Saturday, April 29, 2006

Reflection on Gedolim - Who is closer to God? a Scientist or an Halachik specialist ?

The bans on several books by Gedolim in the last few years have generated a heated debate on the whole issue of science versus tradition. Blogs such as Godol Hador and Hirhurim as well as magazines including Jewish Observer (which I have cancelled my subscription to because it so irritated me that I found myself being down on fellow Jews every time I read it) have weighed in.

The ban on the Making of a Godol book and lately the ban by certain segments of the Chassidish community of the Gaon book, which are both historical studies, can be explained as political. I do not condone the suppression of anyone that is trying to investigate the truth, but I can accept that some may see this as a threat to their way of thinking. After all whether there was historically a reason for Gra’s attack on Hassidim or not is irrelevant for today. Chassidism has made it into the mainstream. The same goes for the Making of a Godol book; it is irrelevant other than giving us a perspective on great people of yore but will have little impact on current thinking. The Slifkin book ban however is problematic. I will admit that I have never read nor seen the book. I am not into Zoology and the specific issues never caught my attention. The subject the book deals with is however very familiar to me. Understanding the world we live in from the Torah point of view is in my mind the most important thing that we can do and is the ultimate goal of all Torah and Mitzvos. How else can we ever hope to observe the Mitzvah of Ve’holachto Bidrochov, emulate God if not by understanding His actions?

So the question is does a great Halachik expert necessarily have the knowledge, expertise and authority to tell us whether the understanding we are developing is correct or not? The whole idea of there being a Godol or Gedolim that can impose a Halachik ruling for the whole Jewish world is in itself a question that at least from my reading of Rambam and many other Rishonim not acceptable. But even if we assume that there is such an authority for Halachik issues, does the same expert automatically have the right to rule that anyone believing the world is older than 5766 years is a Kofer?

First let us see Rambam in Moreh 1:34:

We can only obtain a knowledge of Him through His works; His works give evidence of His existence, and show what must be assumed concerning Him, that is to say, what must be attributed to Him either affirmatively or negatively. It is therefore indispensable to consider all beings as they really are, so that we infer from every species such true and well-established propositions as may assist us in the solution of metaphysical problems. Again, many propositions based on the nature of numbers and the properties of geometrical figures, are useful in examining things which we should deny in reference to God, and this denial will lead us to further inferences. You will certainly not doubt the necessity of studying astronomy and physics, if you are desirous of comprehending the relation between the world and Providence as it is in reality and not according to imagination. (in other words to understand Hashgacha one needs to know astronomy and physics!). … Consequently he, who wishes to attain to human perfection, must therefore first study Logic, next the various branches of Mathematics in their proper order, then Physics, and lastly Metaphysics.”

Rambam requires that we acquire all knowledge about science from our surroundings, from what in our parlance is called the secular . If as part of to the natural curiosity of an intelligent person, one directs his attention to understanding what is behind this beautiful and efficient universe, that person has taken a first step in the search for God. Without that fund of information, the God that one thinks to have found is really a figment of the imagination.

In Moreh 3:51 Rambam uses a metaphor explaining the different levels and stages of humankind relative to their relationship with God:

A king is in his palace, and all his subjects are partly in the city, and partly outside. Of the former, some have their backs turned towards the king's palace, and their faces in another direction; and some are desirous and zealous to go to the palace, seeking" to inquire in his temple," and to minister before him, but have not yet seen even the face of the wall of the palace. Of those that desire to go to the palace, some reach it, and go round about in search of the entrance gate; others have passed through the gate, and walk about in the antechamber; and others have succeeded in entering into the inner part of the palace, and being in the same room with the king in the royal palace. But even the latter do not immediately on entering the palace see the king, or speak to him; for, after having entered the inner part of the palace, another effort is required before they can stand before the king-at a distance, or close by -- hear his words, or speak to him. I will now explain the simile which I have made. The people who are outside the city are all those that have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition…

Those who are within the city, but have their backs turned towards the king's palace, are those who have opinions and are engaged in speculation, but happen to hold false doctrines, which they either adopted in consequence of great mistakes made in their own speculations, or received from others who misled them. Because of these doctrines they recede more and more from the royal palace the more they seem to proceed....

Those who seek to reach the palace, and to enter it, but have never yet seen it, are the multitude of the adherents of the Law; I refer to the ignoramuses who observe the commandments..

Those who arrive at the palace, but go round about it, are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law: they believe traditionally in true principles of faith, and learn the practical worship of God, but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the principles of the Law, and do not endeavor to establish the truth of their faith by proof..

Those who undertake to investigate the principles of religion have come into the antechamber: and there is no doubt that these can also be divided into different grades. But those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything that can be proved, who have a true knowledge of God, so far as a true knowledge can be attained, and are near the truth, wherever an approach to the truth is possible, they have reached the goal, and are in the palace in which the king lives..

My son, so long as you are engaged in studying the Mathematical Sciences and Logic, you belong to those who go round about the palace in search of the gate. Thus our Sages figuratively use the phrase:" Ben-zoma is still outside." When you understand Physics, you have entered the hall; and when, after completing the study of Natural Philosophy, you master Metaphysics, you have entered the innermost court, and are with the king in the same palace. You have attained the degree of the wise men, who include men of different grades of perfection.”

In this famous metaphor Rambam places the Halachik experts who do not have a grounding in sciences nor interest in philosophical speculation outside the palace and walking around it. They are one level below the people who have studied Math and Logic, for the former are walking around the palace while the latter are searching for the gate. They are two levels behind those who understand Physics and three levels below the ones who speculate in Metaphysics. Clearly being an expert in Halachik issues does not automatically make one into an expert in theology. Rambam in his letters repeats this position many times including in interpersonal occurrences.The conclusion is obvious. A person that is involved in studying the sciences and trying to understand them from the perspective of our theology has more gravitas than the greatest Halachik expert.

(The segments of Rambam I quoted in this post contain many more lessons about the important things in Judaism. I will revert to it at some later opportunity.)

Gutte Voch.


  1. >>“ We can only obtain a knowledge of Him through His works; His works give evidence of His existence, and show what must be assumed concerning Him, that is to say, what must be attributed to Him either affirmatively or negatively. It is therefore indispensable to consider all beings as they really are, so that we infer from every species such true and well-established propositions as may assist us in the solution of metaphysical problems

    the problem is that we have studied the species, and they point to a random designer or an incompetent designer who makes retina's backwards and pelvic bones to small to bear children.

    Indeed when most OJ are faced with this they contradict the rambam, saying that one shouldn't derive anything about the creator from his creations. "how do you know what god wanted to design", is a frequent reply I have encountered.

    The bottom line is that OJ's want to marvel at god's creation in an overal sense that gives them the requisite awe required to sustain belief in odd dietery laws and dress codes. But when it comes to the details, they feel very strongly that you should not draw any conclusions about the designer at all.

  2. >But when it comes to the details, they feel very strongly that you should not draw any conclusions about the designer at all.

    Rambam has an interesting take on that. He claims that we have to look at all genetic problems as positive because mutations are necessary for the survival of the species. (I am translating Aristoteleian concepts into modern ones) see Moreh 3:12. Needs to be read very carefully as he is more complicated than usual here.

  3. I will have to take a look at that, are you sure you are not reading it into the Rambam ? How could he be so possesed of the idea of the necassity of genetic variation so many years before Darwin ??

  4. He did not know anything about it but understood that somehow birth defects were necessary for the survival of the species. Here are the words I refer to.

    "The first kind of evil is that which is caused to man by the circumstance that he is subject to genesis and destruction, or that he possesses a body. It is on account of the body that some persons happen to have great deformities or paralysis of some of the organs. This evil may be part of the natural constitution of these persons, or may have developed subsequently in consequence of changes in the elements, e.g., through bad air, or thunderstorms or landslips"
    "We have already shown that, in accordance with the divine wisdom, genesis can only take place through destruction, and without the destruction of the individual members of the species the species themselves would not exist permanently" ( the last sentence is a general statement why there is death but I use the same idea fir genetic mutations.)

    Of course he is talking about Galen and his theories but if you take this argument about evil and translate it into contemporary language the philosophical question is answered exactly the same way. That is what I mean that we have to learn from him how to answer substituting contemporary science for the science of his day.

  5. Strike the first sentence in my comment above. I was going too far but the rest of the comment is correct. I am satisfied that just following his approach works today too.