Sunday, December 23, 2007

Rav Kook on Rambam and the Significance of his Theology to a Contemporary Jew.

Over time, I received several emails and comments from readers on different posts arguing that Rambam is irrelevant nowadays and his philosophy has been rejected and is unacceptable to the mainstream of "orthodox” Judaism. It shows that many people do not know how our contemporary mainstream beliefs came about and more importantly are unaware how deeply Rambam’s thought is embedded and at the core of most of them. Rambam’s influence on contemporary Jewish thought is ubiquitous whether when it agrees with it or when it is the catalyst for new ideas in reaction to it. As it seems to be an issue, I will address this issue periodically. Here I would like to start with a translation/paraphrase of a letter written by Rav Kook ZL to Yaakov Ya’avetz, the historian. The letter is printed in the back of volume 10 of the Ya’avetz History of the Jewish People (Heb.). The letter is quite long so I will post just pertinent excerpts and summarize the rest. If anyone is interested, email me and I will forward a PDF of the whole letter.

Rav Kook was responding to Ya’avetz's discussion of Rambam and his theology who apparently was critical of the Moreh as being foreign to Judaism and influenced by the Greeks. (I did not read the pertinent chapters in the book.) Remember, Rav Kook was a great Kabbalist and read with this in mind!

“In our times after the Maimonidean controversy has subsided and Rambam was shown to have been right, the Sefer Hamoreh has become part of the Sifrei Kodesh (holy literary patrimony) which are necessary for the acquisition of Torah knowledge. [RK is referring to the Braitha at the end of Avot that is called Kine’yan Torah]. We may not treat Rambam’s words with disrespect. Not only are we supposed to defend him but we must also delve deeply into his words and consider the resulting precepts as Torah precepts. [The Hebrew here is Midot. I am having difficulty finding a better word in context. I understand him to say that the conclusions we arrive at through this in depth analysis becomes part of our theology.]”

RK then states that just as in Halacha we consider two sides of an argument and do not discard the opinion that did not win out, so too in theology. We have to consider all the theological arguments of all the great Rabbis who are generally accepted based on their erudition and behavior, and we dare not consider any one of their opinions as external [foreign].

The fact that our Rabbi [Rambam] for whom God’s Torah was the source of life, considered himself faithful to God and His Torah while espousing these opinions, is in itself proof enough that there isn’t the slightest possibility of questioning them or seeing someone who follows them as not being part of the holy Torah and Israel. The decision in this [whom to follow Rambam or the others] depends upon the personal state of mind of each one of us and how we understand spirituality, each according to his makeup and the type of person he is. There is no question that there are people, on whom certain types of approaches have a positive effect, bringing them closer to holiness and purity, service of Torah and Mitzvot while others are affected the same way by different approaches. Consider the following. The ideas presented in the Moreh were in accordance with the holy sense, the strong Emunah, the attachment [to God], the true and holy service, all of the treasures of goodness and holiness, the care and striving for holiness and purity and the tremendous love and fear of HKBH which was always blazing in the heart of the great giant and holy light our Rabbi Rambam ZL. Can we doubt that there are a great many among our brethren that these ideas will have the same holy and beneficent effect on their psyche? Should some of them not be able to accept all of the ideas proposed in the Moreh, they may follow other great thinkers but one may not consider Rambam’s approach as outside the pale. How much more have we got to be careful not to refer to ideas that the holy sense of our great Rabbi Rambam sanctified, as Greek and foreign?”

So far, RK presented a reverential and circumstantial perspective of Rambam’s legitimacy. He proceeds to now discuss the meat of Rambam’s philosophy and its impact on contemporary thought.

(As I am rereading the letter, I realize that I have to post many more of Rav Kook’s arguments than I thought when I started, as they are seminal, so this will expand to more than one post).

I am wondering how we can be remiss and not thankful to our Rabbi Rambam for his great work in the Moreh, where he established the foundations of pure Jewish belief, eliminating from our midst the fearsome nonsense of God’s corporeality. It is easy to imagine what would have happened to our religion had he not done his great work in spite of the great sufferings that he had to endure for that. Only such a great and holy person could surmount the opposition with such grace and so peacefully. It is his great work that has brought about that Baruch Hashem, nowadays, that erroneous belief [in God’s corporeality] has been completely eradicated from the consciousness of our nation. The dogma of incorporeality, that God has no body nor does any physical occurrences have any affect on Him and nothing compares (is similar in any sense) with Him has now become a universally accepted dogma. God knows how much nonsense and fantasy this error of [belief in] corporeality could have generated if not for our Rabbi saving us from that? How much would heresy and nihilism have destroyed us had our religion remained so crude and populist even during our times when the sciences and freedom of thought has become so common and well known to all?”

RK then proceeds to criticize Ya’avetz for repeating the old arguments against Rambam, especially the one that he followed the Greeks blindly. RK argues that if we look at Rambam objectively, we can see how critical he was of everything the Greeks said [he expands on this further as we will see] and only when their ideas did not conflict with Torah were they accepted. As to the fact that contemporary science sees things differently -

Is it possible to say that the metaphysical issues discussed in the Moreh can be proven empirically as to their details? It is enough that the general foundations such as, the existence of God, His unity and incorporeality, can be shown to be true based on scientific reality. The other opinions are visionary [based on revelation?] such that we can at most say that man, to the best of his limited knowledge, understands them as relatively true and proven. [In other words, they do not contradict reality and are more likely to be true than other opinions – DG].”

RK then continues to say, that when Rambam saw that the seeming contradiction between these metaphysical conjectures that were accepted as fact, and the Torah, created problems among the thinking elite, he decided to publish his ideas. He showed that not only does science not disagree but is in fact strengthened by Torah. This put our religion on a strong footing to survive and stay relevant as human knowledge advanced.

There is much more but keeping to my policy against too lengthy posts, I will leave the rest for the upcoming ones.


  1. The only problem is anyone who has learned Rav Kook will immediatly grasp that his work is based on a more kabbalistically-oriented hashkafa than the Rambam's. Rav Kook wrote that our dor in particular should be exposed to toras hanistar as it is the key to unlocking the neshoma of am yisrael (e.g. see Orot p. 95). Sure, the Rambam's contribution to Jewish thought is invaluable, but that influence has been elclipsed by other streams of hashkafa that have had a far more significant impact on all the ba'alei machshava who have lived since the Medieval period. Who among modern Jewish thinkers works with the Rambam's philosophical system? Not Rav Kook. Not RYBS. Not R' Chaim Volozhiner, the GR"A, the Ba'al haTanya. Not any Chassidic thinker, any of the mussar giants. I would not go so far as to say the Rambam's shita is illegitimate, but legitimacy and relevance are two seperate issues.

  2. So R. Chaim how do you explain this letter? And I am not finished yet as you will see the rest. BTW I have not checked but I cannot imagine it is not printed in the Igrot.

    I also want to share with you a personal experience. I was brought up on traditional derech with ramban and kabbalah as legitimate central Jewish doctrine. Had I not realized that there is rambam's derech and I am not wedded to the other one I would not be a shomer torah and mitzvot today.

    I have encountered many others on the same wave length as I got older including young bachurim especially the bright ones, who will not stay within the fold unless they are exposed to rambam.

    I think that what RK says that there are many whose techunat hanefesh will grow through Rambam is correct and there is no mainstream hashkafah that rejects one over the other derech. It is a cynical fictitious canard perpetuated by small minds.

    BTW I learn RYBS torah a lot and it is deeply rooted in Rambam though he brings in other shitot too and works with them when it fits his thinking. It is the correct way to do it.

  3. >Who among modern Jewish thinkers works with the Rambam's philosophical system? Not Rav Kook. Not RYBS. Not R' Chaim Volozhiner, the GR"A, the Ba'al haTanya.

    Maybe that is why we are in such a poor shape spiritually with all the superstitious nonsense in our community?

    Though I do not agree with some of your names on the list, how about R. Meir Simcha?

    BTW there is a Rav in EyY who wrote a pirush on Rambam integrating many of Rav Kook's ideas called Minofet Tzuf which is worthwhile.