Friday, July 13, 2007

Rambam the Greek?

Rambam was accused over the generations for having been influenced by the Greeks especially Aristotle. Ramban in his disagreements with Rambam alludes to that many times. One of the most famous such accuser is Gra in Yoreh Deah 179 where he disagrees with Rambam’s stand on amulets.

As I was rereading an article that I just finished for the upcoming issue of Hakirah on Divine Providence, I realized that I was staring at a fascinating comment of Rambam that turns the table on his accusers. It also gives an insight of his intellectual honesty and fearlessness in disagreeing with anything that went against rational thought.

In his discussions on providence in MN 3:17 he presents five different opinions. The first two are the opinions of the Atomists, a school of Greek philosophers and Aristotle. Although he agrees with Aristotle on some of his ideas, he feels that it goes against Jewish theology. He then presents the opinions of the Ash’aryyah, school of Muslim philosophers who believed that everything is predestined and nothing happens without God’s minute involvement. Nothing happens by chance or choice. They are therefore forced to deny reward and punishment and see God as whimsical and ultimately unjust.

The next group is the Mu’tazilites who believes that man has freedom of choice and God is just but His ways are so deep and beyond our understanding. When we see a righteous man that suffers, we have to accept it as justice. We just do not know how it is just. We assume that God will reward him in the world to come. Sometimes one suffers so that he can get a greater reward in afterlife. If that sounds familiar, it is. In fact, I believe that this opinion is mainstream Judaism nowadays. Rambam in fact quotes the Gemara in Berachot that discusses the idea of afflictions of love, Yissurim Shel Ahavah, and suggests that it is a similar thinking but says that we cannot find it in the Torah.

But they contain an additional doctrine which is not found in the text of the Torah namely the doctrine of "afflictions of love," as taught by some of our Sages. According to this doctrine, it is possible that a person suffer misfortunes without having previously committed any sin, in order that his future reward may be greater. This is also the teaching of the Mu’tazilites. But there is no text in the Torah expressing this notion.

He also suggests that some of the Geonim, probably referring to R. Sa’adyah Gaon and Rav Hay Gaon, were influenced by that school in their philosophic thought.

When Rambam presents his own ideas, he prefaces them with the following statement:

My opinion on this principle of Divine Providence I will now explain to you. In the principle which I now proceed to expound, I do not rely on the conclusion to which demonstration has led me, but on what has clearly appeared as the intention of the book of God, and the writings of our Prophets.

His opinion will not be based on the Greek or Muslim philosophers, not even on rabbinical writings, but purely on Torah and the writings of the prophets!

Rambam dedicates 2 chapters, 3:22 and 23, to showing where he got his ideas. I hope to write my next article on that subject.

There is tremendous depth in this statement of Rambam and it has implications on many issues in Jewish theology. It is how one interprets the observations one makes about day-to-day life that is at the heart of Jewish thought. It is a constant balance and dialectics between reality and how one understands it.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. the believers of yesurin shel ahavah probably base their source from the tests that G-d did with the avos and the bnei yiroel in the desert.The ramabam explains the tests as lessons for future generations to learn from. The yesurin believers understand it as a way of earning reward.

  2. Perhaps Rambam disagreed with some specific ideas of Arisotle, but his world view was so obviously shaped by Greek philosophy that it would be ridiculous to say otherwise.