Thoughts on parashat D’varim. 

One of the oldest philosophical problems is the dispute over the so-called human nature. The notion of nature within this context is synonymous with the notion of essence (vis-à-vis the concept of the essence of things), understood as a set of constitutive features of a given object, i.e. such features that make a given object this object (thing) and distinguish it from other objects 

Our object to analize is then “man in general.” Of course, the very definition of a man as an object can immediately arouse outrage, which is not incorrect, because man should always be treated as a subject. I fully agree with this, however, if we are talking about how to treat people, or “man in general”, we are talking from an ethical, and therefore practical, perspective. In this sense, in this moral aspect, one should follow Immanuel Kant, who argued that man is an end (and therefore a subject) in himself, and not a means to an end (i.e. a tool, therefore a thing) and should always be perceived as such. In theoretical aspect, however, objectification of man is allowed and practiced: such a paradigm, together with the postulated determinism in the physical and social world of phenomena, is a source of scientific knowledge about ourselves, knowledge that is very valuable and undoubtedly contributes to the increase in the quality of our existence.

The problem is the essence of humanity – or being human – is a notion that is blurred, which has led some thinkers to conclude that man as such has no essence and that any attempt to define it would be completely arbitrary. This conclusion is not logically correct nor morally right, given the typical practical outcome of such a belief. It is so because we are intuitively  able to define the limits of humanity and they are determined by extremes: we know that cannibalism or mass murder are inhuman. Even the Nazis knew about it, so they had to dehumanize us Jews (and other human groups) first in order to mass murder us. The problem, however, is how to define the limits of humanity precisely. This problem emerges because we are ‘historically plastic’; we have to be so because the permanent feature of all living creatures is their ability to adapt to the changing reality. Another reason why it is difficult to define the boundaries of what is human precisely is that the matter is caught in two different contexts: empirical/theoretical and moral/practical, which are often interwoven. 

Man is therefore not devoid of essence, but under-defined, vague, and this should be seen as a blessing rather than a curse, because this fact greatly extends the limits of our freedom: our freedom is then not only about what we do, but also who we are / become over time. We have an influence on our own identity, we can actively shape it and redefine it. However, this freedom, like all freedom, has its limits, determined by objective reality. As Zygmunt Bauman mentioned, the limits of my freedom (of action) are determined by the freedom (of action) of other people (as well as by objective reality, such as the laws of gravity). Similarly, the limits of our freedom to identify with are determined and limited by knowledge and the cognitive limits of others (as well as objective, theoretical reality, such as the laws of logic and my cognitive limitation). So I cannot simply say that I am the next incarnation of Moses; I know him only from written records, so my knowledge about him is very limited. These are my objective limits of knowledge, and they are also determined by how other people see the world. They may not, and most likely would not agree with my statement about myself, because their knowledge of Moses is different and how I imagine him may not be in line with their ideas, and I must respect it, as long as I don’t I have good arguments that my knowledge of Moses is “more true” than their knowledge.

Our existential vagueness is not only a blessing expanding our freedom, but it creates compulsion as well. If we do not define our human essence and the meaning of life, even arbitrarily to some extent, we will be existentially drifting. This existential drifting can also be of value if it has a specific purpose and is therefore temporary – if its purpose is to put an end to this drifting in order to settle on some permanent existential land.

Jewish religious law is such an existential mainland. It sets the framework for our actions and perception of the world, it makes every aspect of human life meaningful and thus leaves no room for nihilism. The Book of Deuteronomy, which we start reading this week, contains not only a set of moral and ritual laws; many of these laws, whether new or repeated, have justifications, intellectual (…because you were slaves in Egypt) or practical, like warnings (Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For יהוה’s anger will flare up against you, shutting up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce…). 

The laws in this Book are thus a reinforced foundation for our Jewish existence, not only by repeating them but by justifying them. Their observance is a compulsion to protect the Chosen People from misfortunes, falls and disasters. Even the conquest of the Promised Land was commanded by God to Joshua through Moses:

I also charged Joshua at that time, saying, “You have seen with your own eyes all that your God יהוה has done to these two kings; so shall יהוה do to all the kingdoms into which you shall cross over. Do not fear them, for it is your God יהוה who will battle for you.” (Deut 3:20-21)

It was ordered to save our ancestors from infirmity, from the pointless, never-ending drifting in the desert. It is also commanded to us, like all commandments, to protect us from pointless and endless existential drift.


Shabbat shalom!


Menachem Mirski 


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