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?