Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Some Thoughts About Religion, Science and Theology.

In the last two posts, I pointed out that our scientific knowledge is limited to the physical universe and that there are questions that science cannot answer and we have to find other ways to resolve them. These questions are dealt with by theology or what is classically referred to as metaphysics. There is no objective way of proving the veracity of metaphysical and theological theories. It is here that speculation, an amalgam of knowledge, intuition, imagination, faith of a self-perfected individual based on divinely inspired revelation (nevuah) transmitted by tradition, plays a crucial role. Rambam however sets down a very important rule; for a theological answer to be acceptable, it cannot violate or contradict any scientific fact. In other words, it must be compatible with reality, as we know it.

Although this seems to be straightforward, it unfortunately is not readily accepted by all. In fact, the generally accepted sense in the frum community is that religion trumps science. The argument is that science is evolving while Torah is eternal. Science will eventually come around and find out that the Torah was right. It also assumes that the Torah contains all knowledge though in a coded form and great people, who dedicate their life to learning, will eventually decipher the secrets of the universe in the Torah. It is based on a reading of Ramban’s position which he first elaborates upon in his introduction to his Pirush on the Torah and repeats in several of his writings. I am not an expert on Ramban but I suspect that he was much more nuanced. Rambam however is of a different opinion and as Rav Kook writes in his letter to Ze’ev Yavetz, the historian, his approach resonates much more with contemporary knowledge.

The idea that underlies Rambam’s approach is that the goal of man is to integrate scientific knowledge with theology. The study of Torah is much broader than just Halacha. In Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:12 Rambam includes in the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah the study of physics and metaphysics[1]. The study of Halacha with the goal of knowing how to act in our daily life following its tenets is the “bread and meat” because it forms the base upon which unbiased speculation can develop, the perfected individual. The study of science, the knowledge of how the world works, is pursued simultaneously once a basic knowledge of Halacha has been established. As science deals with facts only, the philosophical questions of how, when and why the universe came into existence, what is humankind’s role in it, what is my role as part of humanity and ultimately what is God’s relationship to our existence can only be addressed through metaphysical speculation. Metaphysical speculation is subjective and therefore vulnerable to personal biases and preferences, hence the need for self-discipline and self-improvement, the weakening of our narcissistic tendencies, which is the goal of Halacha and Mitzvot[2]. The paradigm of the perfect human being who has sublimated his personal biases and has dedicated himself exclusively to the quest for knowledge is Moshe Rabbeinu, the teacher of all prophets. Prophecy or revelation is what we call the highest-level speculation of a finely tuned individual who has perfectly balanced his intuition, emotions, imagination and rational faculty after having conquered his personal biases through a lifelong regimen of self-discipline and self-improvement. It is the ultimate goal of every human being to attain prophecy although no one has accomplished that in the last 2400 plus years. In this educational system, Science and theology are integrated and seen as one; both are equally needed to get a correct understanding of God and the whys and wherefores of our existence. Torah comprises Halacha, which is the tool needed for behavioral, psychological and mental self-improvement which allows for unbiased speculation, Science and metaphysics (philosophy in modern parlance). Rambam in Hilchot Talmud Torah lays out this educational process in very clear terms. One gathers information constantly and at the same time allows for time to absorb and contemplate all that information and integrate it into an understanding of God and the individual’s place in it. [3]

There is no mystical teaching in this system. A person may have a personal mystical experience but this cannot be transmitted or shared with another person thus mystical teachings are inherently false. Anything metaphysical that does not have as its basis the traditional prophetic teachings which ended 2400 plus years ago is no more than pure imagination[4]. There is no “Giluy Elyahu” or other such mystical learning in Rambam’s world.

On a personal level, I buy completely into this approach and it gives me great satisfaction when I can live up to it, which unfortunately is not very often. It takes hard work, discipline and constant awareness of responsibility in our actions and interactions with others. Every thing we do has consequences and we have to be cognizant of them before we do anything. But it also empowers us as human beings who are in control of our destiny and not just subject to the vagaries of fate or as determined by God, as most religions teach[5].

[1]והעניינות הנקראין פרדס, בכלל התלמוד.

And in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 4:13 we read

וענייני ארבעה פרקים אלו שבחמש מצוות האלו--הם שחכמים הראשונים קוראין אותן פרדס

And in 4:10

כל הדברים האלו שדיברנו בעניין זה, כמר מדלי הם; ודברים עמוקים הם, אבל אינם כעומק עניין פרק ראשון ושני. וביאור כל אלו הדברים שבפרק שלישי ורביעי, הוא הנקרא מעשה בראשית

[2] ואני אומר שאין ראוי להיטייל בפרדס, אלא מי שנתמלא כרסו לחם ובשר; ולחם ובשר זה, הוא לידע ביאור האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן משאר המצוות. ואף על פי שדברים אלו, דבר קטן קראו אותם חכמים, שהרי אמרו חכמים דבר גדול מעשה מרכבה, ודבר קטן הוויה דאביי ורבא; אף על פי כן, ראויין הן להקדימן: שהן מיישבין דעתו של אדם תחילה, ועוד שהן הטובה הגדולה שהשפיע הקדוש ברוך הוא ליישוב העולם הזה, כדי לנחול חיי העולם הבא. ואפשר שיידעם הכול--גדול וקטן, איש ואישה, בעל לב רחב ובעל לב קצר.
Yesodei Hatorah 4:13

[3] [יא] וחייב לשלש את זמן למידתו: שליש בתורה שבכתב; ושליש בתורה שבעל פה; ושליש יבין וישכיל אחרית דבר מראשיתו, ויוציא דבר מדבר, וידמה דבר לדבר, וידין במידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן עד שיידע היאך הוא עיקר המידות והיאך יוציא האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן מדברים שלמד מפי השמועה--ועניין זה, הוא הנקרא תלמוד.
יד [יב] כיצד: היה בעל אומנות--יהיה עוסק במלאכה שלוש שעות ביום, ובתורה תשע: אותן התשע--קורא בשלוש מהן, בתורה שבכתב; ובשלוש, בתורה שבעל פה; ובשלוש, מתבונן בדעתו להבין דבר מדבר. ודברי קבלה, בכלל תורה שבכתב הן; ופירושן, בכלל תורה שבעל פה; והעניינות הנקראין פרדס, בכלל התלמוד.
טו במה דברים אמורים, בתחילת תלמודו של אדם; אבל כשיגדיל בחכמה ולא יהיה צריך לא ללמוד תורה שבכתב, ולא לעסוק תמיד בתורה שבעל פה--יקרא בעיתים מזומנים תורה שבכתב ודברי השמועה, כדי שלא ישכח דבר מדברי דיני תורה, וייפנה כל ימיו לתלמוד בלבד, לפי רוחב ליבו ויישוב דעתו.

[4] See MN 3:17 –
אבל דעתי אני ביסוד הזה כלומר: ההשגחה האלוהית,
הוא מה שאבאר לך, ואיני נסמך בדעה זו אשר אבאר למה שהביאתני אליו ההוכחה, אלא נסמך אני בה למה שנתבאר לי שהוא כוונת ספר ה' וספרי נביאנו, והשקפה זו אשר אני סובר מעטת
הזרויות מן ההשקפות שקדמו, וקרובה יותר אל השיקול 70

ואשר הביאני לדעה זו,
לפי שלא מצאתי כלל לשון ספר נביא שמזכיר שיש לה' השגחה באיש מאישי 79
בעלי החיים זולתי באישי האדם בלבד, וכבר תמהו הנביאים גם על
שיש השגחה באישי האדם, ושהוא פחות מכדי להשגיח עליו, כל שכן מה שזולתו מבעלי החיים.
אמר מה אדם ותדעהו וגו' 80,
מה אנוש כי תזכרנו וגו'

Similar statements are spread throughout Rambam’s writings.

[5] א רשות כל אדם נתונה לו: אם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך טובה ולהיות צדיק, הרשות בידו; ואם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך רעה ולהיות רשע, הרשות בידו. הוא שכתוב בתורה "הן האדם היה כאחד ממנו, לדעת, טוב ורע" (בראשית ג,כב)--כלומר הן מין זה של אדם היה אחד בעולם, ואין לו מין שני דומה לו בזה העניין, שיהא הוא מעצמו בדעתו ובמחשבתו יודע הטוב והרע ועושה כל מה שהוא חפץ, ואין לו מי שיעכב על ידו מלעשות הטוב או הרע. וכיון שכן הוא, "פן ישלח ידו" (שם).
ב אל יעבור במחשבתך דבר זה שאומרים טיפשי האומות ורוב גולמי בני ישראל, שהקדוש ברוך הוא גוזר על האדם מתחילת ברייתו להיות צדיק או רשע. אין הדבר כן, אלא כל אדם ואדם ראוי להיות צדיק כמשה רבנו או רשע כירובעם, או חכם או סכל, או רחמן או אכזרי, או כיליי או שוע; וכן שאר כל הדעות.
Hilchot Teshuvah 5:1

Monday, May 10, 2010

Is The Guide For The Perplexed Relevant To A Contemporary Jew?

I was directed by a friend to an excellent article by Rabbi Moshe Becker, The Timeless Message of Moreh Nevuchim .

Rabbi Becker first shows that the accepted understanding of the medieval readers of the Moreh as well as those who read him since was that Rambam’s goal in writing the Moreh was to synthesize Aristotelian science and philosophy with the Torah. That understanding led to a wide and diverse interpretation of Rambam. Some asserted that his “secret” or esoteric positions denied creation ab nihilo, accepted eternity of the universe, denied God’s involvement in the world and basically saw him as a heretic. Some of those who interpreted him this way claimed that the Moreh was a forgery attributed to Rambam of Mishne Torah or in the best of circumstances, parts of the Moreh were written by others. Others, who could not accept that Rambam could have such heretic beliefs, offered a convoluted and clearly forced interpretation. This led to the Moreh being ignored in Yeshivot and becoming the interest exclusively of academics and historians who ignore the evidence from all his writings, that Rambam was, first and foremost, a deeply religious and committed Jew.[1] This interpretation also makes the Moreh irrelevant to contemporary theological thinkers. Aristotelian science is archaic and has been replaced by modern science which has shown it to be wrong. How then can Rambam’s understanding, based on a disproven theory, be of any relevance to a contemporary Jew?

Rabbi Becker however points out that Rambam many times in the Moreh insists that he is not writing a philosophical but rather a theological treatise. Rambam therefore presents a theological position that we must accept as Jews, that God willed the universe into existence in time; He therefore has free will and acts freely as He wishes. This position is fundamentally the opposite of Aristotle who believed in an unchanging God who is eternally parallel with the universe. Please read Rabbi Becker’s article linked above, before going on.

I would like to add to this [2] that Rambam teaches in the Moreh that it is important to differentiate between what can be scientifically proven and what cannot, the how and whys of existence. Rambam spends many chapters at the end of the first part and at the beginning of the second part making that point. He dedicates chapter 2:15 to demonstrate that Aristotle could not prove[3] the eternity of the universe and that he, Aristotle, was well aware of it. It is a theory that can never be proven. Nor can the opposite theory, that God created the universe in time, be proven. Consequently, the idea that God has will is not provable as creation from nothingness is the strongest indication that He does have will[4]. The fact that these things are not provable has not changed since Aristotelian science has been debunked. Contemporary science has not changed this. We still do not know what preceded the Big Bang or what triggered the event.

In MN 1:50 Rambam teaches us that, “If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of this belief or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief is true.” From a theological point of view, we cannot accept anything other than that God has free will. We cannot accept the deterministically bound God of Aristotle as that would negate religion. We therefore have to make sure and check that belief in a God with free will does not contradict any laws of science and consequently reality. If it does not, we must accept it as truth. Rambam teaches us this in Moreh Hanevuchim showing us how he dealt with the science of his times. The same applies to us and is extremely relevant to us. No matter how science evolves, the same will remain true. Science deals with the here and now while theology deals with the “before and after, the whys and the wherefores”.

I have written about this many times on my blog and I keep on coming back to it. I struggled with this immensely during many years having the notion that there must be a proof for God having created the world from nothingness. Without that, I thought that religion and its teachings stood on very shaky grounds. We have this notion because that is how science is viewed. It requires actual confirmation of any new theory[5]. Realizing that religion was not science, it only had to be compatible with science, was an eye opener to me. I believe that this is the underlying teaching of Rambam’s Moreh and makes his treatise as relevant to us as is his Mishne Torah.

[1] The conclusion in this last sentence is my own – not Rabbi Becker.
[2] and also modify some details in Rabbi Becker’s presentation
[3] Not as Rabbi Becker writes, “did not hold”.
[4] They are “ontological” explanations.
[5] For an interesting discussion of this subject, see Rabbi Dr. Dror Fixler’s article in the latest issue of BDD.