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6.5.09

Here is an old Rambam essay

The Rambam (1113-1204) presents a challenge to the modern reader. For a traditional Orthodox Jew his approach is completely wrong. Yet he was one of the greatest Jewish sages of all time.
I want to present the problems the Rambam poses and possible solutions, and from He who gives man wisdom, I ask not to fall or stumble between the cracks of the quaking mountains.


To some, the most important aspect of Torah is Halacha (Jewish Law). That is where everything starts, begins, and ends. Halacha determines what one may speak, think and do,-- even what one must feel. In the Litvak world that I am most familiar with, the most important mitzvah is to learn Torah. That means Talmud Bavli,-- not Mishna, not commentaries on Chumash (Five Books of Moses), not Musar (Ethics), not Kabalah. Talmud Bavli. Period. This is thought to have the power to bring down the Shechina (Divine presence) and perhaps the entire redemption of the world. This is nothing to sneeze at. I have felt its power and can testify to its veracity.
The challenge here is to see the thing in itself-(-i.e. God) inside of one--as all Platonic knowledge is inside one and not by deduction and not by sense. (This is not what the Rambam said but it is still is worth thinking about.)
The Rambam concludes that the philosophic tradition was lost from Israel and he sees it as his job to reintroduce Jews to Physics and Metaphysics.

R. Avraham Abulafia (one of the major mediaeval kabalists) wrote that the Guide for the Perplexed contains the secret of the Geulah (redemption).)
This is a significant departure from what we call the traditional Jewish point of view.
Yet they converge to One point,--God. The Rambam says to learn Physics and Metaphysics for a goal- to get to God, not as goals in themselves. This leads me to believe that in essence there is no contradiction. Halacha is to bring to Physics. Physics is to bring to Metaphysics. That that is to bring to God.
To the Rambam there is a ground of faith and morality that one needs. He does not say it comes about by doing mitzvot or learning Torah but the implication is that they do help.
Learning and doing Physics is the ground of reason that the reasoning self grows upon. Metaphysics is providing the intuition of the holy. Then it seems to me that prayer (and bein adam lemakom mitzvot that seem to have no rational reason and yet relate to God directly) are the key to connect to God.
Now that is my core essay. Next I wish to show what the Rambam means by Metaphysics and after this I want to share with you my ideas on how halacha relates to Physics/Metaphysics and why is Physics such an important mitzvah to the Rambam (to the degree that he and the Chovot Levavot (4) say ones love of God depends on his degree of knowledge of Physics/Metaphysics).

2.) Metaphysics. To understand the Rambam it is important to analyze first the tradition that he received from his teachers and then to see how he modified it. First we have to go back a few centuries to get some background. Let's go back to Rav Saadia Geon.
At first, When Rav Saadia Geon burst onto the Jewish scene [882-942 C.E.], Jews did not know how to deal with the surrounding Muslim world they found themselves in. Around them was a thriving Islamic culture of music, art, philosophy and science. No one knew how to react to it. Rav Saadia Geon came along and said in essence, one can take from it what does not contradict the Torah. (And add to it also.) He wrote the first systematic presentation of Jewish thought- Emunot Ve'Deot in 933. In it, he posits the rationality of Jewish faith.


The Rambam differed. Though, influenced by Rav Saadia Geon, he understood science and philosophy to be the science and philosophy of Aristotle. Period. The Rambam when he spoke about Metaphysics was always referring to the 13 books called "The Metaphysics"  written by Aristotle.

3.) First let us look at the approach of the Geonim. Then we will see how the Rambam's approach differs. According to the Geonim the entire Mishna was revealed and transmitted through a continuous chain  who received one from the other until Moshe on Mount Sinai. (Saadia Geon and Rav Shrira Geon.)
The Rambam attacks this view in the introduction to the Mishna. He writes "This is, as Hashem knows, a wrong opinion. He who holds it has no principles." According to the Rambam the halacha process is a process of reason. It is a attempt to recover lost information equipped with rules of derivation. According to the Rambam, there is the written Torah and a body of core Halacha that is from Moshe Rabbanu. But that is not the Mishna. The main way to tell the difference is anything there is an argument about is not from Moshe.--i.e. most of the Mishna.
Both the approach of the Rambam and the Geonim differs from the modern day yeshiva/seminary approach in which the Talmud and all Halacha is presented as Halacha Le Moshe from Sinai.(6)


4.) Why does the Rambam make out these secular disciplines (Physics and Philosophy) to be the highest mitzvot? Is this some kind of conspiracy? Perhaps he was getting senile in his old age?--Hashem Yishmor (God forbid)! I have long since discovered that the Rambam's opinions are never the result of agendas, influences, or old age. They are always painstakingly reasoned principles with logic and intellect beyond anything I have seen in the modern world.
To understand this, one must realize that to the Rambam one can't grasp God's essence, only his wisdom as manifested in His Creation. To try to grasp His Essence is like trying to look at the sun with the naked eye. But His wisdom in Creation is divided into two; -- 1) necessary Truth, 2) composite Truth. Necessary Truth is like two plus two is four; -- things that don't depend on people, time or place; -- things that are embedded in the very nature of space-time. (How does necessary truth help bridge the gap to know the unknowable God? It is to provide a ground of reason, but not make the connection. Only the mitzvot like prayer and learning Torah that seem to have zero reason can bridge the gap. --the reasoning for this is that (I believe) the Rambam was aware of the subject object problem called quid juris--the thing in itself. To make an objective connection with God is not by simply prayer since one can be praying to the image of God that one has in his own mind. That is open in the Rambam. The way the Rambam intends to bridge this gap is by having the representation correspond in fact to God. that is by having a decent idea of what God created so that when we prayer to the creator we are not saying empty words.)
Composite Truth are things that are true but don't have to be;--like there is a continent between Europe and China.
To the Rambam, to come close to God, it is necessary to grasp necessary Truth. To keep halacha is only a necessary step in being able to grasp Necessary Truth (Physics and Metaphysics). Learning Torah is a mitzvah because it is important to know how to keep Torah, but is not necessary Truth and does not bring to Love or Fear of God. (In Mishna Torah Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah chapter 1 he writes to learn Science brings to Love of God. He never writes that about learning Torah.)
Now why does learning Physics-Metaphysics bring one to God? I thought because the Cause is hidden in the effect (Samkhya). God is hidden inside of His effects. And the closer the effects are to him, the more he is revealed inside the them. The effect is the clothing of the Cause.



4.) In conclusion I would like to say that even though the Rambam presents serious difficulties to me and other Jews who see Torah as the highest Truth, it is my hope to reconcile these difficulties here.
I think the Rambam was aware that there is a deep evil in the world that penetrates everything and forms an iron dome that prevents the prayers from reaching God. There is some force contrary to every possible human endeavor and good that sometimes (often) penetrates people. Without some way of rising above it all, the prayers just don't get through (5). Learning Torah alone is on the level of good and evil, not True and False. It just can't penetrate that evil that surrounds us. This is, in fact, what the Rambam writes (Guide) the sin of Adam and Eve in eating the apple was learning about good and evil, not truth.
The problem in the world to the Rambam is without enough Truth you just don't know what Good is. We are surrounded by evil and it fills us. The only way out is by Truth. Without it we think good is evil and evil is a mitzvah.
And is not just because Physics/ Metaphysics are necessary truths but further the Rambam sees the cosmos as Divine, orderly, perfect and directed by God;- and the way to become attached to God is to integrate and combine ones mind with the Mind of the Creator who created these wonders. To the Rambam, learning Physics is not learning facts;- it is internalizing the Mind of the Creator inside ones very being and making it ones own.

Notes

(1) "The Guide for the Perplexed" was completed in 1190 C.E. and is a philosophic masterpiece that seeks to resolve the conflict between Reason (i.e. Aristotle) and Torah.
(2) In this Parable, God is a king in a Palace. There are people far from the country of the king. Others are in the country, but far from the palace. Others are close to the palace but outside it, like Talmudic scholars. Others are inside it like scientists. Still others are in the inner chambers like philosophers and prophets.


(4) The primary work of the Musar Movement, written circa 1040, by Bachya Ibn Pakuda. In this work, we see the Rambam is not alone in his opinion about Science. In Section III chapter 1, Ibn Pakuda writes that to come to know God one must know His works. And then goes on in chapter 3 to list them. In the list is first physical chemistry and later on in the list, he lists "to know the spiritual aspects of things". But he tells one to know the physical law of nature first. This approach is reflected in many books of Musar (Ethics) of the medieval Authorities (e.g. Maalot Hamidot.)



(6) The Rambam writes that after the completion of the Talmud there is no Oral law except what is written there. (Introduction to Mishna Torah) Anyone claiming any oral tradition outside of the Talmud is simply wrong.

Afterword

[] I would like here to pose some objections to the Rambam. First cause and effect is not symmetric. Any effect can have an infinite number of causes. Next the Samkya idea (the cause is in the effect)


[] The challenge now is to understand how the Rambam approaches "the thing in itself." (quid juris) Is this his kind of Kant thing where he discovered some type of way of finding the thing it itself through a window of learning science that somehow is supposed to touch and open this window? --And also by Metaphysics? While he certainly believes there is a gateway to open to holiness is is not by Torah. The Torah scholars are outside the palace. To open the gate of the palace is by Physics and Metaphysics. The Torah is however important to get to the palace.
And also it is important to point out the Godel closed Universe is not a problem to the Rambam for several reasons. (Recent evidence show anyway the universe is not closed.) First of all the Rambam is a Neoplatonic-Aristotlean, sorry but it is true otherwise what is it possible to talk about the mind of God? So "First Cause" to him is simply the "One" in the Plotinus order of emanation.
But, to the Rambam, Torah-Halachah (keeping and doing) is not a means to itself,-- but a way of to control one's desires and to create an atmosphere conducive to the study of Physics and Metaphysics (Guide 3.8 (1)) In the Parable of the Palace (Guide 3:51) (2), he writes that those who learn and keep the Talmud are outside the Palace of God. Scientists and philosophers are inside. There is nothing ambiguous about this point of view. There is no place for uncertainty about what he means. Perhaps one could say, when he says "Metaphysics" he means "Kabalah". Perhaps he means the inner kabalistic secrets of Creation when he talks about "Physics". However, in the introduction to the Guide, he writes that what the Mishna and Talmud refer to as Maase Breshit (work of Creation) and Maase Merchavah (the Divine Chariot of Echezkiel) is what the Greeks taught as Physics and Metaphysics. This is not something the Rambam decided in his old age. In the Mishna Torah itself in the beginning four chapters in which he writes about Physics, Chemistry and Metaphysics, he says "These are in the category of what the Sages said is 'Maase Breshit' and 'Maase Merchava', and together they are called 'Pardes' (Fruit Tree Field)." And later in the Laws of Talmud Torah (Chapter 2), he writes, "One should divide his time into three parts: Tenach (Old Testament), Mishna, Gemara. And what is called 'Pardes' is in the category of Gemara." So you add two plus two and you get Physics and Metaphysics is in the category of learning Gemara.