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


  1. Very interesting post. Ethics/Halacha readies the mind for objectivity needed to counteract the vagueness and subjectivity intrinsic to theoretical thought.

    You seem to be identifying intuition or judgment with Metaphysics alone, fact with science. I am left wondering why this is. Isn't any definitive induction of cause, as opposed to description of fact, a product of intuition and imagination? Why do you ascribe it only to Metaphysics?

    Rambam would seem to apply his rule of acknowledging facts equally to scientific thought, as well as Metaphysical. So too his demand for ethical / halachic preparation. A person must be prepared in Ethics/ halacha before Maase Breisheet (science), not just Merkava(Philosophy)?

    Lastly, could you clarify more precisely, the difference between the science and theology to be studied during the preparatory phase, ie during the division of TT into three, vs when all TT is Talmud?

    I have been preoccupied,not following the posts for a while, pardon me if you have dealt with this in the previous parts.

  2. >I am left wondering why this is. Isn't any definitive induction of cause, as opposed to description of fact, a product of intuition and imagination? Why do you ascribe it only to Metaphysics?

    The way I understand it is that intuition helps one arrive at an inductive understanding in science. It remains however a theory until it is empirically proven. The case in point is Einstein's theories are only now becoming definitive as they are shown in real experiments to be so. In metaphysics that cannot happen by definition.

    Re the need for ethics in ma'asseh Breishit I have thought about it many times. Scholars say that his ma;asseh breishit contained a lot of what he considered unprovable theories. I am not convinced but rather think that it is a stepping stone to MM and even when facts confront you bias may push to one side. I still need to work this out definitively.

    Re your last question, I hope to post on this . I want to address this but also how this works and affects the individual and how does he deal with others as he develops his own learning. That is a quite broad subject that is intertwined with many issues.

  3. Mr. Guttmann,

    From your first paragraph: "Rambam however sets down a very important rule; for a theological answer to be acceptable, it cannot violate or contradict any scientific fact."

    Your diction leaves me a bit unclear. Do you mean that metaphysics is constrained by science, but that science is not constrained by metaphysics?

  4. Hagyan,

    Please call me David and yes, Science is reality while theology interprets reality.

  5. Thanks, David.

    I get the impression that you prefer the term 'theology' to the term 'metaphysics'. If that's so ... why? Do they have different connotations for you?

    (I happen to prefer 'metaphysics' because so much of what 'theology' typically names is so dreadful.)

  6. Well, Ma'aseh Merkavah which generally is translated as metaphysics is really theology namely Jewish theology. You see metaphysics is basically conjectures, if however you build it on Divrei Nevuah, which is Rambam's approach it is indeed a theological position.

  7. But I do empathize with your disgust (is that too sharp?) of what is referred to as theology in general.

  8. DG: "But I do empathize with your disgust (is that too sharp?) of what is referred to as theology in general."

    Let's just say that, too often, the λόγος about the θεός does violence to the trustworthy logical arts.

    DG: "... metaphysics is basically conjectures ..."

    F.Y.I., I don't think this is true, but at the moment I don't know how to explain my objection.

  9. David,

    In your classification, are the אורים ותומים 'reality'? They're not 'science', but we stake our gravest issues of national survival on them.

    [הלכות כלי המקדש פרק י]

    ט [י] עשו בבית שני אורים ותומים, כדי להשלים שמונה בגדים--ואף על פי שלא היו נשאלין בהן. ומפני מה לא היו שואלין בהן: מפני שלא הייתה שם רוח הקודש; וכל כוהן שאינו מדבר ברוח הקודש, ואין שכינה שורה עליו--אין נשאלין בו.

    י [יא] וכיצד שואלין: עומד הכוהן ופניו לפני הארון, והשואל מאחריו, פניו לאחורי הכוהן. ואומר השואל, אעלה או לא אעלה; ואינו שואל בקול רם, ולא מהרהר בליבו, אלא בקול נמוך, כמי שמתפלל בינו לבין עצמו.

    יא ומיד רוח הקודש לובשת את הכוהן, ומביט בחושן, ורואה בו במראה הנבואה, עלה או לא תעלה--באותייות שבולטות מן החושן כנגד פניו. והכוהן משיבו ואומר לו עלה, או לא תעלה.

    יב אין שואלין על שני דברים כאחד; ואם שאל, משיבין על הראשון בלבד. ואין נשאלין בהן להדיוט--אלא למלך, או לבית דין, או למי שצורך הציבור בו: שנאמר "ולפני אלעזר הכוהן יעמוד . . ." (במדבר כז,כא), "הוא" (שם) זה המלך; "וכל בני ישראל" (שם), זה משוח מלחמה או מי שצורך הציבור בשאלתו; "וכל העדה" (שם), אלו בית דין הגדול.

  10. A clarification: In asking about the אורים ותומים, I'm not asking about them qua some kind of device, but rather about the totality of the procedure of which they are a component.

  11. as you quoted

    וכל כוהן שאינו מדבר ברוח הקודש, ואין שכינה שורה עליו--אין נשאלין בו.

    Isn't it a precondition that the Cohen be perfect and only then does the Urim Vetumim work? It is one of the aspects of prophecy where a perfected human being who uses the Urim Vetumim as a tool for total concentration and unbiased speculation to recommend a course of action.

    BTW, the word רוח הקודשis a little difficult as it should have been Ruach Hakadosh for "holy spirit". The way it reads it is translated as the Ruach that comes from the Kodesh. R. Jose Faur makes that point in his Homo Mysticus and it is quite telling. When a perfected person concentrates on a specific place he is able to intuit the truth and the true path.

  12. David

    I look forward to that post re other minds. Your point reminds me of Rambam's rationale for classifying the 2nd class of thinkers regarding Agada, as worse even than literalists. They had no regard for politics and rhetoric it would seem.

    I notice that you do not refer to TSBK in this piece. Where does this reading fit into the process of preparation for Philosophy?

    Would you comment on TSBK as Rambam deals with TSBK there in Chelek as the object of distortion of the Darshanim? It seems he views reading TSBK as an essential instrument to grasping the "good" underlying Mitzvot. The literalists and "accursed" second group both seem to be blocking a proper reading of the themes of Gan Eden, Mashiach, Beracha and Kelala and Techiyyat hametim in TSBK.

  13. David,

    Re: the אורים ותומים procedure

    Could you give me a postscript that "spells out" how you apply the terms 'science' and 'reality' for this case?


  14. Hagyan,

    See Shofetim chapter 20 where reality and prophecy vie for supremacy.

    Rabbi sacks, I thought when I said that speculation has to be based on nevuah it was understood that it included TSBK.

  15. Yes, you did indeed refer to TSBK, my mistake. If in your coming posts you would expand on this, spell out the exact development we get on the way to speculation that is unique to TSBK alone?

  16. David,

    Re.: Your reference to הל' שופטים

    1. Your categorization that divides 'reality' from 'prophecy' is precisely at issue. You presume that which is to be shown.

    2. Anyway, a שופט, though "close", is not inherently a נביא; though נבואה might sometimes come into play via, e.g., the אורים ותומים.

  17. >The way I understand it is that intuition helps one arrive at an inductive understanding in science. It remains however a theory until it is empirically proven<
    Cant you say that when a prophet proves his prophecy is true through a miracle or a prediction of the future(as long as it doesnt counter Toras Moshe).Wouldnt this be considered empirical proof?

  18. Hagyan,

    My reference was to sefer shoftim in Tanach not Rambam.


    When a prophet proves his prophecy it is not empirical but Halachik see Hil Yesodei Hatorah 8:6

    ו נמצאת אומר, שכל נביא שיעמוד אחר משה רבנו, אין אנו מאמינין בו מפני האות לבדו, כדי שנאמר אם יעשה אות נשמע לו לכל מה שיאמר; אלא מפני המצוה שציוונו משה בתורה, ואמר אם נתן אות, "אליו, תשמעון" (דברים יח,טו): כמו שציוונו לחתוך הדבר על פי שני עדים, ואף על פי שאין אנו יודעין אם אמת העידו אם שקר; כך מצוה לשמוע מזה הנביא, אם האות אמת או בכישוף ולאט.

  19. David,

    Let me give you a confession instead of an argument.

    I still don't know what you mean by 'reality', so I'll use words that are meaningful to me.

    What I call 'thinking' I learned by doing physics. I am a phenomenon within in a "world" of phenomena. I observe some of them. In some of those I observe I have learned to perceive their causal structure. When reading the statements of physicists I seek to learn: "Which phenomena was the author looking at?" and "Do I know those phenomena?" and "What did the author perceive in those phenomena?" Most often, for me, this is very difficult. Sometimes this has been a labor of decades.

    When I came to Torah I 'thought' about it and 'read' it the same way. When I came to (Aristotelian) logic I also 'thought' about it and 'read' it the same way. So far I have found neither a reason, nor an inner capacity, to do anything else.

    It is self-evident to me that I am not a metaphysician. It is self-evident to me that I have never observed the phenomenon of prophecy. Nothing in my experience suggests that if I one day enter metaphysics 'thinking' and 'reading' would become something different.

  20. Hagyan,

    Your explanation of "thinking" is concise as the way we analyze "phenomena" and their causes. That is "reality" as we know it.However, if we focus on causes we note that all causes have preceding causes and we can theoretically follow them until the beginning of all causes where there must be one that was not caused but either existed eternally or came into being spontenaously, which, again theoretically should be the same, as time itself could not precede that event. The "thinking" dealing with this question is dealt with in metaphysics. As we are dealing with a phenomenon that is outside our experience we have to turn to what is called "prophecy" which is a risky process because of our human frailty and propensity for unbridled "intuition" and "imagination" once we leave the realm that you so ably describe as "thinking". That is why so many conditions are placed on a "prophet" and his "prophecy" before he/it are acceptable. The sine qua non condition is that prophecy may not contradict what you call "thinking" and I call "reality". As we have not yet reached the limits of "thinking", new understandings develop constantly. We have to therefore return all the time and review our understanding of "prophecy" so that it conforms with our "reality". Rambam says that this process falls under the category of "Talmud" as part of the Mitzvah of limud hatorah, in fact it is the most important segment and the end goal of learning and keeping Mitzvot.

    I hope I clarified though I am sure I opened a new avenue of questions in your mind.

  21. DG: "The sine qua non condition is that prophecy may not contradict what you call 'thinking' and I call 'reality'."

    It doesn't seem to me that we're talking about the same thing. Meta to the physical phenomena I have studied I note another domain of observable phenomena.

    There is a prevalent sociological definition of 'science' under which are stuffed, higgledy-piggledy, several distinct systems of epistemological phenomena. Once one dispels the "haze" of equivocation, more causal order becomes visible. This is just the overarching teaching of the Organon, which remains applicable today.