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.


  1. >>>A Posek must be well educated in general but also be deeply versed in philosophy and Metaphysics

    Do you think R' Chaim Brisker or R' Baruch Ber, both of whom opposed learning Moreh, were less competent poskim because they did not study philosophy or metaphysics? Was RYBS a greater posek than R' Moshe or R' Henkin because he was better grounded in philosphy than they were?

  2. R. Chaim B.

    I am not going to get involved in discussing specific people. I do suspect that R. Chaim Brisker was quite well versed in Machshava and metaphysics even if he was against learning moreh at least to others. I am just laying out Rambam's opinion and I personally tend to agree with it.It is just the only way that I can make sense of halacha as a fully integrated system. As RMS says Rambam in MT and Moreh is the same person.

    I also want to point out that if I replaced Metaphysics with Kabbalah there would be total acceptance and silence.

  3. R. Chaim B...With all due respect I would to ask you Where do you think Reb Chaim Brisker or the Rogatchover or Reb Shimon Shkop get their new metalanguage if not from philosophy. Either they read the Moreh or some other Jewish medievals or they read Aristotle and his followers directly(unlikely). Until they came forward the language of essence and accident , modalities de dicto and de re and all the rest of the lomdisher moves created in that era didn't exist.

    And I'll tell you something else....the derech survives and has remained so very popular only because no one has looked at these philosophical terms in depth. There is 60 years of analytic philosophy in America beginning with Quine and involving almost every major figure in the field that has reexamined these philosophical terms.It is the central issue in theories of reference. Many think it is a hopeless way of talking; others are more cautious.
    But I am fairly certain most every analytic philosopher would have difficulty with iterations of these modalities applied to things and not words....the etzem ,mehoos hadavar.

    Rabbi Guttman...per your request of the other day my email is I would be most happy to learn from whatever you chose to send.

  4. >>>Where do you think Reb Chaim Brisker or the Rogatchover or Reb Shimon Shkop get their new metalanguage if not from philosophy.

    In R' Kasher's sefer Mefa'aneyach Tzefunos he shows how the Rogatchover was influenced by Moreh Nevuchim, but R' Chaim Brisker and certainly R' Shimon show no evidence of being influenced by philosophical categories. If anything, someone like the Rogatchover who was influenced by the Rambam's philosophy yet who is almost universally disregarded as a posek (again, see R' Kasher's work) undermines your point.

    You are making a case based entirely on your 'suspicions' that people like R' Chaim were exposed to philosophy, but without evidence, why should we buy the argument? The reasoning is circular.

  5. R. Chaim, do you think R.Chaim read Chovat Halevavot? Did he learn Ramban al hatorah, Torat Ha'adam (Sha'ar Hagemul),Torat Hashem Temimah, Ibn Ezra al hatorah? Do you think he skipped sefer hamadah? Do you think that there is only one derech to theology? All these greats did metaphysics. What about Torat Ha'olah, Possibly Shelah Hakadosh maybe even maharal if we go to the later monce including Ramchal.

    I think it is ridiculous to even suspect that these great poskim were naive in Machshava.

  6. It's because of the last the Moreh that many considered Rambam an apikores & even burned the book,especially,since he puts the philosophers on a higher pedestal than the talmudists.
    Rabbi Yaakove Emden (Yabets) even said that ch.51 is a forgery & that Rambam coudn't have written it.

  7. Ytschak, I know that. Ironically those 4 last chapters are to me the greatest religious statement ever written and the raison detre of Judaism to my mind. If I get down and feel lost I read them and it gives me chizuk.

    What I find galling is that the real liberals are the mekubalim. They took all the greek/arabic philosophers, filtered it through the moreh, added some christian/gnostic/superstitious nonsense and invented a whole theology. They are considered conservative and mainstream while those who try to make sense of what is in front of them with what makes us Tselem Elokim, our minds and brains are considered heretics!

    As JC Ymach Shemo said : Forgive them for ....

  8. The more I read your comments, the more radical you become. (BTW sorry about not responding to your holocaust remarks the other it turned out I was already off topic and too serious. Have you discussed your views on the holocaust here? They were suprising to me.)

    I take serious exception to your characterization of kabalah. The influence of Christianity on the Zohar ,as opposed to the other way around,is a speculation based on a similarity to trinitarian ideas(Liebes) or the shechina to the Virgin Mary(Art Green)or the Cathars...whatever. To the best of my knowledge no one has argued it is major.You might mean that Gnosticism itself is Christian... maybe, but I think you have to show this, since last time I looked the issue was far from settled. These days many scholars (Liebes, Idel) argue that the origins of kabala are to be found in the Talmud itself. In addition there is the authentic Talmudic midrashim ,what is called the Heichalot literature (maaseh reprinted multiple times) which in turn has parallels to the newly published material of the Dead Sea Scrolls,(See the major work The Three Temples by Rachel Elior.) To call all this 'superstitious nonsense' requires some serious arguments and can't just be asserted. Kabalah runs very deep into our past, way before the Zohar.

    Secondly I would argue that the sefirot ideas are a working out of a version of the Forms become nisgashem. It ends up when it's all done somewhat convoluted, but for medieval science respectable enough. The Rambam influence, maybe...though I would like to be pointed to direct parallels.But as you know there is a neo-Platonist reading of the Rambam. Whether the Rambam does or does not have a direct relation to neo-Platonism is beyond my level of learnng. But if he does,then why can't kabbalah be a working out of how contemplation of the ideal world has real consequences?

  9. On one pt.I find your answer to R. Chaim B. unconvincing. You didn't answer his question, which can be reformulated without the use of proper names. For any posek X who has not had a thorough grounding in metaphysics and philosophy, what exactly is missing such that we have any reason to believe his psak is any less worthy of attention? Does he get the correct answer wrong by errors, loss of memory, or is it that the creative aspect of halacha, if there is any, is somehow lacking simply because he has not studied these higher ideas... or what? The fact that you personally find this idea inspirational doesn't carry the sort of philosophical weight you so admire.

    And finally, even you, would not require any posek to continue his study of metaphysics by reading the metaphysicians that came after the Rambam, say Spinoza or Leibniz ,Kant, Hegel. But why not? What makes Arabic philosophy the cat's meow?

  10. R.Chaim B....I remember very distinctly reading the kasher sefer with great pleasure many years ago.And wasn't there something put out by Rabbi Teitz (mefaneach tzefonot)?Anyway one down, two to go.

    My reading for many years has not been in the lumdus genre,so whatever I say can be totally off, and my knowledge of their contents doesn't even begin to compare to yours, BUT doesn't the language of
    R. Shkop contain as least as many modalities as the Rogatchover ? (e.g. necessarily the essence of the attribute that constitutes the nature of the substance of X versus those properties that are merely a contingent accident ;and then dividing and splicing of these accidents and substances.Where did he pick up this jargon? Telshe, from whom? Must be Volozhin, probably from R.Chaim, and then he doubled and quadrupled the language by iterations. Same for Reb Boruch Ber. I hope you won't make me get direct quotes.

    AS for your Reb Chaim himself. I propse the following simple test to see if I am making this up out of my suspicions. Take a look at Ishim Veshitos by Rabbi Zevin or some comparable book. Jot down the top 10 new concepts introduced by Reb Chaim and see if they can be explained without the use of medieval philosophical language. If you say the burden is on me, it is, but you are into it and a lamdan and I am a blogger ....

  11. EJ,

    Re Holocaust, I have not yet discussed it here in depth as I have only touched on my understanding of Providence very superficially. I plan to get into it soon. (My mind works in weird ways. Topics follow from each other with diversions on the way).

    Re Kabbalah, I know all about the different positions and am quite aware of Idel, liebes, dan, elior, Tishbi,wolfson et al. I also have learned Ramban extensively and am now trying (when I am not too distracted) to make heads and tails of Rav Kook's machshava. I accept that it is part of our tradition though I have enough support from Rishonim and Acharonim not to be forced into accepting it and I don't. It does not make those who hold of it smaller nor does it stop me from learning Ramban diligently incdluding trying to decipher some of his Sodot and with great respect. (BTW I mentioned it already there is a great sefer on Ramban called Yekev Ephraim by a contemporary Satmar Chasid Rosh Kolel which is fantastic - really worthwhile). But I believe that they really are wrong and the reason is that I set the border between the physical and the transcendent thus unknown much lower. I do not buy into a gradual transit from the non-physical to the physical. I believe that we cannot understand Sefirot or even their philosophic couterpart Sechalim Nivdalim as to their essence. They are just mental constructs trying to use human concepts for the unknowable. I also believe that God cannot be changed. Ani Hashem Lo Shaniti. Thus we cannot influence upward at all, mamash at all. I believe, and it is the way I understand RYBS, that man is powerful on this world, the physical one but is ultimately nothing in the realm of true reality. There is no theurgy other than imagination or as a metaphor for natural schar ve'onesh.

    Now re the tradition of Heichalot and the gemarot especially in Hagigah. Rambam addresses it several times, and interestingly the object are mainly R. Eliezer Hagadol (ben Hurkanus) whose Pirkei De rabbi eliezer he knew, but also other tanaim such as R.yehudah ben r. Simon,and r. abahu (see MN2:30). Basically after trying to explain them, especially R. Eliezer, he basically throws up his hands and implies that they followed a shita he does not accept. He still praises Unkelos and uses him as a reliable barometer because he is a talmid of the same R. Elezer! What I learn from this is that we have to look for the truth as we can know it, each one of us . What is the real Truth? Rambam and Ramban at the end when it came to Yediat Hashem, were both in agreement that we cannot know the essence of God, that He is Echad. Unlike later mekubalim (at least the way I understand them and Ramban) Ramban differentiates between YHVH and Elokim, the first is Lo Shaniti, the other maybe less so.

    Abulafia and Giktilla took Ramban , Chassidei Ashekenaz and translated MN with them in mind. I believe that this innovation was dangerous, detrimental and brought us the tragedy of SZ and possibly today's unfolding Chabad problem.(in fact Abulafia was put in cherem by Rashba as the Navi of Avila, and the later kabbalah of Remak and consequently Arizal is heavily influenced by this man.) I take Rambam's interpretation (MN1:5 and other places) of the Jewish princes (atzilei bnei ysrael) and nadav and avihu seriously!(I wrote a few posts on the subject).

    Now back to psak. I for the life of me cannot understand how you can see a psak that is based purely on technical analysis without theological input. It just amazes me. Do you think the Beit Yosef, the Rema, The magen Avraham,the gra were theological amei ha'aretz? They may not have all known kant or Hume or whoever else but they spent a lot of time trying to figure out what they believed in and how Olamo shel HKBH operates. They may have had different views but they certainly used that in their halachik ruling.R. Chaim B. himself, and I read with pleasure his blog, is quite well versed in theological thought. It may be different than mine but he is quite interested in it. When I say philosophy and metaphysics I do not specify Aristotle, Plato, or even MN. I am referring to the subject not the specific philosophy. Going back to R Saadyah gaon and even further back to the Aggada and Midrash, Don't you think that that Torah is replete of the different philosophical schools? these great posskim were steeped in that earlier Torah.The question is do you read them literally and make up nice drushim with word play like so many "greats" do or do you take it seriously and study it with the undersatnding that it explains a view of Kivshono shel Olam? I would definitely not rely on a psak made by a former type and rather follow one of the latter group. Personally I would prefer a rationalist and when I discuss a she'eila with a Rav I try to get to the reasoning and basis of his psak outside just the technical or at least understand how he analyzes the technical.

    I hope I have answered all your questions. This may become a post on its own yet, if I dont go off to something else.

    BTW Mefaneach Tzefunot by Rav Kasher is fantastic and a limud on its own.