Monday, October 29, 2007

Rambam Responds to Criticism On Mishne Torah.

After last post I am entitled to some lighter fare for a while so here goes an interesting comment Rambam makes in one of his letters. The letter is in the Sheilat edition page 300. Rambam writes to his pupil R. Yosef who apparently was reporting about disparaging remarks made by Rambam’s opponents in Aleppo.

Here it is in my usual translation/paraphrase:

I knew and it was clear to me when I was writing [Mishne Torah] that it will fall, without doubt, into the hands of a jealous and evil person who will denigrate its merits by showing that it [the book] is unnecessary or deficient. Or [fall into the hands of] an ignorant or a fool, who will not appreciate the value of what was accomplished in writing it and will see little usefulness in it. Or [fall] into the hands of a novice, who just began learning, has nonsensical notions, errs and finds difficulties in various places because he does not know the sources or because he is unable to extract from the text what I was able. Or [fall] into the hands of a person who sees himself as fearing Heaven [Yerei Shamayim], who is entrenched [literally: frozen in his own residue], a fool, who will criticize the foundations of belief that are included in the book. All of the above comprise the majority. [Rambam clearly is referring to the supposed Talmidei Chachamim, the elite and not the plain people]. Thus the book will be of value [literally: fall] [in the hands] of the remnants that God calls upon, people who are straight, correct and have good minds; they will know what we have done. You are the first of that group and should you have been the only one during my lifetime it would have satisfied me. How much more [am I delighted] having already received letters from the French wise men and from others in their name, expressing their wonderment about what was done and are asking for the book in its totality. [Apparently, the MT was published in segments and many had only parts of it at the early stages. See Sheilat comment ad locum]. The book has already spread to the ends of civilization. Regarding your report that there are some people who have not received it well, that is so only during my lifetime. In future times, when jealousy and power seeking are no longer a factor, all the children of Israel will be satisfied using only it [Mishne Torah] and abandon all others [Sefarim] without a question. They [the other Sefarim] will be used only by someone who is looking for something to occupy himself during a lifetime without any goal.

I wonder to which Sefarim he was referring to in the last sentence? Apparently, Rambam took very seriously his statement in the introduction to MT where he categorically says that there will no longer be any need to learn the Gemara before reading the MT. In another letter, he mentions that when there are doubts about the meaning of his ruling, the Gemara should be consulted. Apparently, he proposed that Gemara should be learned as an adjunct to his MT.

See also this post for an additional insight into Rambam’s understanding of what learning is all about.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Truth - An Attempt at Defining a Difficult Term.

In comments, Evanston Jew and I had an exchange about the meaning of Truth as we use it in describing the search for God and I realized that I had not discussed it in depth yet. In fact, I realized that I needed to fully define it for myself and thus clarify my thinking on it. It is one of the most important aspects of religion and in fact, Rambam begins his Mishne Torah (Hil Yesodei Hatorah) with a discussion (definition) of True Existent as Truth. I will therefore use that text as the basis for my upcoming discussion and the goal is to understand clearly these Halachot. As usual, the translation/paraphrase is mine. My comments or elucidations are in brackets.

א יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות, לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון

The foundation of all foundations and the [supporting] column of all knowledge is to “know” that there is “out there” [my translation of שם see Kessef Mishna ad locum] a First Existent.

I was always intrigued by these opening words and it is only when I pictured the imagery that Rambam uses in this opening of his MT that I realized what he was saying. A building rests on columns that are connected to the foundation. The foundation of the building is embedded in the earth that itself is suspended in the cosmos. That leads us to infinity of contingent existences which is incongruent. The only way we can resolve this incongruity is by “knowing” that there must be one non-contingent existent. The goal of everything that comes after this in the Mishne Torah is to train us so that we can “know” this. The word “know” is defined by Rambam in MN 1:50 as follows:

“Know, you who studies this my treatise, that knowledge [here I used Rav Kafih’s translation and also as suggested by Professor Nuriel, as opposed to Pines and Schwartz, who translate it as belief] is not the notion that is uttered. It is the notion that is represented in the soul when one holds it to be true [I used Prof Schwartz suggested translation here. Pines: when it is averred of it] that it is in fact just as it has been represented.”

The sense that I get is that the goal is to understand that in itself, why infinity of contingent existents is incongruous and at the same time why the existence of a non-contingent existent is the only solution to the problem. In other words, it is not enough to “believe” because we were told by prophets through their revelation that there is such an existent; we also have to be convinced rationally that it is the case. There is therefore no a priori approach. We accept by tradition but we have to prove it to ourselves independently.

“For belief [R. Kafih: knowledge] is only possible after a representation; it consists in the affirmation that the thing represented has its existence beyond the mind [in reality] exactly as it is conceived in the mind. If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe [R. Kafih: know] it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of the belief [R. Kafih: knowledge] or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief [R. Kafih: knowledge] is true.”

I purposely left in this last quotation both “belief” and “knowledge” because at this point in the process the two are very similar. If someone is convinced rationally that something is true, he truly believes it. We start with belief based on acceptance and we end with belief based on knowledge and conviction.

והוא ממציא כל הנמצא; וכל הנמצאים מן שמיים וארץ ומה ביניהם, לא נמצאו אלא מאמיתת הימצאו

He is the cause of all existence. All the existents from heaven to earth and all in between exist because of His True Existence. [There is a difference between True Existence and the truth that He exists – more about this later].

We are asked to convince ourselves rationally of the existence of God as the First Cause. We are also asked to prove to ourselves that God, as the only non-contingent existent is True existence. “True existence” is defined as non-contingent existence but also as a unique existent. There can only be one non-contingent existent by definition. Non-contingency is that Existent’s uniqueness.

Much has been written about Truth and almost every philosopher has addressed it and each one had his own understanding of what it means. One only has to take a look at Wikipedia on the word and there is enough there for a semester in college. I will however focus on it in the context of Rambam writings I quoted here.

We have here two separate definitions of truth. When we talk about human knowledge which Rambam defined in the quote above, truth is convincing ourselves that our mental speculation is true by proving that it is in conformity with our observations of reality. Our observation of reality is based on repetitiveness and constancy. For example, we assume that because the sun rises every day it will do so forever and based on that we develop a theory explaining what makes it do so. That leads us to an understanding of cause and effect and contingency. The word truth in this context is an adjective that describes the status of an apprehension, whether it is true or false and whether it conforms to reality. The sun itself is not true or false; it just is there. It came into existence at some point in time and may disintegrate at a later time and it is only true while it is here. Its truth is dependent on its being here at a certain time and in a certain place performing certain functions. In this example, the observation is true but both the observer and the observed are not true in themselves.

There are also things in the physical realm that we really do not know other than by induction. We never physically see certain entities. We just know they exist and have certain qualities because we observe their effects such as energy, atoms, black holes and gravity to name a few. These are only a few of such “realities” that meet the criteria laid out by Rambam as true knowledge “it is the notion that is represented in the soul when one holds it to be true that it is in fact just as it has been represented.” Here too truth is an adjective describing an apprehension while the observer and observed are not truth itself.

Many people believe this to be the only possible Truth. It is what some will argue is the only possible “rational” and empirically provable reality. However, it explains the chain of cause effect that we observe but it does not address the rational incongruity of there being infinite contingent existents. It is at this point that philosophy and metaphysics step in offering a solution to the incongruity. It tells us that there must be a non-contingent Existent that by definition is unique in His essence. This Existent is a singularity in its every aspect including essence and existence. That uniqueness in itself defines Him as the ultimate Truth with a capital “T”. Being non-contingent, He exists without depending on anything else by definition. That is the ultimate definition of Truth, a simple eternal [constant] unchanging Truth.

. [ב] ואם יעלה על הדעת שהוא אינו מצוי, אין דבר אחר יכול להימצאות. [ג] ואם יעלה על הדעת שאין כל הנמצאים מלבדו מצויים, הוא לבדו יהיה מצוי ולא ייבטל הוא לביטולם: שכל הנמצאים צריכין לו; והוא ברוך הוא אינו צריך להם, ולא לאחד מהם.

Should we entertain the notion that He does not exist, nothing else could exist. [Without a non-contingent entity, existence is incongruous]. Should we entertain the notion that nothing exists besides Him, He alone will be existent. [Should we entertain the notion that] every other existent is nullified He will not be nullified. [God’s existence is completely independent of whether anything existed at some time or still exists.] This is so because all existents need Him but He, the blessed One, does not need them or any particular one among them.

[ד] הוא שהנביא אומר "וה' אלוהים אמת" הוא לבדו האמת, ואין לאחר אמת כאמיתו. והוא שהתורה אומרת "אין עוד, מלבדו"כלומר אין שם מצוי אמת מלבדו כמותו.

That is the meaning of the prophet’s [Yirmyahu] “and Hashem Elohim is Truth”, He alone is the Truth and no other [is] Truth like His Truth. That is also the intent of the Torah “there is nothing more, except Him” meaning there is not “out there” a True Existent like Him other than Him.

God is the only Truth that is absolutely independent of anything else. He is the only True Existent. God is Truth itself.

Summarizing, there are two definitions of truth. The one used in our common parlance is an attribute for a statement about what is observable. The other, Truth, is a word we use to indicate the existence of a non-contingent existent – God. The former is a derivative of the latter where the latter is its paradigm.

Note: I decided to put up this post after much hesitation. I hope that I have advanced my own understanding of this difficult issue a little and sharing it with others the right thing to do. I am sure I am going to return to this many more times, as my thinking develops further.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Avraham's Prophetic Dream - Lot will be saved!

I have not posted much this week as I am working on a quite complicated post about Truth and I need every so often to break with some lighter fare.

R. Nissim of Marseilles was a 13th century Maimonidean who lived in Provence and wrote a sefer on the miracles in the Torah called Ma’aseh Nissim. Professor Chaim Kreisel has recently published it in a scholarly edition which is really worthwhile for anyone interested in the views of a sophisticated rationalist. One word of caution – like many rationalists of his time he believed Astrology was true and a science.

He has a fascinating comment on this week’s Parsha. It is common knowledge that Rambam held that the whole episode with the angels visiting Avraham was a prophetic dream. Even those who do not know Rambam know this about him thanks to Ramban’s vehement attack on him in his commentary on the Parsha. It is however not clear where Rambam ends the dream and reality takes over. R. Nissim however extends it to the whole story with Lot. He says that as part of Avraham’s dream he saw the three angels go to Sodom, hideout in Lot’s house, the whole story of the people gathering around and Lot offering his daughters in exchange. Reality begins with the destruction of Sodom and Lot’s escape. He suggests that lot was warned by Avraham based on his prophecy and he heeded by escaping. He interprets the verse 19:29

כט וַיְהִי, בְּשַׁחֵת אֱלֹהִים אֶת-עָרֵי הַכִּכָּר, וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-אַבְרָהָם; וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת-לוֹט, מִתּוֹךְ הַהֲפֵכָה, בַּהֲפֹךְ אֶת-הֶעָרִים, אֲשֶׁר-יָשַׁב בָּהֵן לוֹט.
29 And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot dwelt.

As God remembering Avraham by giving him this prophecy allowing him thus to indirectly cause Lot’s escape!

He then offers an even more radical explanation that Avraham saw in his prophetic vision that Lot will be inspired to leave the city before it would be too late!

No wonder Rashba wanted to ban (in fact succeeded – his sefer was unknown until lately) the Provencal philosophers! How different would Judaism be today if he had not prevailed.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Spirituality and Mysticism: A personal and internal experience.

In my earlier posts about spirituality and mysticism, I described an experience that a person has as a result of his contemplation about God. His contemplation takes him to a place where he experiences as if God is present. I realized from comments on my blog and on other Blogs that I have to make it clear that my definition of spirituality is quite different then the one more commonly used in general conversation. Unlike the common understanding that it refers to an entity that is present outside us, a “spiritual” being, I understand spirituality as an internal experience. There is no such thing as a “spiritual” entity. God is NOT a “spirit” whatever that is. That would be defining God and God cannot be defined. It is only after an intellectual quest for understanding the unknowable through the results of His actions that, we as humans the way our minds function, are so strongly convinced of His “presence” everywhere, that we “feel” Him. By definition, God does not “exist” in the sense that He has a place, a location that He fills. One can therefore not say He is somewhere, He is “present” or "I feel His presence" because He is here. I can however say I am so convinced that He “is” that my mind senses His presence. It is akin to an amputee feeling his lost leg. It is really not there but his mind is so accustomed to it being there that it senses it. The word “spiritual” is a description of that feeling.

Rambam in a rare moment of ecstatic outburst writes –

“Glory then to Him who is such that when the intellects contemplate His essence, their apprehension turns into incapacity; and when they contemplate the proceeding of His actions from His will, their knowledge turns into ignorance; and when the tongues aspire to magnify Him by means of attributive qualifications, all eloquence turns into weariness and incapacity!” (MN 1:58)

We know rationally that all our efforts in understanding Him are futile. Clearly, any definition or “God talk” is nonsense. It is however, this understanding itself, the realization that there is an entity that is unknowable that allows us to “feel” this entity’s presence. It is by knowing what He cannot be that our “feeling” of His presence is true. It is only an internal personal experience triggered by our mind, our thoughts, nothing more.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A New Blog that I Highly Recommend - No One Escapes Censorship - Not Even Rashbam

A very interesting and instructive new Blog has started with this cycle of Torah reading. This year it discusses Rashbam's Pirush on the Torah, selecting each week a few pertinent segments and discussing them in depth. I urge you to read it as it is an eye opener on how to read our great Rishonim and how they were fearless in their quest for truth.

Rashbam, the brother of Rabbeinu Tam, was a grandson of Rashi and one of the main Ba'alei Hatosafot. In spite of the high regard accorded to him as a Posek and his esteemed family position, his Pirush suffered at the hand of the religious censors. It was expunged from the Mikraot Gedolot Chumashim from Breishit through Parshat Vayerah. Not all agree that zealotry was the reason for it going missing. Some claim that the version the printer used to copy the Pirush had that part missing, a common occurrence with old Kitvei Yad. However, the modern frum censor is quite obvious, as we will see.

Parshanut discusses Rashbam on Breishit 1:5 and as you can see this comment goes against the Halacha that day follows the night. We always start Shabbat Friday at dusk while the simple translation of the verse indicates that as morning arrived the day was completed as Rashbam in fact explains it. Obviously Rashbam was not too bothered by this.

Zealous censorship is obviously alive and well nowadays. I noticed a revealing, pathetic and at the same time comical occurrence. Our shul has a set of the new Mikraot Gedolot recently published(Machon Hamaor, Mosdot Orot Hatorah) that contains a non-Chavel edition of Ramban. They printed Rashbam from the beginning but skipped his explanation on וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר . They simply omitted a whole comment! They probably thought that a "Talmid To'eh" wrote that!

Rashbam however alludes quite clearly to his explanation in an earlier verse.

רשב"ם בראשית פרק א פסוק ד

ויבדל אלהים בין האור ובין החשך - שי"ב שעות היה היום ואח"כ הלילה י"ב. האור תחלה ואח"כ החשך. שהרי תחלת בריאת העולם היה במאמר יהי אור.

God separated between light and darkness – There was twelve hours daylight at first followed by twelve of darkness. Light came first and then darkness for the start of Creation was with the words “let there be light”.

In other words, Rashbam prepares his explanation in the following verse and confirms from here that in fact 12 hours daylight was the start of the first day. The religious censor missed this and left this passage in the “Frum” edition. Maybe it will disappear too in the next reprint!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Evolution - An Historical Perspective.

In my article regarding miracles at (pages 220-225) I discussed my reading of Rambam’s understanding of the six days of creation. I showed that he sees the days as sequences of cause and effect rather than time elements. In other words, each day describes a different series of cause and effect that when combined and interwoven make up the universe and our existence. That is the meaning of Tov Me’od in the sixth day, where now everything is in place and can exist forever as a self-sustaining entity. Accordingly, I explained the Mishna in Avot 5:5 that list ten “miracles” that were created Friday at dusk, at the end of Creation, as events that are rare because they require a greater interaction and number of sequence of cause and effect than the usual natural occurrences.

I am reading Menachem Kellner’s Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism, and on page 72, in a discussion of the different understanding of Rambam and Ramban of a Midrash that states the Torah existed before the world, he points to this Mishna in Avot (see note 102). Among the ten miraculous things is “Haktav Vehamichtav”. Rambam explains that Ktav refers to the written torah and Michtav are the writing on the tablets. According to my understanding the Mishna is therefore telling us that these two events, the giving of the Torah and the tablets, were unique and rare events that were however part of the natural order of things. In fact in MN 1:66 we read –

"AND the tablets were the work of God" (Exod. xxxii. 16), that is to say, they were the product of nature, not artificial; for all natural things are called "the work of the Lord," e.g., "These see the works of the Lord" (Ps. 107:24);”

And he continues discussing the writing on the tablets concluding –

Or was the creation of the writing on the tablets more difficult than the creation of the stars in the spheres? As the latter were made by the direct will of God, not by means of an instrument, the writing may also have been produced by His direct will, not by means of an instrument. You know what the Mishna says, "Ten things were created on Friday in the twilight of the evening," and "the writing" is one of the ten things. This shows how generally it was assumed by our ancestors that the writing of the tablets was produced in the same manner as the rest of the creation, as we have shown in our Commentary on the Mishna (Avot, v. 6).”

Rambam is telling us that the Rabbis understood the tablets and the writing on them, to be a natural occurrence. We will never know what that means exactly – it would be hard for us to accept that Moshe found on the mountain two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Be it as it may, by placing the Tablets and the Torah at the end of sequences of cause and effect, supports how Kellner understands Rambam, that Torah law is not a priori but a reaction to human history. In other words, laws put in place by Torah are tailored to the reality of the people at the time they were promulgated. That reality is the result of long sequences of cause and effect. Of course once set in place they are immutable but had the people been in a different state at that time, the law may have been different. A famous example of such a Law is the one about Korbanot which Rambam understands as a necessary panacea to the strong need the people had at the time to pacify God. It is important to add, and as I have not finished the book Kellner may still say it, that the way the law is written, it has inherently the capacity to be reinterpreted and adapted to the new situations that develop as times change. Of course, there are safeguards and systems in place to prevent arbitrary modifications (see Hil Mamrim chapters 1 and 2).

I think that it is a very important idea that we have to absorb. The Torah came to us as a system that was meant to transform us from a simplistic idol worshiping people to one sophisticated enough to “know” the unique, transcendental and unknowable God. As the word Torah indicates, it is a teaching instrument. The Laws are meant to help us achieve that sophistication and it was clear that the transformation would take generations and millennia. It is still ongoing, as we have not apparently achieved it. In such a system, there will necessarily be changes in the way of thinking. It is clear that a Jew who lived at the time of Tanach was not in harmony conceptually with a contemporary Jew. It took 40 years in the desert for a group of slaves accustomed to subservience to become a nation that could conquer a country (though it took 400 years to accomplish). Rambam in Iggeret Techyat Hametim tells us that the concept of Techyat Hametim does not appear in the Torah, only in the later Prophets, because it would not have been understood at that early stage in our development. It could only be taught once we were able to differentiate between Magic and the Will of God. (This is a fascinating subject that I will address in a separate post). To me this idea of evolution is extremely important and explains many difficulties we have with old texts and traditions. It puts textual analysis in its proper context as it applies to religion. It also gives us a better perspective on the various trends in Judaism that sometimes seem to deviate from the intended goal. It helps us understand where these deviations come from and although their proponents may have erred in retrospect, we still have to respect and study them. Their ideas have kernels of truth in them that, when adapted and understood correctly, help the whole nation in its travel towards discovering the ultimate Truth. To me this vision of the Jewish people, its goals and its travel through history is exhilarating and makes me want to partake in that endeavor. That is the meaning of Or Lagoyim – a light to the nations.

Digressing a little off the topic, regarding the Mishna in Avot and the meaning of Vehamichtav, I remember reading in Sarei Hameah by R. Y.L. Maimon a very interesting interpretation that is quite intriguing. In Divrei Hayamim 2:21:12, after telling about Yehoram the son Jehoshaphat’s evil ways, we read –

יב וַיָּבֹא אֵלָיו מִכְתָּב, מֵאֵלִיָּהוּ הַנָּבִיא לֵאמֹר: כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵי דָּוִיד אָבִיךָ--תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא-הָלַכְתָּ בְּדַרְכֵי יְהוֹשָׁפָט אָבִיךָ, וּבְדַרְכֵי אָסָא מֶלֶךְ-יְהוּדָה.
12 And there came a writing to him from Elijah the prophet, saying: 'Thus says the LORD, the God of David thy father: Because thou hast not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat thy father, nor in the ways of Asa king of Judah;

Elyahu had gone up to heaven almost 7 years before the arrival of this letter (writing). The Mishna is referring to that miraculous letter, (Michtav), and explaining that it was there at the time of creation. Although Rambam’s interpretation is probably closer to the truth, I thought this was quite an interesting connection.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Confronting Anthropomorphic Texts - a Stratagem for True Apprehension..

Rambam in his introduction to the Moreh has a famous list of seven types of contradictions that can be found in different writings. One of them, the fifth one, is used when a difficult subject has to be communicated, a subject that requires preparation before a person can understand it.

The fifth cause is traceable to the use of a certain method adopted in teaching and expounding profound problems. Namely, a difficult and obscure theorem must sometimes be mentioned and assumed as known, for the illustration of some elementary and intelligible subject which must be taught beforehand the commencement being always made with the easier thing. The teacher must therefore facilitate, in any manner which he can devise, the explanation of those theorems, which have to be assumed as known, and he must content himself with giving a general though somewhat inaccurate notion on the subject. It is, for the present, explained according to the capacity of the students, that they may comprehend it as far as they are required to understand the subject. Later on, the same subject is thoroughly treated and fully developed in its right place.”

This explains the fact that we find so many anthropomorphic texts in the Torah. They are there as a stepping-stone to a more sophisticated understanding which eventually will lead to true knowledge. Rambam takes an even more interesting tack and gets more specific on how this works in MN 1:35 –

That God is incorporeal, that He cannot be compared with His creatures, that He is not subject to external influence, these are things which must be explained to every one according to his capacity. They must be taught by way of tradition to children and women, to the stupid and ignorant, as they are taught that God is One, that He is eternal, and that He alone is to be worshipped. Without incorporeality, there is no unity, for a corporeal thing is in the first case not simple, but composed of matter and form which are two separate things by definition, and secondly, as it has extension it is also divisible. When persons have received this doctrine, and have been trained in this belief, they are in consequence at a loss to reconcile it with the writings of the Prophets. The meaning of the latter must be made clear and explained to them by pointing out the homonymity and the figurative application of certain terms discussed in this part of the work. Their belief in the unity of God and in the words of the Prophets will then be a true and perfect belief.”

Here he goes a step further and argues that it is an a priori approach. One teaches that God is non-physical and unknowable by tradition without any in depth explanation of what it means. After all we teach little children the Shema, a declaration of God’s uniqueness which is synonymous with transcendental. (Note also, in passing, the important teaching “that He is not subject to external influence”, a quite sophisticated doctrine on prayer unlike the contemporary approach!). As they grow up and are confronted with the anthropomorphic text, they are forced to reconcile the received tradition with the received text. They are thus introduced to metaphor which is an important component of abstract thought. Only once that is absorbed, true understanding of what God is not, can be appreciated.

Just a short thought in view of the Parshyot we are currently reading.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Role of Philosophy and Metaphysics in Psak - Halachik Rulings.

One of the most fascinating things about learning the writings of the Rishonim and the great among the Acharonim, is that there is an endless amount of insights that one can mine from them every time you reread them. Analyzing their words carefully opens a window on so much depth, the deep thoughts that underlie those words. In the last chapter of the Moreh, to me one of the most powerful statements of what service of God is all about, Rambam spends an inordinate amount of space (about a quarter of the chapter) defining the word Chochma, which he designates as the introduction to the chapter. As I read it again, I realized that he was teaching us his view of Halacha and how it operates. It certainly is quite different from the way it is seen nowadays by the mainstream Halacha experts except for the few truly great ones.

Rambam starts by discussing the meaning of Chochma in the Hebrew language and summarizes the different meanings of the word.

It is possible that the Hebrew Chochma ("wisdom") expresses the idea of aptitude for stratagems and the application of thought in such a way that the stratagems and ruses may be used in achieving either rational or moral virtues, or in achieving skill in a practical art, or in working evil and wickedness. The attribute Chacham ("wise") is therefore given to a person that possesses great intellectual faculties, or good moral principles, or skill in art or cunning in evil deeds and principles.”

The word Chochma thus encompasses a wide range of intellectual aptitudes, covering the whole spectrum from human perfection to great evil. Rambam than makes an interesting point. He starts by saying that someone who knows the whole Torah “in its true reality” is a Chacham. The Torah contains behavioral rules and laws but it also contains theological beliefs. The latter is presented as accepted beliefs without any theological discussions. For someone to be considered a Chacham, a wise person, one must be able to prove those beliefs intellectually. Believing is not enough; apprehending intellectually what one believes is the goal. How does one go about proving intellectually those transmitted beliefs? “It [Chochma] is applied to the apprehension of the true realities, which have for their end the apprehension of Him, may He be exalted.” As we have seen many times that refers to the study of physics and metaphysics in Rambam’s parlance.

But then he makes what to me is an amazing statement and what I believe to be contrary to the contemporary view of Halacha.

Our Sages further say, that man has first to obtain knowledge of the Law, then to obtain wisdom, and at last to know what is incumbent on him with regard to the science of the Law, I mean the drawing of inferences of what one ought to do. This is also the right order: we must first learn the truths by tradition, after this, we must be taught how to prove them, and then the actions through which one’s way of life may be ennobled, should be precisely defined… This proves that our Sages distinguished between the knowledge of the Law on the one hand, and wisdom on the other, as the means of proving the lessons taught in the Law by correct reasoning.”

The process Rambam describes here starts with at first knowing the Torah as given. Once that information is assimilated, one has to analyze it and prove it by correct reasoning. One has to filter everything we learned through our rational mind, both the practical law and the theological dogmas that are transmitted. They are to be viewed in context of “the true realities” and only then can they be put into practice. Halacha follows reality not the other way around. Torah teaches man how to deal with reality, how to view his existence. The practical actions that Halacha mandates or forbids are to help man in this learning process or at a more advanced stage, to actualize and act on what he has learned. Reality defines Halacha not the other way around! For someone to be a true Posek he must know reality. He must be attuned to the world he lives in and understand it to the best of his knowledge. Rambam in Hil Sanhedrin 2:1 legislates:

א אין מעמידין בסנהדרין, בין בגדולה בין בקטנה--אלא אנשים חכמים ונבונים, מופלאין בחכמת התורה, בעלי דעה מרובה, ויודעין קצת משאר חכמות, כגון רפואות, וחשבון תקופות ומזלות, ואיצטגנינות, ודרכי המעוננים והקוסמים והמכשפים והבלי עבודה זרה וכיוצא באלו, כדי שיהיו יודעין לדון אותם.

One may appoint as members of the Sanhedrin, whether the great one or the small one [71 members or 23 members], only wise and knowledgeable people, exceptional in the Chochma of Torah [theology and Halacha], who have a great amount of knowledge [philosophy and metaphysics]. They should also have a little knowledge of the other wisdoms such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, the ways of the diviners, magicians and the nonsense of idolatry and so on, so that they are able to rule on them [these issues].

בעלי דעה מרובה in this context to me is philosophy and Metaphysics as the sciences are listed separately and only a little knowledge of those is required. To be able to rule Halachikally a person has to be well versed in all aspects of true reality – philosophy and Metaphysics - in addition to the sciences and the superstitions that society lives with. A Posek must be well educated in general but also be deeply versed in philosophy and Metaphysics. It is only then that his psak can be true.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A Question to my Readers

When I started this blog I had two goals in mind, one selfish and the other altruistic. The selfish one was to force myself to work through a subject to the point that I could share it with others publicly. I am also interested in the feedback that stimulates my thinking further and are many times a source of interesting insights. I think that the blog is serving this purpose well. So I thank all of you for reading faithfully and commenting periodically.

The altruistic goal was to help those who like me, are not satisfied with the conventional theology that is contemporary mainstream Jewish Orthodox religion. I have struggled with it since my teen years and it is only in the past ten to fifteen years that I have slowly come to really appreciate and understand what Torah and the way of life it promulgates is all about. I was pained for a very long time before I started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and if I can help others in similar situations, I feel that I contribute somewhat to the community.

That brings me to my question. Am I being too technical lately? Am I becoming too self involved and thinking about things that are too esoteric to interest others? Am I still addressing the second stated goal, the altruistic one?

I need a dose of reality every so often and would appreciate getting some feedback.

Spirituality and Mysticism: Prophecy (part 2)

In my last post, I described the process a person has to follow in order for him to attain prophecy. I also began by saying that Prophecy has more than one aspect to it and that not all prophecy is directed outwards. In Hil Yesodei Hatorah, we indeed read (7:7) –

[ז] הנביא, אפשר שתהיה נבואתו לעצמו בלבד, להרחיב ליבו ולהוסיף דעתו, עד שיידע מה שלא היה יודע, מאותן הדברים הגדולים. ואפשר שישולח לעם מעמי הארץ, או לאנשי עיר או ממלכה, לבונן אותם ולהודיעם מה יעשו, או למנוע אותם ממעשים הרעים שבידיהם; וכשמשלחין אותו, נותנין לו אות ומופת כדי שיידעו העם שהאל שילחו באמת

The prophet may experience a personal prophecy. Its purpose is to broaden his “heart” [thinking - thoughts are placed in the heart in scriptures and by medieval thinkers – a subject on its own] and increase his [rational] mind to the point that he knows what he did not know before about those great things [metaphysics]. It is also possible that he [the prophet] be sent to any nation among the nations of the earth or to the inhabitants of a city or kingdom, to make them discern [right from wrong]-[I translate “Lebonen” - to discern. It is a derivative of Bein - between] telling them what to do or to stop them from continuing with the evil things they are now doing. It is when he is sent that he is given a sign or proof so that the people know that God has truly sent him.

Reading this Rambam and the one quoted in my last post carefully we can learn several things about prophecy. A person that knows science, the description of the physical aspects and mechanisms of existence, is only a scientist. A person that goes the additional step of trying to understand whence all this existence comes from, the metaphysical aspects of existence - the “holy pure Forms” – such a person may experience prophecy if he follows “correct” paths and is emotionally balanced and unbiased. A person that attains prophecy will only at times feel the need to share with others what he learned. Many prophets were only prophets to themselves. Even when he feels the need to share with others, the prophet does not necessarily foretell a specific future event. The goal is to share with the people what he has learned and how they can make use of it practically by improving their ways and in fact, should they heed his words, the bad things that he foresaw may not come to pass, without penalty to the prophet. Divination - “sign or proof” -is only a way of helping the recipients of the prophets words know that they indeed are taught correct notions. It is telling them that just as the prophet is able to foretell a verifiable future event, he has therefore reached the level of the Ishim, and his warnings about the future based on their current actions are to be taken seriously. Ishim and Active Intellect according to Rambam are identical and two names for the same entity [Form}.

The mention of Ishim is where Rambam may be seen as accepting a mystical experience as defined in my first post on the subject. There I defined (quoting Prof Blumenthal's definition) a mystical experience when the spiritual experience of God’s presence is achieved by navigating a hierarchical progression of entities, Ishim being the lowest level of that hierarchy as we will see.

In Yesodei Hatorah 2:6 Rambam describes the three categories of existents: those composed of Matter and Form that change namely all material things – Those that are unchanging – in the Greek universe those are the spheres and the third category is comprised of -

ומהם ברואים צורה בלא גולם כלל--והם המלאכים, שהמלאכים אינם גוף וגווייה, אלא צורות נפרדות זו מזו.

Among them [the three categories] are entities that are Form without Matter – those are the angels, for angels are not of matter just separated Forms.

ובמה ייפרדו הצורות זו מזו, והרי אינן גופין--לפי שאינן שווין במציאתן, אלא כל אחד מהן למטה ממעלתו של חברו והוא מצוי מכוחו זה למעלה מזה; והכול נמצאים מכוחו של הקדוש ברוך הוא וטובו
זה שאמרנו למטה ממעלתו, אינה מעלת מקום כמו אדם שיושב למעלה מחברו; אלא כמו שאומרין בשני חכמים שאחד גדול מחברו בחכמה, שהוא למעלה ממעלתו של זה, וכמו שאומרין בעילה, שהיא למעלה מן העלול

How are Forms that have no bodies differentiated? [Bodies have limits thus can be differentiated. Forms which are non – physical, just concepts that may attach themselves to bodies, have no boundaries. How is one differentiated from the other?] They differ in their existence. Each one is below the status of the other and exists as a result of its predecessor. [I understand this to mean that there is a conceptual progression of cause and effect underlying the reality of how things come into being. Gravity is real. Underlying it is the concept of gravity. It is hierarchical because what gravity causes cannot exist without it existing first.] And all derive their existence from HKBH and His goodness [He is the First Cause]. When we say one above the other, we are not talking about a position like when a person sits higher than the other does. It is as when we compare two wise men to each other where one is smarter than the other we say that he is above the other and as we also say that the cause is above the effect. [This comparison needs to be fleshed out. Rambam seems to be teaching a combination of two different comparisons – when one entity is better than the other and at the same time the lesser one is dependent on the better one for its existence. I can understand it in the Aristotelian worldview but have not yet worked out how it would fit with our current understanding of existence.]

שינוי שמות המלאכים, על שם מעלותם היא; ולפיכך נקראים חיות הקודש והם למעלה מן הכול, אופנים, ואראלים, וחשמלים, ושרפים, ומלאכים, ואלוהים, ובני אלוהים, וכרובים, ואישים.

The different names of the angels relate to their status [position]. Therefore at the highest position are the Holy Beasts. They are above all. [They are followed] by Ophanim, Er’elim, Chashmalim, Seraphim, Angels, Elohim, the sons of Elohim, Cherubs and Ishim.

ט כל אלו עשרה השמות שנקראו בהם המלאכים, על שם עשר מעלות שלהם הם. ומעלה שאין למעלה ממנה אלא מעלת האל ברוך הוא, היא מעלת הצורות שנקראת חיות; לפיכך נאמר בנבואה, שהן תחת הכיסא. ומעלה עשירית, היא מעלת הצורה שנקראת אישים, והם המלאכים שמדברים עם הנביאים ונראים להם במראה הנבואה; לפיכך נקראו אישים, שמעלתם קרובה ממעלת דעת האדם.

All these ten names that refer to the Angels are based on their ten hierarchical positions. The highest of all positions, excluding the status of God Himself, are the Forms referred to as Beasts (Chayot). That is why they are referred to in prophecy as being below the Throne. [Throne is a metaphor for the “place” of God’s presence]. The tenth level is the Form known as Ishim. They are the angels that speak with the prophets and appear to them in the prophetic vision. That is why they are called Ishim, because their status is close to what man can apprehend. [Literally: their status is close to the status of man’s mind.]

Rambam presents us with a hierarchy of entities implying that they emanate from each other in a preset progression. In MN 2:4, he in fact says the each conceives the next level below him. I understand that as a simple description of cause and effect in the Aristotelian conception of how things work. Even if we were to understand it as emanations, clearly, man can conceive or navigate no further than the lowest rung, Ishim. Even there man can only get close to that level of apprehension – not all the way there [שמעלתם קרובה ממעלת דעת האדם]. I see a description of an assumed hierarchy that is not for man to navigate, just know it is there, just like he knows that God is there – no more. I do not see a navigation of a hierarchical progression to experience the presence of God – the spiritual experience. I am therefore not convinced so far that Rambam accepts the possibility of a mystical experience as defined.

You may wonder why I am so invested in trying to see if Rambam accepts mysticism. I understand that Rambam sets a limit to man’s ability to apprehend the transcendental. I understand that it is foundational in his thought. Right at the beginning of the Moreh, as he gets into the whole discussion of transcendence as it relates to God, he forewarns of that human limitation. He tells us in MN 1:5 that the reason Moshe was able to reach his high levels of apprehension, the highest a man can strive to, is because he accepted his human limitations from the start. He contrasts Moshe’s self-awareness with the arrogance of the Princes of Israel and Nadav and Avihu, who lost sight of that human limitation. While Moshe attained the high levels of apprehension they on the other hand strayed and ended up with a “burned soul and an extant body”. Rambam talks about the hierarchical system but does not navigate it nor does he touch on the particulars of each[1] – they are beyond man’s comprehension. So far, in Mishne Torah, I do not see Rambam saying anything that would indicate he accepted the possibility of man “navigating’ the hierarchies in his quest for God.

I will try to address the areas in MN that Prof. Blumenthal tries to prove from them that Rambam accepts mysticism. I have to however clarify that Prof. Blumenthal “mysticism” is very different from the mysticism of the Kabbalists. He makes that point many times in his writings. However, I am even loath to agree to that type of “navigation”.

[1] Except in his discussion of Yechezkel’s vision in the first few chapters of part 3 in MN where he does seem to interpret the vision in that vein. I need to work that through at some point.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Spirituality and Mysticism: Prophecy (part 1)

Prophecy is seen by Rambam as a natural ability that all humans, man or woman whether Jewish or not, can develop. It is a potential that we are all born with that if nurtured in a proper and methodical way, all of us should be able to develop it. It can be described in modern parlance as the result of the balancing and fine-tuning of the rational and imaginative faculties coupled with the full control of the emotional self thus overcoming the narcissistic tendencies that we all are born with. A person that has attained this level of perfection who focuses on trying to understand his environment, whence he and it come from and tries to apprehend God to the extent a human can, will prophesize. Paradoxically Rambam sees it as a miraculous divine intervention when such a perfected person does not.

The prophetic experience is generally understood as divination. To Rambam this is just one aspect of it. Furthermore, prophecy is not necessarily shared with others. We are accustomed to think of a prophet as a person that shares a vision with others, warns them about future events and is generally seen as an extrovert who cannot contain the urge to share his convictions. In fact, only a small minority of prophets do so. Prophecy is a description of a state a person attains in his relationship with God. In Breishit 20:7 as Avimelech dreams that he is about to die for kidnapping Sarah, God tells him –

ז וְעַתָּה, הָשֵׁב אֵשֶׁת-הָאִישׁ כִּי-נָבִיא הוּא, וְיִתְפַּלֵּל בַּעַדְךָ, וֶחְיֵה

7 Now, therefore restore the man's wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shall live.

Unlike Rashi who relies on a Midrash, Rashbam explains that God was saying that Avraham talks my talk; I like his words and listen to his prayer. Therefore, it behooves you to see to it that he pray for you to relieve the barrenness of your womenfolk. Radak explains it similarly. Avraham being a prophet accordingly is a description of his relationship with God, nothing more.

Here is how Rambam describes the person that attains prophecy (Hil Yesodei Hatorah 7:1) – (My translation/paraphrase Italicized with comments in brackets.)

א מיסודי הדת, לידע שהאל מנבא את בני האדם; ואין הנבואה חלה אלא על חכם גדול בחכמה, גיבו במידותיו, ולא יהיה יצרו מתגבר עליו בדבר בעולם אלא הוא מתגבר בדעתו על יצרו תמיד, בעל דעה רחבה נכונה עד מאוד.

ב אדם שהוא ממולא בכל המידות האלו, שלם בגופו, כשייכנס לפרדס ויימשך באותן העניינות הגדולים הרחוקים, ותהיה לו דעת
נכונה להבין ולהשיג, והוא מתקדש והולך פורש מדרכי כלל העם ההולכים במחשכי הזמן, והולך מזרז עצמו ומלמד נפשו שלא תהיה לו מחשבה כלל באחד מדברים בטילים, ולא מהבלי הזמן ותחבולותיו, אלא דעתו תמיד פנויה למעלה, קשורה תחת הכיסא, להבין באותן הצורות הקדושות הטהורות, ומסתכל בחכמתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא כולה מצורה ראשונה עד טבור הארץ, ויודע מהם גודלו--מיד רוח הקודש שורה עליו.

ג ובעת שתנוח עליו הרוח--תתערב נפשו במעלת המלאכים הנקראים אישים, וייהפך לאיש אחר, ויבין בדעתו שאינו כמות שהיה, אלא שנתעלה על מעלת שאר בני אדם החכמים: כמו שנאמר בשאול, "והתנבית עימם; ונהפכת, לאיש אחר" (שמואל א י,ו).

Among the foundations of the Law is to “know” [believing is not enough – one has to learn about it and know it intellectually] that God prophesizes the sons of man. [Note the language, not Jews but all men]. Prophecy rests only on one who has great knowledge of Chochma [Rambam uses the word Chochma to describe all knowledge including primarily the sciences], mighty with [over] his inclinations (tendencies) [in other words has them under control] to the point that his natural urges never overtake him under any circumstances. He always puts his [rational] mind in control of his natural urges. He has an extremely broad and correct [rational] mind. [His thinking has to be unbounded but based on correct notions.]

Such a person who is filled with all these tendencies and who has a healthy body [sick people have a hard time to concentrate], when he enters the Orchard [metaphor for physics, metaphysics, philosophy and theology] gets involved in those elevated and distant subjects. He is also sanctifying himself by removing himself from the ways of the masses who are walking in the dark paths of time [time is a function of change, which in turn is a function of matter or material existence. Following the paths of time means to be involved in material existence]. [At the same time] he is training himself to not think at all about any one of the useless things nor about the empty machinations of time so that his [rational] mind can be turned upwards at all times bound under the Throne [a metaphor for the presence of God. Note the wording – the rational mind is bound (fully engaged) with God’s presence and not the imagination or an emotionally driven experience]. [The purpose] is to discern those holy pure Forms [as opposed to Matter] so that he can observe all of HKBH’s wisdom [Chochma] from the smallest Form to the belly of the earth [metaphysics and physics which are the “Chochma” of HKBH as the First Cause] thus “knowing” His greatness. Immediately Ruach Hakodesh [literally: the Spirit That Emanates from the Holy Place] overtakes him.

At the time the Spirit rests on him, his soul
[rational and imaginative faculty as well as natural urges and emotions – see beginning of Shemona Perakim] mixes [finds itself] at the level of the angels [Note: level not angels themselves] called Ishim [Active Intellect] and he becomes a different person. He [now] discerns in his [rational] mind that he no longer is as he was before. He is been elevated to a higher level than other wise people are, as it says with Sha’ul “you will prophesize with them and become another person”.

Rambam is describing a beautiful spiritual experience. It is an experience one gets as a result of rational thinking that has a defined purpose. If a perfected human being who is also a scientist/philosopher is interested in understanding the world he lives in, with the goal to also apprehend the non-physical aspects of our existence, the non-contingent Entity that is the cause of all existence, he becomes a prophet. The key is the goal and purpose of his inquiry. I think we can differentiate between pure research for the sake of knowledge and practical research. The latter deals with “the empty machinations of time” while the first is dealing with “so that he can observe all of HKBH’s wisdom”. To succeed however, all emotions that are the results of man’s narcissistic tendencies have to be overcome “to the point that his natural urges never overtake him under any circumstances” otherwise, judgment will be clouded and biased.

I have more to say on this and will do so in my next post.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Spirituality and Mysticism: Rejoicing and Bliss

After describing the rejoicing at the Simchat Beit Hashoeva during Chol Hamoed Sukkoth Rambam at the end of Hil Lulav writes –

יד מצוה, להרבות בשמחה זו. ולא היו עושין אותה עמי הארץ, וכל מי שירצה--אלא גדולי חכמי ישראל וראשי הישיבות והסנהדרין והחסידים והזקנים ואנשי מעשה, הם שהיו מרקדין ומספקין ומנגנין ושמחין במקדש בימי חג הסוכות; אבל כל העם, האנשים והנשים--כולן באין לראות, ולשמוע:
טו שהשמחה שישמח אדם בעשיית המצוות ובאהבת האל שציווה בהן, עבודה גדולה היא; וכל המונע עצמו משמחה זו, ראוי להיפרע ממנו, שנאמר "תחת, אשר לא עבדת את ה' אלוהיך, בשמחה, ובטוב לבב" (דברים כח,מז).

It is a commandment to rejoice a lot. Not the plain people, nor all persons that wanted to join in, were permitted to partake [literally: do it]. Only the greatest among the sages of Israel, the heads of the academies, the members of the Sanhedrin [Supreme Court in modern parlance], the Chassidim [perfectionists?], the elders and the accomplished [literally: men of deeds] danced, clapped, sang and rejoiced in the Temple the days of Sukkoth. The people – both men and women - came to watch and hear. It is so because the rejoicing that a person experiences while performing [literally: doing] the commandments and while loving the God that commanded them is a great worship [literally: service]. Whoever refrains from partaking in this rejoicing is worthy of punishment as it says, “Because you did not serve your God with joy and good heart … [you will serve your enemies…].

It is noteworthy that Rambam connects joy with the performance of mitzvoth and the love of God who commanded them. As we have seen, to Rambam, love of God means knowledge of God. The proper performance of a Mitzvah is to be aware of who commanded it. That makes one think about God which leads back to His creations and the great wisdom that is apparent in them. That in turn triggers a feeling of joy to the point that one cannot contain himself and breaks out in dance.

Let us just remember how Rambam describes the reaction of a person who apprehends the greatness of existence. “When a person contemplates these things [physics and metaphysics as they pertain to our existence] and gets to know all created things, angels, spheres, man and similar things, he sees the wisdom of HKBH in all creations. His love of God increases, his soul thirsts and his flesh pines to love HKBH. He becomes fearful and scared [realizing] his own relative lowness, poverty and lightness when compared to one of the great holy bodies. How much more will he see himself as a vessel full of shame, empty and lacking when compared to the pure matterless Forms that never attach themselves to matter.”

Now let us compare this to the description of those who rejoice –

טז וכל המשפיל עצמו, ומקל גופו במקומות אלו--הוא הגדול המכובד, העובד מאהבה

One who lowers himself and makes light of his self [literally: body] in such places – is the great and the honored one, a person who worships [serves] from love.

I find this a fascinating description of the different emotions the thinker experiences. He does a Mitzvah aware of God. As he thinks about Him, his only path is through His actions. In doing so, he develops an urge to love God the cause of all this great existence. The insight and apprehension he acquires triggers a feeling of elation, happiness, bliss which gives him the urge to rejoice. He starts to act on his feelings, dancing, singing and generally becoming uninhibited. He all of a sudden feels embarrassed. He is not acting according to his station. Is he not a leader? How can he debase himself to such an extent? He then realizes that his stature is nothing compared to HKBH. True humility kicks in. He is now “stateless”. That is great worship [service].

I wish you all Chag Sameach – True rejoicing.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Ramban on Creation - An Aristotelian Interpretation!

In anticipation of Parshat Breishit, I started learning the Parsha and relearned the Ramban on Breishit Bara for the umpteenth time. I finally understood it clearly, so I decided to write it up and add some thoughts that came to mind.

The word Breishit is difficult to understand in the context it is used. Literally, it would translate “At the beginning of, God created the heaven and the earth”. The question is therefore at the beginning of what?

Rashi and most commentators therefore translate the verse as “In the beginning of the creation (or alternatively, of creating) the heaven and the earth, while the earth was [still] Tohu and Bohu, while it [still] was dark over [atop] the depths and the wind of God was hovering on the water, God said let there be light.” The thrust of the story is to give us an idea in what state the earth was in when God created light. The problem with this approach is that we have to ignore the word Bara as it is read [punctuated] by the Mesora and read it Bero. It also leaves us wondering what the point is telling us about the wind hovering over the water. Rashbam tries to address it by explaining that it introduces how the waters were separated on the second day. It is clearly forced. One great advantage of this approach though is that the Torah is not telling us how God created. It just tells us that certain things were created among a multitude of others. The ones mentioned are those necessary to introduce us to the creation of man who is the subject of the rest of the Torah. It also introduces us to the idea that God created the world, which is a fundamental belief in Judaism. We do not have to worry about explaining the verses in light of reality and science. The Torah is describing phenomena rather than explaining them.

Ramban though is bothered by the text. He prefers to stick to it and translates it as “At first God created heaven and earth. In that process, the earth was at first Tohu and then became Bohu. At this stage, there was darkness on the depth [water] and God’s wind was hovering above the water. And God said let there be light…” This approach reads the text as a sequential description of how things came into being and we now have to deal with sciences and reality. Here is how Ramban does it –

God created the world from absolute nothingness by producing first a formless matter [in the Aristotelian sense see my post ]. However in Aristotelian physics the matter that makes up earth is not the same as the one that makes up the heavens, thus God had to create two such entities, the matter of heaven and the matter of earth. Focusing on the matter that makes up earth, the Torah tells us that at first it was so tiny and indiscernible that people wondered if it even existed thus the word Tohu. It is only after being endowed with Form that it could be discerned and pointed to - thus Bohu – a composite of two words Bo {in it] and Hu [it is]. The components of this matter were darkness which, naturally, is located over the depth. As we know, medieval physics saw matter as a composite of earth, water, fire and air which naturally find their place one above the other, because of their specific “heaviness”, in this particular order. In the natural setting, we would have earth first, which is included in the word “Veha’aretz” followed by water which is “tehom” and above it “Choshech” – darkness which is the basic component of fire or light. Ramban and other medieval thinkers, Rambam included, saw darkness as the lack of light and not a separate entity. One does not make darkness – it just is there when light is removed. They therefore concluded that darkness is light in-potentia[1]. [See my post .] Air is on top of fire; however when it is moved by wind – “Ruach” – it insinuates itself between fire and water. Now that this was in place, God transformed darkness – light in-potentia - into light in-actu.

According to this, the verse should be read, “in the beginning God created two matters: the matter of Heaven and the matter of Earth. Earth was at first indiscernible and when it took on form, in its natural state it was composed of earth at the core, water on top of earth on top of which was light in-potentia or darkness. Air was on top of all these but as God made the wind blow, the air moved and insinuated itself between the fire and the water.”

This approach is very similar to the one Rambam presents in MN 2:30 with some variations. One can see it as an interpretation of Rambam read directly into the verses. I find this fascinating. Ramban who attacks Rambam and accuses him of having succumbed to Aristotle and the other Greek philosophers, finds himself interpreting the Torah in light of that same accursed Philosophy!

Ramban, having introduced the concept of “formless matter” that is almost indiscernible, addresses the Gemara in Yoma 54b referring to the Mishna that teaches that in the second Beit Hamikdash, in the Kodesh HaKodashim, there was an Even Shetyiah, which was used on Yom Kippur instead of the Aron, the Ark. The Gemara says that it was called Even Shetyiah because the world was founded from that rock – a play on the words Shetyiah and Nishtat - founded. Ramban suggests that the rock symbolized the first matter, the formless one. The idea is that the purpose of the Beit Hamikdash is to focus us towards our goal of thinking about God and trying to apprehend Him. In the process of looking for His traces in His actions, we arrive at the First Matter, the beginning of material existence. We then acknowledge that there is the Mystery beyond that First Matter, the unknowable God.

This idea of First Matter is very important too in Rambam’s theological world. He explains with that the error of the Princes at Matan Torah. We read there – (Shemot 24:10-11)

י וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר.

10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.

יא וְאֶל-אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ; וַיֶּחֱזוּ, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאכְלוּ, וַיִּשְׁתּוּ. {ס}

11 And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink. {S}

Rambam understands that they were trying to apprehend God, “they saw the God of Israel”. “Under His feet” is a metaphor for the first object that went from nothingness to existence, or the First Matter. It was transparent like the whiteness of a sapphire and like the cloudless heaven – it was practically indiscernible. These princes confused that First Matter with God. They could not see beyond matter and, like many of our contemporaries, could not accept the possibility of an existence beyond the material. The transcendental escaped them. That is the meaning of the metaphor – “they ate and drank”. They were so steeped in material existence that when they contemplated the Deity they remained in physicality – “eating and drinking”. (See MN 1:5, 1:28)

Moadim Lesimcha.

[1] Rambam in MN 2:30 understands, as I read him, that when God says let there be light, He changed darkness and added to it making it light in-potentia. Until then it was not. That fits with the fact that the sun was only created on the fourth day. It is only then that light in-actu appeared. Ramban had to deviate here as he sees the days as real 24 hours while Rambam does not. But this is for another discussion.