Thursday, May 22, 2008

What is Nature? Rambam and Ramban - Two Conflicting Tradition Based Opinions.

I have presented so far Rambam’s approach that the goal of Torah and Mitzvot is to create a perfected human being, knowledgeable in all the sciences, a truth seeker, who in his search for the ultimate truth – God – understands his role in existence. Acceptance of magic or the supernatural in general is therefore detrimental and deflects man from understanding reality. Idolatry on the other hand is based on just that, the supernatural powers, the “spiritual” forces that supposedly permeate the universe and are the real movers and shakers. That is why the eradication of idolatry and the underlying belief in the supernatural is at the center of many Mitzvot. (In an article in the upcoming Hakirah, which is in distribution right now, I discuss this in great detail.)

That position however is not universal among the great Jewish thinkers. Ramban is the most eloquent presenter of a completely opposing view. To him the supernatural IS reality. There is no real science. It is all an illusion. God has transferred the day-to-day running of the universe to the “spiritual” powers. If one wants to understand how things work, understanding how these powers work and what makes them tick, is the key. Science in the sense that we understand it, the unchanging laws that underlie observable phenomena, is nothing more than an illusion. In reality, the “spirits” control everything and it is their modus operandi to let things follow a pattern most of the time. They can however change things on a whim. One can therefore not find God through understanding science. On the contrary, science leads one away from God.

I believe that this point about Ramban’s understanding of nature was missed by Professor David Berger in his oft-quoted article, Miracles and the Natural Order in Nahmanides available at . Professor Berger shows that Ramban’s miracles are reserved for the very wicked and the righteous while the rest are under the “natural order” of things. I agree with Prof Berger on that point. However, the “natural order” of things according to Ramban is not science but the supernatural. There is really no continuity and repetitiveness in nature just a constant directive from God when dealing with the Jewish people in the land of Israel, or through His messengers, the supernatural powers, for the rest of the world.

Ramban based his understanding on the reality of the scientific knowledge of his time. After so many millennia, humankind could still not explain coherently the mysterious phenomena they observed. Medicine, chemistry (alchemy as it was known in those days), physics were all full of unanswered questions and the only conclusion was that the patterns were illusions. There was always a power behind all these occurrences that caused these things to occur, sometimes intervening, at others letting things run on their own. It is the existence of these supernatural powers that make it obvious that there is a God that rules over all of them. There is no need to prove the existence of God. It is an observable phenomenon that all that can see must admit to. How else do we explain whimsical nature?

The implications of this understanding are enormous. Mitzvot have an intrinsic value. They are the secrets that God gave us through revelation, that somehow affect how God reacts to us. If we do a Mitzvah, we trigger a spiritual avalanche of good which makes sure we are not harmed by natural (other spiritual) forces. If we do not, negative things are triggered. There is really no need to look for explanations about Mitzvot other than that they have secret powers to affect our lives. Magic exists and is real; in fact, it is reality itself. It is however forbidden for a Jew to avail himself of it. It is left for the other nations of the world while Jews must ignore it and rely on God. Prophets are surrogate magicians and fortunetellers. Magicians have power too but the prophet is more powerful because he is directly under God’s sway while the magicians are ruled by His proxies.

The point I am trying to make is that the two positions are radically different. We have to always keep that in mind when we read and analyze different opinions on the subject of reward and punishment, miracles, providence and Ta’amei Hamitzvot for example. We have to determine to what school the author belongs. Attempts at conflating the two positions have fallen flat and are lame. It is only by keeping in mind the vast chasm between the two opinions that we will be able to properly understand and assess the different positions that result from each of them.

There is another important point that has to be made. These two schools go back in time and the Rabbis of the Mishna and Gemara too had different opinions about this issue. That is why we find texts that seem to support one or the other. Before we use a text to attack either one of the two opinions, we must ascertain to which school the text belongs. Of course, within the two schools of opinion, there are many variations. However, it is important to figure out each variant, on which concept of nature it is based. That is the only way to make sense of the various positions.


  1. R' David,

    how do you understand the Ramban in Noach where he discusses the rainbow. In either his peirush on chumash or the shaar hagamul he calls nature yad hasham, and that we will alter our understanding of a pasuk based in nature.

    David W.

  2. R.David W.

    Sorry it took me so long to reply. I was away without a computer BH.

    Ramban agrees that there are natural things created at Breishit. see his commentary there. Where he disagrees is that he does not accept cause and effect in a natural way. IOW he agrees that the rainbow is the result of sun rays going through the clouds, the fact that a cloud is there for the sun to shine through it in a way that a rainbow happens is not natural but caused by either God or spiritual forces. The particular Ramban you refer to is struggling with the wording that seems to indicate that this phenomenon is new - he therefore notes that it says Natati - past tense.

  3. R' David,

    In your opinion, if the Ramban were alive today and undestood todays science would he say it is unatural causes or would he adopt the view of the Rambam?

    David W.

  4. I believe so see the hakirah article by R, Buchman Umadua lo yereitem (I think hakirah 4) who makes that argument very cogently. you can download it on the hakirah website.