Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Rav Kook on Rambam and the Significance of his Theology to a Contemporary Jew Continued - Revelation, Creation and Providence

“Sure, the Rambam's contribution to Jewish thought is invaluable, but that influence has been eclipsed by other streams of hashkafah that have had a far more significant impact on all the ba'alei Machshavah 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 ha Tanya. 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 separate issues.”

The above is part of a comment by one of my favorite Bloggers, R. Chaim B. of Divrei Chaim. It represents the typical thought process of most of our brethrens. If the majority does not find something significant it must be wrong, irrelevant or outside the pale. It is this type of thinking, the fear of individualization that turns many of our brethrens away from Judaism or, what I consider even worse, makes for lukewarm Jews focused on meaningless rituals and superstitious fears. True Rav Kook was more inclined to Kabbalah, as I noted at the beginning of my post, however R. Chaim also missed the following insightful words which I will repeat here –

“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… 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?”

I also do not agree with R. Chaim’s take on the theology of the greats he enumerates. I do not know enough about the theology of the Gra but all the others are all deeply influenced by Rambam either when they espouse his position, which is in most areas, or when they react to it and disagree. It is Rambam’s thinking that triggered many of the ideas that came out in Chassidus. Anyone who learns the Moreh will see him reflected in the writings of every great theological book written since as the silent interlocutor. I already mentioned several times that a very insightful and important Pirush on Ramban was written recently, the Yekev Ephraim, where he shows the hidden dialogue he was having with Rambam across his commentary. I hope similar sefarim will be written addressing the other greats and their relationship to Rambam.

Anyway, continuing with Rav Kook’s letter, he now addresses Ya’avetz’s criticisms of Rambam which are the typical ones that were thrown at the great thinker during the centuries since he wrote the Moreh.

Ya’avetz wondered how Rambam could not see the difference between Judaism and Greek philosophy, comparing and basing Judaism on it. RK responds –

Rambam created a vast and deep chasm between Greek philosophy and Judaism showing the essentially great difference between the two. There is such a difference between the holy and the secular that it cannot be missed by anyone that delves into the Moreh. That difference is based on three essential foundational teachings.

The first teaching is Revelation. Rambam established that one could apprehend things that no other human ability can through prophecy, for it is the word of God.

The second teaching is that the world is created. This uprooted the idolatrous Greek weltanschauung, giving us back the holy paths of the Torah which is the original Jewish outlook on the whole of existence. It is the opposite of the Greek dependence on an eternal world… This does not make Judaism just slightly different from Greek philosophy, but makes the two philosophies completely the opposite of each other. There is such a fundamental difference between the vision of the eternal and idolatrous world of those who “have not served the God of heaven and earth” (Yirmyahu 10:11), and the Jewish vision of a unique God, “He creates all, spreads the heavens by Himself and founded the earth, who is with Him?”[1], that we cannot even find one position or a point of commonality between these ideologies.

The third teaching is personal Providence in “the species man in all his details and deeds[2]” which is the complete opposite of the Greek consciousness, whose claim that God abandoned the world is common to all sinners from time immemorial.

The awesome difference and the complete oppositeness that is reflected from these three foundational beliefs is what our great Rabbi has established in his great wisdom and holiness as an eternal barrier between the holy and the profane, the human knowledge that is Greek philosophy and the divine wisdom of Israel. It so opposite that even when some seemingly common threads are detected in the formulation of the ideas, the separation and chasm remains and neither comes closer to the other.”

RK then explains further that the difference between the two philosophies is the same as the difference between God and His creations. Just like the two are not comparable neither are the two philosophies. In both the comparison is only in the metaphors used to communicate, but the essences are very different.

Rav Kook ZL makes a very important statement in this segment of the letter. Rambam has been accused of being an Aristotelian or a Neo–Platonist by some. This could not be further from the truth. During Rambam’s times, the science that explained nature and the world was based on an Aristotelian model. Rambam followed the Torah’s intent – interpret nature from a religious perspective. He accepted the Greek’s science but not their philosophy. It is a road map for us too on how to deal with our contemporary science. We have to learn the sciences and understand our existence from the scientific perspective. It is our reality. But we also have to interpret what we observe, ontologically within the context of God and His Torah. The two, science and torah, are completely intertwined and one cannot exist without the other. However, science is a subject we can show and prove empirically while the interpretation we are talking about cannot. It is after all an interpretation of “how” things came about. We are discussing pre-existence. Left in human hands imagination and fantasy take over spawning idolatry and superstition. Revelation is therefore the key and the only approach possible. Only a perfected individual, who has reined in his imaginative faculty, developed his psyche and controlled his urges, can have an objective revelatory experience. The Torah teaches us that by presenting Moshe Rabbeinu as the paradigm of such a prophet. He was the one who gave us the Torah.

More of Rav Kook’s letter to follow.

[1] I could not find this verse anywhere in this form. It seems to be a composite of Iyov 9:8 and some other one. Maybe someone has an idea. The original is

הוא יוצר כל נוטה שמים לבדו ויוסד הארץ מי אתו

[2] I translated carefully and literally, as the exact wording is important, as I hope to show in another post when discussing providence.


  1. Do you include the questions posed by Greek Philosophers as being within "Philosophy" or "Science" ?

  2. I am not the greatest expert in Greek Philosophy but I understand that to them "philosophy" includes physics and metaphysics. Rambam accepted their physics but reinterpreted their metaphysics according to torah. That reinterpreatiton was based on premises that were completely contrary to the Greeks starting with prophecy (God can hold back prophecy from a perfected person), creation (yesh me'ayin but at least ratzon) and providence (that coupled with prophecy one can change the natural progression of things so that there is a nation of ovdei hashem).

  3. Philosophy means "love of wisdom", and as such includes the entire enterprise of human intellectual investigation. In antiquity, all branches of knowledge were conceived of as subdivisions of the broader field of "philosophy". This was still true in Newton's time, which is why he referred to his work in physics as natural philosophy.

  4. See also Rav Kook's comment in Shemoneh Kevatsim VI, 28. Very revealing!

  5. Thank you TDK for the reference. I don't have that sefer although I have read many references to it.

  6. They are some of the unedited writings of Rav Kook. In the mentioned paragraph Rav Kook expresses in very sharp terms his opinion on Rav Hirsch's criticism on the Rambam.

  7. Are there many people today willing to embrace a hashkafah that makes man's life about knowledge rather than morality or closeness to G-d?

    The Rambam would literally say that my son Shuby has a smaller soul than you or I do because he has Downs and therefore is of lesser intellect.

    As for philosophy vs science... The predecessor to science was called natural philosophy for the reason R' Maroof already gave. However, what really makes science what it is was the invention of the scientific method, and the idea that one can set up a man-made experiment to test theories about what nature does in non-artificial settings.

    This limited science to the domain of repeatable empirical experiences. However, that limits study to a field for which it can provide answers with a high level of confidence.


  8. >willing to embrace a hashkafah that makes man's life about knowledge rather than morality or closeness to G-d?

    I don't think one is exclusive ot the other but rather the question to ask is closeness to what or which God? And why morality if not to emulate HKBH?

    Micha, your question about Shuby is poignant and has bothered me about Rambam's approach for the longest time. I believe the answer is somewhere in chapters 1:31 to 35 in MN I hope to write about it one day. I will when i can do it without sounding apologetic.

    Your comment on philosophy as RJM's are to the point and well taken.