Monday, July 10, 2006

Of angels and men.

Aristotelian cosmology explains the movements of the heavenly bodies more or less as follows:

The heavens are composed of transparent spheres embedded with stars. The number of spheres depends on the point of view of different philosophers and their understanding of the varying speeds of the heavenly objects. As gravity was an unknown, they explained their motion by attributing to each sphere a mind and a wish to attain perfection by moving at optimal speed and direction. Each sphere’s movement follows a specific intellect that exists for that sphere. That intellect is similar to the Form that we described in the previous post. By apprehending that intellect, each sphere’s movement is circular, which is considered the perfect motion, and moves at a certain speed. The variance in speed of different spheres is the result of differing levels of comprehension. Rambam counted nine intellects that directed the spheres and a tenth one that governs the four elements on earth. That last one is the Active Intellect that man, by connecting with it and assimilating it, learns the sciences.

How do we translate this cosmology into contemporary scientific understanding? It is very important as Rambam uses it to explain angels, prophecy, men’s intellectual attainment and Olam Haba.

We now know that gravity is the underlying force behind movement. We can replace the spheres’ intellect with the natural laws of gravity, the Active Intellect with the totality of the rules of nature. The role of the planets mediated by the forces of gravity on our world is similar to the one observed and described by the Greeks although much better understood. The human mind learns and assimilates those laws and using that knowledge gets an understanding of the Creator that is the cause of it all. That brings us to angels. Rambam in 2:7 makes a very concise statement describing them:

WE have already explained that the term" angel" is a homonym, and is used of the intellectual beings, the spheres, and the elements: for all these are engaged in performing a divine command”.

Thus an angel is an adjective that describes anything that is an intermediary in the performance of an act. To give the word meaning it must follow, overtly or implicitly, a term that would explain who it is an intermediary for. It is not an independent entity but describes a function. Rambam in 2:6 says as follows:

This is also the view we meet with in all parts of Scripture: every act of God is described as being performed by angels. But" angel" means" messenger”: hence every one that is entrusted with a certain mission is an angel. Even the movements of the brute creation are sometimes due to the action of an angel, when such movements serve the purpose of the Creator, who endowed it with the power of performing that movement; e.g.," God hath sent His angel, and hath shut the lions' mouths that they have not hurt me" (Dan. vi. 22). Another instance may be seen in the movements of Bila'am's ass, described as caused by an angel. The elements are also called angels. Comp." Who makes winds His angels, flaming fire His ministers" (Ps. 96: 4). There is no doubt that the word" angel" is used of a messenger sent by man; e.g.," And Jacob sent angels" (Gen. 32:4): of a prophet, e.g.," And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim" (judges ii. I):" And He sent an angel, and hath brought us forth out of Egypt" (Num. xx. 16). It is also used of ideals, perceived by prophets in prophetic visions, and of man's animal powers, as will be explained in another place”.

Understanding the concept of Form and the idea that an angel is not an entity but a description of a function are two important ideas that we must keep in mind as we try to understand Rambam’s rational theology.

24 comments:

  1. jewishskeptic7/10/2006 7:44 AM

    The Ramban on Gen 18:2 has this to say about Rambam's interpretation of angels:
    והנה לדבריו לא לשה שרה עוגות ולא עשה אברהם בן בקר וגם לא צחקה שרה רק הכל מראה ואם כן בא החלום הזה ברוב ענין כחלומות השקר כי מה תועלת להראות לו כל זה.
    & he continues that according to this view,Jacob didnt struggle with an angel,"velo yadati lamah hayah tsolea al yerecho be'hakits".
    & he gives mores examples.
    He has this to say about it:

    ואלה דברים סותרים הכתוב ,אסור לשומעם אף כי להאמין בהם.

    Indeed,it goes against all peshat & commonsense in reading the Tenach!
    e.g.in the story of Manoach,his wife & the angel,what does it mean
    כי לא ידע מנוח כי מלאך ה הוא?

    How is Rambam's forcing his ideas on the text any better than what the Kabbalists did? Or for that matter even what the Christians did?! How???
    It's beyond my understanding. Do you have a reasonable explanation?

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  2. JS, as usual you pose good questions. However if one sees the Tanach as recounting stories as seen, perceived or interpreted by observers or protagonists things change completely. Rambam sets down a rule whenever the word Mal'ach is mentioned it automatically indicates a subjective interpretation or perception, it being either a dream or prophetic vision. Now the stories start making sense. Is it not easier to understand manoach's story as a dream? The man was an ignoramus so where does he get prophecy which is the ultimate intellectual experience? Is it not the implication in Chazal that he was an Am Ha'aretz?

    Yakov's struggle had to be a dream and either he de facto became lame or dreamt so. There is never mention later on about his lameness and if I am correct no Midrash refers back to it in any later stories about Yakov (at least none to my mind - Lo ra'iti einah re'ayah)- In fact that will make every story so much more acceptable if it describes perceptions rather than reality. In fact find Ramban's approach a little simplistic and is probably one of the things that impelled him towards Kabbalah which tried to read an underlying mystical message.

    It always gets to me that people insist to dumb down the Bible. Biblical criticism has its place if it helps understand the story's implication, but when it insists on seeing facts where it is obvious to anyone intelligent that it does not, I find upsetting. That is one of my underlying frustration with both the fundamentalists and the skeptics. Seeing Torah as a history book is blasphemy and insults the intelligence. In my opinion Spinoza would have had a greater impact on Judaism had he not made a fool of himself with his taking Bible literally.

    Keep in miind "Nevuah shene'emra ledorot nichteva" . (approx quote)

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  3. jewishskeptic7/10/2006 8:55 AM

    >"Yakov's struggle had to be a dream and either he de facto became lame or dreamt so"

    Then how do you explain the pasuk & prohibition of :-

    על כן לא יאכלו בני ישראל את גיד הנשה אשר על כף הירך עד היום הזה כי נגע בכף ירך יעקב בגיד הנשה?

    It's very far-fetched to say the isur was just based on a dream!
    Does the Rambam anywhere refer to it?

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  4. JS, Why is it so far fetched? And if it was real it would be more understandable? On the contrary, the dream gave him the courage to stand up to eisav next day so he celebrated it!

    I am at work but tonight i will check. He does talk about it i just cannot think of it now.

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  5. Its the same old story. Rambam re-interprets everything to be more reasonable, yet his peshat in the pesukim then becomes unreasonable. Exactly like the modern day kiruv clowns with their local floods and day doesn't mean day.

    One thing that does interest me, and James Kugel points this out, is that often the biblical text seems to confuse angels with God, in that someone sees an angel, then later says 'I saw God' or similar. It's all over tenach.

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  6. jewishskeptic7/10/2006 9:08 AM

    >"The man was an ignoramus so where does he get prophecy which is the ultimate intellectual experience? Is it not the implication in Chazal that he was an Am Ha'aretz?"

    And I thought that according to Rambam one had to be on a great intellectual madregah to reach a stage of nevuah...

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  7. JS that is my point. Apparently it was no more than a dream and a wish which he fulfilled. He does say that Manoach was no more than a low level inspiration. see Moreh 2:42 at end.

    GH, As you mention God and Angels are confused does that not show that it is only a conceptual experience rather than de facto?

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  8. GH - interestingly Prof Kreissel recently published Ma'aseh Nissim by R.Nissim of Marseilles who claims that many times when God is referred to it is really man's intellect. This is hard to swallow at first but if you think about it it is great. You are too literal as I told you many times.

    please don't compare to the Kiruv guys. It is insulting and is definitely where i am at. Believe me I many times ommit more than I say.

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  9. >definitely where i am at.

    Oops! Freudian slip NOT where I am at.

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  10. > Believe me I many times ommit more than I say.

    I'll believe you when you say it!

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  11. >I'll believe you when you say it!

    So keep on reading, You might catch me at it! :-)

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  12. I love your blog. So much brilliance in the posts. I really learn alot thanks. Nice to be here and discover your blog.

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  13. Socialworker thank you for your kind words.

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  14. DG: I am reading, not always commenting. I appreciate the approach, but don't always agree that it is the explanation, but I find it enjoyable nonetheless (like Elisha Acher). You sound like a YBT alumni, are you?

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  15. jewishskeptic7/10/2006 4:53 PM

    >"It always gets to me that people insist to dumb down the Bible. Biblical criticism has its place if it helps understand the story's implication, but when it insists on seeing facts where it is obvious to anyone intelligent that it does not, I find upsetting."

    David,it's not my intention to upset you-far from it.
    If,as you write,one should look at perception & not reality,then this almost saying that its all myth & moshol like GH claimed.
    If everything of importance,not vanilla type,like every time malach is mentioned or the the 'brit bein habtarim',or the limping of Jacob,Balaams ass,& the many other stories(& I remember reading a book where Y.Leibovits tells an interviewer (I think Shashar),that Moreh ii,ch.32 can be interpreted that the Rambam held that Matan Torah was only in nevuah & not in reality)-if the above is correct then indeed most of the Tanach is myth or moshal!...
    & if GH is reading this,I would suggest to him to have second thoughts about giving up his idea of myth/mashal.After all he had 'al mah lismoch',the Rambam,no less!(perception & not reality according to you).

    My own personal understanding is that we live in a world of reality & not perception.Einstein said "I believe the moon is out there,even when I dont see it".Otherwise we will all end up in a mental asylum!
    When I read the Tanach,I read it kifeshuto.Sure there are obvious figures of speech like 'arim gedolot uvetsurot bashamayim'(Deut.). But a few obvious figures of speech & of obvious symbolc meaning,e.g. 'umaltem et orlat levavchem(Deut.10],doesnt mean that we can use it in interpreting other psukim.
    An example comes to mind.In English the word 'nut' can mean the fruit,or like in nuts & bolts & in slang a crazy person.
    Even though its a homonym it must be understood in its context.
    Here is the difficulty with the Rambam.
    He assumes,as an axiom,that the entire Torah is divine.At the same time he is equally convinced of his philosophical 'truths'.
    How does he reconcile the two?
    Well the philosophical 'truth'the sechel,reign supreme,& we have no choice but to reinterprete the text,even in the most unnatural way,doing violence to the text.
    The Rambam finds this legitimate.
    I can't accept this.

    Finally,one more problem I have with the Rambam is his indiscriminate use of Chazal's expression 'dibrah Torah kileshon(another version has it bileshon)bnei adam'.The Chazal never had in mind the use he makes of it.On the contrary ,its opposite to what they are saying! However,this is a discussion for another topic.
    This is email is too long as it is,& probably has a million typos.

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  16. First JS not only are you not upsetting me but in fact i miss when you don't comment. You are knowledgeable and stimulating. My frustration is when people say things without the proper background and sources.

    >& if GH is reading this,I would suggest to him to have second thoughts about giving up his idea of myth/mashal.After all he had 'al mah lismoch',the Rambam,no less!(perception & not reality according to you).

    GH use of words is sometimes unfortunate although his heart(and mind) is in the right place. I understand Torah to be exactly what the word means a guide, and Torat Chaim means a guide on how to look at life. It teaches us how to perceive, interpret and deal with our circumstances. It also is eternal and applies as much to today as it did at Matan Torah and every period in between. That is why Ramb am's approach is correct and follows in the step of Chazal who seem to have seen it the same way based on the Midrashim.
    Using myth as explaining a worldview fine, but myth is too broad a word.

    Re Dibra Torah - sure it is a play on words but that is fine.

    I have had in mind to write about this but have not gotten around to. I work very hard on some of these posts putting in many hours and I try to follow with some kind of system. i will get to that if I last that long.

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  17. JF what is YBT?

    So you think I am Acher? What a compliment! :-)

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  18. JS re Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Matan Torah I understand that as his opinion and I am not far behind. I just feel that it is irrelevant whether there was physiacl fire and thunder and clouds or not. I think I wrote about that before. also see my article i referred GH to in an earlier comment.

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  19. DG: If you don't know what YBT is, click here. You will probably like it.

    Also, I meant that I am like Acher, because I am a kofer, but i still enjoy your "shiur". All the best - JF.

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  20. JF I know about Rav Chait though I never met him. He has similar ideas and is very good though he has a little more constraints then I have because of his position, though who knows? I read his piece on TMS and I am not sure I understood. I will write about it eventually. I cannot without first dealing with Nevuah.

    Why do you consider yourself a Kofer? I am just curious because I have found that most peole who consider themselves as such are the real religious asking proper questions who have been dismissed or shunned because their interlocutor did not know how to answer.

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  21. I don't know if this is just crazy heresy or not, but when I learned about Neutrenos, and the idea that the earth is constantly bombarded by pieces of stars that fly through us all the time, it gave me a new understanding of Rambam and Astrology in general.

    How could it be that the stars who sent billions of "stuff" into the earth and us constantly, don't have some affect on us.

    Someone once asked me what an Angel is and so I drew it on the board. Here is what I drew:

    E=MC^2

    To me, that is the image of an Angel, that serves one purpose and has one mission.

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  22. >Here is what I drew:

    E=MC^2

    To me, that is the image of an Angel, that serves one purpose and has one mission

    Excellent. that is one type there are others.

    >and Astrology in general

    What has Astrology got to do with Physics? It is pure nonsense and AZ.

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  23. Interesting website with a lot of resources and detailed explanations.
    »

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  24. I find some information here.

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