Sunday, February 18, 2007

How dogmatic is Rambam's dogma? A review of an article by Eli Gurfinkel.

I just received the latest issue of Da’at #60 and read a very interesting article by a doctoral student Eli Gurfinkel “Maimonides – Between Dogmatism and Liberalism”. He is addressing the issue of the famous 13 Ikarim and the many problems that critics over time had with this supposed[1] Rambam innovation. After listing all the different important beliefs Rambam sets out in his different writings he comes up with a list of 17 dogmas. He then places them all on a table[2],[3] where he lists 16 of them and where Rambam discusses them. Although I have some problem with the choice of sources he decides to list, skipping many important citations, he does bring home that Rambam seems to be inconsistent regarding what is dogma. This issue is old and has been discussed by both Rambam’s classic commentators and the moderns.

Mr. Gurfinkel proposes a very intriguing idea and I think it is probably correct, though I would like to think about it some more. He suggests that there are according to his count at least 17 dogmas or necessary beliefs and they are all meant to be accepted. However what they mean is up to interpretation. Some have more room for interpretation than others, others have to be accepted but what exactly they mean can only be known after much study and contemplation while others are understood differently by different people at whatever stage of development they are. He even suggests that there some beliefs that Rambam himself is not sure exactly how to define. He is using as an example the three mentioned in his Pirush Hamishna[4] where he says that when we find an argument in matters of Hashkafah, we cannot decide who is right, as it is something that belongs to God.

This seems to fit very nicely with the following two citations in MN.

MN 1:35 –

“Those who are not sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the true interpretation of these passages in the Bible, or to understand that the same term admits of two different interpretations, may simply be told that the scriptural passage is clearly understood by the wise, but that they should content themselves with knowing that God is incorporeal, that He is never subject to external influence, as passivity implies a change, while God is entirely free from all change, that He cannot be compared to anything besides Himself, that no definition includes Him together with any other being, that the words of the Prophets are true, and that difficulties met with may be explained on this principle. This may suffice for that class of persons, and it is not proper to leave them in the belief that God is corporeal, or that He has any of the properties of material objects, just as there is no need to leave them in the belief that God does not exist, that there are more Gods than one, or that any other being may be worshipped.”

Even the unintelligent or those at earlier stages of development have to be taught that God is Incorporeal, unchanging, unique, cannot be compared to other physical beings, that prophecy is true and that there are explanations to the problems one might face when confronted with these beliefs in the process of learning. Note that the exact meaning of what some of these beliefs are is left open.

In MN 3:28 he says:

“IT is necessary to bear in mind that Scripture only teaches the chief points of those true principles which lead to the true perfection of man, and only demands in general terms faith in them. Thus Scripture teaches the Existence, the Unity, the Omniscience, the Omnipotence, the Will, and the Eternity of God. All this is given in the form of final results, but they cannot be understood fully and accurately except after the acquisition of many kinds of knowledge. Scripture further demands belief in certain truths, the belief in which is indispensable in regulating our social relations: such is the belief that God is angry with those who disobey Him, for it leads us to the fear and dread of disobedience [to the will of God]. There are other truths in reference to the whole of the Universe which form the substance of the various and many kinds of speculative sciences, and afford the means of verifying the above-mentioned principles as their final result…”

What I like about this explanation is that it is simple, logical and flows with the way I understand Rambam’s developmental approach to religion. It is not set in stone and dogma but a subject of study and discovery. Torah and Judaism are a lifetime project for individuals and an eternal study and development for generations of humans. There is however a core belief system that one has to adhere to in that developmental process. There was only one Avraham who started from scratch and it is our job to finish the work he began.

I would love to hear your thoughts.

[1] My term.
[2] He shows that the first two, Existence of God and His unity, are discussed in all the following writings: MT Hil Yesodei Hatorah (YH) Chapters 1-4, Hilchot Teshuvah (HT) Ch. 3 to 8, Iggeret Teiman (IT), Iggeret Techyat Hametim (ITH) and MN 3:28[2]. Non Physicality of God and eternity is not mentioned in the IT and ITH, creation of the world and exclusive service only in YH, Prophecy, Moshe’s prophecy, TMS, eternity of the Torah in all except MN 3:28, God’s providence and His knowing everything in MN 3:28, HT and YH. He them lists Reward and Punishment as mentioned only in MN3:28 which is surprising as it is discussed extensively in HT, Mashiach he lists in YH and HT (I am not sure where in YH), Techyat Hametim in HT and ITH, Israel as a special nation in IT and freedom of choice in HT.
[3] The 17th being the existence of angels which is mentioned in MN 3:45 is not listed here for some reason, although repeatedly mentioned in the article.
[4] Sotah 3:3, Sanhedrin 10:3, Shavuot 1:4.

1 comment:

  1. I suspect the motivation behind this article. Kellner in "Must a Jew Believe in Anything" states a problem that he discovered with Rambam. He was attracted to Rambam as a model of religion of reason and his compatibility with egalitarianism and other modern ideas. Then he discovered Rambam the dogmatists, the thinker who was willing to read disagreement out of Judaism. This was a problem that he never quite solved.

    Now, this author solves the problem. Now we can read the Rambam and like him too, for now we have the space in which we can be independently minded and Rambam would approve. We can be Maimonideans and citizens of the world at the same time, which is what he surely desired.

    I suspect the motivation. Rambam believed in an emphatic religion that established absolute truth by Reason. When this is impossilbe, i.e Creation, he tells you. The whole tenor of his works is dogmatic.

    We can't sanitize Rambam. I do not agree that he believed in Progressive Revelation and mulitple acceptable interpetations of Truth. He did beleive in Progressive Education, which is something completely different. That is not sufficient, however, for being temporarily ignorant is not what modern intellectuals seek. What they seek is a post-modernistic insistence of multiple truths.