Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Rambam, Aristotle, and Creation

Rabbi Chaim (Howard) Jachter recently published a book called Reason to Believe. I haven't seen it, but someone sent me a few pages of it in which he discusses various approaches to Torah and science, including my own. While I greatly value Rabbi Jachter's writings in general, and I am honored that he engages in a serious presentation of my views, there is an unfortunate serious distortion of my position, which I would like to correct.

Rabbi Jachter writes that "a primary source" for my approach is Rambam saying that he would have accommodated Aristotle's eternity of the universe, had it been proven. In fact, I did not refer to any such statement by Rambam. And with good reason - he says no such thing!

According to the Rambam (Guide 2:25) only Plato's view (that the universe was created from timeless matter) could theoretically be brought in line with Torah. Rambam admits that the verses of the Torah could also be theoretically reinterpreted according to Aristotle (who maintains that the universe always existed in its present form), but he says that such an accommodation would be impossible, due to the fundamental theological incompatibility of Judaism with the Aristotelian worldview.

Incidentally, R. Jachter is not the only person to misunderstand Rambam's position here; I have seen Prof. Nathan Aviezer make the same error. And there are, of course, those who claim that Rambam secretly really did accept Aristotle's approach, despite his vehement stated opposition to it, but personally I have no patience for such Straussian quasi-conspiracy theories (notwithstanding the claims by certain maniacal zealots that I subscribe to such things).

So, that was not the source in Rambam that I based myself on, because it does not exist. Instead, the source in Rambam that I used was Rambam explicitly saying that the account of creation is not all to be interpreted literally, and his cryptic statements which his interpreters revealed to mean that he held that the Six Days were not actually periods of time.

Note that there is a world of difference between this and the Straussian approach of claiming that Rambam was a secret Aristotelian. With regard to the nature of the account of the six days, Rambam openly states that he is presenting his view in a cryptic manner:
"The following point now claims our attention. The account of the six days of creation contains, in reference to the creation of man, the statement: "Male and female created he them" (i. 27), and concludes with the words: "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them" (ii. 1), and yet the portion which follows describes the creation of Eve from Adam, the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge, the history of the serpent and the events connected therewith, and all this as having taken place after Adam had been placed in the Garden of Eden. All our Sages agree that this took place on the sixth day, and that nothing new was created after the close of the six days. None of the things mentioned above is therefore impossible, because the laws of Nature were then not yet permanently fixed. There are, however, some utterances of our Sages on this subject [which apparently imply a different view]. I will gather them from their different sources and place them before you, and I will refer also to certain things by mere hints, just as has been done by the Sages. You must know that their words, which I am about to quote, are most perfect, most accurate, and clear to those for whom they were said. I will therefore not add long explanations, lest I make their statements plain, and I might thus become "a revealer of secrets," but I will give them in a certain order, accompanied with a few remarks, which will suffice for readers like you." (Friedlander translation, from Sefaria.org)
This, and the interpretation of this passage by the primary commentators on the Guide, is the passage of Rambam that I was quoting in my book. I already wrote to Rabbi Jachter about it, and he promised to amend his for the next printing. But since there will be many people who form their opinion of both Rambam's view and my own work, I wanted to set matters straight here.

29 comments:

  1. "a revealer of secrets
    Can you explain why there should be any secrets ????

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    1. Because only those whom Rambam designates as his audience in his preface to part 1 can safely be initiated into these secrets without dire risk to their emunah. Here are his words:

      "The object of this treatise is to enlighten a religious man who has been trained to believe in the truth of our holy Law, who conscientiously fulfils his moral and religious duties, and at the same time has been successful in his philosophical studies. Human reason has attracted him to abide within its sphere; and he finds it difficult to accept as correct the teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Law, and especially that which he himself or others derived from those homonymous, metaphorical, or hybrid expressions. Hence he is lost in perplexity and anxiety. If he be guided solely by reason, and renounce his previous views which are based on those expressions, he would consider that he had rejected the fundamental principles of the Law; and even if he retains the opinions which were derived from those expressions, and if, instead of following his reason, he abandon its guidance altogether, it would still appear that his religious convictions had suffered loss and injury. For he would then be left with those errors which give rise to fear and anxiety, constant grief and great perplexity."

      That is, only those who fit all three criteria need apply:
      •Successfully trained to believe in the truth of our holy Law
      •Conscientiously fulfilling his moral and religious duties
      •Succeeded in his philosophical studies


      In the terminology of the passage brought by Rabbi Slifkin, this applies to "readers like you," who are capable of discerning Rambam's full meaning from the "utterances of the Sages" and Rambam's "mere hints;" these are sufficient guides for those of sufficient gifts and accomplishments.

      In other words, if you're tall enough for this ride you know who you are; if you''re not, it's too dangerous.

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  2. Rabbi, you may neither subscribe to nor approve of the statement but nevertheless there is no denying he did make it:
    If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions.

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    1. That's only half of what he said. There were TWO distinctions the Rambam makes between his understanding "the 'Hand' of G-d" as idiom and his taking creation at face value:

      The Torah does not prove that the world was created by G-d (rather than being infinitely old) any more than it shows that G-d has a body. Just a there we explained that it is an allegory and G-d uses the language for our understanding so we could do here also. We don't do this for 2 reasons
      1. It is proven that G-d has no body but the proof of the eternity of the world is not a complete proof and so we should not change pesukim to conform with a theory which is not proven.
      2. Holding that G-d has no body does not contradict any basic tenet of Judaism or the words of any prophet and is not against the meaning of the verses but even in accordance with the verses. However,
      Aristotle's theory that nature can never change contradicts the essence of Judaism and all miracles and all the promises of the Torah.


      (Tr. to Hebrew by el-Qafih, "Kapach", tr. from the Hebrew by Eli Turkel. Cut-n-pasted from Avodah v10#60.)

      The Rambam held that philosophy and Torah could not contradict -- there is only one Truth, and it conforms to bivalent logic. The situation where one criterion was met and not the other is impossible. We will never have a sound philosophical proof that goes against prophecy and Oral Torah, and we will never have prophecy or sound Oral Torah that defies
      philosophy.

      The Rambam would consider your example to be conditioned on the impossible. Like asking an only child, "But if you did have a brother, would he like spaggheti?" It's meaningless to talk about what was the Rambam's position on what to do in a situation he believed couldn't arise.

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    2. Does that mean it would be reconcilable with Judaism or that we would then be following some other religion?

      In other words, you don't literally die from a question. You would pick up and go on in some radically different direction. The fact that this is true doesn't mean that Judaism would be salvageable under such circumstances.

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    3. The Rambam would consider your example to be conditioned on the impossible. Like asking an only child, "But if you did have a brother, would he like spaggheti?" It's meaningless to talk about what was the Rambam's position on what to do in a situation he believed couldn't arise.

      Yet he does pose the hypothetical. I don't believe that perpetual motion machine is possible, but if someone demonstrated one, then we would have to revise our understanding of thermodynamics. It's not illogical to pose a question to someone along the lines of "but what if you are wrong". All of science depends on the possibility that we could be wrong.

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    4. In the theoretical situation that Aristotle's view could be proven, then according to the Rambam that would not be reconcilable with Judaism or any similar type of religion

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    5. David Ohshie: I was making the point that that's NOT what the Rambam is saying. He says that there is nothing in the text of the Torah that compells this understanding. After all, the text says "Yad Hashem", and we aren't compelled to believe He has Hands.

      What does stop him is... and then he lists his two criteria: (1) Aristo fails to really prove his point, and (2) it's against what the Torah teaches -- not the written Torah in itself, but the Torah as explained by our prophets and sages.

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    6. Micha Berger: You claimed "It's meaningless to talk about what was the Rambam's position on what to do in a situation he believed couldn't arise.".

      I think that is incorrect. He thought it wouldn't arise, in the same way that we think that a perpetual motion machine cannot be build. But it certainly could arise just like it could happen that someone could build a perpetual motion machine. For example, there could be a new Sinaitic revelation that Jesus is the messiah, and in that case, we would have to revise our prior assumptions.

      Furthermore, he actually mentions the hypothetical himself: "If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions."

      What is true is that he thought that any theory which denied the possibility of Providence was could not be reconciled with Judaism, even if one were to be willing to reinterpret Pesukim in non-literal ways.

      Whereas, to posit an eternal world that God then formed (and forms) is something that not only doesn't really contradict any key principle of Judaism, but also fits the Pesukim just fine (or maybe better than the traditional interpretation).

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  3. II:25 is one of the most cryptic passages in the Guide. Reading 2 English and 3 Hebrew translations didn't help. I sided with R Meir Shinnar against RYGB when they argued it on Avodah, but in the end, I'm really not sure.

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  4. An important implication of this Rambam that I want to make explicit.

    The Rambam believes that there is no means of accommodating Arisotilian eternity with Torah. Meaning, there are limits to the Rambam's willingness to reinterpret Torah to accommodate philosophical findings.

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    1. Actually, he doesn't say that. He puts no limits on "willingness".

      To make this more explicit, if God came to us on Sinai and told us that Jesus really was the Messiah, we would presumably be forced to accept this and realize that our prior adherence to traditional Judaism was mistaken. Likewise, if you could prove to the Rambam using philosphical proof that Aristotle was correct, then his adherence to Judaism in the form that he had it would be compromised; it doesn't mean that he would not accept the proof. He seems to pose that hypothetical himself.

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    2. Yes - the limit being where it would undermine what the Rambam understands to be a fundamental principal of Torah/Judaism, in this case G-d's ability to effect change in the world

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    3. Yes, but this is a limit on how far you can stretch Judaism and still call it Judaism. It is not a limit on what he would accept via philosophy.

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    4. Agreed - it's fair to assume that if Aristotelian eternity of the universe could be conclusively proven (at least in terms of what Rambam would consider a valid proof), then the Rambam would be forced to reject Judaism - at least in the traditional sense of how he understands it.

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  5. It's not just Straussians who think Maimonides actually agreed with Aristotle regarding creation. Harvey, in “A Third Approach To Maimonides’ Cosmogony-Prophetology Puzzle”, writes toward this, though he has to then bridge the gap between creation and non-creation using peculiar arguments.

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  6. I really do wonder what Rambam would say, where he would teach and who would follow him, were he alive today. I assume that he would be less disparaging of women. In the meantime, everyone will continue to reinvent him in their image...

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  7. You're right in correcting Rabbi Jachter's view of your sources, but you may be underestimating the arguments of those who are open to understanding the Rambam otherwise.

    See chapter eight "Guide of the Perplexed: Will or Wisdom?) of Moshe Halbertal's superb: "Maimonides:Life and Thought" for an even-handed and brilliant presentation of the arguments for both the philosophical and conservative approaches.

    Also see Gad Freudenthal's “Samuel ibn Tibbon's Avicennian Theory of an Eternal World,” Aleph, 8: 41–129

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    1. Neither Halbertal nor Freudenthal claim that Rambam openly says that Aristotle's eternity can be reconciled with Torah, as R. Jachter claims. Rather, they say that there is reason to believe that this is his hidden view.

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    2. Without claiming to know who is correct, I would just point out that some did read the Rambam in Guide ii:25 this way. Of course, they could be wrong, as well.

      Here is Norman Solomon in his book "Torah from Heaven"(p.70), referring to Guide ii:25:

      "Later in the same work he gives perhaps the most extreme example of his readiness to abandon conventional rabbinic interpretation. Aristotle did not demonstrate the eternity of the Universe, but had he done so convincingly Maimonides would have been ready to reinterpret the biblical story of creation in a figurative sense, just as he interpreted the Bible's many anthropomorphisms figuratively."

      -Friend in RBS

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  8. Page 199 The Guide - "We should perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the Scriptural passages referred to are in harmony with the theory ofthe Eternity of the Universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Bible when we rejected the idea that God is corporeal." This quote makes no distinction Plato VS Aristotle. So that could be a possible view. However In the same chapter of the quote, the Rambam has a Plato Eternal and an Aristotle Eternal. He APPEARS to be saying the former would somehow be compatible with the Tenach, while not the second.

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  9. It is not at all clear Genesis intends creation ex-nihilo. It probably did not intend creation ex-nihilo and I wrote a blog post about it Feb 16, 2014

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  10. No philsophical proofs can decide between creation ex-nihilo or eternity. So far, science only takes us back to the Big Bang.

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    1. Rambam included science in his definition of philosophy.

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    2. All pre-enlightenment thinkers did

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    3. It seems that science as we know it today emerged around the 16th and 17th centuries, after the time of the Rambam.

      -Menachem

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    4. @Alter There is an argument to be made that science by definition can only take us back in time to that of post cosmic inflation.

      -Menachem

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  11. Marc Shapiro wrote about this: http://seforim.blogspot.com/2011/02/new-writings-from-r-kook-and-assorted_22.html

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