Thoughts on Judaism

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Rambam's Science

From the beginning, the Rambam revolutionized Torah, by analyzing it using the scientific yardsticks available at the time. He states in unambiguous terms in "Guide to the Perplexed that these facts that he brings are NOT based on traditional Jewish texts, but on scientific observations of his time. Avraham ben HaRambam restates this in similar unabiguous terms in his work. I have not made citations since they are well known and obvious. Among these facts brought in Mishna Torah are that the Ptolemaic system of Astronomy, immobile Earth at the center, Sun, moon, planets and stars orbiting it, is essentially the correct theory, that lice, worms and certain other creatures are spontaneously generated from rot, garbage or mud, a problematic view of female anatomy and others prominent in his day.

So far, there is no question on the Rambam. He was simply quoting facts as they knew them. However, certain Torah scholars have proposed that since this book is "halacha", and since halacha is eternal and true, that we can conclude that these facts were also intended to be given the weight of halacha truth.

How are we to continue a system of law, based on eyewitnesses and presumption of honesty, if we are told that in all matters we cannot even trust our observations. How are we supposed to sustain halachic assumptions based on cause and effect, when we essentially deny cause and effect. (Note that some modern types even openly endorse this divorce of cause and effect scientifically using scanty quantum mechanics knowledge, loosely based on Heisenberg and teh Copenhagen interpretation.) We will discuss these subjects individually of course, but overall, I will simply begin by offering that a real world philosophy based on such notions is at least bizarre. We will also be discussing the efficacy of magic, superstition, its place in Judaism and its modern forms, such as alternative medicine, psychics and Eastern philosophies.


  • Everything has to be read in context.
    I believe that the approach you are describing is one the Lubavitcher Rebbe used in his talks of shavuos and parshat nasei 5743 and in some letters. However in his context it seems that it is more to justify the mystical approach of Likutei levi yitzchok and others that every single word was passed down from G-d to Moshe even the concepts that are rejected by the sages because they share a spiritual truth. Of course he merges it with the rambam but that is in the fashion of chabad chasidus where they attempt to show that there is no contradiction between the mystical approaches and the others within Judaism. On the other end of the spectrum in this vein he will call “Torah” the ideas that are rejected like the hand of G-d being understood in a literal sense by a child or as the raavad points about by wise people

    The source given for the view that it is Halacha and therefore is eternal and cannot be changed is laws of teshuvah 3:8

    “There are three types of heretic: One who says that there is no Prophecy at all and that there is no knowledge given by God to men; one who refutes the Prophecy of Moses; and one who says that God doesn't know the actions of men. There are three types of people who deny the Torah: One who says that the Torah is not Divine (even if he says this bout just one sentence or word) and says that Moses wrote the Torah by himself; one who denies the explanations of the Torah, i.e. the Oral Law, and refutes its preachers in the way that Zaddok and Baysoth did; and one who says that God substituted one mitzvah for another and invalidated the Torah, even if it was from God, in the way that Jesuites and Hagarites do. All of these opinions deny the Torah.”

    However the question is what does the Rambam mean by the oral torah in this context? Now the question is does the Rambam in his Mishnah Torah (as opposed to the moreh nivuchim where an argument can be made that he was involved in apologetics or that the halacha follows the mishnah Torah) mean that everything accepted as Halacha is eternal??

    In his introduction to the mishnah he clearly says laws in which there were argument is a sign that they are not from Moshe on Sinai and can be rejected by a later generation. It is only takanot and gezeirot that you need a larger court. Otherwise each can follow what his eyes sees

    The rambam himself does not adopt a maximilstic approach to torah misinai only the ideas that are without argument are part of that and the rules for interpreting law. it is not just science according to the Rambam that is up for grabs by a new generation that does not have to be wiser or greater but anything.

    The Rebbe himself in his Likutei Sichos vol 19 page 252 and in sefer hasichos 5752 quotes the view from the Midrash that Moshe only received the major rules of torah interpretation and did not learn every detail. This is the Rambam’s view in his hilchos mamrim as well.

    In Hilchos mamrim the Rambam writes one is not even bound by the earlier sanhedrins if it was their own understanding of the texts and the principles of torah interpretation. And the kesef Mishnah has to in light of this somehow justify the Rambam’s principle that we do not argue with the Talmud! And he says because it was accepted by everyone it is closer to the concept of a minhag once accepted has to be kept by future generations…
    א בית דין הגדול שדרשו באחת מן המידות כפי מה שנראה בעיניהם שהדין כך, ודנו דין, ועמד אחריהם בית דין אחר, ונראה לו טעם אחר לסתור אותו הדין--הרי זה סותר, ודן כפי מה שייראה בעיניו: שנאמר "אל השופט, אשר יהיה בימים ההם" (דברים יז,ט)--אין אתה חייב ללכת, אלא אחר בית דין שבדורך.

    The following is from the introduction of the Rambam to the Mishnah Torah

    1 All the commandments that were given to Moshe at Sinai were given together with their interpretation, as it is written "and I will give thee the Tables of Stone, and the Law, and the Commandment" (Exodus 24,12). "Law" is the Written Law; and "Commandment" is its interpretation: We were commanded to fulfill the Law, according to the Commandment. And this Commandment is what is called the Oral Law.
    …..32 Any court that was established in any town after the time of the Talmud and enacted legislations or enacted customs for the town's residents or for several towns' residents, its enactments did not gain the acceptance of all Israel, because of the remoteness of their settlements and the difficulties of travel, and because the members of the court of any particular town were just individuals and the Great Rabbinical Court of seventy members had ceased to exist several years before the writing of the Talmud.
    33 So a town's residents are not forced to observe the customs of another town, nor is one court told to enact the restrictive legislations of another court in its town. So too, if one of the Geonim understood that the correct way of the Law was such and such, and it became clear to another court afterwards that this was not the correct way of the Law written in the Talmud, the earlier court is not to be obeyed, but rather what seems more correct, whether earlier or later.
    34 These matters apply to rulings, enactments, and customs that arose after the Talmud had been written. But whatever is in the Babylonian Talmud is binding on all of the people of Israel; and every city and town is forced to observe all the customs observed by the Talmud's scholars and to enact their restrictive legislations and to observe their positive legislations.
    35 For all those matters in the Talmud received the assent of all of Israel, and those sages who enacted the positive and negative legislations, enacted binding customs, ruled the rulings, and found that a certain understanding of the Law was correct constituted all of Israel's Torah scholars, or most of them, and it was they who received the traditions of the Oral Law concerning the fundamentals of the whole Law in unbroken succession back to Moshe Our Teacher.
    Here is an excerpt from great article on the different approaches to Torah misinai and the oral torah…
    “According to Maimonides, while no argument can be raised against the received material of halakhah, a later generation can in principle debate the newly derived halakhot of previous ones. The authority of the Mishnah cannot rest solely on tradition, since in those areas of debates there is no tradition; its authority, rather, rests on the fact that the Mishnah and the Talmud where widely accepted by the nation of Israel as a whole. Theoretically Amoraim could have argue with Tanaim, and Geonim with Amoraim, concerning the newly derived halakhot which constitutes most of the material of the Mishnah”

    By Blogger Mehallel, at 9:10 PM  

  • Are you contending that the Rebbe did not in fact hold that the Rambam was emes v'yatziv in all respects? I am inclined to agree, but tell that some of the more gung ho types out there. As for the Rambam himself, he clearly rejects that the scientific facts that he brings as science are even from the tradition. This does not sway the gung ho types either. "well the Rebbe knew and said what he said anyway ..."

    Another blogger, Ben Chorin, posted this.
    So what is a young person to do when faced with the following situation. He is told that a Jew must believe X but he knows that X looks awfully dubious. One solution, offered up by HaRav HaGaon (HRHG) Uren Reich shlit"a (henceforth: HRHG),... deserves to be quoted verbatim:

    If the gemara tells us a metziyus, it's emes veyatziv. There's nothing to think about. Anything we see with our eyes is less of a reality than something we see in the gemara. That's the emunah that a yid has to have.

    It was this type of philosophy, applied to any sages words, that I had in mind that is destructive, simplistic and flat out not the Torah way.

    This is rooted in another concept that the sages are somehow endowed with magical powers of sagacity, from Matan Torah. Obviously, our simple human minds cannot fathom the minds of supermen. These magic men can transcend every form question an cannot even be questioned, except by other supermen, for what chutzpah have we to argue with such magical creatures. It follows that these beings can do miracles, even transcend death. Evidence to the contrary be damned, it is just our eyes which fool us, unless we witness something that supports the miracle.

    Obviously, a system based on eyewitness accounts is useless if I pick and choose which accounts I like to believe, based on wanting it to be so. Therefore, the "our eyes fool us" argument creates a huge hole in Jewish law.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 1:19 PM  

  • everythng until the maharasha was written bruach hakodesh so of course it is true...but it can be true on different levels... The main danger to Judaism is the knee jerk desire to follow the science or philosophy of the times without being critical about the rebbe talks about heilocentric vs solar which has many pesukim and sources that support it and he says hold on don't be so hasty..I do not think you can find a place where he says that you have to accept as physically true the galgalim issues which do not effect halacha. on the other hand killing head lice on shabbos is another issue..but I am sure you will get to that:)I think you are setting up straw men to knock down....speak 2 u soon

    By Blogger Mehallel, at 11:03 PM  

  • sorry last thought was not complete....of course he believed everything that was written by them was bruach hakodesh like rabbi yohanasan eibshitz writes about the beis yosef..and his father reb levi yitzchok says every word of torah was said by G-d at mt sinai including the rejected sayings of the talmud.Even the moreh nvuchim that the rebbe calls apologetics is still ascribed kabbalistic meaning by chabd thought!

    what that means about something that does not have halachick ramifications is fairly flexible. it can mean a spirtual truth.

    A law that is accepted by all jews like the talmud etc that seems to be based on a premise that you I or current scientific thought do not believe to be true is going be retained and not dumped. It is a very slippery slope to go down to throw out of judaism that which does not fit in with current Scientific thought.

    This is I believe the main point in those few places ..(like head lice on shabbos that I am sure you will wheel out)that it seems that our chachomim made a mistake don't be so hasty to say SEE they are disproven. Science is a tool and it deals with theory not revelation and there are many things that science has changed its views on. Dont be so indimidated by the secular world.

    What the rebbe held about the health opinions of the rambam mentioned in the book of halacha was that they have spirtual truths

    whether the rebbe would adopt the entire scheme of the rambam's astronamy would have to be seen. if there are halachick conclusions drawn from that model that would be a point of interest.

    Show us the sources and show us your understanding of the texts not hearsay such as I heard from chabad sources.. then we can debate

    By Blogger Mehallel, at 12:54 AM  

  • MM

    It is not what we do not know that gets us, but what we know for sure that just isn't so.

    The format here is Weblog, not discourse or Sefer, so I hesitate to get too technical, but I am asserting that there are plenty of people who agree with the positions that I am challenging, and seeing as you do not, I would let them speak for themselves. I am glad that you agree with me that the CR never said or intended these things. I wish that the people speaking at farbrengens, lectures and kiddushes felt the same, and did not quote these things in his name or the names of other gedolim.

    Second point in short, is that I do not defend modern science iber alles. On the contrary, the lice issue is not clear cut. Especially, given the wording in Sefer Hamitzvos, lo taseh 177, the pattern of insects not bearing like kind, or not bearing from male and female, may be defendable, given larval stages being different than adult and whatnot, more later. But there is stuff we know for sure, like the process of birth that we can watch and even replicate, that is simply not compatible with the Ramban at the beginning of Tazria. He brings what was prevalent at the time. In parshas Acharei Mos, D"H Nidas Dvosah, the Ramban even brings superstition that was popular at the time. The Ramban preceded the Maharsha, so he wrote with R"HK. One is hard pressed to retreat on the birth process. This is observed fact, not scientific inter/extrapolation. It is the ovum, not the coagulation of blood that is the female seed. Menstruating women cannot kill by staring like a basilisk can (which he cannot either, by the way, but it is common superstition of that time). I don't think that the Ramban considered these deep or controversial thoughts at his time. But, they are the basis of thought in codifying the reasons for the halacha (not necessarily the halacha itself, that is still safely on Har Sinai.

    Third, I did not intend this to be a bash the Chabad Rebbe or Chabad site. I have nothing particularly against Chabad, certainly not against the Chabad Rebbe ztl (though even ztl is insulting to some in Chabad). I am just responding to a comment that brought up the CR's position.

    Fourth, by retreating to "different levels of truth" or "spiritual truth", are we not on the slippery slope of Clintonizing Torah discussions.

    I didn't steal the money, Your Honor.

    We have video tape.

    But I am saying that spiritually, I didn't steal it, on a different level of truth.

    What do those terms mean exactly?

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 11:19 AM  

  • Looking for grays anatomy info for my thesis I came across your post. It is interesting!!

    By Blogger decor resources, at 9:12 PM  

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