Thoughts on Judaism

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Real Rambam

The Rambam was the father of all rationalists in Jewish thought (influenced by Saadia gaon), but often, we think of him as the recepticle for all rationalist opinions in the Jewish velt, even to the proposition that his views were heretical. A la

While a cursory skimming of the Moreh may give this impression, the Rambam himself writes in the introduction that the Moreh is not intended to be read this way. It is written to be absorbed, piece by piece, sequentially. Reading it this way, there is no doubt that the Moreh gives a disturbing view of Jewish thought 800 years ago, in the same way that Mishneh Torah gives a view, clearly following classical Jewish sources, on halacha. The analysis shows that the halacha is still halacha today, but much of the Jewish thought does not conform to modern "mystical approach" Judaism (hence, it is "disturbing"). The Rambam obviously has SOME mystical approach, as he discusses halachas that were not applicable, even in his time, but it is not the SAME "mystical approach" that is trumpeted today throughout the Charedi world. YET his principles and likely sources conform with classical Judaism in every way.

For instance, the treatise on Hashacha Protis is often displayed as heretical, against what is taught today. The Rambam holds that the events affecting humans are governed by hashgacha protis, while the events governing lower creatures are not. It is well known, that the Ba'al Shem Tov stated (no one is sure on which page of which book, of which tradition) that if a leaf falls and is blown by the wind, it is by hashgacha Protis. Thus, the Rambam has violated a maxim of a mystic and is thereby heretical. However, upon careful examination, one finds that the Baal Shem Tov and the Rambam are in perfect accord. The continuation of the quote from the Besht is that if a leaf falls and is blown by the wind, it is by hashgacha protis, that the viewer may learn from it regarding service to Hashem. No heresy required.

Another good example is the Rambam's defense of the concept that the universe began, as opposed to its being eternal (Moreh II,25). Summary: If we were forced by science to say that the universe was eternal, we could re-examine and reinterpret the verses of the Torah to accept that view. Just as G-d is described as having body parts, and we reject that notion that G-d has a literal body out of necessity and logic, we could also reject the temporality of the universe, if necessary. However, concludes the Rambam, since an equally tenable case can be made for the literal temporality of the universe, we should defend it. (An apparent premise runs under this, in that he must mantain that, as science changes, our hashkafa could change. This presents no problem for him.) He mentions the Muhamedan philosophers that have already, in his time, allegorized the creation, and he dismisses them. In other words, if there is a logical reason to allegorize a principle in Chumash, the Rambam feels we "must and can" do so. However, without such a reason, we should understand literally, even if both cases are equal. While far from the modernist tendency to allegorize everything, it is also far from the fundamentalist extremist tendency to say that scientific observation means nothing. The rejection of dinosaurs for instance is hard to defend in the face of actual physical evidence. The Rambam does not seem to have favored the Fossean approach so popular today ("G-d made this evidence as a test").

Another thing that the casual reader misses in the Moreh is that the Rambam never uses a secular source as the only source for a piece of information. He correlates the secular books that he quotes with the work of the Chachamim, apologetics perhaps, but nowhere near heresy, quite the contrary.

So why the fuss? In a word: Darwin! The emotional repulsion that the modern fundamentalists feel toward what they perceive as Darwinism, akin to diabolical designs, drives them to reject anything, ANYTHING, that might support the notion that we can accept Darwinism into frumkeit. Hence, we must solidify science back at a time before Darwin (or Copernicus, Galileo, Pasteur, in the process), we must assign some fuzzy mystical value to it to prevent critical analysis, and then we must fight fight fight or risk simian ancestry. The Rambam disturbingly rejects giving mystical value to scientific principles, thus undermining this whole mantra defense against Darwin. Note: by "Darwin" in this sense, we mean the Charedi version of satanized Darwin, not the actual theories of the actual scientist of the same name.

Actual Darwin (a somewhat religious Catholic himself) proposed a unique device in that he saw evolving species and diversification as a result of random mutation and natural selection, the survival of the fittest. There is nothing inherently antiTorah about this. It is a discussion of the mechanism of the observed world. But it runs against the grain of "mystical approach" hashgacha where everything is miraculous all the time. Darwinism does not refute that underpinning, just the obviousness of it. And in Charedism all miracles, which occur all day every day, must be the obvious and only explanation. (In fact, that seems to be the prevailing view on how to live in the world with other people as well.) Darwinism is also weak in that diversification, Darwinism's main distinction, seems not to be a matter of time and mutation, but of opportunism. I am sure Darwin would agree that much of his theory would need to be revised in light of modern paleontology. However, anything that smacks of allowing anything Darwinian to filter in, even patently obvious and observal effects, might "confuse" the masses. Rather than reducing the entire matter to a time problem and addressing the question, its seems that many Jewish "authorities" (self appointed though they are) would like to simply declare the king's priviledge. I think that it is blaringly, unavoidably obvious that the Rambam would not have approached the subject in this manner.

This is the root of every "Torah v. Science" conflict. The problem is neither Torah nor science. It is that we have tried to apply an outdated educational apologetic method, a method that was fine for the majority frum, less educated, less scientifically aware Jews of the last few centuries, but is sadly insufficient for our times. We can't blame that on the Rambam.


  • Rebel, you need to move on. How is it that someone as "modern" as you is stuck with medieval rationalism?

    Indeed, the majority of the frum Jewish world has since moved on, and while those views were acceptable in the past (like the corporeal Deity mentioned by the Raavad) they are no longer today.

    So why not get into the "modern" orthodox view, i.e., the contemporary chareidi/mystical view and forget about that Aristotelian’s such old hat!!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:53 AM  

  • Your right Baruch. I need to get with the modern magic era. Things making sense is such an outdated concept. Yoga anyone?

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 9:51 AM  

  • Interestingly enough, many kiruv oganizations tend to focus on the so-called "rationalist approach" to Torah. They know the mystical mumbo jumbo wouldn't work with most people. That being "rational" is no longer a valid shitah for much of the frum world is quite frightening.

    By Blogger DarkBlueHat, at 4:26 PM  

  • dbh

    Would that they would concentrate on the "rationalist approach". What they produce is more fuzzy apologetics, featuring "G-d in the gaps" type proofs and vague references to quantum mechanics and superstring theory. Technojargon.

    I faced such an apologist not long ago, expounding QM as a vehicle for divine indeterminancy. When I asked about recent challenges to the classical Copenhagen Interpretation of QM, I got the most quizzical look. Not only had he not heard of the challenges, he had not heard of the Copenhagen interpretation! He was going from "talking points". If your point isn't made with that, I am at a loss.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 4:56 PM  

  • I think you are missing the point. The "mystical" approach is not the same as "irrational:. It's simply based on a different set of premises.

    Read some RMA deFano's explanation of rabbinic astronomy and tell me if it's irrational.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:57 PM  

  • I am unable to find references to DeFano in this context. Do you have an example of an explanation that you feel successfully saves such concepts as the incorrect size and positions of the Sun and planets in Rambam or some other such concept that modern science has yet to fathom? If so, we can turn it over to our resident frum astronomy professor, and he can give us the analysis. I am always interested in scholarship and debate.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 6:33 PM  

  • Look, for example, in mamar ha'itim, chapter 10. (Part of his sefer Asara Ma'amarot).

    His premise is that rabbinic astronomy does not contradict the "metziut". Those statements that seem to indicate that the earth is flat are to be understood as referring to that part of the earth, from horizon to horizon, with EY in the centre. Other enigmatic statements refer to the cosmic state of affairs at various stages of creation.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:33 PM  

  • The Rambam says some very clear things about astronomy. There is no star larger than the sun nor smaller than Mercury. If you use apparent brightness, you resolve one but not the other. In the Rambam's model, Mercury and Venus can never be farther away than the sun. We observe that this happens frequently. According to the Rambam's model, The apogee of the moon is the same distance as perigee of Mercury. The apogee of Mercury is the perigee of Venus. We observe that all of this is not true.

    Thus, the next step is to "mysticize" it. We do not understand it. Really, it is true, was true, is the real truth if we follow some mysterious set of rules. The problem is that Ptolemy had these exact same conclusions, and not because of some mystery rules, but because that is how he concluded from observation. And he was WRONG! As concluded by better observation.

    There is no kabala here. There is no mystery. There is just a set of conclusions based on observation that were proven wrong by more precise observation.

    Observer, are you out there in the cosmos somewhere??? Please weigh in!

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 8:54 PM  

  • "Thus, the next step is to "mysticize" it. We do not understand it. Really, it is true, was true, is the real truth if we follow some mysterious set of rules. The problem is that Ptolemy had these exact same conclusions, and not because of some mystery rules, but because that is how he concluded from observation. And he was WRONG! As concluded by better observation."

    I don't see how Ptolemy causes any problem here. If hashgach pratit cause some concept to come into Torah that way, so what?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:02 PM  

  • Because it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! That's why! It is NOT Torah and the Rambam says as much! Didn't the Rambam and Avraham ben haRambam for that matter know that they were speaking high mystical mysteries? Why did they deny it?

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 9:48 PM  

  • Rasag, Rambam and his son are talking according to the rationalist (not kabalistic) view.

    In the world of the Rambam, given his premises, he is right. All I'm trying to point out to you is that there are other worlds!!

    When a mekubal interprets a mishna al pi kabala, do you think he believed that THAT was what the tana was thinking? All he is doing is showing a deeper level of Torah.

    When you so eloquently express that it's "WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!", you have to realize that all you are saying is that it might not physically be like that. There are different levels, different dimensions on which thsese things are RIGHT,RIGHT, RIGHT! ;)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:07 PM  

  • Boruch
    These are different animals. When a darshan spaks al pi kabala, he is, in fact, asserting that the Tanna meant to speak both al pi halacha and al pi kabala, v'hamaivin yavin. That is what they mean when they say that the Tanna speaks with Ruach HaKodesh. That is when they are speaking al pi mesora.

    In this case of astronomy, the Rambam clearly states that he is not speaking al pi mesora, implying that his source is not speaking al pi mesora. He is simply giving an imagery example (in this case, about hilchos ahavas Hashem and yiras Hashem) from something that would have been recognized at that time. No need to cheapen true kabala by force feeding it outdated science.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 10:43 PM  

  • "implying that his source is not speaking al pi mesora"

    OK, if the Rambam is not talking al pi mesora, the mekubolim ARE talking al pi mesora, and they say there are no mistakes in Torah (SBT or SBP), so lets forget the Ramabm et el on this topic.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:47 PM  

  • So if you discard the Rambam and several sages of note in the era of Rishonim, we can sustain the myth that such an approach has merit? I think that the Rambam was an accomplished mekubal. I also think that he believed that Torah was all truth. This leads me to believe that the mekubalim would have agreed with the Rambam in this matter, as he was one of them.

    You seem to think that there are two Torahs, one that speaks al pi kabalah and one that speaks sense. However, l'kuli alma, the Torah speaks sense, even to the kabalist. It is not a "different sense" or different premises as you put it. It is simply that the opinion that you assign to the kabalists is not their opinion. Teh kabalists understand what is imagery and what is fact. They understand that they are not magically speaking ex-cathedra, even as they speak with Ruach Hakodesh. Was everything that Shaul said ex-cathedra, literally true and magically true, just because he spoke at times with Ruach HaKodesh?

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 11:24 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Roberto Iza Valdés, at 1:45 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Roberto Iza Valdés, at 9:24 PM  

  • arriba rebeljew, buenas argumentaciones

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:00 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Roberto Iza Valdés, at 11:48 AM  

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