Monday, August 24, 2009

Rambam and Demons

Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom
Part 5: Rambam and Demons

On p. 290-291 R. Schmeltzer cites the Vilna Gaon’s well-known declaration that Rambam was led astray by the “accursed philosophy” to deny the existence of demons and other such phenomena. Of course it is not acceptable, even in R. Schmeltzer’s circles, to simply dismiss the Rambam in this way, and so in the footnotes, R. Schmeltzer cites numerous views which explain that Rambam did not really deny the existence of demons. (There are, in fact, many more such views beyond those cited by R. Schmeltzer.) So R. Schmeltzer presents the reader with two options: either Rambam was perverting Judaism, or he has been misunderstood and did not really deny demons. R. Schmeltzer is forced into this view because his book’s fundamental point is that everyone is unequivocally obligated to accept the truth of everything in the Gemara.

Noticeably absent from the numerous sources cited by R. Schmeltzer are the views of the Gerona kabbalist R. Shlomo b. Meshullam da Piera,[1] R. Yosef b. Shem Tov,[2] R. Yosef Shalom Delmedigo,[3] R. Aviad Sar-Shalom Basilea,[4] Abarbanel,[5] R. Yosef Ergas,[6] R. Yosef Shaul Nathanson,[7] and R. Menashe ben Yisrael,[8] all of whom note that Rambam indeed denied the existence of demons, and most of whom did not consider Rambam to have thereby perverted Judaism.

Since this topic has not been raised in the controversy over my works, and I have not written on it until now, it is possible that R. Schmeltzer and his maskimim were entirely unaware of these sources. I would hope that these sources will be given due consideration, including their ramifications for the book’s entire thesis.

Furthermore, the Vilna Gaon himself was unambiguous in his view of Rambam’s position in these matters – that Rambam was led astray by the accursed philosophy to deny the existence of demons and other such phenomena, even though their existence is attested to in the Gemara. R. Schmeltzer clarifies in a footnote that the Vilna Gaon did not mean to denigrate Rambam himself, Heaven forbid, and reports the account of how the Vilna Gaon spoke highly of the Rambam and wished to share his portion in the World-to-Come. Yet first of all, this story appears to be nothing more than a folktale, with no authentic basis.[9] Second, the Vilna Gaon quite clearly meant to condemn Rambam’s position as a denial of the truth of the Talmudic accounts. Thus, R. Schmelzer is saying that if the Vilna Gaon’s understanding of Rambam is correct (and most would indeed agree that Rambam was influenced by Aristotelian philosophy), Rambam’s views are to be considered invalid, even heretical. But in citing the Vilna Gaon’s position authoritatively, R. Schmeltzer is overlooking the fact that there was a prominent Rishon who argued with the Gaon’s condemnation: Rambam himself. He did not feel that he had been led astray to pervert the Torah! Is the Vilna Gaon of so much greater stature than Rambam for R. Schmeltzer to say that he is able to absolutely disqualify Rambam’s views?!

NOTES

[1] In Yediyot HaMachon LeCheker HaShirah HaIvrit 4 (1938) pp. 33, 55. This and the following sources are taken from Marc Shapiro, Maimonides and his Interpreters, pp. 105-108.

[2] His comment is printed in his translation of Crescas’ Bittul Ikkarei HaNotzrim p. 93.

[3] Eilim (Amsterdam 1628) p. 83.

[4] Emunas Chachamim p. 15b.

[5] Commentary to Devarim 18:9, p. 173.

[6] Shomer Emunim, p. 11.

[7] Responsa Shoel U’Meishiv 4:87.

[8] Nishmas Chayyim 3:12.

[9] See R. Yisrael Yaakov Dinstag, “Was the Gra Opposed to the Philosophical Approach of the Rambam?” [Hebrew], Talpiot 4:1-2 (Tammuz 5709) p. 254.

31 comments:

  1. .אדם-אברהם קAugust 25, 2009 at 6:31 AM

    Some maintain that the GR"A's "well-known declaration" is actually a forgery. See R. Moshe Ben-Chaim's discussion with a reader on the matter here:

    Forged Writing of the Gra

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  2. Is this a claim backed by serious evidence, or by serious desire? It sounds like the claim that the letters of Rav Hirsch are forgeries. The agenda behind such claims is transparent.

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  3. > Rambam’s views are to be considered invalid, even heretical

    Which is why they burned his books.

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  4. .אדם-אברהם קAugust 25, 2009 at 7:09 AM

    I personally cannot attest to the veracity of the claim. However despite mesora.org's affinity for rationalist Judaism, R. Ben-Chaim still had the integrity to post the findings of a second reader who wrote that R. Shlomo Fischer had in fact authenticated the handwriting:

    "I asked Rav Shlomo Fischer, the former Rosh Beis Din of Yerushalayim, who is also Eretz Yisroel's pronounced expert on the Gra's writings. He has "authored" (for lack of a better word) many of the Gra's manuscript books put out in the last two generations (as well as stopped many forgeries from being published). He told me that the first Rav Kook said that he heard that the comment of the Gra was a forgery, and said he had heard it from the Netziv (Rav Fischer said he heard from a reliable source that Rav Kook said it) and that the Netziv had claimed that he had heard it from Rav Chiam of Volozhin. Rav Fischer then told me that he knew that this was patently false. For he had seen the (uncorrupted) comment written in the Gra's own handwriting!"

    Clearly in order to have a real discussion concerning its authenticity would require more than a case of broken telephone as substantiation.

    As for the response of traditionalists to the Rambam's denial of the existence of demons, you might be interested to know that Menachem Mendel of Kotzk is reputed to have maintained that in the Talmudic era (and possibly into the Geonic?) demons had actually existed - however they have since ceased to exist by sheer virtue of the fact that Rambam had pronounced their non-existence. Ironically the Kotzker Rebbe in so doing imputed the Rambam's words with magical capabilities (a notion that would have been anathema to him). I do not have a source to cite, however if I recall correctly Marc Shapiro in his "Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters" has a source for this (which I do not have access to at the moment).

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  5. Two points which seem relevant to the whole subject of 'rationalism', or perhaps better titled, 'maimonideism':

    1)The Rambam does seem to have believed in angels and 'supernal intellects', whatever they are.

    2)The Rambam's disbelief in demons was motivated by the fact that Aristotle did not find them to be 'rational'. I don't think that modern science has even investigated the subject.

    This doesn't mean that I think that the Gemara obligates us to believe in demons (or that the concept of being obligated to believe even makes any sense), but I think we have to start by putting the Rambam (or Maimonides, as the case may be) in his proper historical context. Making him into an infallible 'godol' doesn't further actual rationality very much.

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  6. >>"So R. Schmeltzer presents the reader with two options: either Rambam was perverting Judaism, or he has been misunderstood and did not really deny demons. R. Schmeltzer is forced into this view because his book’s fundamental point is that everyone is unequivocally obligated to accept the truth of everything in the Gemara."

    So there is an option for the reader that the Rambam was perverting Judaism.
    Wouldn't this option automatically apply to all those who followed the Rambam as well? Doing so obviously would not affect the book's fundamental thesis, correct?
    If so, this follow-up statement is mistaken:

    >>"I would hope that these sources will be given due consideration, including their ramifications for the book’s entire thesis."

    I think it is obvious that these sources have no ramifications for the book's thesis. They are all lower than the Rambam in stature. So from their point-of-view there is no problem in asserting that they, along with the Rambam, were perverting Judaism.

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  7. >>"But in citing the Vilna Gaon’s position authoritatively, R. Schmeltzer is overlooking the fact that there was a prominent Rishon who argued with the Gaon’s condemnation: Rambam himself. He did not feel that he had been led astray to pervert the Torah! Is the Vilna Gaon of so much greater stature than Rambam for R. Schmeltzer to say that he is able to absolutely disqualify Rambam’s views?!"

    Rabbi Slifkin, I am surprised at you.
    Have you not seen this passage of the Vina Gaon in its entirety?
    The Vina Gaon is clearly not condemning the Rambam on his own authority. He claims that all who came after the Rambam accepted the existence of demons. This places the Rambam's view outside the consensus.

    Please edit this passage of yours to avoid charges of sloppy research.

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  8. Isaac, perhaps I wasn't clear. R. Schmeltzer doesn't overtly endorse the idea that Rambam was perverting Judaism; he gives the impression that he is not saying that at all, and that Rambam was misunderstood.

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  9. I think we have to start by putting the Rambam (or Maimonides, as the case may be) in his proper historical context. Making him into an infallible 'godol' doesn't further actual rationality very much.

    Who is making him into an infallible godol? Rambam believed in spontaneous generation, in a geocentric universe, and in the moon being an intelligent entity.

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  10. The Vina Gaon is clearly not condemning the Rambam on his own authority. He claims that all who came after the Rambam accepted the existence of demons. This places the Rambam's view outside the consensus.

    But did EVERYONE else accept them? And did everyone else consider Rambam's view the illegitimate product of his exposure to the accursed philosophy, or simply a different view, like any other dispute in Torah?

    You are quite right that R. Schmeltzer could technically claim that he is not pitting the Gra against Rambam but rather the consensus against Rambam. But this is not how the sefer reads to me.

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  12. Who is making him into an infallible godol? Rambam believed in spontaneous generation, in a geocentric universe, and in the moon being an intelligent entity.

    I didn't say that you were specifically doing that here; I just wanted to tone down the over-emphasis on the Rambam as the great savior of rationalism. So he didn't believe in demons, so what? That was because of a certain dogmatic attitude peculiar to his times. A genuine modern approach would be to consider this an open question to be investigated empirically based on clear definitions of what a 'demon' is supposed to be and do. The statements about demons in the Gemara are probably among the least problematic, since the whole subject is beyond observation and proof/disproof.

    Your original post about Schmeltzer's weird and inconsistent use of the GRA is right; he's not ready to openly declare the Rambam to be a heretic. I just think that all of us who are looking for a more sane kind of Judaism than the one Schmeltzer and his backers are selling have to start to transcend the Rambam a bit, all his greatness aside.

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  13. Rabbi Slifkin - I have a question that I hope you can answer rationally. This question effects all your posts on this topic. I start with the introduction that I own all your books & love your work.

    But . . . How would you rationally answer the following question. Rav moshe shapiro is a world class talmid chacham in most areas of torah. I think that is an objective fact. He can give high level shiurim on gemara, halacha, medrash etc. He also has interacted with other world class talmidei chachamim. You, on th other hand, are a fine young torah scholar who is self taught in science.

    So depite your earlier post - you are wasting your time arguing with r. Schmeltser - he is not your real adversary. His book happens to be a useful collection of sources - but it is more radical even than the mainstream charedi position. For example, he claims we must believe aggadata is not true but literal as well. Nobody believes that with regard to many aggados - not even maharal - despite the few sources that he brings on the topic. And his book has many distortions - that any minor talmid chacham would realize - but I guess its good you point it out.


    But your real opponent is rav moshe. Unlike others you can't claim he hasn't learned the moreh. So how would you rationally explain why anyone should take your opinion on a torah matter over his. Isn't that like taking the opinion of some minor emt over the surgeon general? Like taking the opinion of a high school science teacher over a harvard phd?

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  14. To understand the Schmeltzer phenomenon, I think we must ask a fundamental question: How can it be that Davka when so much scientific knowledge became availabe to man, the frum world came to reject the scientific enterprise? How can a frum Jew be against the truth?

    The answer must be that the findings of Science did not fit religious expectation. One would expect teachings "from Sinai" to correlate with empirical findings. They did not, or so it seemed. As a result, the frum fled backwards, to protect Am HaNivchar against Science. The Maskilim fled forwards, protecting Science against Religion. For them, Am HaNivchar was no more.

    "Rationalist Judaism" will convince neither side without a good answer to the fundamental question: If Jewish tradition is truly from Sinai, prophetic, Divine, how can it be that the knowledge uncovered in the last centuries does not substantiate this?

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  15. Rabbi slifkin - what did you mean at the beggining of this series that you were waiting for permission to post this? Whose permission could you need?

    Chaimz

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  16. Chaim Z - first of all, a technical correction. R. Schmeltzer does not say that we must believe that every aggadata is literally true in the straightforward sense. Rather, he claims that they are literally true on a metaphysical plane. This is the approach of both Maharal and R. Moshe Shapiro.

    Now, on to your main point. This is probably the most common objection that I hear. There are several valid ways of responding.

    First of all, your parables do not take into account the fact that there are different schools of thought in Torah. So it is not like taking the opinion of some minor emt over the surgeon general; it is like taking the opinion of a minor regular Western doctor over an expert in Chinese medicine. And that is why the fact that Rav Moshe has learned the Moreh is not relevant - he learned it as a mystic, not as a rationalist.

    Second, it is not Rabbi Slifkin vs. Rav Moshe Shapiro. The idea that Chazal made assessments about the natural world that are fallible is not my own; it has been said by many people far greater than myself. With some of them, Rav Moshe is in denial that they took this view; with others, such as Rav Hirsch, Rav Moshe said that "he is not from our Beis HaMidrash." The other Beis HaMidrash is not just inhabited by myself; there are many Torah giants in it.

    Third, you can evaluate the positions yourself. It's not like medicine where an amateur has no capability of evaluating things. We are talking Rishonim, Acharonim, simple reading of sources. Based on my knowledge of Rav Moshe (I have attended countless shiurim and have had discussions with him, and I received reports of many conversations with him about the ban), R. Schmeltzer's sefer accurately represents his approach - and, of course, it bears an unusually effusive haskamah from him. I have presented arguments on my website and in my books as to why I believe that my approach - which is that of countless Rishonim - is legitimate. You apparently agree that my arguments are vastly more convincing. So that's all there is to it! Do you really think that Rav Moshe has some secret rationale for his view that he has chosen not share with anyone?!

    For much further discussion, I strongly recommend that you read my lengthy response to Rav Moshe that you can download at http://www.zootorah.com/controversy/ravmoshe.html

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  17. what did you mean at the beggining of this series that you were waiting for permission to post this?

    Someone important persuaded me to wait until he confronted R. Schmeltzer and Rav Moshe with it, and promised to support me if he was not satisfied with their response. Unfortunately he eventually decided against confronting them.

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  18. Rabbi slifkin - and on page 292 he writes that even when the maharal explains the deeper meaning the simple meaning is still true.

    Chaimz

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  19. "First of all, your parables do not take into account the fact that there are different schools of thought in Torah."

    This is a claim you staked your entire ideology on, and you have yet to properly establish it!!! Where is the foundation to your building?

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  20. "The answer must be that the findings of Science did not fit religious expectation. One would expect teachings "from Sinai" to correlate with empirical findings. They did not, or so it seemed."


    Based on what I have read and seen, I have to disagree with this view. That is not what the answer "must" be.

    There are four alternate answers that I can think of.

    1. Any hashkafic knowledge that is not influenced by Rabbis is by definition tainted. If the tainted information is more attractive than that given over by rabbis, then it must be the work of the yetzer harah and avoided. Regardless of how true it is.

    2. The type of people who advocated scientific reasoning where not pious people, and therefore we can't trust what they come up with, since most of them seem to be wanting to reject G-d and have no humility. Since all knowledge of man comes from G-d and the only way to keep that wisdom is through humility, something must be false about the science. (no matter what they say, unless it's something that Judaism has already taught us)

    3. The power structure of the shtetiels was such that people wanted secular teachers, but the community could not support them. So they shunned the topics to maintaing control in the hands of the Rabbis without changing the way "things are done".

    4. Science is always changing, with old theories being rejected and not incorporated into new theories. This process of throwing out ALL of the old, and taking in ALL of the new, is not a Jewish process, and should be rejected. Truth comes from a balance of the old and the new, not a complete replacement of it. It is possible that to many the pursuits of science appear to be castles built on sand.

    Notice how none of these possible answers has anything to do with the actual content of Scientific discoveries.

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  21. "This and the following sources are taken from Marc Shapiro, Maimonides and his Interpreters, pp. 105-108."

    And distorted accordingly.

    Why don't you quote what Shomer Emunim, Responsa Shoel U’Meishiv, Nishmas Chayyim 3:12 et al. say about the Rambam? You talking about shmeltzer sefer, and then doing this, is the pot calling the kettle black.

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  22. "First of all, your parables do not take into account the fact that there are different schools of thought in Torah."

    This is a claim you staked your entire ideology on, and you have yet to properly establish it!!! Where is the foundation to your building?


    This is absolutely obvious to anyone who has studied Jewish history and has compared the philosophical works of medieval Sefarad with the subsequent mystical-based works. For examples of the ramifications, see the articles on mezuzah and netilas yadayim linked to at the right of this page. And see my article on Messianic Wonders and Skeptical Rationalists in Hakirah.

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  23. "This and the following sources are taken from Marc Shapiro, Maimonides and his Interpreters, pp. 105-108."

    And distorted accordingly.


    On this website, making such a claim doesn't make it so. You have to actually back up your claim.

    Why don't you quote what Shomer Emunim, Responsa Shoel U’Meishiv, Nishmas Chayyim 3:12 et al. say about the Rambam? You talking about shmeltzer sefer, and then doing this, is the pot calling the kettle black.

    What on earth do you mean? I am not denying that there are contrary views - those are already listed in his sefer. He is the one claiming that only one approach exists!

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  24. This is absolutely obvious to anyone who has studied Jewish history and has compared the philosophical works of medieval Sefarad with the subsequent mystical-based works.

    Other than the Rambam, and maybe a few others, the medieval rationalists were nobody of significance. On the other side, the "anti-rationalists" were the whos who of Jewish leadership. The rationalist period was relatively short, and was UNIVERSALLY dropped with the revelation and popularization of Kabala. Even the many Rabbonim who understood and knew nothing about Kabala, accepted it full, and in turn reject any philosophical/rationalist approach.

    For examples of the ramifications, see the articles on mezuzah and netilas yadayim linked to at the right of this page.

    I saw them, and it's not something I would be proud posting, it's rationalism run amok.

    And see my article on Messianic Wonders and Skeptical Rationalists in Hakirah.

    What vol?

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  25. Other than the Rambam, and maybe a few others, the medieval rationalists were nobody of significance. On the other side, the "anti-rationalists" were the whos who of Jewish leadership.

    Number one, that's a pretty subjective assessment.
    Number two, the Rambam "and a few others" certainly represent a school of thought.

    The rationalist period was relatively short, and was UNIVERSALLY dropped with the revelation and popularization of Kabala.

    It went into a decline, but it was not universally dropped. And it had periods of minor revival, such as in Italy, and later with figures such as Rav D.Z. Hoffman, and more recently with Torah u'Madda.
    And certainly the primary issue disputed by R. Schmeltzer - the idea that Chazal held some incorrect views of nature - was OVERWHELMINGLY accepted throughout history. Just look at all the Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim on Pesachim 94b.

    Re. the Mezuzah and Netilas Yedayim articles - as I mentioned to someone else, criticizing something without actually providing arguments as to why it's wrong does not count for anything.

    My Hakira articles is at
    http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%206%20Slifkin.pdf

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  26. "but it was not universally dropped."

    It had no further following by anybody of any significance. Sorry. I still wonder how you can exclaim the merits this of an "alternative" approach. You want to say "this is what I'm comfortable with, this is how I see it." That would be ok, but obviously you aren't exactly confident enough in that, so you peg yourself on a phantom high post of "two ways".

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  27. It depends what you mean by "people of significance" and how much of that "significance" is needed to make it legitimate to follow a major school of thought amongst the Rishonim. I didn't make up this license; I got it from Rav Aryeh Carmell z"l. It was also the approach of Rav Herzog z"l. Both of them saw it as a davar pashut that it is legitimate to continue a major approach of the Rishonim. (And it is absolutely standard today in YU type circles.) It is not acceptable in charedi circles today, but that does not mean that nobody else is entitled to continue it.

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  28. This thread is a classic example of a discussion getting hopelessly bogged down in nonsense. Does anyone in the modern world really decide what they believe in based on what is "acceptable" or what you are "allowed to say"? And when I say the "modern world", I mean to include Monsey, Bnei Brak, and Meah Shearim as well. As anyone paying attention to today's frum youth can see, the people in these places also know very well where the way out is, and in an open society as exists everywhere where Jews live today, people are just fooling themselves if they think they believe because that is what they are "supposed" to believe.

    Enough polls of Rishonim and contests about who is more 'significant'! For better or for worse, the only significant opinion for each and every one of us is our own, which we should form in as informed a manner as possible.

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  29. BTW, even in medicine each of us ultimately makes our own decisions, and we usually choose an 'expert' whose opinions we like. If we really want 'rationalistic Judaism', that means thinking for ourselves.

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  30. Rabbi Slifkin:

    In the introduction to your series, you state:

    "However in this essay, I am not raising such theological and empirical disputes. Instead, I am restricting the critique to something much more basic, fundamental and indisputable: the misquotations of the positions of the Rishonim themselves, which in some cases involves literally distorting their words (i.e. editing them to give them a different meaning), and in other cases involves unacceptable selectivity. In the introduction, on p. 17, R. Schmeltzer claims that “the book is nothing other than a compilation of sources which represent the mesorah.” In a series of posts, I will be investigating that claim."

    This post does not do this at all. You have not shown Rabbi Schmeltzer to have distorted anybody's words or to have engaged in unacceptable selectivity.

    Instead, you are simply arguing that Rambam's position vis-a-vis demons should hold at least as much validity as the position of the Vilna Gaon.

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  31. Nachum, good observation! But the main part of this post was the selectivity in citing certain Acharonim's take on Rambam's approach to demons, and not others. Once I had gotten on to this topic, I couldn't bear not to add the final paragraph.

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