Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Evil Literalists - Rambam on Agadeta - Group Two - The Mockers.

In my last post, I translated Rambam’s description of those who insist that all Midrashim are literal. Although Rambam admits that a majority of the religious people he knows and read are from that group, he does not hold back and rips into them mercilessly, accusing them of bringing shame on the Torah instead of glorifying it in the eyes of mankind. As I am writing this, a comment Rambam makes in MN 1:36 comes to mind – (I quote the English and Hebrew [Michael Schwartz edition] for clarity)

By infidelity (Kefirah) I mean the belief that a thing is different from what it really is. By ignorance, I mean ignorance of what it is possible to know.”

בכפירה אני מתכוון לאמונה שדבר הוא שונה ממה שהוא. בבורות אני מתכוון לאי-ידיעת דבר אשר אפשר לדעת אותו

Unlike our current Jewish orthodox language where anyone that accepts reality over some misunderstood Chazal insisting that it be read literally is accused of being a heretic (Kofer), Rambam sees that accusing fool as the real Kofer!

I will now continue with my translation of the second group who read the Rabbis’ Midrashim literally – the Mockers.

והכת השניה גם הם רבים והם אותם שראו דברי חכמים

או שמעוהו והבינוהו כפשטו, וחשבו שאין כונת חכמים בכך אלא משמעות פשטי הדברים, ולכן

זלזלו בו וגנוהו וחשבו למוזר מה שאינו מוזר, וילעיגו על דברי חכמים לעתים קרובות,

וחושבים שהם יותר נבונים מהם ויותר זכי רעיון, ושהם עליהם השלום פתיים חסרי דעת

סכלים בכל המציאות, ואינם משיגים שום דבר כלל, ורוב מי שנפל במחשבה זו אותם הטוענים

שהם רופאים, וההוזים במשפטי המזלות, לפי שהם לפי דמיונם פקחים חכמים פילוסופים וכמה

רחוקים הם מן האנושות אצל הפילוסופים האמתיים. והם יותר סכלים מן הכת הראשונה ויותר

פתים, והם כת ארורה שהתפרצו כלפי אנשים רמי המעלה שכבר נודעה חכמתם אצל החכמים.

ואלו הכשירו את עצמם במדעים עד שידעו איך כותבים את הדברים בענינים האלהיים וכיוצא

בהם מן המדעים להמון ולחכמים, ויסגלו לעצמם את החלק המעשי של הפילוסופיא, כי אז היו

מבינים אם החכמים חכמים או לאו, והיו מובנים להם עניני דבריהם

The second group is numerous too. They also understand the words of the sages literally. Because they insist that the sages meant what they said literally, they insult and debase them for what they consider to be strange while it is not. They therefore mock the words of the sages and consider themselves smarter and clearer thinkers while the sages are ignorant of reality, unable to grasp anything. Most of these people are those who claim to be doctors or astrologers [note that Rambam stresses that they are doctors by self-proclamation in the same category as astrologers]. While they consider themselves smart philosophic sages, they are seen as subhuman by the true philosophers. They are greater fools than the first group and stupider. They belong to that cursed sect that dares to let loose against people of high esteem who are known for their wisdom by connoisseurs. These wise men [attacked by the fools] have developed their knowledge of sciences, knowing how things are written [expressed] for both public consumption and for the wise, when dealing with matters pertaining to God [metaphysics]. Had they acquired knowledge of the practical aspects of philosophy [I am not sure what Rambam means here] they would know whether the sages are really sages and they would have understood their words

This description of both the first and second group resonates very strongly for me. I am always frustrated by the fundamentalist who insists that something impossible and illogical is literal and our limited knowledge is at fault. How dare one question the wisdom and “Ruach Hakodesh” of the wise men? I can see their argument on things that cannot be proven empirically but when they argue against facts, the age of the universe for example, using arguments that are embarrassing to any semi intelligent person, I am always stumped. Are they trying to insult the wisdom of our great Rabbis? I am even more frustrated by the scholar, who should know better; who insists that he is trying to discover the original intent of the author. I have no problem if that is done in the spirit of better understanding the message that was being conveyed. But assuming that the message only had meaning based on the author’s knowledge of the sciences of his time, the culture he lived in and so on, losing meaning for us is wrong. These people knew the limit of knowledge of their times. They knew that the theories that they worked with did not answer all questions just as we know nowadays that we have many things to explain about the world we live in. They were telling us how to look at things from a perspective of a thinking person in whatever scientific and cultural era he lives in. We are to emulate the approach not the detailed explanation. As we will see in the next segment this applies to not only general thought but also to what seems to be historical explanations.

On a personal note, although originally I thought I was getting distracted from my focus on idolatry, I now realize that I have touched on one of the core issues that underlie the Torah’s, one can almost say obsession, with the eradication of that sickness. As I get deeper into it, it will become clear. It will also highlight how Idolatry, in many of its forms, is still rampant among us!


  1. When I think of these mockers, I think of the schismatic leaders of all the ethical monotheisms. The majority of them (if not all) picked hobby horse issues that they did not like the answers of the Estbalishment on. While a few of them were well versed in the Establishment thinking and had truly investigated the best opinions of the wise and still found shortfalls...most of them were not anything like so dilligent. Joseph Smith is the most prominent example in this category. He made up problems in Christian theology and then sold the solution to them. I don't like Christianity at all, but I would be a bit peeved by the so called Saints if I were Christian.

    This is why I feel lost and adrift in Judaism. ReConFormity (the modern movements) seem all too often to be dominated by mockers of this stripe (though not always by any means.) Yet the Orthodox demand me to believe that they are living in the best of all possible worlds and further progress in living is solely a matter of obeying the existing dictates and common sense. I look at agunah, at tznuis that alienates women from their body, at this denigation of parnassa... Never mind a general lack of tenderness, straightforwardness and respect for the vast differences in types of people (things I was taught this week were part of the Rambam's prescription for a good society)...and I cannot sell my concscience into bondage, even as I admit I need guidance, limits, and teaching.