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 Aristotelian science is archaic and has been replaced by modern science which has shown it to be wrong.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.


  1. Didn't we pretty much understand this already from the beginning of the second chapter of Hagigah? Or the midrashim on the form of the letter 'bet'? Has the Rambam, according to you, added something new here; or is he clarifying and elaborating application of the earlier understanding?

  2. Thanks for the post, Mr. Guttmann.

    I had never heard of Rabbi Becker before. Here's a short biography, which may save other readers some Googling.

  3. Mordechai, Rambam put this idea in context of Aristotelian science. He of course read the Mishna that way as I elaborated in an earlier post. But not many see it that way including Rambam's interpreters. As usual Rambam never hands us something on a platter but rather forces us to learn and think until we realize what he was trying to tell us. He is a good teacher.

    Hagyan, Thank you for the link.

  4. I believe that the Rambam in the Moreh goes even further than what I believe you are saying.

    He is not just saying that religion only needs to be compatible with science, but that the Torah should be understood in light of science, no?

    Meaning, we should understand Breishis and other events in the Torah according to what is most scientifically true. Rambam did that with the Aristotilian science of his day in the Moreh, no?

    However, when science contradicts an article of faith, like G-D's ability to intervene in the world, then the Rambam is saying we must accept Mesorah unless science is 100% provable.

    Also, it seems to me like religion must be unprovable. If religion were like science then faith would no longer be a choice. Do we "choose" to believe in gravity? No, it just exists. However, we "choose" to believe in G-D and that He gave us the Torah. There is no difference in our life if we believe in gravity or not. However, there is a huge difference in our lives if we believe in G-D or not. I believe this to be the case because science deals with physical realities whereas religion deals with emotions and "spiritual" reality. SO you can never "feel' G-D, but you can "feel" gravity.

    One last thing, sorry for going long. When you say that religion deals with the "before and afters, the whys and the wherefores, what exactly do you mean? Where does the Torah ever explain to us the before and after? It gives us a vague description of the beginning that is incomprehensible to the human mind. I mean, what is the light of creation? What was there before? Does anyone actually understand any of that stuff? I don;t think so, but it does come to teach us our reason for existence. That is what is comprehensible to us. I think this is what the Rambam, throughout his writings teaches us, no? That the Torah is not a science book, but a guide to life. So the Jewish religion is not there to explain astrology and science, but purpose and meaning. However, as a side point I think, the Rambam says, why contradict the literal meaning of the verse if there is no better alternative.

  5. E-Man,

    Breishis does not tell us how the world was created but that God created it. IOW it introduces us to the idea that God has will. It has nothing to do with science but how science has to be looked at. It therefore interprets the science as known and that will never change no matter where science takes us.That interpretation as understood by us cannot therefore contradict science as known to us. God having will then takes us to the possibility of God having influence on history through nature. How that influence is seen by us depends on how sophisticated our understanding is. Is a miracle something that was preset into nature for a singular occurrence to happen at a certain preset time? Can a prophet take advantage of it because he "knows God's mind"?

    Religion that contradicts science is false and probably Avodah Zara which Rambam defines as sheker. Torat Emet means a "teaching of how to get to know truth".

  6. E-Man

    Re your question, Torah teaches will which is "why", it teaches time is created - Breishis - which teaches "before" and so on.

  7. Thanks for the response. Now that you mentioned a couple things I am interested in your opinion on them.

    DAvid Guttmann said-
    "Can a prophet take advantage of it because he "knows God's mind"?"

    I believe the Rambam is against this opinion, but this is how the Ralbag understands prophecy. Or do you think that the Rambam felt this way or similar to this?

    Also, you said "Is a miracle something that was preset into nature for a singular occurrence to happen at a certain preset time?"

    Do you think that the Rambam holds this position like it is stated in Pirkei avos, or do you think later in life he went back on this theory and took a more conservative view?

  8. E-Man,
    The idea that Rambam became more conventional as he aged is a theory developed by contemporary academicians. I do not buy it. Re prophecy and miracles see my two articles on the subject in Hakirah. You can access them on the sidebar of this blog.

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

    I absolutely believe we do not need “The Perplexed”, however, myself I could not get it directly from the Torah (as my brain was not as good), and from Rambam previous book to The Perplexed I did not get it too. As what I wanted to know was, All about the subject of G-d and the connection to mitzvoth, I found the “The Perplexed” a “live saver” for me… however before I have started reading The Perplexed; I also received a lot of help buy learning from other first.

    If you can get the understanding from the Torah and from the Mishanah of Rambam, then you do not need it.

    Yours sincerely