Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rambam on Aggadeta - The Correct Approach - Metaphors and Riddles.

Having introduced the literalist groups, the fundamentalists who shame the Torah with their ignorance and the mockers who jump to conclusions and accuse the rabbis of being ignoramuses, Rambam introduces us to the correct way of understanding the Aggadeta. In his introduction to the Pirush Hamishna, Rambam has already explained the purpose of the Aggadeta which I will hopefully translate and discuss in future posts. Here he teaches the proper attitude a person should have when trying to decipher their real meaning. It is only when they are approached with that attitude that the intended purpose of the Aggadeta is achieved.

והכת השלישית והם חי ה' מעטים מאד עד שאפשר לקרוא להם כת כמו שאפשר

לומר על השמש מין, והם האנשים שנתבררה אצלם גדולת החכמים וטוב תבונתם במה שנמצא

בכלל דבריהם דברים המראים על ענינים אמתיים מאד, ואף על פי שהם מעטים ומפוזרים בכמה

מקומות בחבוריהם הרי הם מראים על שלמותם והשגתם את האמת. וגם נתברר אצלם מניעת

הנמנעות ומציאות מחוייב המציאות, וידעו שהם עליהם השלום לא דברו דברי הבאי, ונתברר

אצלם שיש בדבריהם פשט וסוד, ושכל מה שאמרו מדברים שהם בלתי אפשריים אין דבריהם בכך

אלא על דרך החידה והמשל, וכך הוא דרך החכמים הגדולים, ולפיכך פתח ספרו גדול החכמים

ואמר להבין משל ומליצה דברי חכמים וחידותם, וכבר ידוע אצל חכמי הלשון כי חידה הם

הדברים שענינים בסודם ולא בפשטם וכמו שאמר אחודה נא לכם חידה וכו', לפי שדברי כל

בעלי החכמה בדברים הנשגבים שהם התכלית אינם אלא בדרך חידה ומשל, ומדוע נתפלא על

שחברו את החכמה בדרך משל ודמו אותם בדברים שפלים המוניים, והנך רואה החכם מכל אדם

עשה כן ברוח הקדש כלומר שלמה במשלי בשיר השירים ומקצת קהלת, ומדוע יהא מוזר בעינינו

לפרש את דבריהם ולהוציאם מפשטן כדי שיהא תואם את המושכל ומתאים לאמת ולכתבי הקדש,

והרי הם עצמם מבארים פסוקי הכתובים ומוציאים אותם מפשוטם ועושים אותם משל והוא

האמת, כפי שמצאנו שאמרו שזה שאמר הכתוב הוא הכה את שני אריאל מואב כולו משל, וכן מה

שנ' הוא הכה את הארי בתוך הבור וכו' משל, ואמרו מי ישקיני מים ושאר מה שאירע כל זה

משל. וכן ספר איוב כולו אמר אחד מהם משל היה ולא ביאר לאיזה ענין נעשה המשל הזה.

וכן מתי יחזקאל אמר אחד מהם משל היה ורבים כאלה.

ואם אתה הקורא מאחת משתי הכתות הראשונות אל תעיין בדברי בשום דבר מן

הענין הזה, כי לא יתאים לך ממנו מאומה, ולא עוד אלא שיזיק לך ותשנאהו, כי איך

יתאימו מיני המזון קלי הכמות ממוצעי האיכות לאדם שכבר הורגל למיני המזון הרעים

והכבדים, הלא רק יזיקוהו וישנאם, הנך רואה דבר אותם שהורגלו באכילת הבצלים והשומים

והדגים על המן מה הוא ונפשנו קצה בלחם הקלקל. ואם אתה מאנשי הכת השלישית, שכל זמן

שיזדמן לך דבר מדבריהם ממה שהשכל מרחיקו תתעכב אצלו ותדע שהוא חידה ומשל ותשאר

בטרדת הלב ואמוץ המחשבה בהבנתו, דואג למצוא דרך האמת ורעיון הצדק כמו שאמר למצוא

דברי חפץ וכתוב יושר דברי אמת. התבונן בדברי תשיג תועלת אם ירצה ה' יתעלה.

The third category, which by God, is composed of so few people that it is difficult to even refer to them as a category, just like the sun is not a category [Rambam did not know about other suns]. They are those who, seeing the sages’ discussions of true realities, though rare and spread out among many of their writings, appreciate their greatness and wisdom, their perfection and grasp of truths. Having understood that there are impossibilities as well as a Necessary Existent, [IOW, some things cannot exist and then there is God who is uniquely non-contingent and exists necessarily], they realize that the sages would not say nonsensical things. [I believe that Rambam is saying that when we are confronted with writings of the sages, that discuss illogical things, things that cannot exist, or things about God that contradict what we know about Him, we must assume that they were not nonsensical.] They therefore understand that their words are composed of both a plain and a hidden meaning and that whenever they say something that is not possible it must be either an allegory or a metaphor, which is how great sages present such matters. That is why the greatest of the sages, [Shlomo Hamelech] opens Mishlei with “to understand a proverb, and an epigram; the words of the wise, and their riddles”. Linguists know that “riddles” are words that have a hidden meaning as we find [in Shoftim where Shimshon proposed] Let me now put forth a riddle unto you”. For all sages speak in riddles whenever they talk about deep matters which the reader’s ultimate goal [in life] is to apprehend those matters. Why are we surprised that they wrote matters of wisdom in allegorical language, using common and base things for metaphors? The wisest of all men, namely Shlomo, did so while experiencing Ruach Hakodesh [revelation] when he wrote Mishlei, Shir Hashirim and parts of Kohelet. Why then should it be strange for us to explain their words not literally, so that they should conform to logic, the truth and the Holy Books? They themselves do so with the written texts, explaining them non-literally as metaphors, which is really their true meaning. We find them explaining the whole verse in Divrei Hayamim 1:11:22 Beniah the son of Jehoiada, the son of a valiant man of Kabzeel, who had done mighty deeds, he smote the two altar-hearths of Moab” as a metaphor (see Berachot 18b). So too the rest of the verse “he went down also and slew a lion in the midst of a pit in time of snow” they explain as a metaphor. So too verse 17 in the same chapterAnd David longed, and said: 'Oh that one would give me water to drink of the well of Beth-Lechem, which is by the gate!” is explained as a metaphor (Baba Kama 60b). [I find these examples fascinating as Rambam picks historical verses that were seen as metaphors; this should give us much food for thought!] So too the book of Iyov, one of the Rabbis said it is a metaphor (Baba Batra 15a) without explaining. So too the [resurrected] dead of Yechezkel, one Rabbi said, it was a metaphor and many more.

If you the reader belong to one of the first two categories, do not read my words on this subject as nothing will speak to you. Not only that, it will also damage you and you will hate it for how can gourmet foods [even] of medium quality satisfy a person who is used to coarse and heavy ones. They will only sicken him and he will hate them! Don’t you see that the people who were used to eat onions, garlic and fish [the Jewish slaves of the Egyptians] said about the manna “and our soul loathes this light bread (Bamidbar 21:5).” If you are however one of the third category, who whenever he is confronted with one of the sages’ saying that is removed from logic, you will stop realizing that it is a metaphor and a riddle, leaving you preoccupied emotionally and mentally challenged, searching for understanding. You will worry to find the correct path and the judicious idea [to decipher the riddle] as it says, “to find out words of delight, and that which was written uprightly, even words of truth” (Kohelet 12:10). Think about my words and with God’s help you will find them helpful.

I plan to eventually dissect the proof texts Rambam uses to prove how liberal the Rabbis were with allegorizing even apparently innocuous historical texts. I think we will glean some interesting insights from that exercise. Be it as it may, it is clear that the Aggadeta are not to be taken literally, as they would not be preserved in our tradition if they were not teaching some moral, ethical or philosophical lesson. Another point made here is that when we are confronted with a saying of Chazal that seems to contradict reality, we have to look for the underlying message, and not worry about the metaphor or allegorical presentation. The Rabbis are not teaching us the natural sciences, which we should strive to know as much as we can on our own, but how to look at what we discover from a religious and ethical perspective. I believe the following sentence is central to this discussion –

לפי שדברי כל

בעלי החכמה בדברים הנשגבים שהם התכלית אינם אלא בדרך חידה ומשל

For all sages speak in riddles whenever they talk about deep matters which the reader’s ultimate goal [in life] is to apprehend those matters.

It is through these Aggadeta, when properly understood, that the ultimate knowledge that allows us to take our intended place in creation can be attained. Insisting that they are literal and therefore practically irrelevant, whether said reverently or irreverently, is an insult to the intelligence of great thinkers. But even more importantly, we miss learning some crucial and fundamental truths.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. I believe the Rambam was opposed to reading/studying of history. He puts history books in the same category as literature which he also didn't like. Now my question is when chazal say history went a certain way, like "Mose kibail Torah misinai umesaraw ..." which from the point of view of historical science looks quite unhistorical, since no names are provided after Joshua for the next thousand years, and which has been shown to parallel the literary formula found in the Hellinist literature of the time, (I can provide references), would the Rambam insist that it be taken literally, and if so why? Isn't the Rambam saying that one starts out with an independent conception of reality based on science/common sense, and then decides which agadot are literal? Who then determines what are the kosher sciences and what reality looks like...the Rambam, chazal, gedolim, scientists, the man in the street, academia?

    I think the Rambam would only accept hard sciences and common sense observations and would rule out archaeology, and whatever other disciplines make up wissenschaft. Yet he is hot on Islamic metaphysics, and would allow metaphysical ideas about God and angels to count as reality and determine whether a text is metaphorical.Maybe it should be leheipech...take metaphysics as a metaphor and histiography literaaly.

  2. Rambam was against history without purpose other than to aggrandize a dynasty or praise a hero. he could not be against it altogether as he accepts Yehoshua, shofetim, shmuel, melachim, divrei hayyamim is kitvei kodesh! and what are they if not mostly history? On the mishna of moshe kibel in the hakdamah to pirush hamishna he comments that the purpose is to teach us there is a transmission ish mipi ish upto moshe. So he does take that literally. Halachikally he also sees Pirushim hamekubalim as part of torah shebiktav (see hil talmud torah). But you are right he will not go for archeology and modern history that lives off conjectures and possibilities.

    Now metaphysics though he teaches the basics he sets out the general parameters but leaves the real understanding to each individual according to his level. I also know that he writes in one place, though I cannot think where now, that no two people have the same hasaga. He does not see metaphysics as empirically provable but more an intuitive and revelatory experience, almost a mystical one. Prof Blumenthal wrote about it a lot and I posted on that a while back. In the intro to mishna where he discusses aggadeta, the topic is worked on and i will deal with it when I do that.

    What he objects to is when certain tenets about God and metaphysics are violated. He is extremely against any anthropomorphism or ascribing any physical attribute to God or even the separate intellects. They all are closer to concepts than to any physical reality. In fact even concept may be too physical! That total separation of the two realities the physical and the transcendental is key to his thought and any violation falls under the rubric of idolatry. The reason is that it hampers man from dealing with the real world in a constructive manner. it promotes explanations of physical phenomena with magical and otherwordly ideas. It therefore impedes man from discovering the true sciences, how to deal with the physical world and tame it. Man therefore cannot fulfill the role he has in creation.

    Ramban violated that tenet. He saw angels and other spiritual entities as having a quasi-physical existence and he understood man's soul to be such an entity. He therefore could explain medicine, gravity, magnetism as supernatural phenomena. Supernatural after all has a physical presence. That was the greatest impediment to the advancement of science during the middle ages. That is why later Kabbalah which is even more of a quasi physical understanding of the spiritual is still nowadays holding us back from advancing. Jewish scientists therefore succeed either as split personalities or if they throw away Judaism. It is the tragedy we unfortunately live with because the great majority rejected Rambam's rationalism.

    Now watch the trouble I got myself into!

  3. Timmy, age 52/02/2008 11:52 PM

    One can be among the "mattunim badin", and patiently look for reasonable explanations for statements by the rabbis, spend years and years doing this, poring through commentary, asking one talmid chacham after the next, and still come up dissatisfied, feeling that what one is seeing is anything more than elaborate sophistry.
    For example, how do you reconcile even the most liberal understanding of the issur of bal tosef with the rabbinic decision to add vetzivanu to the bracha for lighting Chanukah candles? Was there ever a clearer example of tosef?
    Just because lighting candles was instituted by the Sanhedrin, and because the Sanhedrin were the halachic authority of that period, doesn't justify saying that the commandments by Sanhedrin are equivalent to commandments from Hashem. A mitzvah derabbanan is a mitzvah derabbanan. Breaking down the barrier in definitions between derabbanan and deraita opens up a pandora's box of hazards that cannot help but lead to the overstepping of rabbinic authority.

    Furthermore, giving one's trust to rabbis to make these kinds of analyses without error is not something an intelligent person does lightly. Their decisions have a huge impact on how a Jew lives his everyday life. In the real world, trust is something that has to be earned. In the face of bizarre, anomalous, and counterintuitive rabbinic pronouncements, some measure of doubt is reasonable.
    Given this, rabbis have failed to account for the need to prove themselves to those who have critical reasoning ability and instead say: have faith in the rabbis.
    We know from history the danger produced by other religions and cults taking this very same approach to faith in human clerics.
    Yet, in an area where there should be room for reasonable doubts, no such doubts are tolerated by the religion. Any Jew who has an inclination towards Torah, but who understands the value of critical reasoning will be frustrated by the inability of the system and its adherents to accept him and his doubts. The doubter who voices his doubts is excluded and shunned.
    It is precisely this frustration and exclusion that leads to mockery and other forms of loud venting aimed at those who are responsible for the direction that Torah has taken.
    Rabbis have to try harder to remember that we live in an age of hester panim. There are no overt miracles. Doubts are reasonable, and some reasonable accommodation has to be made in the Orthodox system for the intelligent doubters, otherwise you will lose them to a system that welcomes them -- doubts and all.
    If Orthodoxy is fine with pushing away intelligent educated Jews who ask difficult questions, and is unwilling to try to understand their frustrations, then that attitude is deserving of mockery and derision. Telling people to sit and learn Torah for a lifetime, as a way to get answers to their questions, is ridiculous. We each have only one lifetime, and an intelligent person will want to see a reasonable amount of evidence that this is a good thing to do before deciding to spend a lifetime investigating whether rabbis have gotten it right or not. The decision to spend one's life this way is a big one; on the order of choosing a career or a mate or moving to another country. Expecting people to choose this religion over another or over no religion without adequate evidence to support that decision is a very silly expectation in the eyes of many people. The inability to recognize these facts, and the desire to call the mockers "fools" as a result, makes rabbis look all the more foolish and all the more deserving of mockery.