Guest Post: Does the Rambam Pasken Hashkafa Using Halachic Principles? [Can we "pasken" the age of the universe? (Part 7)]
Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved
“Even a cursory examination of the Mishneh Torah and Moreh Nevuchim reveals that the Rambam clearly rejected hashkafic dictums that he believed to be minority views” -- Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Torah, Chazal and Science, pg 620.
[Update: To provide better organization, I gave the posts more informative titles and set them up to be easier to navigate. Content has not changed.]
In our last post, we demonstrated that the age of the universe was not subject to P’sak according to the Rambam. In this post, we’ll look at Rabbi Meiselman’s evidence that the Rambam used halachic principles to reject minority views in “hashkafah”. In my humble opinion, Rabbi Meiselman’s thesis is directly contradicted by the Rambam himself.
Does the Rambam Decide All Issues Using Halachic Principles?
Rabbi Meiselman notes the Rambam’s apparent use of the principle of Rov to decide non-halachic questions. He writes that "Even a cursory examination of the Mishneh Torah and Moreh Nevuchim reveals that the Rambam clearly rejected hashkafic dictums that he believed to be minority views" (TCS pg. 620). As an example, in Moreh 2:29, we see the following:
Our opinion, in support of which we have quoted these passages, is clearly established, namely, that no prophet or sage has ever announced the destruction of the Universe, or a change of its present condition, or a permanent change of any of its properties. When our Sages say, "The world remains six thousand years, and one thousand years it will be waste," they do not mean a complete cessation of existing things; the phrase "one thousand years it will be waste" distinctly shows that time will continue: besides, this is the individual opinion of one Rabbi, and in accordance with one particular theory. [Emphasis mine.]
Here we see the Rambam rejecting the opinion of what he describes as “the individual opinion of one Rabbi” and upholding his theory that the world, although created, will not be destroyed.
Rabbi Meiselman’s thesis is that the Rambam is simply “paskening” as he would with any other halacha, and thus follows the majority view and is forced to discard the minority view. Thus, according to Rabbi Meiselman, we see that the Rambam is simply following the rules of P'sak in areas of Haskafah.
In my humble opinion, the evidence here for Rabbi Meiselman’s thesis is exceedingly weak. Just because someone makes an appeal to authority or consensus doesn't mean that he is "paskening". The Rambam is advancing specific theories and, like any honest investigator, he is careful to bring up possible objections and evidence that runs counter to his theories. Thus, he mentions the places in Talmud where doctrines inconsistent with his own theories are proffered. Since he and the reader both assume that the opinion of the sages have great weight, it is important for the Rambam to show that it is at least possible that these theories were not widespread among the sages of the Talmud.
This kind of argument is going to be present in any kind of discipline that involves either judgement or uncertain evidence. For example, if one is evaluating the efficacy of a protocol in medicine with conflicting evidence on both sides, the number of studies coming down on one side or the other is going to figure preferring one direction over another. But there is no such thing as an authoritative ruling in medicine.
Rabbi Meiselman brings an another example in the following words of the Rambam (Moreh 3:17):
We, however, believe that all these human affairs are managed with justice; far be it from God to do wrong, to punish any one unless the punishment is necessary and merited. It is distinctly stated in the Law, that all is done in accordance with justice; and the words of our Sages generally express the same idea. They clearly say: "There is no death without sin, no sufferings without transgression." (B. T. Shabbath, 55a.)
Rabbi Meiselman notes that Rav Kapach translates the emphasized words as "דברי המון חכמנו" (the words of the great multitude of our sages) and he elaborates on this as meaning "רוב, או כמעט כל" (most or almost all of the sages) in note 57. Thus, according to Rabbi Meiselman, the Rambam is "paskening" the question.
It turns out that using this as evidence that the Rambam follows the rules of P'sak in Hashkafa is quite problematic. As Professor Marc Shapiro notes in his paper "Is there Pesak for Jewish Thought", this is an explicit example of the Rambam deviating from the rules of P'sak! The Rambam is enunciating the words of Rav Ammi that "There is no death without sin, no sufferings without transgression.". However, the Talmud (Shabbat 55b) records the following:
An objection is raised: Four died through the serpent's machinations, viz., Benjamin the son of Jacob, Amram the father of Moses, Jesse the father of David, and Caleb the son of David. Now, all are known by tradition, save Jesse the father of David, in whose case the Writ gives an explicit intimation. For it is written, And Absalom set Amasa over the host instead of Joab. Now Amasa was the son of a man whose name was Ithra the Israelite, that went in to Abigail the daughter of Nahash, sister to Zeruiah Joab's mother. Now, was she the daughter of Nahash? Surely she was the daughter of Jesse, for it is written, and their sisters were Zeruiah and Abigail? Hence it must mean, the daughter of one who died through the machinations of the nahash [serpent]. Who is [the author of this]? Shall we say, the Tanna [who taught] about the ministering angels? — Surely there were Moses and Aaron too! Hence it must surely be R. Simeon b. Eleazar, which proves that there is death without sin and suffering without iniquity. Thus the refutation of R. Ammi is [indeed] a refutation.
The Gemara describes the words of Rav Ammi as refuted! If the Rambam treats "hashkafah" with the same rules of P'sak as he does in halacha, then he should reject the words of Rav Ammi as this is the clear conclusion of the Gemara. We see again that the Rambam does not use the rules of P'sak to decide hashkafah, as he states many times.
In addition, if the Rambam is simply “paskening” hashkafah like halacha, then we should find this consistently throughout the Moreh. But R. Meiselman admits that in deciding whether or not Mitzvos have reasons or are just an expression of God’s will “he chooses one hashkafic principle over another on account of more general reasons”. (TCS pg. 621) Even on the topic of the indestructibility of the universe (quoted above), the Rambam does not begin his discussion with the positions of the sages in the Talmud. Instead he goes on for many chapters before finally discussing the view of Rav Katina that the world will last for 7000 years as a possible objection.
Most importantly, as Rabbi Meiselman notes, the Rashba points out that, in fact, there is no dissenting view brought in Perek Chelek to Rav Katina’s view. It seem clear since the Rambam was convinced by many other pieces of evidence that his view on the non-destruction of the world was true, he was merely insisting that there is no proof that the view of Rav Katina was adopted by the other sages. There is certainly no evidence from Perek Chelek itself that any of other sages argued with Rav Katina or that Rav Katina was a lone opinion. If this was really the lynchpin of the Rambam’s evidence, and the reason for his decision, then his decision would have quite a weak basis.
However, we can do better. It is simply categorically wrong to say that the Rambam treated this matter of hashkafah as a halacha and made a definitive ruling. We know that because the Rambam himself says so!
There remains only the question as to what the prophets and our Sages say on this point; whether they affirm that the world will certainly come to an end, or not. Most people amongst us believe that such statements have been made, and that the world will at one time be destroyed. I will show you that this is not the case; and that, on the contrary, many passages in the Bible speak of the permanent existence of the Universe. Those passages which, in the literal sense, would indicate the destruction of the Universe, are undoubtedly to be understood in a figurative sense, as will be shown. If, however, those who follow the literal sense of the Scriptural texts reject our view, and assume that the ultimate certain destruction of the Universe is part of their faith, they are at liberty to do so. But we must tell them that the belief in the destruction is not necessarily implied in the belief in the Creation; they believe it because they trust the writer, who used a figurative expression, which they take literally. Their faith, however, does not suffer by it. (Moreh 2:27) [emphasis mine]
In my humble opinion, this Rambam is inconsistent with everything in Rabbi Meiselman’s thesis. Here we have something that Rabbi Meiselman clearly categorizes as Hashkafah. The Rambam clearly says that he believes that all of Tanach and Chazal support his theory, except perhaps one sage who may not even disagree. Rabbi Meiselman uses this very example as evidence that Hashkafah is not different from Halacha and that we must bow our heads to rulings in Hashkafah. Yet, the Rambam himself gives us license to follow our own beliefs and explicitly tells us our faith does not suffer if we disagree with his assessment.
We’ll complete this series of posts with a summary of our conclusions.
The views in this post are mine and may not represent the views of the blog owner. I encourage comments and will make every attempt to address any questions in the comments section.