Rav Kook ZL, in his letter to Ya’avetz, continues to disagree with specific statements he made in his book about Rambam’s philosophy. I will end by quoting/translating/paraphrasing a few that I find relevant to our contemporary thinking.
One of the criticisms of Ya’avetz was that the philosophic approach to religion minimizes the importance of praxis. He argues that Greek philosophy values intellectual growth and devalues action. RK vehemently rejects Ya’avetz’s accusation that Rambam accepted that premise. In fact, RK argues, Rambam ends the Moreh with an emotionally laden chapter that depicts the service of one who has reached the intellectual heights of understanding God’s ways. It is only after reaching that understanding that one can act in concert with God. Action is the ultimate goal of intellectual growth and religious philosophy. RK quotes the whole segment in the Moreh and here is the pertinent excerpt –
“The object of the above passage [in Yirmyahu] is therefore to declare, that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired--as far as this is possible for man--the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired the knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God. We have explained this many times in this treatise.”
Clearly, to Rambam the end goal of all knowledge as he reads it in the Torah is to know how to act, which is the opposite of the philosopher’s meditation. RK develops this argument from other quotes in Rambam’s writing.
I find this reading of Rambam by Rav Kook ZL very satisfying as it reinforces what I have come to realize a few years ago. I believe that Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz ZL did not see this in Rambam. He could not accept that one can really understand anything about God that could be translated into a practical act. He felt that it would border on anthropomorphism. Rav Kook did not see it the same way.
RK tries to defend Rambam’s Aristotelian understanding of the spheres as living entities. He uses the standard argument that science has not yet reached its limits and it is therefore possible that we will find out that the underlying force of gravity, for example, is some kind of sentience. I find this the least compelling part of the letter. I prefer to see Rambam as trying to show how to interpret reality within our theology. He was doing that with his reality and we have to do the same with ours. After all, isn’t that the goal of religion, seeing the world from a divine perspective?
RK then lauds Rambam’s position that it is wrong to think that everything was created for the sake of man and that we must rather accept that it is not possible to know what was God’s ultimate purpose in creation. RK says that this insight saved Judaism during the great leaps forward that science took since his days. As we started to understand the physics of the universe, Copernicus and the subsequent developments, it became clear that man and the earth we live on, is only a very minute component of the cosmos. As most religions base their theology on man’s centrality, and this has been shown to be incorrect, an artificial conflict between science and religion develops. Rambam taught us that Judaism is not built on that premise. The idea that man is important is only a perspective suggested by the Torah to be used, to help us retain our focus in the service of God. It is a way to look at ourselves in context of our immediate surroundings but it is not a theological foundation. In fact, the Torah also teaches us that man is nothing in the context of the cosmos. That is a useful reminder if one should become too infatuated with his own self-importance. The dialectics of these two perspectives keep man on the straight path. Rambam’s approach therefore shows that all the scientific knowledge that was developed up to our times,
Rav Kook ends the letter with an admonition not to dare say that “our great Rabbi, who provided us with the intellectual and moral insights [literally: sun] and the great holiness and purity of Torah, which he was learning day and night to be close to God, had a split personality. [We dare not say that] in the Moreh, he presented one position while in his other writings he showed a different one. God forbid! Our Rabbi was a sincere Tzaddik. Just like, he was a genius in Torah and Sciences, so was he a genius in sincerity and belief. All his words, including the words he wrote in his great Sefer, Moreh Hanevuchim, will remain forever as a light to the world as to the wisdom of
These final words of Rav Kook ZL address the canard that was bandied around by people who could not understand Rambam and felt that he was therefore a heretic at heart, that he had a schizophrenic personality. They claimed that the Mishne Torah, (except for Sefer Hamada), was written when he was a believer while the Moreh was when he was in his heretic state. [I am using a little hyperbole in describing these positions. They are mostly much tamer in their presentation though they leave us with the same message.] RK sees this as what it is, an insult. On the contrary, anybody that seriously studies Rambam finds how subtly he intertwines his philosophy with Halacha. One cannot understand one without the other. All the great Gedolim saw this. I can think of two other contemporaries of RK who came out with a similar statement, R. Meir Simcha and R. Yosef Rosen, both of Dvinsk.
And all this from Rav Kook the great Kabbalist! A passionate defense of the great rationalist, Rambam!