Sunday, March 23, 2008

Chacham Faur on Newton, Rambam and Lord Keynes.

Over Shabbat, I read a fascinating article in the latest issue of Cross Currents by Chacham Professor Jose Faur. The article, Newton, Maimonides and Esoteric Knowledge, seems to be one of a series that Chacham Faur has been writing regarding the connections between Newton and Rambam. It is based on Lord Keynes (yes the economist!) who was a Newton scholar and researched the private diaries and letters. What comes out of this article is that Newton was a man of religion first and science was a tool for him on the path to understanding God. Chacham Faur shows that many quotations are sourced in Rambam’s writings either MN or MT. Here are some ideas that I found interesting.

Lord Keynes on Newton’s interests:

During these (the time he developed Principia) twenty-five years of intense study mathematics and astronomy were only one part, and perhaps not the most absorbing, of his occupations. Our record of these is almost wholly confined to the papers which he kept and put in his box when he left Trinity for London.

Lord Keynes’s description of Newton’s outlook:

…he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues that God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt to esoteric brotherhood. … By pure thought, by concentration of the mind, the riddle, he believed, would be revealed to the initiate.

He did read the riddle of the heavens. And he believed that by the same powers of his introspective imagination he would read the riddle of the Godhead, the riddle of past and future events divinely foreordained, the riddle of the elements and their constitution from an original undifferentiated matter, the riddle of health and of immortality.

Clearly, Newton and Rambam had a very similar understanding of prophecy. I also believe it gives an insight into the Maimonidean “active intellect” which seem to me to be somehow related to the “riddles” in Newton.

Chacham Faur explains the similarity of how Newton and Rambam understand the allegorical nature of the stories on Creation in Torah and the need to teach the theological perspective to persons that have not yet assimilated scientific truths.

Not long before his death, Newton said:

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

To Newton, the real Truth is to understand how the physical came into being and the non-contingent Existent that is the First Cause. This can only be apprehended through the reality of the world, the seashore. Venturing beyond that into the ocean of metaphysical knowledge is the ultimate goal of humankind in its search for a True understanding of its existence and objective. Is this the allegory of the water above the heaven in Breishit? Just a thought.

The Faur article is a worthwhile read and I hope the editors of Cross Current place it online, in full.

Ending, I just want to refer to Rambam in Hilchot Shemita Veyovel 13:11 which came to mind when reading this article –

ולא שבט לוי בלבד, אלא כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם אשר נדבה רוחו אותו

והבינו מדעו להיבדל לעמוד לפני ה' לשרתו ולעובדו לדעה את ה', והלך ישר כמו

שעשהו האלוהים, ופרק מעל צווארו עול החשבונות הרבים אשר ביקשו בני

האדם--הרי זה נתקדש קודש קודשים, ויהיה ה' חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי

עולמים "

Not only the tribe of Levi, but every man that passes through the world, whose spirit and intellect drove to separate him to stand before God to serve and worship Him, to know Him. Who also walked in the righteous path as God made him, removed the yoke of the many [extraneous] matters that men tend to seek out, such a person if considered holiest among the holy. God will be his legacy forever.

Newton apparently was such a man that passed through the world.

An anonymous commenter has directed us to the online version of the above article at


  1. "I hope the editors of Cross Current place it online, in full."

    The suthor beat them to it.
    Get it here:

    Newton's rival, Leibniz, admired the MN as well.

  2. he is one of the greatest rabbis around and great scholar to now and to hear. G-d bless him.
    reuven /los Angeles /usa