In Devarim 4:19 we read:
וּפֶן-תִּשָּׂא עֵינֶיךָ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה,
וְרָאִיתָ אֶת-הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְאֶת-הַיָּרֵחַ וְאֶת-הַכּוֹכָבִים כֹּל צְבָא
הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנִדַּחְתָּ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לָהֶם, וַעֲבַדְתָּם--אֲשֶׁר
חָלַק יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֹתָם, לְכֹל הָעַמִּים, תַּחַת
And lest you raise your eyes to the heavens, and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and you be led astray and bow down to them, and worship them, for the LORD your God has allotted them unto all the peoples under the heavens.
One way of reading this text is that the arrays of the heavens have powers that have been allocated for the other nations of the world while the Jewish people may not avail themselves of these same powers. The implication is that there is such a thing as astrology, the science of the spiritual powers of the stars, but it is forbidden for Jews to turn to it. Other peoples however may and should. In fact, that is how Ramban explains the verse in several places in his Pirush on the Torah. (Devarim 4:15, Vaykra 18:25 and more). This is consistent with his understanding that repetitiveness in nature and the physical sciences that try to explain it are false and an illusion. In reality, spiritual forces run the world, and God chose the Jewish people and the
Rambam on the other hand reads it very differently. He too discusses this verse in several places in his writings. I will analyze each and discuss them in this and the next few posts.
The earliest mention is in Sefer Hamitzvot Negative Commandment 10.
“It is forbidden to follow Avodah Zara and be involved in its matters. I mean by that, learning and repeating the foolishness and nonsense that its founders claim. They say that a specific “spirit” can be accessed in such and such a way, it will then do x; if one brings x offering to a specific star and stands in front of it in a certain way, it will do y. So too [are forbidden] other similar things. Thinking about these things and learning these fantasies entice the fool to follow and worship them. The verse that warns against this is “do not turn to the idols” (Vaykra 19:4) … He [God in the Torah] also said on the subject “and lest you raise your eyes to the heavens, and see the sun and the moon…” He [obviously] did not prohibit one raising the head to observe them visually but rather forbade contemplating in the mind the powers their worshippers attribute to them…”
This prohibition includes studying the powers attributed to the stars by idol worshippers. The anthropological study even for the sake of historical knowledge is forbidden. Interest in idol worship even as a curiosity is forbidden because it attracts. Spiritualism is a very attractive theory and it talks to many people. I remember about fifteen years ago reading and watching videos of Joseph Campbell and noticing how he fell in love with the idolatrous ideas of the ancient cultures, he wrote so much about. In one of his books or videos, I cannot remember which, he attacks Judaism for destroying and eradicating such beautiful ideas while praising Christianity for bringing it back into civilization. As an aside, this comment confirmed to me Rambam’s position that Christianity IS idolatry as opposed to the Ba’alei Hatosafot who held otherwise.
It is the study of idolatry for knowledge’s sake that is forbidden and not the utilitarian study. Sanhedrin had to learn about it enough to identify it (Hil Sanhedrin 2:1). Rambam boasts that he read all available books on the subject because it helped him understand the reason for many Mitzvot. However just interest for knowledge sake is forbidden because it is too enticing.
I also think that there is more to it. Rambam understands that even the suggestion that the cosmos is controlled by “spirits” and therefore these spirits have an impact on how things are in our world is forbidden. It is nonsense and lies and whoever believes that is a fool. When we try to understand how the cosmos works, we can explain it as a physical phenomenon or as a spiritual one. Starting from a standpoint that there is no such thing as “spiritual” or non-physical powers, one is forced to look for explanations that can be proven empirically. It is the belief in “spirituality” which is the greatest obstacle in the scientific understanding of our world. It is much easier to explain things by attributing phenomena to “spiritual” powers. It closes off avenues of inquiry and dulls the mind satisfying curiosity with nonsense. One has to have a strongly developed critical mind to overcome this stultifying way of thinking. It is this critical thinking that brought us Galileo, Copernicus, Newton et al… who explained the cosmos in physical terms which eventually were empirically proven as true. Although not completely weaned from spiritualism, as we know
Rambam understands that clearly and teaches that “spirituality” is false. The supposed proofs that it exists are illusions and lies. Science still has a way to go to explain that which is not yet understood but “spirituality” is not an option. Ramban on the other hand cannot overcome the knowledge and science of his time. He therefore cannot reconcile reality with Rambam’s outlook. He is forced into interpreting the texts so that they conform to his understanding of reality and science. Thus, we have the two opposite readings of the verse with which we started this post.
Rambam expands further on this verse in Hilchot Avodah Zara Chapter 2 with much more elaboration addressing the text itself and its reference to the other nations. I will analyze it in my next post and flesh it out further.
A commenter on an earlier blog understood that I was saying that there are no natural phenomena as such according to Ramban. That is incorrect. Ramban in his commentary on the Torah clearly describes Creation and the coming into being of the components of the universe. He explains that certain of these components have to be combined to generate a phenomenon. There is no question that a rainbow is the result of sunrays shining through a cloud at a certain angle. (See commentary on Breishit 9:12). The issue is why is there a cloud in this position? If it is the result of the seawater being heated up and pushed by winds to this spot at this exact time, is it because another natural cause, causes ad infinitum, that brought this about randomly? Or is it because somewhere along this chain of cause and effect, some non-physical power stepped in and precipitated that chain and started it so that the rainbow should appear at the exact moment it did? While Rambam would see it as the chain of cause and effect started at creation and left to its natural progression Ramban would see it as the result of something started by a spiritual power with the specific objective of this happening. It is how we understand the interactions and the results we see, that is at the core of the arguments of these two thinkers.