Friday, February 19, 2010

A Great Person Sees A Doctor.

In a recent post on the excellent blog Bein Din Ledin there was a discussion about the two opposing positions of Rambam and Ramban on whether it is appropriate to seek help from a doctor, when one is ill. I discussed this several years ago here where I showed that each of these great Rishonim followed their own understanding of how the world operates as a result of HKBH’s will. What I found disturbing is the quote from Rav Dessler who suggests that Rambam and Ramban do not disagree but rather are talking about two different people at different levels of perfection. Ramban is talking about the truly perfect human being who relies completely on HKBH who should not use doctors but rely on God’s intervention to heal him when sick. Rambam is talking about a regular person who of course cannot rely on a miracle to save him. Such a person and these people are the majority of the population, should go to doctors and doctors are for them. I find this kind of “synthesis” very disturbing and counterproductive. Rav Dessler’s interpretation suggests that there are no binding natural laws, that a perfected person can transcend these laws and live according to a different reality. Once a person truly relies on God, he no longer is bound by nature. BTW, this is the general consensus in the Yeshiva world that real religiosity is total reliance on HKBH and any slack in that belief is at the root of all the evil that befalls Klal Israel. (I believe that this belief, in the sense it is presented, is at the root of all the bad things we currently witness in our community.) RD implies that Rambam would agree with that statement. In my opinion, he is trivializing a great thinker and does not even give justice to Ramban’s approach. In this post, I will analyze Rambam’s position and show why RD is wrong. In a following one, I will present Ramban’s position.
Rambam in his Pirush on the Mishna clearly states that anyone who suggests that King Chizkyahu hid the Sefer Refuot because he did not want people to avail themselves of it, when sick, instead of praying to God, is a fool impugning evil deeds to great people.

ואתה שמע הפסד זה המאמר ומה שיש בו מן השגיונות ואיך יחסו לחזקיהו מן האולת מה שאין
ראוי ליחס כמותו לרעועי ההמון וכמו כן לסיעתו שהודו לו

You must understand how faulty this idea is, how much nonsense it contains. How could they attribute such evil to Chizkyahu, when it does not befit the lowest of the populace to do such a thing? How much more to [attribute such evildoing] to his retinue [of sages] who supposedly agreed with him.

Rambam is unequivocal in stating that this idea is not only nonsense but also evil. Rambam’s world is the reality of material existence that we live in and human beings, with their unique ability, must study it, understand it and by doing that decipher God’s will at creation and act in accordance with that will. It is axiomatic in Rambam’s world that “good” is not necessarily that which makes a particular person happy and “bad” is not that which makes him unhappy. “Good” is continuity and existence and “bad” or “evil” is destruction and any action that might lead to it. We are not talking just about the existence or destruction of the individual, but rather that of his current family and future descendants, the community present and future, all of humanity present and future and even our world and its future. When man was created with his special ability of freedom of thought and choice, the creation of the world was completed. It now had a component that could alter and make changes and adjustments to it as needed. It now had the tools for its long-term survival as a planet for human habitation. We believe that this happened as a result of God’s will, a will whose ultimate purpose and goal we cannot and should not try to understand. It would be a futile quest. However, we do know that God wants it to exist forever and that He has given humankind the responsibility to see to it that it does.

כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל-הָאָרֶץ. 28

And God blessed them; and God said unto them, 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creep upon the earth.'

This verse reads as a command to initiate an ongoing process without any timeline or end point. It is a constant responsibility that goes on forever. Man must multiply so that he can subdue and dominate his surroundings. Part of that dominion and subjugation is to understand the world we live in, its physics, chemistry, biology and all sciences that pertain to it. It is in this process of thinking that man discovers God, His will and ways, and learns how to emulate them.

המצווה השמינית
הציווי שנצטווינו להדמות לו ית' כפי יכלתנו, והוא אמרו:
"והלכת בדרכיו" (דברים כח, ט). וכבר כפל ציווי זה ואמר: "ללכת בכל-דרכיו" (שם יא, כב), ובא בפירוש עניין זה:
"מה הקב"ה נקרא רחום - אף אתה היה רחום;
הקב"ה נקרא חנון - אף אתה היה חנון;
הקב"ה נקרא צדיק - אף אתה היה צדיק;
הקב"ה נקרא חסיד - אף אתה היה חסיד" - זהו לשון ספרי.
וכבר כפל צווי זה בלשון אחר ואמר: "אחרי ה' אלקיכם תלכו" (שם יג, ה), וגם בפירושו בא, שעניינו להתדמות למעשים הטובים ולמידות הנכבדות שבהם מתואר יתעלה על דרך המשל - יתעלה על הכל עילוי רב.

This is the eighth Mitzvat Asseh. The first example of emulating of God is

"מה הקב"ה נקרא רחום - אף אתה היה רחום
Just as God is merciful, so you be merciful.

What exactly is merciful?

“We see, for example, how well He provides for the life of the embryo of living beings. How He endows with certain faculties both the embryo itself and those who have to rear it after its birth, in order that it may be protected from death and destruction, guarded against all harm, and assisted in the performance of all that is required [for its development]. Similar acts, when performed by us, are due to a certain emotion and tenderness called mercy and pity. God therefore, is said to be merciful.” (MN1:54)

Isn’t healing others and ourselves by developing and administering medicines that prolong life and existence, what emulating God in this context mean? Is it not what Rambam means when he says, “Similar acts, when performed by us, are due to a certain emotion and tenderness called mercy and pity”? It is a Mitzvat Asseh thus a-priori obligation that commands us to follow in God’s ways and give or take medicines when sick. Doing nothing and relying on God, according to this approach is not an option, it is sinful and wrong and probably even borders on apostasy.
So where does prayer come into play? What does the prophet mean when he criticizes King Assa for turning to doctors without praying?

דהי”ב טז יב
גם בחליו לא דרש את ה’ כי ברופאים

When we decide how to act based on our understanding of the healing sciences, we want to make sure that it is the correct decision long term, that it fits in with HKBH’s will for the continuity of the whole. We acknowledge the human limitations of not seeing beyond the immediate and in that humble moment, we turn to God to help us overcome our own failings that may influence our decision. It is only in this state of realism and humility than we can hope to make the correct decision and act properly. It is in this state of true self-analysis that we can hope for an answer to our prayer. King Assa was criticized for not acknowledging his humanity, his human limitations.

The greater the man the greater is his understanding of the human frailty and the greater his humility.

ג וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, עָנָו מְאֹד--מִכֹּל, הָאָדָם, אֲשֶׁר, עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. {ס} 3

Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.--

The paradigm of a perfect human being was the humblest. He too would have turned to medicine when sick after acknowledging his limitations and praying for guidance.
Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Prophecy

Rabbi Sacks has a great post on Prophecy here. Worthwhile read.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Rambam and Aristotles - A Complex and Nuanced Relationship. (Part 5 of a Series)

Continuing with Elyahu’s comment on this post.

Elyahu said-

“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 הראשון מצוי 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 favors 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 is hard to justify his reasoning in the MT. I do not think that he really believed the Eternity of the world, but he was not sure, and he could not make himself rely on scriptures.”

Elyahu is arguing that Rambam interprets scriptural texts a-priori in conformity with his system. He argues that Rambam describes the belief in God as a belief in a First Cause, an impersonal God, rather than God of history who is deeply involved in our daily life. Basing himself on R. Yehudah Halevi, he claims that belief in God is based on an understanding of history, the God of our fathers, the God who freed us from Egypt, rather than God the Creator and First Cause. The scriptures, according to Elyahu, seem to follow this approach. Rambam ignores that and as proof text for his understanding he uses the verse where God declares, “I am your God” ignoring the second part of the sentence, “that took you out of the land of Egypt”. Clearly, Rambam just forces his theology into the text.

I believe that there is a misunderstanding of what Rambam is saying. He is not teaching us a philosophical fact, the existence of God and His hierarchical position in existence. He is just stating certain philosophical facts – beliefs – which the Mitzvah of knowing God commands us to investigate and to develop a deep understanding of those beliefs – each according to his ability. It is not sufficient to just believe but also to know why that is so and apprehend correctly, what it means. He does not prove God’s existence or what one has to believe about Him from the verse "אנוכי ה' אלוהיך but rather uses it as prooftext that there is a Mitzvat Asseh to engage in this kind of speculation. This becomes clear if we turn to Sefer Hamitzvot Asseh 1.

המצווה הראשונה
היא הציווי שנצטווינו להאמין באלהות, והוא: שנאמין שיש (שם) עילה וסיבה, שהיא הפועל לכל הנמצאים.
וזהו אמרו יתעלה: "אנכי ה' אלקיך" (שמות כ, ב ודברים ה, ו).
ובסוף גמרא מכות אמרו:
"תרי"ג מצוות נאמרו לו למשה בסיני.
מאי קרא? תורה ציווה לנו משה" (דברים לג, ד)
כלומר: מנין ת'ו'ר'ה'.
והקשו על זה ואמרו:
"תורה בגימטריא הכי הוי? שש מאות וחד סרי הוי!".
ובאה התשובה:
"אנכי ה' אלקיך' ו'לא יהיה לך' מפי הגבורה שמעום".
הנה נתבאר לך, שאנכי ה' מכלל תרי"ג מצוות, והוא ציווי להאמין, כמו שביארנו.

(BTW, although claims that this internet version of Sefer Hamitzvot is the Rav Kapach translation – it is definitely not).

Ramban disagrees vehemently with Rambam who counts this as a Mitzvat Asseh. He sees the passuk as a statement of fact. Ramban does not accept the possibility that philosophical speculation can be commanded. Rambam on the other hand confronts the Gemara in Makot that clearly counts the Mitzvah based on the verse and the correct reading - מפי הגבורה שמעום. He understands גבורה to mean the power of the mind and God commanding to use our minds to understand these two Mitzvot. These two Mitzvot are both issues that deal with speculation rather than action. ו'לא יהיה לך' is not an act of worship of Avodah Zara, that is a separate negative command, it is a prohibition to accept polytheism and one has to arrive at that by rational conviction to fulfill the mitzvah properly. In Sefer Hamitzvot Rambam just lists and discusses the source and sometimes the reason for Mitzvot without going into detail about how they are practiced. In MT, he explains the Halacha, the practical aspect of the Mitzvah. In the Halacha above, he tells us that the two Mitzvot, the Asseh and the Lo Ta’asseh are linked. A proper understanding of God is one that negates the possibility of another god(s). The proof texts are
אנכי ה' אלקיך' ו'לא יהיה לך' which the Gemara explained meant philosophical speculation according to Rambam’s interpretation. If that is the case הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים is not a proof or a pointer to God but rather a statement of fact. The idea that what obligates loyalty to God is the redemption is a Nachmanidean concept and not a Maimonidean. Rambam sees it as the obligation of every human being to develop his uniqueness – the Sechel – and therefore want to find and attach himself to Truth. That is why, earlier in the Halacha, in his description of what one has to demonstrate rationally, the emphasis is Truth.

לפיכך אין אמיתתו כאמיתת אחד מהם. [ד] הוא שהנביא אומר "וה' אלוהים אמת" (ירמיהו י,י)--הוא לבדו האמת, ואין לאחר אמת כאמיתו. והוא שהתורה אומרת "אין עוד, מלבדו" (דברים ד,לה), כלומר אין שם מצוי אמת מלבדו כמותו.

Couple this with Hilchot Teshuvah Perek 10

העובד מאהבה, עוסק בתורה ובמצוות והולך בנתיבות החכמה--לא מפני דבר בעולם, לא מפני יראת הרעה, ולא כדי לירש הטובה: אלא עושה האמת, מפני שהוא אמת; וסוף הטובה לבוא בכלל

History to Rambam is important as a fact, an understanding of how human nature developed, we are the sum total of our past and our ancestors, but History is not a religious issue. Yetziat Mitzraim is remembered because it formed us as a nation and we made a covenant with God at the time and put us on the trajectory we are on through history. It made us into what we are and how we act in the world. Even Matan Torah, unlike Halevi, is not based on Historical facts but on Philosophical/Theological concepts. But that is a completely different subject.

Rambam does pray to the הראשון מצוי - the First Existent or Cause. His Tefilah is not the same as Ramban’s. It is meditation and contemplation as part of the obligation to speculate about God. I will hopefully have an article explaining this in detail in next Hakirah.

Rambam did not believe in the Eternity of the World, not because he had scientific proof to the contrary. He held, rightfully so, that such proof is not possible and does not exist and never will in our physical existence. He could not accept it theologically, and that is the only criteria that one can have for this non-scientific issue, because it negates will to HKBH. Will is one of the pillars upon which we base how we understand HKBH.

Elyahu, I thank you for a very edifying comment. It gave me an opportunity to really clarify these Halachot in Rambam and points out his unique approach.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Rambam and Aristotles - A Complex and Nuanced Relationship. (Part 4 of a Series)

Elyahu in a comment on a this post writes: (slightly edited)


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-priori. This approach can be demonstrated in both 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 Tanach which describe God in corporeal terms, there are also many that describe him as abstract. Not to mention that the sages also insisted that he is abstract. However, it is very hard to find passages which describe the universe as Eternal.”

I believe that the comment warrants a post as an answer. I will first deal with this quote from MN and follow up with another post for the second proof Elyahu brings from MT.

Your argument, if I understand it correctly, is that as Rambam compares the question of Eternity to corporeality as to texts that have to be reinterpreted to be in accord with the accepted belief, yet we do not find texts that argue for eternity. It must therefore be that Rambam interprets texts a-priori. It is true that there are very few verses that may be read as intimating an eternal universe. I do not see where Rambam claims otherwise in the passage above. He only addresses the verses that talk about Creation and says that he would have had an easier time interpreting them in accordance with an eternal universe if that had been proven. Where do you see a-priori interpretation here? I however believe that Rambam reads the scriptural verses in a way that is in harmony with science. There is no question about that. Thus if Eternal Universe were proven scientifically he would have had no problem interpreting the text to conform to that scientific fact. After all, there are a great many corporeal verses that he managed to reinterpret because corporeality is unacceptable.

I want to use this opportunity to further clarify how I see the issue of science and theology especially if we base our thinking on a medieval thinker like Rambam. The problem is where does science end and where does theology begin. As scientific knowledge advances, the transition point from science to theology recedes and some things that were considered to have only a theological explanation are shown to be scientific. The clearest example is the one I discuss about the thinking spheres. Until gravity was understood, the spheres were seen to be composed of a fifth element that could think and therefore self-propelled. Rambam therefore vehemently insists that when the passuk in Tehilim 19:2 says that the “heavens declare the glory of God” they are really speaking (MN2:5) and it is not an allegory.

SCRIPTURE supports the theory that the spheres are animate and intellectual, i.e., capable of comprehending things. They are not, as ignorant persons believe, inanimate masses like fire and earth, but are, as the philosophers assert, endowed with life, and serve their Lord, whom they mightily praise and glorify; "The heavens declare the glory of God," etc. (Ps. xix. 2). It is a great error to think that this is a mere figure of speech: for the verbs "to declare" and "to relate," when joined together, are, in Hebrew, only used of intellectual beings.”

There are however certain theological concepts that by definition will never be provable scientifically no matter how advanced science becomes. Those theological concepts are therefore taught by tradition and scriptural texts that are indirectly affected by that position. Eternal Universe is one of those positions that can never be proven or refuted scientifically. We are dealing with pre-science. The reason that Jewish theology insists it is not eternal is because theology insists that God has will (Ratzon) and is not just the Platonic demiurge that has no choice or will. With this in mind, we can understand the next few sentences that follow the MN text Elyahu quotes above,

For two reasons, however, we have not done so, and have not accepted the Eternity of the Universe. First, the Incorporeality of God has been demonstrated by proof: those passages in the Bible, which in their literal sense contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise. But the Eternity of the Universe has not been proved; a mere argument in favor of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument. Secondly, our belief in the Incorporeality of God is not contrary to any of the fundamental principles of our religion: it is not contrary to the words of any prophet. Only ignorant people believe that it is contrary to the teaching of Scripture: but we have shown that this is not the case: on the contrary, Scripture teaches the Incorporeality of God. If we were to accept the Eternity of the Universe as taught by Aristotle, that everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, we should necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion. We should disbelieve all miracles and signs, and certainly reject all hopes and fears derived from Scripture, unless the miracles are also explained figuratively”.

Rambam is thus saying first, “the Eternity of the Universe has not been proved”. Furthermore, theology, the foundation of our religion, teaches us about miracles, signs, reward and punishment which all are dependent on a God that has will and can chose how to act. Denying will to God is against these traditions. Accepting an eternal universe accomplishes just that, it takes will away from God. A universe that always existed does not require will to exist. We must therefore reject it and accept creation in time, which can never be proven or disproven by science no matter how far it advances. Rambam dedicates the whole chapter 2:15 to make the argument that shows why eternity of the universe is one of those questions that will never be resolved by science. He further shows that even Aristotle saw it that way and therefore used tentative language when he introduced the theory.

The question of whether creation in time was from absolute nothingness or from an eternal Materia Prima is another matter. From a theological point of view, Rambam can accept both positions because they both require will on the part of the Creator to create whether from nothingness or form the universe from a Materia Prima. Scientifically neither can be proved or disproved. He therefore admits the possibility that Creation was not from nothingness. He therefore sees no reason to interpret the scriptural verses. He reads them as is.

“If, however, we accepted the Eternity of the Universe in accordance with the second of the theories which we have expounded above (MN2:23), and assumed, with Plato, that the heavens are likewise transient, we should not be in opposition to the fundamental principles of our religion. This theory would not imply the rejection of miracles, but, on the contrary, would admit them as possible. The Scriptural text might have been explained accordingly, and many expressions might have been found in the Bible and in other writings that would confirm and support this theory. But there is no necessity for this expedient, so long as the theory has not been proved. As there is no proof sufficient to convince us, this theory need not be taken into consideration, or the other one; we take the text of the Bible literally, and say that it teaches us a truth which we cannot prove”.

Some refer to this last passage and claim that Rambam says that we should take the text literally at all times as long as there is no hard proof that it should be read otherwise. If what I said here is correct, and I am sure it is, the reverse is true. One reads the text literally only when it deals with something that is and never can be provable scientifically. If it is something we do not understand now, but it is conceivable that science one day may find a plausible explanation that may contradict the literal text, we must be cautious and not lock ourselves into a position that may prove embarrassing and problematic in the future. However, this last comment of Rambam shows that he did not interpret texts a-priori – “we take the text of the Bible literally, and say that it teaches us a truth which we cannot prove”. It is only when there are actual or potential conflicts with science that texts have to be read and interpreted with great caution so as to not lock ourselves into a position where theology and reality are in conflict. Why have so many of our contemporary leaders ignored this creating so much anxiety, pain and conflict in our community?