Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rambam and Aristotles - A Complex and Nuanced Relationship.

Rambam is accused of explaining Judaism in a way that adapts it to Aristotelian philosophy, the physics and science of his time. He is accused of this, not only by modern scholars, but also by many traditional great Jewish thinkers such as Ramban – many times in his writings – and Gra in Yoreh Deah Hilchot Avodah Zara. This accusation and misunderstanding of Rambam has taken root. It is why many people, especially the Bnei Hayeshivot nowadays consider Rambam’s philosophy as passé and to be ignored accepting the more mystical approaches that clearly differentiate between religion and science, giving primacy to the former. This approach keeps us deep in Galut (a subject worth talking about at some future time) and is a hindrance to our religion’s ultimate goal of bringing its light to all the nations of the world.

A well-educated person must develop a split personality to accept the contemporary popular understanding of religion as a way of life while acting and thriving in society and the world. This disconnect between religion and daily life has compelled the “really religious” to remove themselves into their segregated communities and spend their life sitting in Beit Hamidrash, never acting on what the Torah teaches them. Torah is no longer “Chukei Chaim”, laws of living. In fact, many teachings of the Torah are distorted to fit this misguided understanding of what is required of us. It is also at the root of the unethical and immoral behavior we witness almost daily in our community. That Torah, especially when it deals with daily life in society, is for learning not living is a conclusion that results from this way of thinking.

At the end of Rambam’s life (died 1204), controversies about his teachings began and continued uninterrupted for decades and centuries after his death. The first Maimonidean opposition was led by great Rabbis of Southern France and Northern Spain, among them such luminaries as Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (near Barcelona died 1263) and Rabbeinu Shlomo Min Hahar (Montpellier in Provence). Rabbeinu Yonah was a Chaver and relative of Ramban who penned the famous letter which starts with “Terem A’aneh Ani Shogeg” (page 336 in Chavel’s Kitvei Haramban), defending Rambam and castigating Rambam’s detractors. Of course, we all know that Ramban did not see eye to eye with Rambam on many theological issues but he was great enough to dissent gracefully and with respect with the great thinker. This controversy ended in 1233 with the first burning of Jewish Sefarim, the books of Rambam, by the monks who could not pass such a great opportunity. This began the tragic cycle of burning Shas and all Sifrei Yisrael in France and subsequently all over Europe, leaving only two original reliable manuscripts of Shas for later printers. Rabbeinu Yonah it is said had great misgivings about his earlier stand and as repentance undertook not to openly disagree with Rambam in his Halachik writings after that time.

Rambam’s son Rabbeinu Avraham, when he heard about the controversy and its consequence, penned a letter named Milchamot Hashem, which Rav Reuven Margulies edited and published. Rabbeinu Avraham addresses the accusation that his father was misled by Aristotle the Greek. The following is my translation:

“The fools who lack intelligence, were not satisfied with their lack of thought and knowledge to the point that the prophet refers to such people - יִִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַע, עַמִּי לֹא הִתְבּוֹנָן - but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider. They also decided in their foolishness that anyone that is interested in knowledge is a Min and Kofer in the Torah and anyone that studied philosophy has acquired the beliefs of the philosophers. [That is incorrect] for they [the philosophers] believe the world to be eternal without a beginning while we disagree with them based on the belief promulgated by the torah. We bring arguments against the philosophers to clarify the Torah belief that the world is new and created and that there is only One eternal entity that is First and Last, and that is HKBH… That is how the sages told us (in Avot 2:16), “be steadfast to learn Torah and know how to answer an Apikores”. We do the same with all their other beliefs which do not agree with Torah’s beliefs. This [disagreement on specific subjects] does not compel us to disagree with their [the philosopher’s correct] beliefs that agree with Torah, such as that God is unique and True, He is not a body nor has features. However, we do disagree with these [Rabbis] who have a faulty theology about the uniqueness of God claiming in their mistaken and erroneous thinking that God is in a place, sits on a throne, because it is a belief that is proven to be wrong.”

I believe it is important to understand what Rabbeinu Avraham is telling us as it has practical implications to how we must deal with the sciences of our time and our religion.
Rambam makes a clear distinction between scientific facts and metaphysics. In medieval science, that distinction was not clear. Science was based on what were considered philosophical truths rather than empirical evidence. For example, it was believed that the planets have a circular orbit because that is a perfect movement. The universe strives for perfection, thus the orbits must be perfect. Observations to the contrary had to be explained away using complicated formulae that fit the underlying philosophy. Rambam accepted the observations and the explanations given with a grain of salt. Here are two (amongst many) of his comments on the subject where his skepticism comes across clearly.

“The theory of Aristotle in respect to the causes of the motion of the spheres led him to assume the existence of Intelligences. Although this theory consists of assertions which cannot be proved, yet it is the least open to doubt, and is more systematic than any other, as has been stated by Alexander in the book called The Origin of the Universe.” (MN 2:3)

“For as regards the things in the sublunary world, his [Aristotle] explanations are in accordance with facts, and the relation between cause and effect is clearly shown. It can therefore be assumed that everything is the necessary result of the motions and influences of the spheres. But when he treats of the properties of the spheres, he does not clearly show the causal relation, nor does he explain the phenomena in that systematic way which the hypothesis of natural laws would demand.” (MN 2:19)

The sense we get is that Rambam confronted the difficulties presented by observations and had to live with the best explanation he could find until a better one could be found. That is so with clear observations that needed explaining and he could not do so with the tools he had at hand without resorting to Metaphysical theories. He had to be tentative because he had a sense that future generations may come up with better explanations.

How did he deal with matters that could never be explained by science such as the eternity of the world, creation from nothingness, whether the universe was willed into being or is it the result of some singularity? Aristotle addressed these questions and tried to answer them rationally. Rambam points out that if we read Aristotle carefully we can see that his theories in this area were very tentative.

As to the proofs of Aristotle and his followers for the Eternity of the Universe, they are, according to my opinion, not conclusive; they are open to strong objections, as will be explained.” (MN2:16)

In fact, the way Aristotle presents his ideas on the subject of Eternity show that he had doubts about how conclusive his own thinking was.

“In this chapter I intend to show that Aristotle was well aware that he had not proved the Eternity of the Universe. He was not mistaken in this respect. He knew that he could not prove his theory, and that his arguments and proofs were only apparent and plausible… He says in his book Physics (8, chap. 1.) as follows: "All the Physicists before us believed that motion is eternal, except Plato, who holds that motion is transient; according to his opinion the heavens are likewise transient." Now, if Aristotle had conclusive proofs for his theory he would not have considered it necessary to support it by citing the opinions of preceding Physicists, nor would he have found it necessary to point out the folly and absurdity of his opponents. For a truth, once established by proof, does neither gain force nor certainty by the consent of all scholars, nor lose by the general dissent.” (MN 2:15)(This whole chapter is worth reading. You can find it here )

As I want to keep posts to an acceptable length, I will discuss Rambam’s approach to these matters that cannot be proven scientifically in an upcoming post. We will also see on what basis subjects belong to this category.


  1. Yasher Koach. I like your blog, let's blogroll each other please? Please respond via e-mail

  2. This is a great topic to start on Chanuka, with its ever relevant issue of Jew vs. Greek worldviews.
    [posted: Motzei Shabbat, Israel]

  3. Ralbag points out, I think correctly, that Rambam merely thought that there had been no proof regarding the eternity/noneternity of the universe, not that there could not be one.

    If it could be proven that proofs about the eternity/non eternity are impossible it would be absurd to use Aristotle's discussion of opinion as the basis for knowing that his theory about eternity was speculative. The appropriate approach would be for Rambam to prove the impossibility of proving any proposition about eternity/non- eternity.

  4. BTW you still owe us an explanation of how mitzvot are a doing of truth as well as an explanation of what the Halacha of Torah Adif or assiyah adif.

  5. Rabbi Sacks, I owe many more answers and explanations! One of my friends was worried when I started this blog that I am liomiting myself too much and would soon run out of what to write about. It is three years and I am still going strong!

    Re Ralbag I know his position and most scholars and many traditional followers agree. I think they are wrong and that is what I will be proving.

  6. Here is an account of the
    רלב"ג by a significant physicist
    , the late, fascinating, Yuval Ne'eman:

    "... [רלב"ג] is the only astronomer before modern times to have estimated correctly stellar distances. Whereas everybody else put the stars on a rotating sphere just beyond the Moon, Gersonides estimated the distance to the stars to be ten billion times greater, of the order of 100 light-years (in modern units). Note that the great Tycho Brahe, in his dismissal of the Copernican model, argued that it would require the universe to be much too large. Gersonides did not believe in using Ptolemy's or Hipparchus' tables. He personally remeasured everything, basing his models on his own observations only. In that, he is rather unique for that period. Levi writes 'no argument can nullify the reality that is perceived by the senses, for true opinion must follow reality, but reality need not conform to opinion' -- certainly not the usual position in the Middle Ages.

    "In the same context, I consider Gersonides' observational refutation of Ptolemy's model as one of the most important insights in the history of science, generally missed in telling the story of the transition from epicyclic corrections to the geocentric model to Copernicus' heliocentric model. Reviewing Ptolemy's model with its epicycles, Levi realized that it could be checked, by measuring the changes in the apparent brightnesses of Mars and looking for cyclical changes along the conjectured epicycles. These thus ceased being dogma, they were a theory that had to be experimentally verified, 'a la Popper'. R. Levi developed tools for these measurements, essentially pinholes and the camera obscura. The results of his observations did not fit Ptolemy's model at all. Gersonides concluded that the model was no good. He tried (unsuccessfully) to improve on it. That challenge was finally answered, of course, by Copernicus three centuries later, but Gersonides was the first and only one to falsify the Alexandrian dogma -- the first known instance of modern falsification philosophy. Levi also showed that Ptolemy's model for the Lunar orbit, though reproducing correctly the evolution of the Moon's position, fails completely in predicting the apparent sizes of the Moon in its motion. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the findings had an impact on later generations of astronomers, even though Gersonides' writings were translated and available."

    If one masters a modest sector of modern physics, and then masters the Organon as a living whole, and then integrates these two, one can observe that the רמב"ם has the same non-syncretistic "relationship" to "Aristotelianism" as the רלב"ג. This is otherwise hard to see because the Medieval universities of the West (not accidentally) butchered Aristotle with the Trivium-Quadrivium. Prof. Ne'eman's assertion about "the usual position in the Middle Ages" should therefore be qualified.

  7. David,
    I think the accusations were not far fetched at all.
    Unlike other thinkers, say R. Yehuda Halevi, Rambam's system of thought doesn't arise from the scriptures but rather the system dictates the scriptures' interpretations; a-priory.

    This approach can be demonstrated both in the MN, and the MT.

    1. MN 2:25:
    WE do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the Incorporeality of God. We should perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the Scriptural passages referred to are in harmony with the theory of the Eternity of the Universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Bible when we rejected the idea that God is corporeal.

    While there are many passages in the Tanakh which describe God in corporeal terms; there also many that describe him as abstract. Not to mention that the sages also insisted that he's abstract. However it's very hard to find passages which describe the universe as Eternal.

    2. First chapter of MT which Creation (ברא):
    יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות, לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון. והוא ממציא כל הנמצא; וכל הנמצאים מן שמיים וארץ ומה ביניהם, לא נמצאו אלא מאמיתת הימצאו. ואם יעלה על הדעת שהוא אינו מצוי, אין דבר אחר יכול להימצאות. ואם יעלה על הדעת שאין כל הנמצאים מלבדו מצויים, הוא לבדו יהיה מצוי ולא ייבטל הוא לביטולם: שכל הנמצאים צריכין לו; והוא ברוך הוא אינו צריך להם, ולא לאחד מהם.

    As R. Yehuda Halevi, pointed out, no one prays to the מצוי הראשון but rather to the God of his fathers. In fact the Bible never deals with the possibility of Ha-Shem's non existence, but rather it goes at length to prove that he is present in history.
    History is also the third issue.
    Rambam clearly favours metaphysical interpretations over the historic experience like the Exodus:
    וידיעת דבר זה מצות עשה, שנאמר "אנוכי ה' אלוהיך" (שמות כ,ב; דברים ה,ו). וכל המעלה על דעתו שיש שם אלוה אחר, חוץ מזה--עובר בלא תעשה, שנאמר "לא יהיה לך אלוהים אחרים, על פניי" (שמות כ,ב; דברים ה,ו); וכפר בעיקר, שזה הוא העיקר הגדול שהכול תלוי בו.

    He completely omitted: אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים, thus which is the core of this passage. Only because God took us out of Egypt, can he demand our loyalty. "Just" God is a mere fact, with no moral implications.
    While one could say that in the MN he addressed a "perplexed" audience, it's hard to justify his reasoning in the MT.
    I don't think that he really believed the Eternity of the world, but he wasn't sure, and he couldn't make himself rely on scriptures.