Sunday, October 25, 2009

Did Rambam's Attitude To Aggadah Evolve? - A review of Professor Loberbaum Article (Conclusion).

Rambam in MN 1:70 discusses the word Rochev – to ride – when used by the prophets to describe God. He explains that just as a rider controls the beast he is riding upon, so too God is the Mover of the spheres. The idea is that all physical existence is subject to motion. In Aristotelian science, motion underlies all physical existence. In their view, the four basic elements mix in various combinations resulting in all the different components of the world below the sphere of the moon. That mixing is caused by motion which originates in the circular orbit of the outer sphere which in turn was first put into motion by the First Mover at the dawn of existence. As motion has to be induced, God, the First Mover, caused that original spherical motion. When we say that motion was caused by another body, we imagine one body impelling another, by transferring force from one to another. To dispel us from this imagery, the prophets saw God as the rider of the spheres. Just like a rider controls the animal without transferring anything physical, the animal moves of its own volition as ordered by the rider, so too God set the sphere in motion without transferring anything from Himself. Rambam shows how this concept is found in the prophetic writings and both in the Talmud and Midrashim. He shows how the Rabbis in their cryptic way were teaching these metaphysical truths in Breishit Rabah 68:10 (pages 777-778 in the Theodor-Albeck Edition), Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 18 and the Gemara in Hagigah 12b. (I plan to write a separate post explaining this Rambam). In the middle of the chapter Rambam comments–

“Consider how these excellent and true ideas, comprehended only by the greatest philosophers, are found scattered in the Midrashim. When a student who disavows truth reads them, he will at first sight, deride them as being contrary to the real state of things. The cause of this is because our Sages spoke of these subjects in metaphors: they are too difficult for the common understanding of the people, as has been noted by us several times.” (MN1:70)

In the following chapter, MN 1:71 Rambam addresses why these deep truths are so rare in the Talmud and Midrashim. He explains that the political status of the Jewish people, the influence of foreign conquerors, eradicated all that knowledge which was orally transmitted. The little that remained was scattered in the Talmud and Midrashim in a very esoteric form.

This was the cause that necessitated the disappearance of these great roots of knowledge from the nation. For you will not find with regard to them anything except slight indications and pointers occurring in the Talmud and the Midrashim. These are as it were, a few grains belonging to the core which are overlaid by many layers of rind, so that people were occupied with these layers of rind and thought that beneath them there was no core whatsoever.” (MN 1:71)

He then continues to explain that the few philosophical writings that we do find amongst the Geonim as well as the Karaites (!) were not based on tradition but rather developed by those people by adapting contemporary non-Jewish philosophy.

Professor Loberbaum in his article reads this Rambam out of its context, focusing on the above quote and arguing that “a few grains belonging to the core which are overlaid by many layers of rind” clearly indicates that the Rabbinic Midrashim were not reliable because of “the disappearance of these great roots of knowledge from the nation.” He concludes that Rambam held that the Talmud and Midrashim were not philosophical/scientific texts and that most Rabbis were not philosophers.

I really do not see that at all in reading the Rambam in context. All he is doing is explaining why these philosophical discussions are rare and why they are so well hidden behind metaphors and allegories. After all he just finished showing us in the preceding chapter how one should read a series of rabbinic Aggadot and Midrashim that complement prophetic writings and see in them deep metaphysical truths. This is clearly the case in view of the comment I quote earlier from MN 1:70, “Consider how these excellent and true ideas, comprehended only by the greatest philosophers, are found scattered in the Midrashim….”

But now YL, in his concluding remarks, makes a faux pas that shocked me. Here is a translation of his words.

“Rambam explained here- so too in chapter 59 – that what is found in the Talmud is at most a few philosophic/scientific statements, that are covered by “many rinds” namely a vast collection of Aggadot that have in them “rubbish and such perverse imaginings”. The rinds in the Talmud are so many that “people were occupied with these layers of rind and thought that beneath them there was no core whatsoever”. (Emphases in the original).”

This statement is a perversion of everything we read so far in the above quotes of Rambam.
“People were occupied with these layers of rind and thought that beneath them there was no core whatsoever”, because the ideas were well hidden and not because there are so many other statements in the Talmud that have only rinds, as implied by YL. But to make matters worse when we turn to chapter 59 from where “rubbish and such perverse imaginings” was lifted and transplanted here, we see that Rambam was talking about Piyuttim and not Aggadot and Midrashim of the Rabbis. In that chapter, Rambam tells us that it is not permissible to develop our own attributes for God especially when we pray. We must limit ourselves to what the Rabbis have taught us based on their readings of the prophetic writings.

We cannot approve of what those foolish persons do, that are extravagant in praise, fluent and prolix in the prayers they compose, and in the hymns they make in the desire to approach the Creator. They describe God in attributes which would be an offence if applied to a human being, for those persons have no knowledge of these great and important principles, which are not accessible to the ordinary intelligence of man. Treating the Creator as a familiar object, they describe Him and speak of Him in any expressions they think proper; they eloquently continue to praise Him in that manner, and believe that they can thereby influence Him and produce an effect on Him. If they find some phrase suited to their object in the words of the Prophets they are still more inclined to consider that they are free to make use of such texts--which should at least be explained--to employ them in their literal sense, to derive new expressions from them, to form from them numerous variations, and to found whole compositions on them. This license is frequently met with in the compositions of the singers, preachers, and others who imagine themselves to be able to compose a poem. Such authors write things which partly are real heresy, partly contain rubbish and such perverse imaginings, so that they naturally cause those who hear them to laugh, but also to feel grieved at the thought that such things can be uttered in reference to God.” (MN1:59)

Need I say more? Since when are medieval Paytannim the authors of Midrashim and Aggadot? YL shows the weakness of his arguments when he has to resort to obvious distortions that can be verified by simply turning to the source, in order to prove his point.

That being the case, why do I read articles by scholars? Why did I spend a series of posts disagreeing with Professor Loberbaum? The answer is simple. One learns from everybody even when someone is at best misguided, at worse dishonest in his or her reading of the great medieval thinkers. One is forced to go back to the source and reread it with the latest reading in mind. Inevitably, new insights are gleaned and a better understanding is reached. I also learn a lot from good scholarly work. Unfortunately, the pressure to publish and be innovative leads many to stray from the purported quest for the truth. But there are “a few grains belonging to the core” amongst “many layers of rind”, following YL’s way of reading.

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