Thursday, March 20, 2008

Magnetism, Spirits and Science - A Potent Brew.

It is important to understand that there are two schools among the Rishonim about the basic understanding of our reality and existence that probably have their roots in the teachings of the Tannaim and Amoraim. One school represented by Rambam, has an understanding that existence consists of the physical realm we know and one non-physical transcendental Being who we know “exists”. There are no intermediate entities between the physical and the transcendental.

The other school represented by Ramban, believes that there are different levels of physicality that are somewhere between the pure transcendence of God and the physical world we know. These semi-physical existents play the role of executing the wishes of the transcendental God.

Both schools base their position on what they perceive to be reality. I like to demonstrate this from the following example. In a discussion about cause and effect, Rambam states that for a physical body to affect another it must somehow connect with it in the physical realm. It is not always apparent but there indubitably is a physical connection. As an example, Rambam gives the following:

“In Physics it has been shown that a body in acting upon another body must either directly be in contact with it, or indirectly through the medium of other bodies. A body that has been heated has been in contact with fire, or the air that surrounds the body has been heated by the fire, and has communicated the heat to the body; the immediate cause of the heat in this body is the corporeal substance of the heated air. The magnet attracts iron from a distance through a certain force communicated to the air round the iron. The magnet does therefore not act at all distances, just as fire does not act at every distance, but only as long as the air between the fire and the object is affected by the fire. When the air is no longer affected by the fire which is under a piece of wax, the latter does not melt. The same is the case with magnetism. When an object that has previously not been warm has now become warm, the cause of its heat must now have been created: either some fire has been produced, or the distance of the fire from the object has been changed, and the altered relation between the fire and the object is the cause now created.” (MN 2:12)

Rambam did not understand magnetism, we still do not have a full understanding of it even nowadays, but he knew that there is a physical phenomenon responsible for its action. There is no “spiritual” cause.

On the other hand, Rashba (1235 — 1310) the great pupil of Ramban writes in Teshuvah 1:413 -

זה באמת מה שלא יקבלוהו השכל כי באמת הדברים הפועלים בסגלה אין פעולתם בפלא מהם אלא בטבע מסגל, רצוני לומר בטבע לא ישיגנו עיון החכמים ואפילו החכם שבחכמים לרוב העלם הטבע ההוא מכלל המין האנושי מצד שהוא אדם, כסגלת אבן השואבת שהברזל קופץ עליה ויותר מזה מורגל בירדי הים באניות תוחבין מחט בחתיכת עץ צף על פני המים ומראין לו אבן וישוט על פני המים עד שיפנה אל פני הסדן ושם ינוח - ולא ישיג עיון טבע זה כל חכם שבחכמים אלו של חכמת הטבע.

This [that there is no power outside the physical realm] cannot be accepted rationally. For it is clear that, those things that work through Segulot have a spiritual nature that cannot be understood by human beings, even by the greatest scientist, because of the limits imposed by their humanity. For example, [it is impossible] to explain the property of the magnet that attracts iron or the practice of sailors to stick a needle into a piece of wood, place it in water, show it a stone and it will turn towards the rudder. (I am not sure what technique he is referring to and I am not sure that I got the translation right on the latter example.) This phenomenon cannot be explained by science!

Clearly, the argument that we hear nowadays about some kind of Mesora the Rabbis had about science did not hold with either of the two schools. They both accepted reality and tried their best to understand it and base their thinking on it. While Rashba argued that reality shows that magnetism proves that there is a “spiritual” world that powers our physical existence, Rambam understood the phenomenon otherwise. He deduced that the “spiritual” in reality must be physical. How else can we explain that the “powers” are dependent on the distance between the two objects?

When the great Rishonim of these two schools addressed Halachik issues, they looked at them from the perspective of reality. They both agreed that the objective of the whole Torah is to help us acquire the true knowledge of our world and through that its creator, God, with the idea of emulating His ways. Ramban’s school however was convinced that reality “proves” that there is a spiritual world out there that powers our physical existence. That being the case idolatry makes a lot of sense. The magic and astrology it is based upon is true and fact. Humankind on its own has no choice but to submit to those powers and try to influence them by currying their favors. However, there is a superpower, namely God that chose the Jewish people and gave them a Torah. By following this rulebook and keeping its Mitzvot, we are removed from the control of the subordinate powers and fall under the direct jurisdiction of the superpower, God. It is a state of consciousness that we can acquire through keeping the Mitzvot. From this perspective, there is a “spiritual” power in the Torah and the Mitzvot that goes beyond the physical reality. This way of thinking is still with us and is the basis for the supernatural element that our community still believes in. According to this thinking, Avodah Zara, idolatry, is forbidden because the Torah so orders not because it is nonsense. It is so important because rejecting idolatry means submitting ourselves to a different and an alternate power, the source of all power – God. The Mitzvot are utilitarian from a different perspective – they connect us through our submission to them, with the ultimate spirituality – God. That connection removes us from the vagaries and arbitrariness of the intermediate powers, the “spirits”.

Rambam considered this thinking as the foundation of idolatry. This “spiritual” world is the figment of a fertile imagination and is therefore falsehood. Belief in falsehood blinds us to reality, impedes our ability to think and stops us from advancing our scientific understanding of our world and existence. Without basing our search for God in true reality, the real physical world He created, the god we find at the end of this road is the fruit of our imagination. We can only find the true God through Truth, and the only Truth is our reality. Everything else is imagination. Man can never bridge the gap between him and transcendence. He can only deduce from his own existence that such a transcendent non - contingent entity as God “exists”. Any other understanding of God is false and therefore smacks of idolatry. Avodah Zara therefore stands for any “spiritual” imaginary power. There are none and therefore any belief in such falsehoods is idolatry. If we do not understand how things work and even after these few centuries of scientific advancement, there are still many such things in our world, we have to continue searching for a scientific explanation. That is the only way that humanity will make progress and reach the objective of performing its intended role in the continuity of existence. Believing in “spiritual powers” is counterproductive nay destructive. That is why Rambam legislates:

[טז] ודברים האלו--כולן, דברי שקר וכזב הן; והן שהטעו בהן עובדי עבודה

זרה הקדמונים לגויי הארצות, כדי שיינהו אחריהן. ואין ראוי לישראל, שהן

חכמים מחוכמים, להימשך בהבלים אלו, ולא להעלות על הלב שיש בהן תעלה:

שנאמר "כי לא נחש ביעקוב, ולא קסם בישראל" (במדבר כג,כג),

ונאמר "כי הגויים האלה, אשר אתה יורש אותם—

אל מעוננים ואל קוסמים, ישמעו; ואתה--לא כן, נתן לך ה' אלוהיך" (דברים יח,יד).

כל המאמין בדברים אלו, וכיוצא בהן, ומחשב בליבו שהן אמת

ודברי חכמה, אבל התורה אסרה אותן--אינו אלא מן הסכלים ומחסרי הדעת, ובכלל

הנשים והקטנים שאין דעתן שלמה. אבל בעלי החכמה ותמימי הדעת, יידעו בראיות

ברורות--שכל אלו הדברים שאסרה תורה, אינן דברי חכמה, אלא תוהו והבל שנמשכו

בהן חסרי הדעת, ונטשו כל דרכי האמת בגללן. ומפני זה אמרה תורה, כשהזהירה

על כל אלו ההבלים, "תמים תהיה, עם ה' אלוהיך"


And all these things [spiritual powers and magic] are lies and falsehoods. They are the things that the early idolaters used to fool the masses into following them. It does not behoove Jews, who are wise to be attracted by these nonsensical [practices] nor to even contemplate that they help… Anyone that believes in these and other such things, thinking in his heart that they are true and wise but the Torah forbade them, is a fool and mindless. He is like an uneducated woman or child. The wise and those who have perfected their minds, know unequivocally that all the things the Torah forbade are not wisdom but chaotic and empty that fools are attracted to, leaving the paths of truth for them. That is why the Torah says, when warning against such nonsense, “Be wholehearted with Hashem your God”.

In my next post on the subject I will show some quotes from Ramban where he directly addresses this Halacha, disagrees explaining why. I will also discuss some practical implications that developed based on these two different perceptions of reality.

BTW anyone that can get hold of the Dimitrovsky edition of the Sh”ut Harashba will enjoy a series of letter exchanges between R. Abba Mari in Provence and Rashba in Barcelona (in the Minhat Kenaot at the end of volume 3) on the use of an amulet shaped as a lion to cure some ailment. The whole discussion centers on the two different understandings of magic. What makes it more intriguing is that, R. Abba Mari, like many of his Maimonidean contemporaries, could not accept Rambam’s denial of astrology and tried to differentiate between that “science” and other magical ideas.

Simchat Purim to all.


  1. What about the spheres? Didn't Rambam hold that they were quasi-physical intellects?

  2. Dardai, good point but no. He as did Ramban (see his commentary on Breishit "Et Hashamayim") as did Aristotle, held that they were made of a different base matter. IOW God created two matters one that consisted of the four elements fire, earth, water and air and another one that had its own physical composition - a fifth base element.

    The spheres were made from this fifth element and had thinking capacity - abstract only such as knowledge of God - and a need to be perfect. That was the impetus for a circular movement which is the most perfect. The impetus for perfection was the need to emulate God just like we humans should follow that impulse.

    As I said Ramban agrees here but believes there are entities that are neither purely physical nor totally transcendental with an ethereal property.

  3. Dardai

    One more detail - the thinking ability of the spheres according to Rambam and Aristotle is intrinsic to them just like man. To Ramban it is an outside "soul" just like man's "soul".

  4. David,

    Beautiful post.

    - Matt

  5. David, you said
    "There are no intermediate entities between the physical and the transcendental."

    What about the ten levels of angels? I thought the whole ay that G-D interacted with our world was through the angels.

  6. The word "angel" is very broad in rambam's language. While Ramban believed they were entities with a physical presence though diaphanous,Rambam held they are just a word describing an agent that gets things done. In the case of the ten different levels of Malachim in Hil Yesodei Hatorah 2:4 through 8 he calls them Tzurot or forms. Forms are things that exist in man's mind and it is our way of depicting the laws of nature that govern our existence. Note that Ishim the "lowest" level is synonymous with Sechel Hapoel that the prophets acess (Yesodei Hatorah 7:1). To understand what I am saying read Yesodei Hatorah 4:7.

    I am sure by now you have a headache ;-) but persevere and eventually you will get a picture. Stay with concepts rather than imagery.