Sunday, October 29, 2006

Intellectual Honesty - Rambam's way.

At the end of the first part of the Moreh Rambam lays the ground for his discussion of proofs for the existence of God. He refuses to argue for the existence of a God based on who created the universe. The fact that the universe was created from nothingness or created at all is not necessarily provable. It is at most the best of three possibilities. Although Rambam personally believes that it was created from nothingness (at least that is my read of his position though some, both classic and modern interpreters of Rambam, disagree), he admits that Plato’s position that God created it from a basic matter that is eternal could well work with Judaism. If pressed he could live, if only with difficulties, with Aristotle’s position that a First Cause and the universe are co-existent eternally. Therefore Rambam cannot accept the proofs his predecessors and contemporary philosophers used to demonstrate God’s existence based on there necessarily being a Creator.

In MN 1:76 he states:

If you wish to go in search of truth, to cast aside your passions, blind following of authority, and your fondness of things you have been accustomed to cherish, if you wish to guard yourself against error: then consider the fate of these speculators and the result of their labors: observe how they rushed, as it were, from the ashes into the fire. They denied the nature of the existing things, misrepresented the properties of heaven and earth, and thought that they were able, by their propositions, to prove the creation of the world, but in fact they were far from proving creation ex nihilo, and have weakened the arguments for the existence, the unity, and the incorporeality of God. The proofs of all these doctrines must be based on the permanent nature of the existing things, as perceived by the senses and the intellect.”

In his introduction to the third part of the Moreh, where he discusses the “Secrets of the Chariots”, the Ma’aseh Merkavah in Yechezkel, Rambam forewarns us that he is only showing us how to read and interpret the verses so that they should conform to the science of his times. He also tells us that he is aware that the sciences he bases his interpretation may be proven wrong. It is just a guide to how such matters need to be understood.

To give a full explanation of the mystic passages of the Bible is contrary to the Law and to reason; besides, my knowledge of them is based on reasoning, not on divine inspiration [and is therefore not infallible]. I have not received my belief in this respect from any teacher, but it has been formed by what I learnt from Scripture and the utterances of our Sages, and by the philosophical principles which I have adopted. It is therefore possible that my view is wrong, and that I misunderstood the passages. Correct thought and divine help have suggested to me the proper method, to explain the words of the prophet Yechezkel.”

I am appending here R. Kafih’s translation and note. It is worthwhile and important to understand how we need to deal with our theology. It is wrong to become stultified and stubbornly stick to untenable positions.

נוסף לכך, שמה שנתברר לי ממנו הוא על דרך ההשערה והמחשבה
ולא נראה לי בו חזון אלוהי שילמדני שכך היא הכוונה בדבר
ולא קבלתי את דעותי בכך ממורה
אלא הורוני המקראות שבספרי הנבואה ודברי חכמים
עם מה שיש בידי מן ההקדמות העיוניות
שהדבר כך בלי ספק
ואפשר שיהיה הדבר בהפכו ותהיה הכוונה עניין אחר

And here is R. Kafih’s note:

כוונת רבנו למה שביאר במרכבות שבמראות יחזקאל. ואין ספק שברוח הקודש אמר רבנו דברים
הייתה לו תחושה עליונה שכל מה שהוא בונה ורומז במרכבות לפי מבנה מערכת השמים
ומערכות הארץ אשר הגיע אליהן המדע בימים ההם, שמא אין הדברים כך
כפי ש"הוכח" בימינו
ובכל אופן מבחינתנו אנו דבר גדול דבר אלינו רבנו
וחשוב יותר ממה שאמר, מה שלא אמר, כלומר
דיינו במה שרמז לנו לאן מופנים הדברים,
והפרטים כבר נתאם בעצמנו בכל-דור כפי מושגיו, אם הדברים הם באמת כך
על כולן לימדנו רבנו באיזה סוג של מחשבה לגשת לאותן המיקראות, ודיינו בכך

The common thread between the two quotes is that truth is the ultimate goal. We cannot deny reality to support a belief no matter how important the belief is. Both quotes and R. Kafih’s comment make it clear that the argument that the Torah knows better than science, science changes while the Torah is immutable, is not a viable argument. This nonsensical argument is adopted by many of contemporary “theologians” and has caused more harm than admitting that one does not have the answers though they probably are out there. Humility goes farther than lies.


  1. Jewishskeptic10/29/2006 4:42 PM

    David,I have a simple question for you.
    You keep on saying how we sould emulate God (& I just read your comment on XGH),by obsrving how He runs the world,studying the laws of nature,delving into the intricacies of quantum mechanics etc.etc. & then we will see the greatness of God & the morality of his fiats. But most people are incapable of doing that,they lack the intellect for such obtruse studies & keen observations.Very few of us are Rambams,Einsteins...
    The average Joe doesn't have the kop for it or the interest.That goes for the vast majority of mankind. So according to you what should be the reason for his morality?
    Achad ha'am,in his 'shilton hasechel',writes,IIRC,that according to Rambam the tachlis of mankind is to produce ubermentshen,supermen(along Nietzche),whose pupose would be the contemplation of God.That this is the point of God creating humans.The rest of mankind? They are necessary in bringing about these intellectual giants.They provide the necessities of life & also for campany,etc. But of themselves,they are of no intrinsic value.
    What is your take on it?

  2. JS - Rambam sets his 13 dogmas on the mishna Kol Israel yesh lahem chelek leolam haba. Among those dogmas is metziut hashem, nevuah both things that need to be understood. I think as usual the choice of where to discuss something to the Rambam is not random. The answer is that a person that uses his sechel, the attribute that makes him into a human being, has already experienced olam Haba. He has come one step closer to his tachlis. Of course he is not Rambam but he certainly is no longer just a living thing.

    Now morality - One follows the riules set out by the Torah. As we know they don't always work for every situation and everybody but they generally work. We follow these rukles and the ones among us who have the ability and the inclination to grow to the point where they supesede the static rules, grasp beyond the simple and mundane, they now follow these rules not because they are preset but because they are emulating God. That to my understanding is the meaning of Hora'at Sha'a of a Navi like Elyahu behar Hacarmel. see here an article by David Novak -

    and I quote a short piece

    The last few years of his life were devoted to what we would call today a charity clinic. It seems that he regarded his main intellectual work to have by then been completed and he wanted to devote the rest of his life to putting into practice the theory of imitatio Dei he had presented at the end of his major work in philosophical theology, the Guide of the Perplexed

    He is referring to the letter to Shmuel Tibon where he describes his day.

    Ahad Ha'am and others held Rambam to be an elitist. He was to the extent that he believed the perfect human being is rare. He however did not expect perfection and was realistic about human beings. Every little step in the right direction elevates a person out of his purely animal and survival oriented self. Kol Israel yesh lahem chelek as do all peoples see end of hilchot Shemita Veyovel and Hilchot Melachim 8:11

  3. >But of themselves,they are of no intrinsic value.

    One more thing - Chas vechalila - all human beings are important. It is impossible that a human being should not transcend his base persona he was born with. We humans have no right nor can we set a value to a human life - only the Yodeah Machashavot can do that.

    I sometimes see Judaism and humanity as this huge living organism that started its journey eons ago. It has a heart a brain and all components of a living thing. It is en masse moving towards a goal of finding God. It does it in fits sometime going forward,others sideways or backwards. It moves though in the right direction in a macro sense. When it will find its goal - God - will be the Yemot Hamashiach. The problem is that the goal is so elusive that the best it can hope for is Peace - vegar ze'ev im....

  4. Well, it's not in the heavens or across the sea... it's much closer to our hearts than that. ;-)

    And still, it's an infinite distance away.

    Perhaps we can discover what He wants revealed, instead of trying to reveal what He doesn't want uncovered. That's enough to chew on.


  5. One assumes the above quote came from hamoreh Yosef Qafah zt"l, and not his grandfather hamoreh Yihhya zt"l ? Great stuff (by the way)!


  6. Alex you are correct It is Rav Yosef.

  7. Correction: I should have called (mastery of) the sciences a pre-req before learning ma'aseh Bereshith.
    He said (regarding teaching), “nor upon (studying) ma’asseh bereshit in the presence of two and certainly not if they be more. They said: “for ask now of the days past [which were before the, since the day that G-D created man upon the earth and from one end of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it (Deut 4:32)—one asks, two do not ask. We have already explained the reason for this in our introduction to this composition. It is that it is impossible for the masses to understand those matters, and they are therefore only transmitted from one individual to another with great care, for the masses understand very little of them. When a fool hears them, his conviction becomes undermined and he thinks that they contradict the truth, they are [themselves) the truth.  

    Listen to what has become clear to me according to my understanding on the basis of which I have studied in the words of the Sages: it is that they call ma’aseh bereshit the natural science and inquiry into the beginning of creation. By ma’aseh merkavah they mean the divine science, it being speech on the generality of existence and on the existence of the Creator, His knowledge, His attributes, that all created things must necessarily have come from Him, the angels, the soul, the intellect which links with humans and existence after death. Because of the importance of these two sciences, the natural and the divine—they were justly considered important—they warned against teaching them as the mathematical sciences are taught. It is known that each person by nature desires all the sciences, whether he be an ignoramus or a sage. It is further known that is is impossible for a person to begin the study of these sciences and direct his thought towards them, without the appropriate premises and without entering the stages of science, they there ore forbade this and warned against it. They sought to frighten one who directed his thought towards “the account of the beginning” without appropriate premises as he said “all who look upon four things…” They also sought to restrain one who would direct his thought towards and would examine divine matters with his unaided imagination without ascending the rungs of the sciences and said with reference to such people-- “all who are not protective of the honor of their master [it were better had they not come into the word”].

    It were better had they not come into the world—its meaning is that such a person is removed from the ranks of humanity, and classifying him on one of the other species of animal would be better for existence. Than his being a human because he wants to know something in an inappropriate manner and in a way that is unsuited to his nature, for only a person ignorant 9of the nature of existanec would seek to imagine what is above or what is below. When a man empty of all knowledge seeks to use his corrupt imagination in order to know what is above the heavens and below the earth, and imagines reaching them to be like ascending to the attic of a house and also to know what was before the creation of the heavens and what will be after they are no longer, he will certainly be brought to madness and desolation.

    Examine this wonderful expression said with diving help, “all who are not proctective of the honor of their master,” the meaning of this being, all who are not protective of their intellects, for the intellect is the honor of G-D (kevod haSHem). Since he does not know the value of this matter which was given him, he is abandoned into the hands of his desires, and becomes like an animal. Thus they said “who is he who is not protective of the honor of his master?—he who transgresses secretly” (Hagigah 16a; Kiddushin 40a). They said elsewhere, “adulterers do not commit adultery until the spirit of madness enters them (Midrash Tanhuma, Naso 5).” This is the truth, for while one craves any of the desires, the intellect is not perfected.

    This matter is brought up here since above he said “these are the bodies of Torah,” and thus here he cited matters which are the principles of the “bodies of Torah.” The Talmud forbade teaching them publicly and expressly prohibited it and commanded that an individual teach them to himself and not pass the on to another and derived this prohibition from the parabolic statement of Solomon on this matter , “honey and milk are under they tongue.”


  8. Al, I am not sure what you are driving at in your last comment copying what looks like several pieces in the moreh (I identified I think 1:32 in the middle)?

  9. I am just trying to set it straight in my own mind, in terms of how to go about studying these things. Sorry for spitting it out onto the blog. I figure these verses should keep it real. Afterall, we are talking ma'aseh bereshith, so I just want to keep this stuff in mind. No matter how many times I read these verses, it always makes me think.

    Have a good week.

  10. I am not sure where in the Guide this came from. Let me know if you can track it precisely.


    Sure is pretty!