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?


  1. David,
    Thanks for the elaboration, but I'm still perplexed
    You say: “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.” But Rambam says further that “Scripture teaches the Incorporeality of God”, precisely because there are indeed passages which teach it. If there weren’t such scriptures then one would say Incorporeality negates Torah. What Rambam did in that case was figure out which of the contradicting passages is reasonable and then reinterpret the others accordingly.
    However, Rambam also proclaims that an eternal universe contradicts the basic tenets of the Torah. I don’t understand then, how he could suggest that one may honestly interpret scriptures to agree with the Aristotelian eternal universe.

    The example you provided regarding the intelligent Spheres, actually proves my point. Rambam could have accepted the popular interpretation that the passage is figurative (just as Rasag and others understood it to be), because it doesn’t really oppose the intelligent Heavens theory. Instead he went out of his way to interpret the scripture as literally agreeing with the science of his days, suggesting that other interpretations are foolish.

  2. Elyahu,

    You have to read Rambam in 2:25 in full context and not as two separate arguments. He first tells us that the texts dealing with creation on their own could have been interpreted to agree with Eternal Universe just like, for reasons other than texts itself, we interpret incorporeality. IOW the texts themselves are flexible. However Eternity is not provable one way or the other so there is no need to interpret unless there was a theological reason. At this point there is no reason not to read literally but there is still a question. In fact Rabbeinu Azriel, the chaver of Ramban insisted to read the text according to Plato because he considered Yesh MiAyin as a "Nimnaot" and impossibility even to God. Then Rambam tells us that we MUST read creation literally because it would go against other beliefs that we accept by tradition. He however concedes that the Platonic approach and interpretation accordingly, (R. Azriel) would be acceptable though he does need see any compunction to do so.

    I do not see here an argument for interpreting according to Aristotle as a theological possiblity and that he had any doubts. He sees it as unknowable and would not bother with it as he says somewhere else (I cannot remeber on the moment where) that such speculation is a waste. Theology directed him to accept Creation.

    Re Incorporeality, he says that there are irrefutable proofs for it. Had all scripture been conssistently against it he still would have reinterpreted. The fact that there are contradictory texts makes his life easier.

    Re Hashamayim Mesaprim, although I used it to point out how he insisted on texts matching science, even when they could easily be interpreted as an allegvory, which in fact it is after the science has been debunked, I always and still do consider it one of the most difficult chapters in MN. I have no idea what induced him to use that chapter to make his point. Unless he felt that the intelligent spheres is similar to eternity and would never be resolved. I however do not think that he thought so because of what he said about Aristotle and above the moon. So I am stumped. Maybe one day I will get it.