Monday, July 4, 2011

Interpretations of Maimonides: A Guide for the Perplexed

Are you perplexed by all the different approaches to Rambam's theology? The solution is here! This handy-dandy chart explains the differences between the various schools of thought. (If you are reading this via e-mail, please note that you might have to visit the website for the chart to display properly.)

School of Thought Sample Representatives Was Rambam similar to Aristotle? Did Rambam accurately reflect traditional Judaism? Was Rambam's theological approach correct?
Traditional Non-Orthodox Rashba; Vilna Gaon; Hirsch Mostly Mostly not No
Orthodox Hyper-rationalist Jose Faur; YBT Mostly Entirely Yes
Traditionalist Ultra-Orthodox Charedim Partially Mostly not No, but he didn't say it, didn't mean it, he could say it but we can't, etc.
Traditionalist Orthodox
Benzion Buchman
Barely Entirely Yes
Esoteric Academic Strauss Entirely Not at all It's a secret
Mainstream Academic Kellner, Shapiro Mostly Mostly not Partially


Bear in mind that, as with all summaries, this chart is necessarily a simplification, and thus rough around the edges. But note the similarities between the first group and the last!

42 comments:

  1. When you categorize Rashba and Vilna Gaon Non-orthodox do you mean:
    1. Pre orthodox
    2. Not like standard or contemporary religious thinkers of their time
    3. Orthoprax
    4. Embracing secular knowledge

    or did you mean traditional non-rationalist?

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  2. I meant two things: Pre-Orthodox, and also the related fact that they were comfortable with saying that one of the great figures in Judaism had views that differed greatly from their own.

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  3. As for the "chareidim" I don't know how they can make an educated guess about the Rambam's relationship to Aristotle. Which Chareidi gadol ever read Aritstotle?

    Also, I think you ought to have added that according to the Chareidim, the Rambam was in agreement with all the Chiddushim that Rav Chaim was going to come up with 700 years later.

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  4. Marc Shapiro's brilliant when it comes to just about anything in Jewish history, but when it comes to mainstream academics elucidating their opinions on Rambam, he's not the man I think of. Three random examples of prominent frum scholars who have engaged in a lot of Rambam-interpreting: Haim Kreisel, Lawrence Kaplan, and the late Marvin Fox.

    Who are these "traditional Orthodox," I wonder? Are Rabbi Buchman's ideas shared by a certain frum group?

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  5. Baruch, I picked those names that I thought would be most relevant to my readers.

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  6. This post reminds me of what Menachem kellner brings down in one of his books: Everyone has a MYmonidies, as opposed to a his/her/their monidies.

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  7. I would like to make 2 statements

    1 - It seems you forgot a whole group. I'm speaking of Rav Abraham Abulafia's support of Rambam's aristotelian philosophy but saying that it is a vest for something mystical and deeper. (kabbalistic teachings in his view)

    2 - An interesting question to be asked would be: Why the groups differ themselves regarding Rambam's relation to Aristotle. To compare both, you must be well versed in both authors, which often is not the case. Anyway, people do this all the time: The want to make a statement and will make it by reading or putting the authors in a certain way to force a conclusion that is their initially held opinion. And, in each case you must ask why as the answer will often reveal the "sacred premises" that is held.
    This will happen both in the religious and the academic world, each having their own means of making sure the mainstream conclusion will hold. (even in peer reviewed)

    Which remind of another thing: Don't you think the Charedi world needs a "Sokal affair"?

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  8. How exactly do academics determine if a theological approach is correct or not?

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  9. Don't you think an interpreting Maimonides chart should have a column about how the Guide relates to the Mishneh Torah? Of course, this would ruin your parallel between the first and last columns, because the Rashba and Vilna Gaon had no reason to reject the Rambam of the Mishneh Torah, unlike your "mainstream academics."

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  10. We know about many of the Rabbinic and historic authorities noted in the chart, why is Yeshiva Bnei Torah added to the mix? They are a very small fringe yeshiva and fairly irrelevant to the masses (BTW, this is not a criticism of the Yeshiva, just an observation).

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  11. Great chart! But what does Leo Strauss mean by 'it's a secret'?

    I've heard charedim claiming that Rambam was a mekubal and that the Guide is full of kabalistic secretes. Maybe the chart should reflect that opinion?

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  12. You left this guy off the chart:

    http://www.amazon.com/Maimonides-World-Civilizations-Greatest-Minds/dp/038551199X/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1231078574&sr=8-1

    Who strongly argues that Rambam was basically a Muslim, more than Aristotelian.


    Btw, your "non-orthodox" label is very confusing.

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  13. Speaking of Aristotle, here's a review of what sounds like a very important new translation of the Nicomachean Ethics.

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  14. Michael ben AvrahamJuly 5, 2011 at 12:27 AM

    With respect, and for what it is worth, even given your explanation, calling the Vilna Gaon, Rashba and Hirsch "non-orthodox" does not sit well with me. Too much of a distraction from the main point.

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  15. In the Mainstream Academic category, I found it interesting that you stated that Menachem Kellner feels that mostly, the Rambam does not reflect traditional Judaism accurately. Although Professor Kellner is fairly critical of the Rambam's yud-gimmel ikkarim, it seems to me as though he agrees with most other areas of the Rambam's thought and approach. Would you say that this is accurate?
    Also, I am a big fan of Hakham Jose Faur and his works. But how good of a job do you feel he does in arguing that the Rambam is the most accurate expression of traditional Judaism?

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  16. I would mention the work of Dr. Isadore Twersky who showed that the Rambam expressed philosophy also in works other than the Guide. Thus he showed ignorance on the part of those who thought they could know his philosophy only from the Guide.

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  17. What would be the answers for a sixth columm: "Was the Rambam correct about the first mitsva in the Mishne Tora, specified, in Mechon Mamre's text, in the first 4 halachot of Hilchot Yesode Hatora Ch. 1
    (http://www.mechon-mamre.org/i/1101.htm)?

    (This is a much narrower and more delimited question than: "What is your school's position on "Rambam's theology".)

    A related question would be: "Is study of Aristotle necessary to comprehend that mitsva?"

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  18. I was surprised to see this article on the Chabad website, praising Rambam's Guide for the Perplexed and claiming that it has secret meanings that kabbalistic commentaries have revealed. It doesn't say anything that suggest Rambam was incorrect theologically. Maybe this deserves another row?

    http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/107784/jewish/Philosopher-and-Mystic.htm

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  19. Ameteur: "Basically a muslim"

    um... ?

    I don't find that in the 2 summaries at amazon, or any of the lengthy reviews I perused. If it were truly claimed, no one could possibly take it seriously, but really I don't know where you're getting this from. It does not seem that the author claimed it at all. You have read this book?

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  20. Although Professor Kellner is fairly critical of the Rambam's yud-gimmel ikkarim, it seems to me as though he agrees with most other areas of the Rambam's thought and approach. Would you say that this is accurate?

    "Agrees with" is not the same as "reflects traditional Judaism." By the way, Prof. Kellner liked my chart and did not raise any objections!

    Also, I am a big fan of Hakham Jose Faur and his works. But how good of a job do you feel he does in arguing that the Rambam is the most accurate expression of traditional Judaism?

    It's an impossible task, because he wasn't.

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  21. I was surprised to see this article on the Chabad website, praising Rambam's Guide for the Perplexed and claiming that it has secret meanings that kabbalistic commentaries have revealed. It doesn't say anything that suggest Rambam was incorrect theologically.

    Sure, if you completely change the meaning of everything Rambam says in order to fit it in with your views, then Rambam was never incorrect theologically!

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  22. Re: Chabad's approach to the Rambam see this recently published work

    http://www.biupress.co.il/website/index.asp?id=662

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  23. I haven't read the book, no. I was basing my comment off of this review in the Washington post.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/30/AR2008123002789.html

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  24. So, can someone explain to me what 'it's a secret' means?

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  25. It's a joke, sort of. Strauss claimed that Rambam had lots of secret views. And he modeled himself after him, being secretive with his own explanations.

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  26. I agree with Elkay38. YBT is a small fringe yeshiva. Rabbi chait makes no attempt to spread his ideas to the masses and, in fact, seems intent on limiting his influence to a handful of people in Far Rockaway. Why is his yeshiva on this chart?

    I add that this is NOT meant in a negative way. My few interactions with Rav Chait have always been very positive. He is a nice person and a Talmid Chacham.

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  27. His talmidim MOST CERTAINLY attempt to spread their ideas to the masses.

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  28. I'm curious about which talmidim you have in mind.

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  29. I think it’s irresponsible of you to put up a chart like this without backup for your conclusions.

    Was Rambam's theological approach correct? Are you referring to his theological approach in general or to particular aspects of it? Vilna Gaon disagreed with him on avodah zorah and magic, does that mean he disagreed with his “theological approach?”By Kellner, I assume you mean he disagrees with beliefs being more important than actions; but again that’s one aspect of his theological approach. From books of his that I’ve read, I think he agrees with much of Rambam’s theology, so the term “partially” on your part is questionable.

    Moreover, the entire column “Was Rambam's theological approach correct,” is asking a question that cannot be answered (and was never addressed) by most of the people in the chart. With the exception of Rashba and Vilna Gaon, none of the people even remotely have the expertise to determine whether Rambam is correct. If you mean was Rambam traditional?; then you’re asking the same question twice.

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  30. I think you make a joke out of the entire concept by literally pigeon holing talmidei chachamim into your chart. Kinda disturbing ... and Jose Faur and YBT in one breath, Oy li Shechatasi, Oy li sheavisi.

    Ya'akob

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  31. I am not sure that anyone cares, but I would have answered 'yes' to all three columns. Here is why for the last two. Rambam does represent a minority approach found in our tradition, thus he does accurately reflect our tradition and in that sense it's a correct theological approach. Personally, it's the only one that makes sense to me so I would say it's THE correct approach. Does anyone agree with me?

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  32. R. Chait's students certainly spread his gospel, and have set up schools all over america, including in Cedarhearst, Seattle, R. Zucker brings his teachings to New jersey, and I believe there is one in Miami as well.

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  33. There is a category I feel should be included, or one or two categores rearranged.

    For I feel that many in the Traditionalist Orthodox are of the same mindset as in the Traditionalist Ultra-Orthodox.

    And to add the category of Liberal-Orthodox or even rationalist-Orthodox would
    suffice to represent the remainder.

    For those in this latter category ask.

    What would be of all the great Torah Scholars, and all the other great accomplished people that were and are today, if they were told, "he could say it but we can't" or the like.
    And how do we revive those who have already been discouraged?
    o

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  34. Thanks, Eric -- that book looks fascinating. The funny thing is that in one dimension, Chabad is actually more Maimonidean than any other group. That is, they prioritize studying Mishnei Torah over Talmud, just as Rambam advocated. In fact, their daily study regimen (chumash w/ rashi, tanya, tehillim ("chitas"), and mishnei torah) includes pretty much everything besides Talmud. Of course, many study Talmud too, but it's not presented as a daily requirement like Chitas and Mishnei Torah.

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  35. Yishai, they don't pasken like MT so what sense does it make for the masses to learn it? How is this Maimonidean? I never understood this meshugas.

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  36. Carol, I don't think it's meshugas. The reason they study Mishneh Torah daily, and not, say, the Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch, is because the Rebbe advocated that all Jews, man, woman and child should learn Rambam's codes daily, as a do-able way of fulfilling the mitzvah of studying the whole Torah (the MT is the only code to include all halacha), and as a way of uniting Jews. The approach is explained briefly here:

    http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/900030/jewish/Daily-Study-of-Maimonides-Works.htm

    Accordingly, Chabad.org, in its daily study section, makes available an English translation the daily Rambam for each of the three tracks:

    http://www.chabad.org/dailystudy/default_cdo/jewish/Daily-Study.htm

    It would make sense, of course, if Chabadniks studied a version of MT that included footnotes on where the Alter Rebbe or subsequent Chabad halacha or minhag differs from the Rambam. Maybe they do have such an edition -- I don't know. There are some footnotes to their online English editions, which might include material of this nature.

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  37. Also, I am a big fan of Hakham Jose Faur and his works. But how good of a job do you feel he does in arguing that the Rambam is the most accurate expression of traditional Judaism?

    It's an impossible task, because he wasn't.

    Perhaps saying that it is an impossible task to prove the Rambam represented traditional Judaism, because he didn't, is a bit over stated? Certainly in the major early medieval Jewish centers like Baghdad, Tunisia, and Spain, philosophical rationalism was a major trend within Judaism. What makes that less traditional?

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  38. I meant with regard to Prof. Fauer's claim that Rambam fully expressed Chazal's approach rather than Greek philosophy.

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  39. Yishai, davening up Mishne Torah (or Chitas) is not the same as properly studying it - much less, becoming Maimonidean in hashkafa.

    Let me cite an incident. I had come across an astounding statement in Mishne Torah (MT), hilchot beit habechira. "Ein bonim mizbei'ach ela binyan avonim gazit" (One can't construct an altar other than one of hewn stones). Such a statement is explicitly contradicted by a verse in the torah, "Im mizbach avenim ta'asu li, lo tivneh ethem gazit.." (If you make an altar for Me, don't build it of hewn stone). Moreover the grammar of the above sentence in MT is skewed (it should something like 'avnei gazit'). The commentaries on that page of MT are silent on the matter. Hence, I concluded that this was a copyists error that had become standardized when the MT was printed. I subsequently found that some manuscripts didn't have the problematic word 'gazit'.

    This is by way of introduction. I had asked the rav in the local Lubavitch shul to explain the above sentence in MT; I asked a generally knowledgeable rebbe in their yeshiva; I even asked a Chabadnik who had translated MT. None gave a reply other than a shrug. Now, these people had gone through the MT many times, yet had not stopped and tried to understand such an obvious contradiction to a torah verse (and to a later, more detailed description of building an altar in hilchot beit habechira).

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  40. I reviewed the chart.

    Rambam was a very precise and careful writer. His positions are well known to those who would bother reading them. To say that Harambam was careful and diligent in teaching and practicing Talmudic Halacah is an understatement. Traditional is not enough. Harambam was through and through a strict observant Talmudist. Any review of the Mishneh Tora and his Responsa makes this abundantly clear. Nothing in the Moreh in any way detracts from this.

    The rest of the chart is fluff & stuff.

    And one more thing: Hacham Professor Faur does not view Harambam as being mostly Aristotelian. Simply an inaccurate and extremely simplistic statement. I say this not only because I read the Hacham's writings but because I personally studied with him for over 3 decades.

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  41. Joining your discussion late,Harambam was the senior Baal Kabbalah of the long Galut . For the last Eight centuries, since the "Moreh" was published , only two Rabbis were
    able to solve the secret partially . The lesser one is Rabbi Avraham Abulafia Zl, Haroe ve Hachacham. Yamim Yagidu..

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  42. Has anyone read modern academics on Abraham Abulafia as an interpreter of the Rambam? The following are highly recommended:


    Moshe Idel, “Abulafia's Secrets of the Guide: A Linguistic Turn,” in Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, No. 4, Philosophies juives médiévales (OCTOBRE-DÉCEMBRE 1998), pp. 495-528.

    Moshe Idel, Language, Torah and Hermeneutics in Abraham Abulafia (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989).

    Moshe Idel, “Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed and the Kabbalah,” in Jewish History 18 (2004): 197-226.

    Elliot R. Wolfson, Abraham Abulafia--Kabbalist and Prophet: Hermeneutics, Theosophy, and Theurgy (Los Angeles: Cherub Press, 2000).

    Elliot R. Wolfson, “Beneath the Wings of the Great Eagle: Maimonides and 13th-Century Kabbalah,” in Moses Maimonides (1138-1204): His Religious, Scientific, and Philosophical Wirkungsgeschichte in Different Cultural Contexts, eds. Görge K. Hasselhoff and Otfried Fraisse (Wuerzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2004).

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