Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Is nature natural?

Let us analyze the differences between the various Ramban commentaries quoted in my last post and Rambam.

El Shaday and Yud Heh Vav Heh:

  1. Ramban’s Understanding: As we saw Ramban interprets El Shaday as seeing God as the reality behind the seemingly natural, the real hidden protagonist. YHVH is the understanding of God as the maker of miracles. He can and does act outside nature. It is the anomalous that demonstrates the real greatness of God and is the proof for His existence that also verifies that He is the real mover behind the seemingly natural.

  2. Rambam’s Understanding: Rambam understands these two attributes differently.[1] El Shaday refers to the understanding of God as the First Cause. One arrives at this understanding by contemplating nature, realizing that it operates through a cause and effect system and thus deducing that there must be a First Cause that causes things but is not the result of a cause. YHVH represents the concept of unknowability. It is not an attribute but a designation of an entity that we call “entity” by default only. The word itself connotes unknowability.
How does nature operate?

  1. Ramban’s Position: Although he does not expand too much on it in the material I quoted in last post, when he refers to God’s intervention as ובכולם תתנצח מערכת המזלות or שהוא מנצח מערכות שמים we get the picture that he sees nature as being controlled by the stars and God prevailing over them as if in a conflict. He expands on this in other places where he describes astrology as a science. He viewed the world as being under the direct influence of the stars, nature defined as the result of each star’s greater power at each particular moment. God is the superpower who steps in at will and takes over. A Jew, by submitting to God and His Torah, removes himself from nature, or to be more precise, the influence of the stars, and puts himself under the direct control of God, thus reward and punishment. There are therefore two very different natures. There is the one run by the stars and another run by God. The physical in either case is run by a non-physical entity; God or the stars. In his eyes science does not exist in the modern sense. It is a constantly manipulated system by a spiritual entity. Of course ultimately it is all God’s world. He just left the day-to-day running to His servants, the stars.

  2. Rambam’s Position: There is only one set of laws of nature. Astrology is bunk. The influence of the stars is a physical one. They provide motion to nature. Rambam had no concept of gravity but he did notice that the position of the stars has some influence on nature; the tides and the moon for one. God, at the dawn of Creation, set down the laws of nature and does not change anything after that ever. Science is exactly the way we see in our times, a system that is out there, responsible for our existence, which we try to decipher and thus control. It is by understanding nature, its laws, progression and evolution, attempting to get a feel for the thinking behind it, that man can chose to partake in it or not. The consequences of his choice are seen as reward and punishment.

The contrast between these two great Jewish medieval thinkers is stark. Ramban had no confidence in science. He could not understand many of the rarer phenomena as resulting from preset laws. He therefore saw the interference, sometimes seemingly whimsical, of spiritual entities as the only explanation for his observations. The decision is left to man to choose under what spiritual control he wants to be; God’s or the stars. That is to him the meaning of Bechira – free will. The Torah and Mitzvot are the specific tools that put man under God’s control. By following the Torah man declares that he belongs in God’s camp and is captured under His control.

Rambam on the other hand saw nature as immutable laws set down by HKBH. They are so elegant and deep that humanity is spending millennia trying to decipher them. In that process, deciphering the physical here and now together with the conceptual so to say macro plan, man can become an integral part of this great enterprise. That is Providence or Hashgacha.

What I find personally fascinating is that in contemporary Judaism Ramban’s view seems to prevail although it is clearly contrary to how we view science and nature. It has been a personal struggle for me, to deal with that. However once I started understanding Rambam’s outlook, I realized that there is a legitimate way, rather an obligation, to integrate the two – science and religion.

Furthermore, I am tone deaf to Mussar, I never understood it and my eyes glaze over when I read it. However I did pick up one little thing during my stay in Slabodka and that is Gadlut Ha’adam. I suspect my understanding of it is nothing like what the Alter visualized. However I see Rambam as giving a man full control over himself and his future which to me is the epitome of Gadlut Ha’adam. Ramban, on the other hand, limits that control and submits him to uncontrollable forces to a certain extent. That is why Rambam’s approach appeals so much to me.

Next I will address how the worldviews of these two greats influences their understanding of Prophecy, miracles, the place of Eretz Israel in Jewish thought, Olam Haba and Techyat Hametim.

[1] The following is an excerpt from my article in Hakirah volume 1: Rambam definesאל as follows: “As for the expressions, the G-d [Elohe] of the heaven and also G-d of the world [El olam] they are used with respect to His perfection, and theirs [heaven and the world]. He is Elohim - that is He who governs - and they are those governed by Him, not in the sense of domination but with respect to His rank, in relation to theirs” (Moreh 2:30, pp. 358-359). אל is a relative term which indicates a high position in a hierarchy.[1] It is an understanding of G-d as the highest ranked existent in relation to other existents. The concept of rank is the placement of a being as a precursor of another. A parent is higher in rank than an offspring. G-d who is the cause of all being is the highest rank in this type of evaluation.

The other concept of G-d that results from this speculation is represented by the attribute Shaday. All other existents are necessary due to their position in the hierarchy of things. If there is an offspring there must be a parent thus a parent is necessary by virtue of the offspring’s existence. The two are interdependent. There is no offspring without a parent and no parent without an offspring. On the other hand G-d, as the First Cause, is not an “offspring” nor is He necessarily a “parent” until He created of his own free volition the first being. G-d is therefore an independent existent. “Accordingly the meaning [of Shaday] is he who is sufficient; the intention here being to signify that He does not need other than Himself with reference to the existence of that which He has brought into existence or with reference to prolonging the latter’s existence, but that His existence, suffices for that” (Moreh 1:63, p. 155). These two concepts, El and Shaday, see G-d as an existent, supreme and independent entity. Avraham and his children developed this concept of G-d as expressed in the verse “וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב באל שדי - and I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as El Shaday.”[1]

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