Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Rambam as Failure

I’ve been listening to the tapes of the recent e-Tim conference on Torah and Science. Much focuses on Rambam, esp. as two of the major speakers are R’ Menachem Kellner (Must a Jew Believe Anything?; Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism; many others) and R’ Marc Shapiro (The Limits of Orthodox Theology; Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox; etc.)

Kellner, characterized as the foremost contemporary writer on Maimonides, notes that we should remember that before Europe called him Maimonides, he was the Rambam. Maimonides seems to make him more subjective, as there is Maimonides, Marc’s monides, Twersky’s monides, etc.

Kellner notes that despite his clear intellectual prowess, Rambam tried to create a rationalistic, philosophical Judaism, yet failed. Traces of this program can be found in his writings, particularly the Mishneh Torah (MT).

1) In Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism, Rambam is seen as creating a philosophical interpretation of Judaism, particularly the esoteric parts such as the Matter of Creation and the Matter of the Chariot, in part to undermine and quash the proto-kabbalistic ideas that were beginning to arise in the 12th century. I haven’t read the book yet, though. Clearly this didn’t work, as the 13th century saw a tremendous Kabbalistic counter-reformation, culminating in the publicization of the Zohar c. 1290 by R’ Moshe de Leon. Kabbalah has clearly won the day; while there have been others who lean towards philosophy since Maimonides, popular Jewish culture in both Levant and Occident is dominated by Kabbalah. As I like to say, in Judaism, Plato has defeated Aristotle.

2) In the introduction to the Mishneh Torah, Rambam writes famously

For this reason, I, Moshe son of the Rav Maimon the Sephardi, found that the current situation is unbearable; and so, relying on the help of the Rock blessed be He, I intently studied all these books, for I saw fit to write what can be determined from all of these works in regard to what is forbidden and permitted, and unclean and clean, and the other rules of the Torah: Everything in clear language and terse style, so that the whole Oral Law would become thoroughly known to all; without bringing problems and solutions or differences of view, but rather clear, convincing, and correct statements, in accordance with the legal rules drawn from all of these works and commentaries that have appeared from the time of Our Holy Teacher to the present.

This is so that all the rules should be accessible to the small and to the great in the rules of each and every commandment and the rules of the legislations of the Torah scholars and prophets: in short, so that a person should need no other work in the World in the rules of any of the laws of Israel; but that this work might collect the entire Oral Law, including the positive legislations, the customs, and the negative legislations enacted from the time of Moshe Our Teacher until the writing of the Talmud, as the Geonim interpreted it for us in all of the works of commentary they wrote after the Talmud. Thus, I have called this work the [Complete] Restatement of the [Oral] Law (Mishneh Torah), for a person reads the Written Law first and then reads this work, and knows from it the entire Oral Law, without needing to read any other book between them.

Thus, one need not spend all one’s time learning the minutiae of halacha, since one can always look up what one needs to do, in the Mishneh Torah, the Restatement of the Law. Now, in the Hilchot Talmud Torah, the Rambam lays out the standard for a learning program. When one is young, one divides one’s time between Mikra (scripture and its interpretation), Mishnah (settled law, legal texts), and Gemara (the way one idea develops from another, in other words, reasoning and philosophy). When one has learned the Scripture and Settled Law well, one should then devote one’s time to Gemara, to the improvement of the mind. To that end, he wrote this code, so that one need not spend all one’s life on legal matters, leaving more time for the ideal study: philosophy.

Clearly he failed in this program as well. His critics took the idea from the Introduction as arrogance: “He wants to replace the study of Talmud and Torah with his book! Sacrilege!” while really, he only emphasized Torah study. Just, his idea of Torah study. They ignored the connection with the laws of Torah Study, which laid out why he wanted to make more time for Gemara, because Gemara qua Philosophy was for him the ideal.

He makes much the same argument in the Guide, in the critical chapter III:51. He gives his parable of the Castle, where the pinnacle of intellectual achievement is knowledge of God, through metaphysical speculation and intellectual meditation. One studies the regular material and gains closer and closer approach to the inner areas of the castle, but only metaphysical speculation leads to meditation on God, the innermost, highest level of learning.

He alludes to this as well in the Mishnah Commentary, in the introduction to Chelek and the 13 Foundations, where he lays out his concept of the World to Come as a zone of purely intellectual enjoyment (elaborated on in MT Hilchot Teshuvah 8], whose benefits are reached only through selfless dedication to philosophy.

Clearly, then, philosophy as the inner teaching of Judaism was part of his program from beginning to end, and the MT was only a tool to encourage it. But his critics either did not perceive the overall program, or as neoPlatonists, dismissed it.

3) While not necessarily a Straussian numerologist, Kellner notes that the idea expressed at the exact midpoint of the MT is one of universal philosophic bliss. There are 14 volumes in the MT, this is the end of the 7th section (Shmitta veYovel, which happen every 7 or 7x7 years) of the 7th book (Seeds, and there are Seven Special Species for which the land of Israel is praised), at the end of the 13th chapter (13 are the tribes, or Divine attributes, etc.). One would expect something so carefully thematically placed to have special significance.

After describing the reason for Levitical landlessness as its devotion to being the national teachers of Torah, he writes:

13: And not just the tribe of Levi, but any human being (kol ish v’ish mikol ba’ei olam) who has pledges his spirit to God, and understands from his knowledge, to separate himself, to stand before God to serve him, and to worship him, in order to know God, and walks uprightly as God made him, and throws off the yoke of all the calculations that most men make – this one is sanctified as the Holy of Holies, and God will be his portion and inheritance forever and ever; and he shall merit in this world sufficient sustenance, as suffices for the priests and Levites. Behold, it is as David said (Ps 16:5) 5The LORD is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot.”.

Any human being, who devotes himself to contemplation and knowledge of God, is as the Holy of Holies. And it leads right into the mitzvah to build a Temple, which, as we say on the High Holy Days every year, will be called “a house of prayer for all the nations” – a universal messianic vision.

Such a strong universal message. And yet, through the ages, it has been reinterpreted out of existence. The commentators on the page simply ignore it. Shu”t Minchas Yitzchak limits it to those who engage in a Yissachar-Zvulun relationship. R’ Aharon Kotler limits “all human beings” to “yeshiva bochrim”, according to R’ Kellner. But it is a strong universal message of the possibility of human perfection. And in this too the Rambam failed. Instead, the vision of the Tanya, where non-Jews have naturally inferior souls and thus selves, has won out, perhaps due to centuries of persecution.

In what did the Rambam succeed? In establishing his personal reputation, certainly. In inspiring many moderns, yes. Perhaps he was just ahead of his time. Although, even today, neo-Hasidism and a Kabbalistic renaissance (kosher as well as Bergian) also offer strong enticements for the Jewish soul.


e said...

kefira gomur! the rambam was tzaddik!

thanbo said...

What's kefiradik here? Of course the Rambam was a tzadik gomur. But he had a very ambitious program for Jewish philosophy and halacha, much of which never came to pass, as Kabbalah became more popular, and as outside of ta-Yemin, he was not the last word on most of halacha.

And where in the Rambam's definition of kefira is belief in his own tzidkus located? Siman, s'if please.