Monday, January 30, 2017

Making Magic With Maimonides

Here's something interesting. Lest you thought that Rabbi J. David Bleich's anti-rationalist stance was limited to claiming that spontaneous generation is scientifically viable and denying that the Sages ever based a halachic decision on a mistaken understanding of the natural world (and attempting to ignore or minimize those who say otherwise), as discussed in the previous post, I found another example, in a completely different field.

In a chapter entitled "Liability for Harm caused by Metaphysical Forces," Rabbi Bleich discusses the  Kabbalistic view that the letters of the Divine Names contain cosmic forces, and thus certain people are able to use these Names to effect change in the physical world (i.e. to perform miracles/magic). He correctly records Rambam's denial of this possibility (although there is a typo in the reference; it is actually Guide 1:62, not 1:42). As Rabbi Bleich notes, "Rambam describes belief in the power of Divine Names as unfitting for rational persons." According to Rambam, the Names instead convey philosophical insights into metaphysical concepts, and contemplating the Names enables one to enhance one's intellectual grasp of these concepts.

So far, so good. But then Rabbi Bleich makes the most astonishing claim:
The gulf between Rambam and the Kabbalists is not as great as might appear. The Kabbalists, no less so than Rambam, stressed that Names, when pronounced mechanically, are not at all efficacious. They, too, stress the need for virtue and preparation, although, for the Kabbalists, the preparation is not identical to the intellectual preparation posited by Rambam. For Rambam, an amulet worn as a talisman could not possibly have any effect because the Names contained in an amulet are not endowed with any supernatural power. Nevertheless, Rambam does not explicitly deny the possibility that persons who have achieved the requisite degree of knowledge and understanding can, with adequate preparation, employ metaphysical or transnatural powers to achieve physical ends. 
I asked Professor Menachem Kellner, Professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa and a particular specialist on Rambam, what he thought of Rabbi Bleich's claim. Here is his response:
In the context of an attempt to show that Rambam is not as far from Kabbalah as many think (see: Menachem Kellner, Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism, Littman Library, 2006), Rabbi Dr J David Bleich writes: "Nevertheless, Rambam does not explicitly deny the possibility that persons who have achieved the requisite degree of knowledge and understanding can, with adequate preparation, employ metaphysical or transnatural powers to achieve physical ends." Rabbi Bleich is well-known and widely respected for his formidable learning and deep understanding of Jewish texts and teachings. I find it hard to believe that he was wide awake when he wrote this sentence. Given:
  • Rambam's approbation of Aristotelian science in Guide of the Perplexed II.22
  • his rejection of all forms of magic (H. Avodah Zarah XI)
  • his comment in his Treatise on Resurrection that "it is already well-known that we utterly flee from changing the order of Creation" (Treatise on Resurrection, Lerner trans., p. 169; see also the previous page – perhaps a veiled reference to people like Rabbi Bleich)
(and many other sources,) it is hard to take Rabbi Bleich seriously here. Ascribing a view to Rambam because he does not explicitly deny it is hardly a responsible way to read Rambam.
Indeed! After all, it's also the case that Rabbi Bleich does not explicitly deny the possibility that he considers me to be the Gadol HaDor, but I wouldn't ascribe that belief to him! Is Rabbi Bleich unaware of Rambam's deep philosophical opposition to the notion of changing the natural order through supernatural means, or is he in denial of it? And which is worse?

79 comments:

  1. Galus Bavel - Playing With Pipes!

    My goodness how much our steeping in the pot of Bavel infused Judaism with so much Chaldean witchcraft. But, unlike the avodah zarahs of Egypt, these have been "kashered".

    The rock of galus Bavel is much harder than the stone of galus Miztraim.

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  2. Can anyone explain how thew rambam understood miracles such as the staff turning into a snake. You can hardly rationalise that that was built into creation...

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    1. Rambam in Guide 2:29 considers those exceptions, which are not permanent anyway, so they don't affect the very nature of the object themselves. So in some way, they might be within nature, he says.

      Maimonides' approach to miracles is a lengthy topic that has no answer (in my opinion). He simply does not say enough on the topic itself to form an absolute account.

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    2. The order of creation is wider that the order commonly observed by us human beings. So, even if miracles go beyond the commonly observed order, the do not suspend the wider order devised by the Creator. This is, more or less, the explanation given by 13th c. Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas. IMHO Rambam would agree.

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    3. The order usually observed by us human beings (i.e. natural regularities) is narrower than the wider order of things designed in the creation. Thus, while miracles are exception within the order usually observed by us, nevertheless they belong to the wider order devised by the Creator. This is, more or less, the explanation given by 13th c. Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas (who happened to extensively rework ideas from Maimonides). IMHO, Rambam would agree.

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    4. I don't know how you can say giving life to a stick doesn't affect the nature of a stick.

      There are two types of miracle/magic.
      1) An extreme coincidence - the plagues, wind splitting the sea etc. Things that can, even with difficulty, be explained through nature.
      2) An impossibility - an inanimate stick turning into a living snake. Things that can in no way be explained through nature.

      We can all agree that miracles of the first type are no problem. But either you have to not take the second type literally or you have to believe in 'magic' - the ability to actually change nature.
      Did the rambam state that the incident where moshe turned his staff into a snake was a vision of some kind? because if not I find it very difficult to claim that the rambam did not believe in 'magic' - the ability to change nature.
      (If moshe could do it, it is only logical that a 'witch' could too)

      If anyone has any explanations or perhaps material on this I would be grateful.

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    5. http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2010/06/manna-and-maimonides.html

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    6. The comments in the manna article were thoroughly entertaining. How people cannot accept the difference between rain and dew is astounding. One falls from the sky and one just appears. It is obvious that the Torah is speaking metaphorically when it describes dew as 'falling' - and it is perfectly reasonable to apply that to manna as well.

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  3. Reminds me of an challenge I gave to a professor in undergrad in order to get some extra marks on my exam. He pointed out that in the short answer question I had never stated that a certain chemical reaction was occurring. I promptly responded that I had also never stated that it wasn't. My chutzpa got me 3 marks and a 90%.

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    1. I once left an entire exam blank, and offered the same reasons. The professor promptly flunked me.

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    2. Was it a chemistry test? If not, that may have been your problem.

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  4. Perhaps Rabbi Bleich's was using "transnatural powers" to refer to abnormal abilities that are natural but require extraordinary devotion and
    character to develop and harness them.

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    1. Like DareDevil? No. Earlier he makes it clear that "transnatural" means "supernatural."

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  5. The evident understanding of the Rambam's writings, including his Mishne Torah, features his strong opposition to and disbelief in magic of any form (MT, hilchot avodah zarah 11:16-18). For someone to use divine names to ostensibly change reality is no different in principle than the practice of ancient magicians who thereby commit a capital offense (kosem). It matters little that the practitioner claims to use a holy source rather than 'black magic'. We are not required to delve into the mentality of the kosem - just his practice, and to disbelieve that he has supernatural powers. The use of divine names also brings in another warning of the Rambam against using verses to help heal or calm. He considers that a heretical misuse of the torah (ibid, 11:13). Why would the divine names be any different?

    Y. Aharon

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    1. I confess to not being familiar with the various categories of magical arts. I see that I confused mechashef with kosem. Only the former is a capital offense. Almost all the other categories are liable for lashes rather than execution.

      Y. Aharon

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  6. Rabbi Bleich has done this on more than one occasion- twisting an opinion that doesn't agree with him so that at least it doesn't contradict, or worse, reading his own opinion into the source when it clearly wasn't there to begin with. It is quite distressing to see, especially given his amazing breadth and depth of his knowledge.

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  7. Note the key formulation, "Nevertheless, Rambam does not explicitly deny the possibility....". This is exactly the same point I made below, piggybacking off of G*3, and underscores it in bold. To repeat:

    R. Bleich also cannot prove that no one booby trapped his front door to spray him with water when he opens it, but that wont stop him from opening the door. The inability to disprove something, by itself, means little.

    In general, it seems R. Bleich is taking the approach of the defense attorney who says "I can't prove my client innocent, but you cant prove him guilty." That approach works in criminal procedure, but in civil procedure, we follow the preponderance of the evidence. And that tells us (obviously) spontaneous generation just doesn't happen.

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  8. I'm wondering what got lost in translation here. Does anyone disagree that prophets such as Moshe and Eliyahu caused metaphysical or transnatural events to transpire (obviously through God)? If so then isn't Rabbi Bleich simply saying that Rambam doesn't deny that people can do this, he simply denies that doing so happens in a magical way that is divorced from the actual level of the person and relies soley on mystical knowledge of the name of God?

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  9. This may be a basic question, but do you know if Rambam's opposition to the notion of changing the natural order through supernatural means due to historical reasons ("Hey, that probably never happened") or is it purely intellectual/philosophical?

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  10. Are you denying Kabbalah too, or your only issue is how Rambam viewed it? As for power of Divine Names, what's about Golem? Not to mention that according to Midrash, Moshe Rabbeinu killed a Egyptian [who was beating a Jew] by using a Divine Name.

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    1. I think taking Midrash and Agadata literally is a 2 edged sword.

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    2. Here you see the benefits of a 'pure' Yeshiva education: the inability to know what type of text one is reading. It's all by the list of approved rabbis so it's all to be taken literally. So so sophisticated. Not.

      In direct answer to your questions:
      1. Kabbalah. Yes. Denied. By both me and Rambam.

      2. Golem: fiction not fact. Grow up.
      3. Divine Names: Can't even take seriously anyone who asks the question.
      4. Midrash: an educational text not a literal one.

      I would genuinely find it hard to believe that an adult could believe in the things you hold up for our admiration were it not for the fact that I live in a community where these fairy tales are treated as gospel.
      Mind boggling.
      I'm sure Moshe Rabbenu is spinning in his grave (wherever it might be...)

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    3. Since the Zohar showed up after Rambam, he didn't view it any which way. The Golem story was made popular by Jewish novelist Wolf Pascheles. Even when the Maharal is eulogized, whether in David Gans' Zemach David or on his epitaph …, not a word is said about the creation of a golem. No Hebrew work published in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries (even in Prague) is aware that the Maharal created a golem." Furthermore, the Maharal himself did not refer to the Golem in his writings. Rabbi Yedidiah Tiah Weil (1721–1805), a Prague resident, who described the creation of golems, including those created by Rabbis Avigdor Kara of Prague (died 1439) and Eliyahu of Chelm, did not mention the Maharal, and Rabbi Meir Perels' biography of the Maharal published in 1718 does not mention a golem. i.e. it never happened. There's definitely no proof it happened.

      The Torah says Moshe hit the Mitzri. The Ibn Ezra cautions about taking midrashim literally.

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    4. The Rambam would either dismiss those aggadahs or interpret them differently.

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    5. So Rabbi Yedidiah Tiah Weil didn't mention the Maharal having created a golem, but he did mention Rabbi Eliyahu of Chelm's golem. What have you proven??

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    6. I would genuinely find it hard to believe that an adult could believe in the things you hold up for our admiration were it not for the fact that I live in a community where these fairy tales are treated as gospel.

      I would genuinely find it hard to believe that an adult who produced the above could believe in G-d, if not for the fact that I live in a community where religion is treated as obscurantism and Rabbonim are mocked.

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    7. @Aryeh The Rambam would either dismiss those aggadahs or interpret them differently

      So? Is Rambam a deity?

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    8. Lazar,

      Then sincerely, it is time you improved your Jewish education.
      You need to go and learn that the tradition you hold so dear is much more varied than you seem to see it.

      Being properly Jewish does not require you leave your brain at the door. It never did until recently. tze ul'mad

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    9. @Lazar

      As much as some may worship his writings, no, the Rambam is decidedly not a deity. What are you asking?

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    10. Let me second Fozzibear's denial, and double down on it. According to Rambam, kabbalah does not even count as monotheism, let alone Judaism.

      The Golem?! A bubbe meiseh. Many of the stories were written by R. Yudel Rosenberg of Montreal. If you enjoy fiction, his grandson Mordecai Richler was a far better novelist.

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    11. Lazar, is the Rambam a deity?
      No, of course not. (Unlike what some kabblistic rabbis thought of themselves - see roni weinstein's new book about the spread of kabbala post 17th century)

      But he did know a thing or two about Judaism.

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    12. But he did know a thing or two about Judaism.

      And Rabbi Shimon I guess did not?

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    13. Like I said : Judaism is more varied than some like to present it.

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    14. Oh, R. Shimon bar Yochai certainly did. But his thoughts on Jewish theology are unknown, because unlike Rambam and, alas, the liar Moses de Leon, he left us no extant works on the subject.

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  11. In your discussion of Rabbi Bleich's statement, why did you not quote his footnote? Rabbi Bleich references the Rambam in Mishne Torah that discusses amulets of demonstrated efficacy (קמיע מומחה), which is an employment of "metaphysical or transnatural powers to achieve physical ends." He is not "[a]scribing a view to Rambam because he does not explicitly deny it"; he is ascribing a view to the Rambam that the Rambam states, and attempts to resolve the contradiction. (The footnote also references a different work by Rabbi Bleich in which he presumably discusses this further.)

    It is hard to believe that YOU were wide awake when you wrote this, unless you are so intellectually dishonest as to ignore the author's footnotes when quoting his text.

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    1. I don't have any citations handy, but my understanding is that the Rambam allows use of such amulets because he understood the placebo effect, and not because he believed the amulets to have any innate power.

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    2. That's the same section where Rambam permits one to carry fox teeth, locust eggs, etc., all things that Rambam considers useless, but which he recognizes to have placebo value and therefore are permissible to carry on Shabbos. For extensive discussion, see Marc Shapiro, Studies in Maimonides, pp. 140-141.

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    3. If it's placebo effect, then how do we distinguish between an amulet that works three times and one that hasn't worked three times? How does the patient know what the amulet contains (if it contains some text, or herbs or something), and why should that make a difference?
      And the question is not on the Rambam per se--he can explain things as he wants. But the Gemara certainly seems to say that these things have a segulah effect--that works in a way that we don't understand--and not just as a placebo.
      And as for magic: I have asked this before, and R. David Ohsie seemed to agree that it's a difficulty: How does the Rambam explain the Gemara that says that if a person harvests a cucumber patch with witchcraft, he deserves the death penalty, but if he's just performed sleight of hand, he's exempt from a death penalty. If witchcraft is nonsense, then what did the person do to incur a death penalty? Did he harvest the cucumbers or not?
      And I hope the commentors here will not attack me and say what an fool I am for believing in witchcraft or other such nonsense--it just seems to me that the Rambam's interpretation is a forced one here, in these cases.

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    4. The Rambam doesn't allow those items due to a placebo effect; he allows them due to a belief in their medicinal powers because doctors say that they are effective -- בכל דבר שתולין אותו משום רפואה--והוא שיאמרו הרופאים, שהוא מועיל.

      Elsewhere, he does discuss placebos (Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 11:11) אף על פי שאין הדבר מועיל כלום, הואיל ומסוכן הוא, התירו לו, כדי שלא תיטרף דעתו עליו. Note the difference in terminologies.

      Also, please note that Rabbi Bleich discusses this explanation (placebo effect of amulets) at great length in his philosophical work (again, as referenced in the footnote that you omitted to cite). You do not have to agree with his conclusions, but by your omission of this reference, you imply that he ascribes this view to the Rambam solely because the Rambam "does not deny it." In fact, he ascribes this (possible) view to the Rambam after a rigorous discussion of the Rambam's contradictory statements in both Mishne Torah and Moreh Nevuchim.

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    5. (Also, I'm not convinced that the Rambam's views are as "rational" as you claim.

      E.g. Moreh Nevuchim 3:51
      "An excellent idea presents itself here to me, which may serve to remove many doubts, and may help to solve many difficult problems in metaphysics. We have already stated in the chapters which treat of Divine Providence, that Providence watches over every rational being according to the amount of intellect which that being possesses. Those who are perfect in their perception of God, whose mind is never separated from Him, enjoy always the influence of Providence. ...
      Hence it appears to me that it is only in times of such neglect that some of the ordinary evils befall a prophet or a perfect and pious man: and the intensity of the evil is proportional to the duration of those moments, or to the character of the things that thus occupy their mind. ... If man frees his thoughts from worldly matters, obtains a knowledge of God in the right way, and rejoices in that knowledge, it is impossible that any kind of evil should befall him while he is with God, and God with him. When he does not meditate on God, when he is separated from God, then God is also separated from him; then he is exposed to any evil that might befall him; for it is only that intellectual link with God that secures the presence of Providence and protection from evil accidents."

      Is this "rational" by your definition, "
      Rationalists value a naturalistic rather than supernatural interpretation of events, and perceive a consistent natural order over history - past, present and future. They tend to minimize the number of supernatural entities and forces."? It seems heavily mystical to me.

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    6. "That's the same section where Rambam permits one to carry fox teeth, locust eggs, etc., all things that Rambam considers useless, but which he recognizes to have placebo value and therefore are permissible to carry on Shabbos. "

      The Rambam discusses this in his Guide, but says nothing that can be construed as referring to a placebo:
      "... for these things [fox teeth etc..] have been considered in those days as facts established by experiment. They served as cures, in the same manner as the hanging of the peony over a person subject to epileptic fits, or the application of a dog's refuse to the swellings of the throat, and of the vapours of vinegar and marcasite to the swelling of hard tumours. For the Law permits as medicine everything that has been verified by experiment, although it cannot be explained by analogy. The above-named cures are permitted in the same way as the application of purgatives."

      Now, it's clear that the Rambam does not believe these remedies actually work. That's why he writes "in those days"- to emphasize the procedure of experiment over actual effectiveness. False positives? Perhaps. Placebo? Definitely not.

      The Rambam's handling of incantations for venemous wounds, on the other hand does evoke modern notions of placebo.

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    7. And the question is not on the Rambam per se--he can explain things as he wants. But the Gemara certainly seems to say that these things have a segulah effect--that works in a way that we don't understand--and not just as a placebo.

      I don't think there is any doubt that many in the Talmud believed in witchcraft and astrology. The Rambam explicitly says that is rejecting some positions of Chazal as mistaken with regard to astrology. I also believe that some in the Talmud rejected the validity of Witchcraft while others affirmed it's power:

      "אין עוד מלבדו (There is none beside him) Rabbi Chanina said "even with regard to witchcraft". There was a woman who tried to take dirt from under the feet of of Rabbi Chanina. He said to her, "Take it. It will not help you. It is written אין עוד מלבדו (There is none beside him)." But did not Rabbi Yochanan say "Why are they called 'כשפים'? Because they impair the heavenly household (a natrikon)." Rabbi Chanina was different because his merit was great."

      It appears that R' Chanina felt that witchcraft could have no effect on him because there is no power but God's. However the Stam, in accordance with R' Yochanan, maintained that R' Chanina was protected only because of his great merit.

      Empirically, it appears that the anti-witchcraft side was correct. We don't see it working, nor astrology, nor amulets.

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    8. It seems like Meir's original point got lost in the noise:
      "You do not have to agree with his conclusions, but by your omission of this reference, you imply that he ascribes this view to the Rambam solely because the Rambam "does not deny it." In fact, he ascribes this (possible) view to the Rambam after a rigorous discussion of the Rambam's contradictory statements in both Mishne Torah and Moreh Nevuchim."

      Did Rabbi Slifkin omit this important reference when he sent the excerpt to Prof. Kelner as well?
      Why isn't Rabbi Slifkin issuing a full retraction and apology?

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    9. [This response is based on R Bleich's article in Tradition which should be able to stand on its own.]

      In fact, he ascribes this (possible) view to the Rambam after a rigorous discussion of the Rambam's contradictory statements in both Mishneh Torah and Moreh Nevuchim.

      There no such rigorous discussion in the Tradition article. He merely notes that despite denying the efficacy of amulets, Rambam codifies the Talmud's permit to wear efficacious amulets in the Mishneh Torah. He says in the main text "For Rambam, an amulet worn as a talisman could not possibly have any effect because the Names contained in an amulet are not endowed with any supernatural power" and doesn't analyze any supposed contradiction.

      Moreover, R Bleich's speculation here would not explain why the Rambam permits such amulets, since the such amulets are permitted for all users and not just the greatest Jewish thinkers who understand the meaning of God's names.

      Finally, R Bleich doesn't cite this "contradiction" in support of his argument. As R Slifkin points out, he merely says "Rambam does not explicitly deny the possibility", not that his codification of the permission to use amulets on Shabbos shows that he supports the possibility of using divine names to perform parlor tricks.

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    10. "[This response is based on R Bleich's article in Tradition which should be able to stand on its own.]"

      Looks like the dark lackey returns. :)
      You're just trying to evade valid criticism with that line.
      Why should the Tradition article stand on its own if it was revised by Rabbi Bleich before he published it in his book?

      Rabbi Slifkin's slanderous post referenced the updated chapter in the new book--not the Tradition article.
      So there's no excuse for omitting the footnote. It was simply dishonest of your boss and it seems you don't have the guts to face it.

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    11. Why should the Tradition article stand on its own if it was revised by Rabbi Bleich before he published it in his book?

      It should stand on its own because it was published on its own. Are you saying that essay made no sense as originally published and only can be understood in the book's form?

      Moreover, I don't have the book, so I explicitly said I was basing my response on the article. And in the article, as I noted, the footnote is irrelevant.

      If the essay in the book is different in some way, can you please quote a few sentences to show how he leverages the Rambam's codification on the use of amulets on Shabbos to a conclusion that he believes that God's name gives Jewish philosophers magical powers.

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  12. The problem, from a rationalist perspective, is not just that magic--black and white--happens to be phony; it's that belief in magic is founded on a polytheistic understanding of the nature of God.

    The kabbalists believe that there are degrees and gradations of the supernatural, spanning the distance between the God, the purely supernatural, and the natural created world. Therefore, they believe it possible for natural beings to manipulate supernatural forces--as they would describe it, not God Himself, but lower elements of the supernatural.

    For Rambam, this is nothing short of polytheism. The difference between God and the created world is absolute, with no degrees or gradients. Monotheism is not just a census of supreme beings. It means that God is infinite, all One, unitary and all-encompassing--the only, and the only possible, supernatural being or force.

    For Rambam, by claiming to control the supernatural, magic is claiming to control God Himself. This is why magic is a capital offense: the claim that it exists fundamentally misleads people about the nature of God.

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    1. Do you know WHY(or know of a work that explains why) the Rambam felt that "difference between God and the created world is absolute, with no degrees or gradients"? Does he deny the existence of spirituality in this world altogether? We have souls, after all!

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    2. Yehudah P., the Rambam would treat the gemara about 'magically invoking' a cucumber patch in non-literal fashion, i.e., it is not referring to physical cucumbers but is an allusion to something else. After all, why single out such a trivial matter as cucumbers for a magical act? The Rambam who strongly disbelieved in any form of magic would treat other references in Talmud to magic in a non-literal fashion. Segulot and kamei'ot are somewhat different in that their belief, which is not forbidden, can have an effect on a peson's well-being. Peace of mind and helping the healing process may justify such use, even if it isn't strictly rational.

      Y. Aharon

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    3. "The Rambam who strongly disbelieved in any form of magic would treat other references in Talmud to magic in a non-literal fashion. Segulot and kamei'ot are somewhat different in that their belief, which is not forbidden, can have an effect on a peson's well-being. Peace of mind and helping the healing process may justify such use, even if it isn't strictly rational."

      But the Rambam doesn't say that. Where does he mention "peace of mind" in his discussion of amulets and segulot? He does mention it here:

      מי שנשכו עקרב או נחש, מותר ללחוש על מקום הנשיכה, ואפילו בשבת, כדי ליישב דעתו ולחזק ליבו: אף על פי שאין הדבר מועיל כלום, הואיל ומסוכן הוא, התירו לו, כדי שלא תיטרף דעתו עליו.

      It seems to me, that this היתר would only be permitted in cases of danger. Fake remedies for non life threatening conditions would not necessarily be permitted for "peace of mind".

      " helping the healing process"
      Careful. Peace of mind does not necessarily help healing. That's a notion that's promoted by quacks....

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    4. Ephraim, I didn't cite the Rambam explicitly except with regard to kishuf and other magical arts that are strictly forbidden. I mentioned segulot and kamei'ot only as irrational items whose belief may be foolish, but still permissible. I believe that this is the view of the Rambam, as well, but I don't have a specific citation at the moment. The citation is presumably from hilchot Shabbat regarding the permissibility of wearing an amulet. There is, at most, a rabbinic prohibition against such an odd form of carrying, which is not applied in cases where the carrying leads to a tranquil Shabbat. Such tranquility is separate from the healing process that I also mentioned. Nor is healing something entirely independent of the person's mental state. I believe that a positive and hopeful attitude can help galvanize the immune system to combat certain illnesses. Of course, one must seek medical attention, undergo the procedures, and take the prescribed medications - but attitude can help, as well.

      Y. Aharon

      The citation that you provided is in hilchot avodah zarah 11: 12. The permission to whisper incantations over a snake bite because the victim is terrified, is aimed at overcoming the avodah zarah aspect (lechisha) of the matter since it would otherwise be strictly forbidden.

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    5. Weaver:

      The work is called "Guide of the Perplexed." TL, DR version: Yesodey ha-Torah 1:7. Twitter version: being a composite is inconsistent with being infinite and perfect.

      It's important to distinguish between spirituality and metaphysics. For Rambam, the former is a feeling of closeness to God, which is achieved through the perfection of the intellect. The latter is an essentially negative term--it tells us what God is not, i.e., physical.

      According to Rambam, "soul" means the life force or intelligence (Guide, 1:41). It is not a metaphysical object.

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    6. I apologize for the first paragraph of my previous post. The nature of God is not a question for snark, and one who asks a serious question deserves a serious response.

      If a thing is composed of parts, degrees or gradations, there must be a point where one part ends and another begins. It is in this respect non-infinite. God is by nature without beginning or ending, and thus cannot be composed of parts that begin and end.

      To say that something is perfect means that it is in the best of all possible states, so that any alteration would render it less than perfect. If God is composed of degrees and gradations, only one of them can be perfect; the others, being different from that state of perfection, are necessarily imperfect.

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    7. I know about Moreh Nevuchim :), I was wondering if there was a more clear and contemporary work that explains why the Rambam felt the way he did. (I.e., if God interacts with the world through the laws of nature, why can't He also interact with the world through spiritual phenomena as well? That doesn't seem like polytheism to me.)

      "According to Rambam, "soul" means the life force or intelligence (Guide, 1:41). It is not a metaphysical object."
      But the soul/life force/intelligence is not physical - hence it is "spiritual", without getting bogged down in semantics.

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    8. "There is, at most, a rabbinic prohibition against such an odd form of carrying, which is not applied in cases where the carrying leads to a tranquil Shabbat."

      I'm not sure where you got the "tranquil Shabbat" concept. You are correct that we're dealing with a דרבנן- concern that the person will carry the amulet ד' אמות if it were to fall off his clothing. The Radbaz (5:526) explains that there's no concern here, since the person is so worried about his health that he would never carry the amulet if it were to fall; he would immediately pick it up and re-attach it.

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    9. Veritas: The best I can do with my very deficient home library is Colette Sirat, "A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages," Chapter 6. Not sure she answers your specific question in so many words. I will attempt to.

      Monotheism for Rambam and other medieval Jewish philosophers means "yichud," or unity.

      Mere number is what is referred to by medieval philosophy as an "accident." For example, my shirt may happen to be blue, but blueness is not an essential characteristic of shirtness. In the same way, if we reduce monotheism to a head count of supreme beings, it tells us nothing about the essential characteristics of God.

      Unity, on the other hand, is an essential characteristic of God. It's a necessary co-requisite of infiniteness and perfection.

      Where would these "supernatural forces" you speak of come from? If they are part of the created universe, they are not supernatural; if they are part of God then God is not One.

      And what are they for? Positing their existence implies that God Himself is in some way incapable of interacting directly with the created world. Indeed, this is precisely why the kabbalists adopted the Neoplatonic idea of spheres or emanations. (They would say that it's the created world that is incapable of being acted upon directly by God, but this is a distinction without a difference.)

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    10. I'm happy to admit that the nature of consciousness, the substance of the soul and the nature of its survival after death surpass my understanding. That doesn't mean they must be spiritual.

      In trying to avoid semantic bog-down when discussing precise philosophical issues, analogy is the closest thing to tire chains. So here goes.

      If you weigh a body with a sufficiently precise scale immediately before and after death, will the departure of the "soul" cause weight loss? Nowadays the idea that it will is called vitalism, and is widely discredited. But it's inaccurate to graft the discredit of vitalism onto medieval philosophy.

      The passage of electrons through a CPU does not result in weight change either, yet it may result in a simulacrum of intelligence. That doesn't make a computer a spiritual device. Non-physical is not the same as spiritual.

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    11. Weaver, try Menachem Kellner's book Maimonides confrontation with mysticism

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    12. Thank you for taking the time (I am also Veritas - I hit an old username by mistake.) I recommend "Mind and Cosmos" by Thomas Nagel; it is a must read on the topic of the mystery of consciousness.

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    13. To David:
      It is very clear from many places in both MT and Moreh that the Rambam believed G-d created metaphysical entities which interact with the physical world.
      Once you posit that these entities were created by G-d to interact with the physical world, I don't see why it would become Avodo zoro to believe they exist.

      See: http://slifkinchallenge.blogspot.co.il/2016/07/materialist-judaism-part-iii-maimonides.html

      Suffice to say you can look at the 4th chapter of Yesodei HaTorah (second half) and Chapters 11 and 12 in Book II of the Moreh, to see how much the Rambam believed that these spiritual entities follow precise laws, and how these laws are deeply connected to the laws of the physical universe!

      Also see the Moreh here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/gfp059.htm
      and here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/gfp132.htm

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  13. The resolution of Rabbi Bleich's interpretation of the Rambam is simple.

    He was grasping an amulet and contemplating the holy names of G-d when he was reading the Rambam thereby transforming the texts into a new creation.

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  14. Rav Yaakov Medan from the Gush Etzion/Michlelet Herzog TANACH group wrote in his essays on Sefer Shemot that he believes that the makot (plagues on Egypt) were deliberately made to be exaggerated versions of known natural phenomena (with the exception of the last one, the first born). One reason was to teach Pharoah and everyone else that the natural world was under G-d's direction. Another reason was that it enabled Pharoah to "harden his heart" by convincing himself originally that Moshe was simply a magician doing tricks and that Pharoah could convince himself that all he had to do was wait out the makot and they would stop without him having to make concessions, although we do see him weaken when things get bad, but then he changes his mind right after relief comes.
    A modern version of this was the use of the atomic bombs on Japan. The Japanese government was given three days to surrender after the use of the first on Hiroshima. The leaders of Japan convinced themselves that this was a one-time event and that the Americans couldn't do it again and they could ride it out. Three days later they learned that wasn't the case....although the Americans did have many other bombs ready at the time.

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  15. For the various opinions on the Rambam's opinion see the text and footnote in :
    http://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/13696/did-the-rambam-believe-in-magic

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  16. Can any of the people quoting Rambam's disbelief in magic at the end of Hilchot Avodah Zarah please explain to me what he means at the beginning of the previous halacha (15)?

    Free translation: "One who performs magic is liable to death by stoning. This applies only if HE ACTUALLY PERFORMED MAGIC, but if he only deluded those watching him into thinking that he performed magic but did not actually do it (achizat eynayim) he is liable to lashes."

    Rambam seems to be saying that there indeed is such a thing as magic that actually works as advertised and which people can use to change the natural order of things, as distinct from something that just fools people into believing that things have changed when they haven't.

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    1. Anonymous, your free translation misses a key term. The expression in MT, hilchot avodah zarah 2:16 adds a term to your capitalized translated expression, 'acts', i.e., not magic per se but the acts that mechashfim use in their 'conjurings'. Not being familiar with ancient magical arts, I can only speculate that this refers to certain incantations and/or using certain props. However, if the 'magician' doesn't use these methods but is only engaged in slight of hand trickery then he doesn't fall into this category. This understanding is made explicit in the next halacha which starts, "These things are all false and misleading..", i.e., don't believe that the mechashef or other magic doer is actually changing reality - it's all trickery.

      Y. Aharon

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  17. Rabbi Bleich is not alone - the Ran also tries to explain the Rambam's view that maaseh beraishis is science as referring to abstract forces behind science (see drashos Derashot HaRan 1).

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  18. It all comes back to the phenomenon parodied in the "Yeshiva Guy Says Over a Vort" talking bear video.

    If you believe the midrashim cited by Rashi to be literal p'shat and not just another midrash, then you're going to believe in all sorts of supernatural possibilities.

    For those that take the mystic point of view, they will point to Rashi (Exodus 32:4) where he writes that the Golden Calf was created miraculously via a metal plate inscribed with the words "עלי שור", (arise ox) and Moshe used the same plate to exhume the bones of Yosef. The Arizal expounds that the plate had one of the special divine names of God.

    If you understand Rashi's citation of midrash as elevating it to p'shat and by extension a literal occurrence, then divine names having power, is nothing extraordinary.

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    1. What are the alternative understanding(s) of that Rashi?

      RM

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    2. The OP was about the dishonesty of dealing with arguments by distorting the other side into sharing our opinion. That applies to both sides.

      Though it's a distortion to read kabbalah (and especially Lurianic kabbalah) back into Rashi, he was not a rationalist, and often took midrash literally. So?

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  19. One of Rabbi Bleich's main points about spontaneous generation (as I understood it) is that it's a bit rich for scientists to scoff at "idiots" who believe in spontaneous generation while claiming with a straight face that the entire universe was spontaneously generated out of nothing.

    I actually think this is a good point. (Of course, for those of who believe G-d created the universe, the point is moot.)

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    Replies
    1. Yehudah, there is a fundamental difference between creation ex nihilo and spontaneous generation. The former may be mysterious, but may be the only way of accounting for the existence of anything. The latter is an ancient belief about various creatures which have all been disproven, i.e., all these creatures come from living things if one observes with sufficient care and sensitivity. A basic law in biology is that life comes from preexisting life. The only exception was the first elementary life form on earth some 3 billion years ago.

      Y. Aharon

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    2. If you look up "Spontanteous Generation George Wald," it appears that he doesn't appear to make that distinction. Wald wrote, among other similar quotes: "One has only to contemplate the magnitude of this task to concede that the spontaneous generation of a living organism is impossible. Yet here we are as a result, I believe, of spontaneous generation. "The origin of life" Scientific American August 1954

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    3. Wagner, there is no difference between my statement about 'spontaneous generation' and the citation from Prof. Wald, a famous biologist. We both consider the origin of life on earth to be a unique event that was never duplicated for the organisms that subsequently arose. They came from pre-existing life. Their ultimate origin is the first life form that was itself generated abiogenically (not form living matter).

      Y. Aharon

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  20. http://seforim.blogspot.com/2007/07/rabbi-chaim-rapoport-on-prof-marc-b.html

    http://seforim.blogspot.com/2007_07_01_archive.html

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  21. This (Zohar HaRambam) was recently uploaded to HebrewBooks:
    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/55578

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    Replies
    1. Post hoc reasoning really goes awry when you reverse the timeline :).

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    2. I just found that book yesterday, and I was thinking of sending that book to you, Josh. I'm glad you found it on your own.

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  22. "I find it hard to believe that he was wide awake when he wrote this sentence."

    Wow, Prof. Kellner ain't mincing words. Good for him.

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  23. I've only read through half the comments, but has anyone thought to call up Rav Bleich and ask him what he meant?

    ReplyDelete

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