Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Guest Post: Rabbeinu Avraham vs. Rabbeinu Avraham?
Copyright 2015 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved
“Some contemporary authors have in fact ascribed to Rabbeinu Avraham precisely the opposite view -- that Chazal’s knowledge of the natural world was not derived from the Torah.” -- Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, TCS, pg 90.
Rabbeinu Avraham vs. Rabbeinu Avraham?
We showed in our last post that the Discourse is firmly rooted in the tradition of the Rambam, as Rabbeinu Avraham himself points out. However, in TCS, Rabbi Meiselman argues that the Discourse contradicts the views of Rabbeinu Avraham himself as published elsewhere. We'll examine this argument now.
Where does this contradiction reside? Rabbi Meiselman points out  that Rabbeinu Avraham's Kifayat al-Abidin (or The Guide to Serving God)  discusses the relationship between the wisdom of the Gentile sages and that of the Jewish Sages. Rabbeinu Avraham explains that the Gentile sages reached a deep understanding of the world including an understanding of God as the first cause of the Universe. However, they came to the mistaken conclusion that God does not exert any Providence over the universe.
In contrast, the Jewish sages had an advantage over the Gentile sages. [2a] In the words of Rabbeinu Avraham "But God has informed them through His Torah of that which is beyond the understanding of the scholars and philosophers". The Torah gave knowledge of God's Providence and involvement in this world to the Jewish sages; this knowledge was unavailable to the Gentile sages.  It is Rabbi Meiselman's claim that these words contradict the message of the Discourse. How so?
What Rabbeinu Avraham means, according to Rabbi Meiselman's opinion, is that the God gave over a complete understanding of the natural world, including all the knowledge attained by the Gentile sages, to the Jewish sages through the Torah. In addition, the Jewish sages also received knowledge of providence. Thus, Chazal's knowledge of the natural world, derived from the Torah, is more reliable than that of the Gentile sages and any disagreements must be settled in favor of the Jewish sages. In Rabbi Meieselman's words
The most natural interpretation of the phrase in italics [quoted above] seems to be that Chazal derived from the Torah everything known to the non-Jewish scholars, plus additional wisdom not possessed by them. It follows from this that whenever there is disagreement between the two forms of wisdom, Chazal’s must be presumed superior because of its divine source. [...] Some contemporary authors have in fact ascribed to Rabbeinu Avraham precisely the opposite view -- that Chazal’s knowledge of the natural world was not derived from the Torah. They build their case upon a passage appearing in the published edition of his [Discourse.]
Thus Rabbi Meiselman argues that Discourse is an outlier in Rabbeinu Avraham’s own thought as expressed in Kifayat al-Abidin.
In my humble opinion, Rabbi Meiselman’s argument fails in a numbers of ways. The simplest refutation is supplied by Rabbi Meiselman himself. Rabbi Meiselman admits that it is possible to interpret the statement from Kifayat al-Abidin in a way that doesn’t contradict the Discourse . Since both were written by Rabbeinu Avraham (and in fact the Discourse was likely to have originally been a part of Kifayat al-Abidin), an interpretation which doesn't result in contradiction is to be preferred over one that results in a contradiction. [4a]
Moreover, Rabbi Meiselman's preferred interpretation is quite forced. In order to evaluate his interpretation, we need to take a longer look at what Rabbeinu Avraham was writing about.
The context of the Rabbeinu Avraham's discussion is a classic question in Judaism's approach toward Bitachon (faith). If God is both Omniscient and Omnipotent, then of what value is human activity towards a goal? Isn't God in control anyhow?
In this context, Rabbeinu Avraham describes three classes of people:
1) Uncultured people who don't bother to investigate how the world works. These people are little raised above the level of animals.
2) The wise, who study how the world operates through cause and effect. Through this understanding, they may come to discover the First Cause (God), but they believe that God's contribution is to solely keep the universe going according to natural law. Thus, they deny God's Providence and fail to reach to the highest level of understanding.
3) The pious and wise followers of the Torah who understand that the world operates via a system of cause and effect and understand the details of this system as well as the previous class. However they also understand that these causes are secondary to God who is the first cause, and who can choose to continue the natural order or to alter it at will.
Rabbeinu Avraham also describes an (unnumbered) fourth class of people. These are religious people who have discovered God's existence through reason or tradition, but commit an intellectual error. Because of their belief in God and his control of the universe, they deny the importance of the study of natural cause and effect. They feel that this study would lead them into denial of God's Providence. These people are little better that those in the first class.
The following table summarizes Rabbeinu Avraham's classification system.
Ignorant of Science Understands Science Denies ProvidenceThe uncultured and ignorant. Little above animals.Philosophers who study nature and understand cause and effect. May believe in a First Cause (God), but lack in their understanding due to a denial of Providence. Nature always proceeds with regularity.Admits of ProvidenceReligious people who reject the study of nature. Little better than the ignorant.The religious wise. Study nature and cause and effect as the philosophers do, but also understand that God can choose to exercise his Providence to interrupt the usual flow of natural law.
If the wise admit of both natural cause and effect, and Providence, what is the proper way to approach the topic of Bitachon? At the simplest level, one should follow the path of our forefathers (Avos) who pursued practical solutions to their problems, but also realized that their fate was tied to God's will and his ability to perform miracles on their behalf.
We can now return to our original question: What did Rabbeinu Avraham mean when he wrote: "But God has informed them through His Torah of that which is beyond the understanding of the scholars and philosophers"? Rabbi Meiselman claims that it indicates that "Chazal derived from the Torah everything known to the non-Jewish scholars, plus additional wisdom not possessed by them."
In my humble opinion, this is untenable for a very simple reason. Rabbeinu Avraham is not speaking about Chazal! He is talking about people in every generation including both his own and future generations. The people in the third class are the practical model for proper behavior and understanding.
It goes without saying that we acquire our knowledge of science from experiment and by reading the works of scientists and not from Torah study. The Rambam is explicit that Chazal's knowledge of astronomy needed to fulfill the Mitzvah to calculate the time of the sighting of the new moon was lost to us, so that he restored it from other secular sources. [4b] He writes similarly in the Guide for the Perplexed [4c]. Rabbi Meiselman admits that the Rishonim and Acharonim could err in science and that we can recognize their errors. [4d].
While this is enough to disprove Rabbi Meiselman's interpretation, there is further evidence from Rabbeinu Avraham himself. In writing of those followers of the Torah who remain willfully ignorant of science as contrary to the Torah he writes:
And because of this, matters of nature were hidden from them and they came to the denial of things whose truth intellect affirms and even the senses are cognizant of them [the truths of nature] ... and this way they came to be objects of ridicule to men of understanding.
According to Rabbi Meiselman's interpretation, the main problem with this class of people is not that they deny that which the intellect affirms. Rather, they deny that which the Torah affirms! Moreover, Rabbeinu Avraham's criticism becomes insensible since their view is that the Torah guides them to avoid the study of cause and effect; thus, it would be incumbent upon them to ignore their own intellects, since the Torah "must be presumed superior because of its divine source."
In addition, the plain language of Rabbeinu Avraham simply provides no support for Rabbi Meiselman's interpretation. Rabbeinu Avraham simply says that the Torah reveals God's Providence to the wise. He never says that it reveals natural law. The quotation "But God has informed them through His Torah of that which is beyond the understanding of the scholars and philosophers" is only part of the sentence; it is immediately followed by the following:
giving them indications and proofs of that which the philosophers denied regarding His knowledge of particular things, His observance of the circumstances of human beings and his special Providence.
Rabbeinu Avraham tells us what additional matters the Torah teaches and he doesn't say that it is science. 
In our next post, we'll return to a direct study of text of the Discourse and Rabbi Meiselman's arguments that some portions of the Discourse are either interpolations or errors on the part the translator.
Comments are both welcome and encouraged. I'll make every effort to address any questions or arguments posted in the comments.
 TCS pg 89-90
 Rabbeinu Avraham authored two major works, one a biblical commentary, and the other Kifayat al-Abidin, or The Guide to Serving God.
[2a] Actually, while this is Rabbi Meiselman's summary, this is slightly misleading. See note 6 below.
 "People can be divided into three groups. [...] The second groups consists of those possessed of insight, understanding, depth of thought and contemplativeness, who have delved into the various wisdoms and arrived at an understanding of the impetuses and causal factors of each and every phenomenon. Some of them even attained an understanding of the Cause of Causes [God] [...] these are the non-religious scholars and savants, such as the Greek philosophers and their followers. Even those individuals, however, were incapable of understanding the truth in its entirety, but came to the conclusion that God, may he be exalted, never alters any natural process, nor does introduce any cause from outside of the causal nexus [...]. By contrast, observers of religion, who understand the principle of the Torah, contemplate the secondary [i.e. natural] causes and reflect upon them in the same manner as the second group, comprised of the enlightened and scholars of nature, and do not fall short of them in attainment. On the contrary! They understand what the scholars of nature do and receive their respect and honor. But God has informed them through His Torah of that which is beyond the understanding of the scholars and philosophers, giving them indications and proofs of that which the philosophers denied regarding His knowledge of particular things, His observance of the circumstances of human beings and his special providence." (Kifayat al-Abidin 4:8; translation and emphasis Rabbi Meiselman's).
 "The wording is ambiguous however, and other readings are possible. Once could argue, for instance, that they received from the Torah only their awareness of hashgachah pratis -- Divine Providence -- while their knowledge of “secondary causes” was obtained from other sources. Consequently, this passage cannot serve as a conclusive proof to his views on this matter." (TCS pg 90)
[4a] The alternative is an exercise in circular reasoning. One proffers an explanation of Rabbeinu Avraham which aligns with a given thesis. Therefore the other statements of Rabbeinu Avraham which don't align with the thesis are questionable authenticity. One arrives at the conclusion that Rabbeinu Avraham agrees with the given thesis via the assumption that Rabbeinu Avraham agrees with the given thesis.
[4b] "The rationales for all these calculations, and the reasons why this number is added, and why that subtraction is made, and how all these concepts are known, and the proofs for each of these principles are [the subject] of the wisdom of astronomy and geometry, concerning which the Greeks wrote many books.
"These texts are presently in the hands of the sages. The texts written by the Sages of Israel in the age of the prophets from the tribe of Yissachar have not been transmitted to us. Nevertheless, since these concepts can be proven in an unshakable manner, leaving no room for question, the identity of the author, be he a prophet or a gentile, is of no concern. For a matter whose rationale has been revealed and has proven truthful in an unshakable manner, we do not rely on [the personal authority of] the individual who made these statements or taught these concepts, but on the proofs he presented and the reasons he made known." (Kiddush HaChodesh 17:24)
[4c] "KNOW that many branches of science relating to the correct solution of these problems, were once cultivated by our forefathers, but were in the course of time neglected, especially in consequence of the tyranny which barbarous nations exercised over us. ... The natural effect of this practice was that our nation lost the knowledge of those important disciplines." (Guide 1:71)
[4d] [The Rishonim and Achronim who follow the geocentric model] were merely doing their best to understand an obscure piece of Gemara, using the most reliable scientific information available to them. ... If the interpreters of Chazal held erroneous beliefs, it does not follow at all that Chazal did as well. (TCS pg. 147)
 It is unclear what Rabbi Meiselman means by the clause “Some contemporary authors have in fact ascribed to Rabbeinu Avraham precisely the opposite view”. This view is not ascribed to Rabbeinu Avraham, but is explicit in the text of the Discourse. The phrase “some contemporary authors” is likewise ambiguous. Rabbi Meiselman does points out (TCS pg. 101) Rav Isaac Herzog quotes the Discourse to show the science of the Talmud is not religiously authoritative. However, It seems unlikely that Rabbi Meiselman would refer to Rav Herzog as an anonymous contemporary author, so this phrase remains obscure.
 We can add that the quotation of Rabbeinu Avraham in TCS (see note 3) is slightly misleading. In TCS, the words, "By contrast" appear to be referring to to the contrast between the Jewish sages and the philosophers. They actually refer to the contrast between the Jewish sages and the religious Jews who reject the study of science.