Halakha and the Laws of Robotics (Part 3 of 3)

(Part 2 can be found here)

In light of all the available evidence, I think that despite the presence of Hukim, Halakha is a means for some external ends.  There are four basic arguments for this fact which I will detail in the following paragraphs.

The first argument is based on the existence of what amounts to Halakhically mandated epistemological rules. When we don’t know if an action is permitted or forbidden, there are a whole slew of rules such as eid echad ne’eman b’i'esurim, kol d’peresh merubah pirish, kol kavuah k’mechztsa al mechtza damey, chazakah, safaik d’oraysa l’chumra, safaik d’rabanan l’kula, and so on which tell us how to proceed in light of our doubts. These rules make more sense as part of a legal system than as part of a moral one. In a moral system, a prohibited action is inherently wrong. Thus, if you have reason to believe an action is prohibited, you should not do it. If you don’t think an action is wrong, you can go ahead and do it. Your own internal epistemological rules should be sufficient to tell you what you may and may not do. The only way, then, for Halakha to be a moral system is if these epistemological guidelines conformed exactly with the intuitive set of rational rules of daily decision making. Unfortunately, however, they do not. For example, if there are nine stores selling Kosher meat in a town and one store selling non-kosher meat, then if you find a piece of meat outside, you can assume its kosher because “kol d’peresh merubah peresh”. However, if you bought a piece of meat but don’t know whether you bought it from the treif store or a kosher store, you may not eat it because “kol kavuah k’mechtsa al mechtsa damey” (Kesubos 15a). Under an intuitive set of epistemological guidelines this makes no sense. There is no more reason to believe that the meat is kosher in the first case than in the second. However, if the point of Halakha is not to conform 100% to God’s will but to approximate it in a rigid and formal manner, the rule makes sense. We could explain it by saying that when there is a doubt about the meat, it’s treif; however, a legal mechanism called rov permits the meat, and this mechanism is only triggered at the moment when the meat is peresh.

The second argument is based on the existence of a common theme in seemingly non-connected areas of Halakha. In many areas of Halakha, objects which were previously used for evil or for harm may not be used for other purposes. For example, a shor haniskal (violent animal which deserves to be stoned) cannot be eaten, property of an apostate city may not be used, and leavened bread which was owned by a Jew on Passover cannot be eaten, even after Passover. That this theme is applied in three completely different areas of Halakha suggests that there is a broader idea at work here. Whether this idea is a mystical one, that these objects acquire some negative property due to their usage, or a rational one, that it is good for men to refrain from associating with these objects, the idea is still potentially broader than its narrow applications in the Halakhic system.

Why does the halakha only relate to the idea with respect to specific classes of objects and not in a broader way which captures the abstract idea in full? Like the programing of a robot, the Halakha must be rigid and precise enough for us to interpret, in a relatively rigorous manor.

Of the three laws just mentioned, the prohibition of eating leavened bread which was owned by a Jew on Passover is particularly interesting for our purposes. This is because, unlike the other two, this law did not originate from God himself but is instead a rabbinical decree. Why did the rabbis feel the need to decree laws? If you think that the Divine will is completely captured by the Halakha, then the only conceivable purpose for a rabbinic decree is to safeguard the d’oraysa laws of the Torah. Any other purpose would be completely outside the scope of the Divine will and thus outside the domain of halakha. You would then interpret this prohibition as a safeguard against the d’oraysa prohibition of a Jew owning leavened bread on Passover.

The trouble is, however, that it’s not always so clear which d’oraysa law a particular rabbinical law is supposed to be safe guarding. Consider, for instance, the rabbinical commandment to make a blessing before one eats any food. The Talmud never suggests that this law exists to safeguard a specific d’oraysa law, and it’s hard to imagine what d’oraysa law it’s supposed to safeguard. On the contrary, the Talmud says that this law is a svarah,  something which follows from reason. In other words, reason alone dictates that we should make blessings, since our recognition that everything comes from God and that we owe God thanks is an ideal which is part of the Divine will. Even though there is no d’oraysa commandment to “recognize that everything comes from God and that we owe God thanks,” the rabbis intuited that it is part of the Divine will nonetheless and thus decreed that we make blessings. If someone would make blessings by rote, without thinking about their meaning, he would be fulfilling his Halakhic obligation. He will not, however, be conforming to the Divine will on which the Halakhic obligation is based. We see once again that there are cases where the Divine will and the Halakha fail to converge.

The final argument I will bring here for the claim that Halakha has external rationales comes from the Written Law itself. Many times, the Written Law will explicitly give a reason for a particular mitsvah, thus implying that the mitsvot do have reasons external to themselves. For example, Lev. 23:43 says that the reason for the mitsvah to live in a sukkah on sukkot is “so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt.” Numbers 15:40 says that the reason for the mitsvah of tsitit is to “[help] you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God.” Deut. 14:23 says that the reason for the commandment to eat ma’aser in Jerusalem (“the place which He shall choose to cause His name to dwell”) is “that thou mayest learn to fear the LORD thy God always.” And Deut. 16:3 says that the prohibition of eating chametz on pesach is so that “thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life.”

Now that we have concluded that there is indeed something (which we have been calling “the Divine will”) on which the mitsvot are based, there still are some lingering questions to think about. With respect to the Hukim, we have already mentioned that the reasons often given for them are very unsatisfying. Maybe we need to think more about what the reasons for the Hukim actually are, or at the very least, why Maimonides’ and Sefer Hachinuch’s reasons are not as bad as they seem. In addition, when you approximate something by something else, you often make simplifying assumptions about how the world works. If the Halakhic system is supposed to model some more perfect system that we as humans can’t comprehend as easily, we could ask what kinds of simplifying assumptions are inherent in the Halakhic model. Another issue is what happens when the Divine will and the Halakha conflict. It seems unintuitive that God actually wills you to violate his own commandments. Maybe what would ordinarily be the Divine will is not actually willed when it conflicts with Halakha. Another issue is what our obligations are  to conform to what seems to be the Divine will when it’s not Halakhically mandated. I don’t have any plans to write anything else about these issues but they are questions for you to think about.