Sunday, December 09, 2007

Rambam and Ramban - Two Opinions on Spirituality - No Compromises Possible.

My post on the Avot keeping Mitzvot generated interesting comments and email exchanges and debates on the topic itself but also went into a wide area of other related issues. I see that I touched a nerve and there is a need for clarification (including for myself). I will try to segregate the different topics raised and organize my posts, addressing each one individually.

In this post I want to reiterate a very important point that, I notice, is not always clear in people’s mind. There are two basic schools of thought in Judaism that seem to go back all the way to the times of the Tannaim. I will call them the rational and the mystical. The mystical approach is not necessarily Kabalistic but rather has a different understanding of nature than the rational one. The Kabbalists developed their ideas based on this mystical understanding of nature. There is a tendency of mixing the two approaches trying to find justifications on how both are correct. The fact is that each position is distinctly different from the other and there is no possibility of reconciling them with each other. Each position sees the other as incorrect and one has to choose which approach is the correct one and follow it to its conclusions. There are no compromises.

Rambam represents the rational position and Ramban the mystical. These two great thinkers, and their respective school of followers, were interested in Truth and were uncompromising in their opinions. We can however try to understand the basis for the conviction of each of them and decide which one seems to be closer to our personal Truth.

The starting point of both positions is the same – the Torah is Torat Chaim – a teaching that deals with our life, our existence. As such, it has to be cognizant of reality and it interprets it. This nonsense that real Metziut does not exist outside the Torah, that the literal interpretation of a statement tells us how things are in reality against all our perception and senses, to me is Kefirah [as in MN 1:36 - "by Kefirah (Pines : infidelity) I mean the belief that a thing is different from what it really is"]. It is the argument put forth by small minds that fear facing reality. I think I saw reported in the name of RYBS that if one believes the Torah is divine it was given by the same God that created the world. Science and Torah are therefore perforce compatible. The Torah is HKBH teaching us how to interpret our scientific reality so that we can find Him through it.

Rabbi Buchman in his article in Hakirah 2, “U-Madua Lo Yeresem”, addresses the issue of how both positions of the Rishonim were based on their understanding of science and nature, at length. I would like to share an interesting interpretation of a natural phenomenon put forth by both camps that crystallizes how each understood nature differently. The great pupil of Ramban, Rashba (Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Aderet 1235 – 1310) writes in a responsa: (1:414)

כי באמת הדברים הפועלים בסגלה אין פעולתם בפלא מהם אלא בטבע מסגל, רצוני לומר בטבע לא ישיגנו עיון החכמים ואפילו החכם שבחכמים לרוב העלם הטבע ההוא מכלל המין האנושי מצד שהוא אדם, כסגלת אבן השואבת שהברזל קופץ עליה ויותר מזה מורגל בירדי הים באניות תוחבין מחט בחתיכת עץ צף על פני המים ומראין לו אבן וישוט על פני המים עד שיפנה אל פני הסדן ושם ינוח - ולא ישיג עיון טבע זה כל חכם שבחכמים אלו של חכמת הטבע. ואם כן אף כל המינין בעלי הסגולות בטבע הם פועלים כסמים והמסעדים ואין בהם משום דרכי האמורי כמו שאין בדברים המפורסמים המועילים לפי העיון הטבעי של אלו החכמים

Rashba was asked if someone is allowed to use a metal medallion with a lion drawn on it as a cure for an illness. He discusses what is considered magic and what is natural. He argues that there must be a supernatural element to nature for we see that a magnet attracts metal from afar. Furthermore, mariners stick a needle into a piece of wood that floats on water and is controlled from a distance by a stone that directs it toward the tiller. (I am not sure exactly what this last method is). Being that this cannot be a physical force, we clearly see that nature functions in the supernatural realm. He therefore concludes that amulets, charms and other such methods are natural powers (segulot) although no one can really ever apprehend those powers and how they work.

Rashba was following in the footsteps of Ramban and brought empirical proof for the existence of the supernatural from what we now know is magnetism. He therefore concluded that magic is real but forbidden under certain circumstances but permissible when used as medicine. (Anyone interested in a fascinating debate on the subject of amulets between Rashba and R. Abba Mari, Rashba’s interlocutor and partner on the ban on philosophy in 13th century Provence, can find it in Minhat Kenaot printed at the end of the Dimitrowsky edition of Shut Harashba.)That was the basis for Ramban’s argument in Devarim 18:9 –

רמב"ן פרשת שפטים

ורבים יתחסדו בנחשים לומר שאין בהם אמת כלל, כי מי יגיד לעורב ולעגור מה יהיה. ואנחנו לא נוכל להכחיש דברים יתפרסמו לעיני רואים.

(יג) וטעם תמים תהיה עם ה' אלהיך - שנייחד לבבנו אליו לבדו, ונאמין שהוא לבדו עושה כל והוא היודע אמתת כל עתיד, וממנו לבדו נדרוש העתידות, מנביאיו או מאנשי חסידיו רצוני לומר אורים ותומים. ולא נדרוש מהוברי שמים ולא מזולתם

Referring to Rambam, Ramban writes that many are too extreme when it comes to magic saying that there is no truth in them, for who would tell a bird what the future brings? [He explained earlier that part of magic is to listen to the sound of birds and if one knows the code, one can read the future from them]. But we cannot deny things that are empirically seen by all. [IOW magic is a science that all can verify! As Rashba later explained “magnetism” for one.]

(13) - The meaning of “be whole with your God” is that we should concentrate our minds on God only, and believe that He alone creates everything and He knows the true future. We should therefore turn only to God’s prophets or His devotees i.e. the Urim and Tumim, and we should not turn to the stargazers.

According to Ramban although there is some truth in soothsayers and magic, they are not as good as prophets are. Although they are useful, the Torah forbids turning to them. We are commanded to choose prophecy over magic although both work, albeit there is an additional bonus, prophecy always works while magic is sometimes inconsistent. As he expands in that same commentary, it is inconsistent as God can overrule the spiritual powers.

Rambam on the other hand writes in Hil Avodah Zara (11:16) –

[טז] ודברים האלו--כולן, דברי שקר וכזב הן; והן שהטעו בהן עובדי עבודה זרה הקדמונים לגויי הארצות, כדי שיינהו אחריהן.
יח כל המאמין בדברים אלו, וכיוצא בהן, ומחשב בליבו שהן אמת ודברי חכמה, אבל התורה אסרה אותן--אינו אלא מן הסכלים ומחסרי הדעת, ובכלל הנשים והקטנים שאין דעתן שלמה. אבל בעלי החכמה ותמימי הדעת, יידעו בראיות ברורות--שכל אלו הדברים שאסרה תורה, אינן דברי חכמה, אלא תוהו והבל שנמשכו בהן חסרי הדעת, ונטשו כל דרכי האמת בגללן. ומפני זה אמרה תורה, כשהזהירה על כל אלו ההבלים, "תמים תהיה, עם ה' אלוהיך"

All these things [magic, soothsaying etc…] are falsity and lies. They are the means that the idol worshipers of old used to fool the people so that they should follow them.

All those who believe in these and other similar things, thinking that they are true and scientific and still forbidden by the Torah – is foolish and mindless like women and children who have not developed their intellect. Those who have knowledge and developed intellects know empirically that whatever the Torah forbids is not science but nonsense that attracted the mindless people who have abandoned the true paths for them. That is why the Torah forbade these nonsensical things saying, “Be whole with your God”.

Rambam is uncompromising in opposing Ramban’s position adamantly disagreeing with his approach. The Torah would never forbid a scientific truth. What about Rashba’s proof for the existence of the magical and the supernatural? Isn’t that existence of magnets an irrefutable proof? In MN 2:12 in a discussion about the existence of a First Cause, Rambam argues that no movement is possible without a Prime Mover.

In Physics it has been shown that a body in acting upon another body must either directly be in contact with it, or indirectly through the medium of other bodies. E.g., a body that has been heated has been in contact with fire, or the air that surrounds the body has been heated by the fire, and has communicated the heat to the body; the immediate cause of the heat in this body is the corporeal substance of the heated air. The magnet attracts iron from a distance through a certain force communicated to the air round the iron. The magnet does therefore not act at all distances, just as fire does not act at every distance, but only as long as the air between the fire and the object is affected by the fire. When the air is no longer affected by the fire which is under a piece of wax, the latter does not melt. The same is the case with magnetism.”

Rambam acknowledges that we do not understand how magnetism works. However, it clearly is not a supernatural event but rather a physical phenomenon that has yet to be explained. Proof is that it is dependent on how close the object is to the magnet. Spiritual entities do not take up space and thus are not distance dependent. Rambam’s world has no spiritual powers. There is the physical world in all its variety and then there is HKBH. Any other understanding is nonsense and “is foolish and mindless like women and children who have not developed their intellect” - אינו אלא מן הסכלים ומחסרי הדעת, ובכלל הנשים והקטנים שאין דעתן שלמה.

No compromises! Rambam was clearly aware of the other opinions and that some theologians and Rabbis of his time believed in them. He ridicules some of the Kabalistic literature by name. He refers to the sefer Shiur Komah in one of his letters as heresy. Ramban at the same time did not compromise either. He clearly knew what Rambam was saying but as he could not agree with him, he rejected his position. Ramban had his own explanation for how magnets work and what spirits are. (He held that spirits had a physical component, and is an intermediate stage between physicality and transcendence – but that is for another discussion.) Followers of each school took their opinion to its own conclusions. Mixing the two together does not make sense and is illogical.

Although the two schools disagreed with each other, they treated each other with respect. As long as they both agreed that God is transcendent and negated any corporeality to Him, the issue of spiritualism was not a central dogma that would make the other school heresy. I will address this issue in another post.


  1. Thank you so much. I haven't read too much of your blog, so if you've already done this topic before, I suppose this isn't new to you. This is helping considerably to clarify some of the problems I've had with Judaism. Is it fair to say that much of "the swing to the right" is a shift to Ramban oriented cosmology, possibibly as a reaction to the Shoah? If the order of history and human morality could be shattered so brutally, what _can_ be constant? Ramban's system seems to say that we can predict nothing, that HKBH can change anything anytime. But that when we live by Torah, _that_ brings order because we embrace the Covenant and HKBH embraces His people in return. Or am I misreading this? I have much less learning than I would like...

    Btw, what is the etymology of kefirah. Does it literally mean "infidelity"? What are the ideas invoked by it as traditional sages understand it?

  2. Kendra, welcome to my blog. I have written about this before and you can follow through the labels. I do repeat myself though I hope in different contexts and with new insights every time. Dealing in this area of theology we do tend to return to the same issues.

    I do not think Ramban won because of the holocaust - he won way before and kept on winning. It is true that his approach lends itself to develop into a way of thinking that you describe - I however believe he would have squirm had he been able to see it! I will eventually get into that too. It has more to do with the "opiate of the masses" type of religion we deplorably experience in our community VS the Jewish service of God type that was what it was meant to be.

    Re Kefirah - the word comes from a mishnaic hebrew - Kofer be'ikar - which means denying the existence of God. Being God is Truth, Rambam extends it - and it is his insight in the etymology of the word - to denying any truth.

  3. People are by nature emotionally inclined to the mystical path. It has to do with the way we are raised as children, and the experience of being a child itself.

    That people hang on to the Nachmanidean path because of its mystical nature, not because of its truth-value, is exemplified by the even BIGGER netiya towards chassidus. Even though chassidus is clearly NOT what chazal had in mind (as the Baal HaTanya points out, were Rava and Abaye EVER working on devaikus instead of learning Torah?), tons of Jews flock towards chassidus, because it falls in line with their emotions.

    I wouldn't make the whole bend of modern jewry towards mysticism into an ideological phenomena. It's clearly emotional.

  4. Anonymous,

    I think you expressed what I said bekitzur "opiate of the people".

    Chassidus originally had a different point. It argued that people had lost the purpose of religion and torah which is deveikus. Rambam was of the same opinion. Ramban held the same thing. Unfortunately any religious movement with time gets coopted by the needs of its practitioners and loses its orginal sharpness and focus. It is probably because Rambam did not catch on that we still go back to him to understand him instead of later distortions.

  5. I think that this argument is perhaps the most important in Judaism and has been for the longest time. The idea that performance of the mitzvot have a physical effect upon the world is perhaps one of the reasons for the tendency towards an exacting stringency in the application of Halakcha. If you believe as many do, that putting on Tefillin has a real and beneficial effect upon the world then it is a vast sin not to do so, whereas if it is for a kind of character development it falls more squarely in the realm of personal choice and then leniency would be more easily excusable.

    I personally do not know which view is correct and tend towards the rational understanding that rationality has its limits as well. I also decry the lack of respect amongst the two sides but in a way I can understand it. In some sense, the chasm is so vast that it is hard to see commonality...its as if these are two different religions.

  6. >the rational understanding that rationality has its limits as well.

    It seems to be a common argument that rationality has a limit. I do not understand it. I can understand when we say that we cannot grasp HKBH or the separate intellects which are in the realm of metaphysics. Ramban did not set a limit on rationality. He thought that what he understood about spirits was the only RATIONAL explanation for magnetism!

    I think if you see this you can easily conclude that even Ramban would probably rethink his opinion once he understood magnetism and other such forces or at the very least reformulated it. I do not understand why contemporary followers of Ramban do not folow their master's teaching in that sense.

    The rest of your comment, David S. is correct. In rambam's approach think how much sense it makes when the Rabbis say that Teshuvah Me'ahavah (= yediah in his dictionary) makes aveirot into zechuyot - the sin helped the man get to where he is! It informed him!

  7. "It seems to be a common argument that rationality has a limit. I do not understand it. I can understand when we say that we cannot grasp HKBH or the separate intellects which are in the realm of metaphysics"

    I think the main problem is that when we speak rationally we use the language and methods of science to determine truth. There are some things that we must accept on faith (such as TMS) that cannot be proven in the sense that a scientific theory can be proven "ie. by inductive reasoning.

    I would agree that Rambam did not percieve these limits, but at a time when we can only predict the position of elemental forms of matter through probabilities, it is hard to speak of absolute rationality.

  8. David,

    There are "beliefs" that are to be accepted because revelation told us to for example creation ab nihilo, TMS, Reward and pusnishment and hashgacha. Those are not provable but have to be rational in the sense that it does not go against reality and have to be interpreted accordingly. When Ramban tries to understand the workings of science he is not dealing with beliefs but with reality and he is trying to test his interpretation of revelatory beliefs against it. He is doing a rational analysis which is misunderstood and out of reverence accepted against all rational proof even against reality.

    That is my point and in fact instead of bringing Kavod to his position it is an insult to a great mind!

  9. The issue in philosophy is whether we can ever know the way the world really is from some absolute perspective. In the same way, there might be a way God is but we can’t know what that way is except through some point of view, some description. The Rambam’s description is not a point of view from nowhere, the way it is klapei shmaya galya, but one more conceptualization of God. You assume that since the Rambam is more abstract, less anthropomorphic than the Ramban he is saying the way it really is. But it is possible both are groping in the dark and the reality of God is some third way unbeknownst to both.

    From this it follows that the mesorah is right when it accepts both the Rambam AND the Ramban and a half a dozen other ideas about the way the world is and the way God is and how the reality of one is related to the reality of the other. The correct answer to God's nature is that tanach says A , the Talmud says B, heichalot C , the Zohar D, Rambam E and on and on as long as there are opinions that are within the discourse of Torah bemeeluah. No one has the right to say X is kefirah; all one can say is X is kefira according to A , but not B , and yes again according to C.

    It seems to me that any philosophy of Judaism that has a consequence that the vast majority of shlomei emunei yisrael, the community of believers past present and future are heretics or simpleminded in their conception of God is a philosophy that itself ought to be interrogated. Why say the Rambam is correct, therefore folk religion, mysticism, etc is wrong. Say since most everyone at some level including tanach is into folk religion, doubt should travel upward and we should see the Rambam as just one opinion out of many.

  10. >But it is possible both are groping in the dark and the reality of God is some third way unbeknownst to both.

    True but Rambam admits it and says we cannot go beyiond trying to know what God is NOT. Ramban tries to immagine steps between God and physicality because he thinks there is such a world in reality and he proves it based on lack of scientific knowledge.

    >From this it follows that the mesorah is right when it accepts both the Rambam AND the Ramban and a half a dozen other ideas

    There is no mesora except what is transmitted in the Gemara and that is limited to halacha. What you are referring to is the acceptance by the masses (in that is included many learned talmidei chachamim who have no theological knowledge)of certain superstitious beliefs that Ramban himself would never accept.

    The problem that you have is that there is a halachik mesora on what is considered Avoda Zara. Rambam legislates it in MT. It is based on talmudical rules like any other halacha. The Rishonim who accepted deviations on this rules did it because they felt that reality conflicted with the halacha and therefore the rule had to bend.

    EJ, where do you set the limit when it comes to Avoda Zara? The majority of shelomei emunei ysroel followed the egel, including Aharon!

    There really is only two choices, Ramban's derech but restated to work within the real world we know and Rambam's also restated to fit with our world. I do not know how to restate Ramban that way. I know that apparently Rav Kook, R. Meir Simcha and others have worked on that.

    I try to do that with Rambam. I will be happy and feel that I have accomplished something if I get a little way with his derech. I doubt I will have time to also deal with Ramban's derech.

  11. "There is no mesora except what is transmitted in the Gemara and that is limited to halacha." Why do you say this? The Zohar is part of our mesorah as is the Mahral as is Rav Kook. It is a big and spacious place. Conditions for membership are that the ideas were studied by good Jews and said over. It is a place where both X and not X can live together side by side.

    I said we cannot know the nature of God, meaning for all he know he is in the shape of an old man or any other anthropomorhism in the literature. The Rambam would not allow for such a possibility.

    Avodah Zarah is not an absolute term but a.z accordig to X. You can't have a.z as such unless you know the way it is in heaven and we don't. The belief in Jesus is a.z because the mesorah in my sense is in total agreement on this point.

    WADR it was for Hashem to say that Aaron sinned. You have no right to say the Zohar or the Sanzer Rav or the Gra followed the egel or worshipped a.z. Such a comment is shocking and not in accordance with most everyone's intuitions. If u are right every yeshiva in the world is teaching a.z. or ideas that if followed through would lead to a.z.

    Philosophy involves a reflective equilibrium between the individual beliefs, in our case of Torah true Jews past present and future and first principles. We modify our beliefs in accordance with principles but we also must modify our first principles in accordance with our beliefs, until we reach an equilibrium.. The topic at hand as I understand it is the theology of Orthodox Judaism, not the philosophy of Maimonides. You can't simply equate the two. The former must be adequate to its data as I explaned. The latter must be adequate only to the views of the Rambam.

    Anyway such is my view and I thought I would put it out, as an alternative model. I mean no disrespect.

  12. EJ please do not appologize as there is no disrespect in a civilized and intelligent exchange. I should appologize when I get a little testy and short. Chalk it up to Ritcha De'oraita.

    You are expounding the position of many moderate chareidim and yeshivishe crowd. It is a variation on Eilu v'eilu used in a theological context. Unfortunately it is not a logical and to my mind acceptable position and is what I call pareve. It does not operate from conviction and certainty but posits ignorance. I do not buy it and i sincerely believe it undermines what Torah is meant to teach us. The result of that thinking is exactly what you describe as a relativistic look at Avodah Zara. Do you think that the Torah which calls AZ achat mikol mitzvot hashem asher lo te'assenah - shekula AZ keneged kol hamitzvot - is relative and is AZ according to some while not according to others? It is absurd!

    I also do not agree with your definition of Mesora. The mishna in Avot describes Mesora as the transmission from one beit din to another, generation to generation by word of mouth and teaching. That worked only when there was a beit din and later through the academies in Bavel and EY. Rav Ashi and Ravina are sof hora'ah which means Mesora stops there. See Hakdamat Rambam to MT for clarification.

    There are also limits of what belongs to mesora. It is the transmission of TSBP as received from Sinai and not decisions made by Batei Din based on their own exegisis and psakim.

    There is much to talk about but Zohar is not part of mesora. It may report some mesorot that came down through Midrashim and other such routes, but just because Zohar says something it is not mesora. Heichalot at best are sefarim chitzonim - There is no obligation to accept them as reliable or binding.At most they can be looked at as a possible opinion that if explained and understood is not rejected.

    I do not accept that Kabala is more than personal and individual speculation of some great philosophers or mystics. It was received, as its name suggests, from personal inspiration and not from Sinai or any other authoritative source. Kabala as expounded by Ramban is to me authoritative from the point that it came from such a great mind. I will look at it with respect but not as divine. I see it as something debatable and requires analysis. It is however a way of thinking that I have difficulty with so I leave it to the experts in that specialty.

  13. One more thing - I did not say that Gra et al are doing AZ CV. I was reacting to your comment that becuase the population at large of Shelomei Emunei Israel accept something it is correct and part of mesora. I am not able to judge Gra's mystical understanding and I stand down with respect but also with wonderment at something I cannot fathom. What is intersting though is there does not seem to be any outrage at Gra saying that Rambam was misled by the Greeks! But should anyone question Ramban, Gra or Zohar they are seen as heretics! Why the double standard?
    is the irrational and mystical more authoritative than the rational mind, the Tzelem Elokim?

  14. Whenever there is a strong text in Torah it tends to turn the preceding strong text into an example of itself or instantiating itself. The Zohar for example explains the various stories in the Torah as instantiating its principles. It says a patriarch dug a well, but what that really means is he allowed shefa to flow this way or that. The Ari performed a similar trick on the Zohar thus giving his system ontological priority. In a similar but not identical way the Talmud does it to the Torah. Why does it say word x lerabos type y in halacha z.

    The Rambam did the same. Any sentence, phrase in tanach that violates his principles must not be kipeshutah; ditto for Talmudic passages. Heichalot literature which was written by a tana Rabbi Yishmael is just tossed away. And now you are generalizing the program. Seforim, ideas pass in front of you, seforim and ideas of truly big people and you toss some, snicker at others, pick and choose what ideas in the book you like what ideas you don't. Like any other reformer you pick up on some arbitrary standard of rationality or truth or perfection and use it to judge the historical consciousness of Jews. With ideas taken partially from Aristotle and the Kalam you are attempting to purge the emunah peshuta of the masses of klal yisroel. No chassidic mythmaker, no midrash, no aggadatas, no magic or amulets, no astrology and mazalot, no kabalah, no new philosophical ideas, no developing /process God, no God in search of man, the vast library of the Jewish people, the richness and mythic creativity that is our heritage is eliminated in order to serve one austere taskmaster, the Rambam. He left behind few students or schools that have come down to us. His son?grandson was already close to Sufi mysticism. The philosophers who followed in his derech go from the obscure to the obscurer to the never printed existing only as specters in manuscripts buried inside libraries. Not exactly a fruitful tree.

  15. EJ,

    I already told you that you have to restart your blog. You write so well and are so eloquent. Your comment here and the whole thought process deserves more than just a commentas a reply. I will post a piece omn this in the next few days.

    Bekitzur - your approach to religion is joyful and popular but confirms Karl Marx' understanding that it is the opiate of the masses! It is also the exact description of Avodah Zara. In Avodah Zara as in christianity God serves man - he died for our sins! Judaism teaches that man is here to serve God. We twice a day are Mekabel Ol Malchut Shamayim which is de'oraita aliba dekula alma.

  16. The problem I am having here is that in a vacuum gravity still works. We see that the earth has a pull on the moon and there is no physical "touching." What would the Rambam say about that? Also, even nowadays we still do not understand the forces behind gravity and magnetism, we know they exists but not why. In the end of the day the Ramban and Rambam agree, all forces come from G-D. No? What is the big argument? One believed that magic can occur and one doesn't. One believes that G-D allows man to access special powers that are available to naviim and the other doesn't. No?

  17. E Man Rambam understands magnetism and gravity as physical forces that though we have not yet understood the mechanism, it is a matter of physics. Ramban believed that the world is run by spirits some more visible others less. Magnetism was one of the proofs that it was so because it functioned without physical contact.

    It is the difference between understanding that the stars have influence on earth through gravity or astrology.