanic and Yerachmiel Milstein are making an admirable contribution in this arena with their excellent and popular Project Chazon seminars which expose high school talmidim and talmidos to matters of Torah hashkafa. But that is just a drop in the proverbial sea, as these sporadic sessions cannot substitute for ongoing chizuk in the very core tenets of our Torah.

The legendary Reb Shrage Feivel Mendlowitz passed away eleven years before I was born, but I consider him my ‘second-generation’ rebbi as nearly every one of my rebbeim were talmidim of his. When one reads through his biography, one cannot help but notice the breath of diverse sefarim that he learned with his talmidim (aside from gemara, tanach, halacha and dikduk); chassidus and mussar, Maharal and a seemingly endless array of sifrei machshava, Jewish thinking. I was a recipient of his passion and vision as I heard many hundreds of quotes from him in all these diverse areas of Torah learning over the years.

He also consistently touched the very souls of his talmidim with his beautiful zemiros and singing. Growing up, I had the zechus to hear his talmidim, among them Reb Manis Mandel z’tl and y’lct, the Bostoner Rebbi s’hlita, stop me at social settings (he still does so now) and hum a stirring niggun, tune, written by my great-grandfather, Reb Dov Ber Horowitz, h’yd (affectionately known throughout Hungary and Romania as “Berish Vishever”) that Reb Shrage Feivel asked my father to sing each Seudas Shlishis in Torah Vodaas.

I assume that Reb Shrage Feivel created this diverse syllabus because he was preparing his talmidim to travel to “Wal-Mart” territory, the vast spiritual wasteland that was pre-war America. There, they opened the tiny “mom-and-pop hardware stores;” the day schools and yeshivos that planted the seeds for the rebirth of Torah in this country.

Well, things are changing all around us. Now, ready or not, like it or not, “Wal-Mart” is coming to us, not the other way around. With that in mind, I strongly feel that we ought to consider embracing the derech of the Rambam to properly prepare ourselves and our children for its arrival.

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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