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What Are Biblical Commandments: The Teaching of Rabbi Menahem Azaria De Fano

What is the status of moral imperatives whether we find them in traditional sacred books like the Torah, the writings of Confucius, or the Koran, or we put them together from folk wisdom and common sense?  Do we need to believe in a Super Being who wants something from humans and is disappointed and frustrated if He does not get it?  Whatever the status of arguments for the existence of such a Super Being (cf. Hume Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion) it seems that such a view can have deleterious psychological consequences in terms of guilt, fear, and shame.  Considering the deleterious effects of the midah of depression on one’s spiritual progress, the strategy of viewing commandments as demands of a possibly disappointed Super Being is a self-defeating one.

For a better strategy consider that of Menahem Azariah da Fano who flourished from 1548-1620 in Mantua, Italy and was, in collaboration with R. Israel Sarug one of primary funders and disseminators of the teachings of the Ari in Europe.  According to Da Fano a command such as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is not a command, it is a prediction.  The commandment states that you as a human being are the sort of being that naturally loves other human beings.  Your nature is love.

What are the psychological consequences for those times when the commandment does not describe our behavior?  First of all we do not view them, according to R. Fano as breaking anything but as moments of less than perfect flourishing.  So if we say  “But R. Fano, I just stole from my friend!  I invalidated your prediction.” he responds “That was not you.  You were not being what you truly are.”

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15 thoughts on “What Are Biblical Commandments: The Teaching of Rabbi Menahem Azaria De Fano

    • For example, in connection with the cabalistic interpretation of Num. xxxiii. 2, “And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys,” he says: “The Torah speaks always of ideas when it seems to be describing concrete things: the higher meaning is the principal thing; the lower, material meaning holds the second place. Moses b. Naḥman, indeed, follows another opinion in his commentary on Genesis in holding to the principle that ‘the Torah speaks according to the manner of men’; but we can justly say that men speak according to the manner of the Torah” (“Ḥiḳḳur Din,” iii. 22). “The prohibitions of the Torah never appear in the imperative, but in the form of the future: ‘Thou shalt have no other gods’; ‘Thou shalt not bow down thyself to other gods’; ‘Thou shalt not swear falsely’; etc. This means, ‘I know thou wilt not be guilty of these things, since human nature does not tolerate such crimes, and if sin occurs in this life it can be only a passing episode.’ On the other hand, the commandments are in the imperative: ‘Kabbed,’ ‘zakor’; that is, ‘I command thee nothing new; the good instincts in thee have always been there; they need only to be awakened and developed'” (ib. iv. 9). This last sentence is characteristic of the author’s optimism as well as of his mild nature, which attracted the sympathy of all.

  1. You reminded me of an incident that first seemed irrelevant, but which on second thought seems very much so.

    After my brothers and I saw the movie “Superman II” — that was in the early 1980s sometime — we had a heated debate about the closing scene. In it, Superman (as Clark Kent) roughed up a bully who had picked on him earlier in the movie, when he temporarily lost his powers. I argued that “the real Superman” would never have abused his powers to settle a personal score. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I was using the “ideal observer” approach to morality. Instead of reasoning from premises, I was imagining what a morally good person would do. It seems to me that the idea of a “super being,” however vague it might be, is a kind of psychological shortcut for moral judgments. Therefore, it can be useful, even if some interpretations are unhelpful.

    Of course, the idea of believing in God is fraught with difficulty. To be meaningful is to be connected, and the idea of God is connected only to other theological ideas and statements, not to our mundane world. Outside of that domain, its meaning is one of those ineffable things that so perplexed Wittgenstein. The ineffable is not necessarily unreal; we just can’t talk about it very productively from a logical standpoint.

    Thanks for the de Fano reference. I’d never heard of him before, so I will look him up. Can a moral command be *both* an imperative and a prediction? The neuroscience of “mental practice” suggests it. When we recite certain prayers, we mentally rehearse moral behavior, increasing the likelihood that we will act accordingly.

  2. Sayed Habibul Gafur. says:

    If I’ve understood correctly, it’s similar to invoking satan to allay pangs of conscience right?

      • Sayed Habibul Gafur. says:

        “It” being the notion behind R. Fano’s strategy that one can at times be what one truly is not – as if ‘possessed’ or deluded by satan. This idea shields one from guilt, fear, and shame at the same time renders his strategy fool proof.

      • I think the idea is more like this: if I make a mistake at arithmetic at that moment I’m not being an accurate mathematician. I’m not possessed by a devil. I’m just at that moment not the best version of my mathematical self.

  3. Mikey says:

    The really good reason to have a furious deity is authority, isn’t it? I mean – if the god is going to get angry when you worship idols, that’s a good reason to follow the rules. And if the god gets angry when you question it, so much the better. But with your (or de Fano’s) interpretation, there’s no good reason to listen to those rules. If we follow his interpretation, we would come to the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, Shakespeare, Watership Down and Tin Tin with the same attitude of “Does this feel like a prediction of what a good person will be?” How do we sift?

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