Thursday, July 04, 2013

Some Reflections on Rambam's and Ramban's Approaches to Metaphysics.

In the 10th Perek of Sanhedrin (11th in our Mishnayot and Gemarot), Perek Chelek , Mishnah 3 there is an argument between Rabbi Nehemiah and others whether the Dor Hamabul, those who drowned in the flood for being a depraved generation, are eventually going to be judged even though they do not merit Olam Haba. Rambam in his commentary notes that “we have mentioned several times that all arguments amongst the sages that has no practical application whatsoever and which simply establish an opinion there is no place to say that the Halacha is according to one of them”. Rambam repeats this in his writings several more times.  In the context of this Mishnah it appears that he personally agrees with Rabbi Nehemiah and understands him to say that there is no post death reward or punishment for the wicked of the caliber of the Dor Hamabul or the inhabitants of Sodom.  They simply cease to exist while the righteous do have Olam Haba which is the ultimate reward which of course he also tells us at the end of Hilchot Teshuvah that no one really knows what that entails. This is further strengthened by his comment earlier on the first Mishnah regarding Gan Eden and Gehinom where he implies that they are something physical in this world. I understand him to say that Gan Eden is on earth where with time humanity will eventually develop it to produce life enhancing and extending products while Gehinom is either external or internal torture that prevails for the wicked during their lifetime. He is quite cryptic though and does not make it easy to know what he is getting at. But again notwithstanding his extensive treatment of metaphysics in his writings, it is exactly in this Mishnah where he sets down the rule about not being able to rule according to one of the opinions of the Rabbis on matters of theology without practical implications. Quite telling!

Ramban in his Sha’ar Hagemul, the theological section of his Torat HaAdam, his compendium on the laws of mourning has a lengthy discussion rejecting how Rambam understands Olam Haba and in general what happens after death basing his position on statements of chazal and Midrashim which he reads literally. He addresses Rambam’s statement about Gehinom and feels compelled to forcefully read Rambam’s statement as one who also believes in Gehinom as an after death punishment for the wicked. As you read him carefully you can discern between the lines that he really did not believe Rambam was saying what he tries to force into him but he felt he had to do this because he could not accept Rambam would hold such a heretical position from his point of view.
אבל יש לו לרב זכרונו לברכה במקום אחר דברים משבשים הדעות. חזר ושנה זה העניין בפירוש המשנה בפרק חלק, ואמר כי העונש הגדול הוא שתפסק הנפש ותאבד ושלא תשאר. והוא מה שנזכר בתורה בעניין כרת, כמו שנאמר "הכרת תכרת הנפש ההיא" ואמרו זיכרונם לברכה "הכרת", בעולם הזה, "תכרת", לעולם הבא. ואמר הכתוב "והיתה נפש אדוני צרורה בצרור החיים".
וכל מי שיהיה נמשך אל התענוגים הגשמיים, וישליך האמת אחרי גוו, ויגביר השקר על האמת - יכרת ויאבד מן המעלה ההיא, וישאר גוף אובד בלבד.

ואולם גיהנם הוא כינוי על עונש הרשעים, ולא התבאר בתלמוד איך יהיה זה העונש. אבל מקצתם אומרים כי השמש תקרב אל הרשעים ותשרפם, ויביאו ראיה מן הפסוק "הנה יום בא בוער כתנור" וגו', ומקצתם אומרים כי חמימות נפלא תבער בגופם ותשרפם, כדכתיב "רוחכם אש תאכלכם".
אלו דבריו זכרונו לברכה, ואינם דברים נוחים לדעתנו. מפני שדברי רבותינו זיכרונם לברכה במחלוקת שהזכיר, אינם על דיני גיהנם המצוי תמיד, שהוא לדברי הכל מקום דין באש נפלאה דקה, בראה האלהים לעונש ולאבד רחקיו ולהצמית כל זונה ממנו
And a little further
והדברים כמו שביארנו. ועם כל זה, גלה לנו הרב זכרונו לברכה דעתו, שהוא מאמין בעונש דין וצער, יהיה באי זה זמן שיהיה אחרי המות, אלא שלא התבאר לדעתו בתלמוד, ולא הסתפק ממנו אלא איכות הדין והצער הזה.
וזה התנצלות לרב, ולימוד זכות לחכם גדול וחסיד כמותו זכרונו לברכה, ופירוש למימרא שלרבי שמעון בן לקיש, שלא תשבש דעת קצת התלמידים, או שלא יתלו בה החיצונים שהטינה בלבם

I believe there is a fundamental difference between Rambam and Ramban’s understanding of metaphysics. Rambam holds that metaphysical understanding is a human endeavor. As a person perfects himself by developing his knowledge of the world while at the same time improving his personal traits controlling his urges and putting them under the domination of his intellectual faculty, he begins to find answer to the existential questions that go beyond the physical and the knowable. His intuition and imaginary faculties are triggered under the influence of his rational faculty. These answers are not certainties but a good attempt at finding the truth. Rambam describes this very poignantly in his introduction to MN.
Do not imagine that these most difficult problems can be thoroughly understood by any one of us. This is not the case. At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night. On some the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day. This was the degree of prophetic excellence attained by (Moses) the greatest of prophets, to whom God said, "But as for thee, stand thou here by Me" (Deut. v. 31), and of whom it is written "the skin of his face shone," etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 29). [Some perceive the prophetic flash at long intervals; this is the degree of most prophets.] By others only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived. This is the case with those of whom we are informed, "They prophesied, and did not prophesy again" (Num. xi. 25). There are some to whom the flashes of lightning appear with varying intervals; others are in the condition of men, whose darkness is illumined not by lightning, but by some kind of crystal or similar stone, or other substances that possess the property of shining during the night; and to them even this small amount of light is not continuous, but now it shines and now it vanishes, as if it were "the flame of the rotating sword."”
After reading this we can very well understand why there cannot be a definite ruling in these matters. In fact we cannot even convey to each other the whole understanding one is able to achieve because it is personal and individual. That is why Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 2:12 based on the Gemara in the second Perek of Chagigah describes the transmission of metaphysical truths as
[ציוו חכמים הראשונים שלא לדרוש בדברים אלו אלא לאיש אחד בלבד, והוא שיהיה חכם ומבין מדעתו.  ואחר כך מוסרין לו ראשי הפרקים, ומודיעין אותו שמץ מן הדבר; והוא מבין מדעתו, ויודע סוף הדבר ועומקו
We can transmit to another only the “headings of chapters”, a kind of conceptual summary, but ultimately the understanding is personal and individual.
Ramban on the other hand makes it clear in all his writings that the metaphysics he knows is one that was transmitted from mouth to ear through the generations. These matters are secrets that only the few can understand but there is a definite set of information that one must adhere to and it is knowable. It is not based on human knowledge but is something that it is received from God by Moshe at Sinai and transmitted to us. He is so sure that this is all transmissions that he cannot accept even that the rabbis would argue about these matters and he ends the Sha’ar Hagemul saying:
ומכאן יבין כל בעל שכל, שאין מחלוקת בין רבותינו זיכרונם לברכה בעיקר מכל עיקרי הדין הללו העתידין להיות, וכל דבריהם עולים בסגנון אחד
There cannot be any doubt in these matters because these are mystical truths received at Sinai.
The implications of these two opposing positions carry far. According to Ramban Torah and Mitzvot are part of the mystical system that maintains the world, not only the human world we know but the whole universe. Rambam sees Torah and Mitzvot as tools to develop ourselves in a way that we can speculate about metaphysics without personal bias, so that we can come as close to the truth as a human being can. However not one human being has achieved total knowledge, not even Moshe Rabbeinu. These two approaches impact how each of these two great Rishonim understand prophecy. Rambam sees it as a result of human perfection; it is the ultimate badge of a perfected human being. An imperfect person cannot prophesize. Ramban does not have a problem with prophecy of an ignoramus if God so wishes. (See however Ramban on Bamidbar 22:23 and 24 where he seems to waiver a little).
Personally I find Rambam’s approach inspiring and uplifting. It puts a much bigger onus on the individual demanding perfection but to me it has a ring of truth and is compatible with the human condition as we know it. Ramban’s approach does not speak to me and I find it depressing. But that is me. Others love the idea of Kabbalah and mysticism and it gives them strength.  As Rambam says we do not passken in these matters that have no practical outcome.