Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thinking Like the Rambam

Dixie Yid recently posted an article purporting to demonstrate that the Rambam agrees with the Baal Shem Tov on the nature of Hashgacha Pratit (individual providence). I’ve looked over his sources, and it seems to me impossible to read the Rambam to say what he wants.

Rambam is not like other Jewish thinkers. His ideas are not the standard Kabbalah-based ones that have dominated Jewish theology since. Moshe Idel and Menachem Kellner would argue that, in fact, Zoharic Kabbalah developed as a response to Rambam’s philosophic theology, but that’s another post (or three). Be that as it may, to read Rambam accurately, you have to read him on his own terms, not as a source of quotes to prove someone else’s point.

If “academics” are the only ones to read Rambam on his own terms, rather than through the filter of Kabbalistic Judaism, then so be it. Our LOR, who is also an academic philosopher, has been teaching Hilchot Teshuvah and Hilchot Melachim in his weekly shiur for the past couple of years, and it is almost like pulling teeth to get most of us to take off our Kabbalah/East-European folk religion glasses, and read the Rambam on his own terms. I won’t say that my understanding is based on his, since we didn’t cover these chapters, but I do try to separate the Rambam from our cultural filters.

To the substance of my critique:

I submit that Reb Yid has taken the Rambam out of context, repeatedly, selectively quoting opinions that the Rambam himself rejects, if read in context.

From Hilchot Teshuvah 6:2 (Yemenite paragraph numbering): "When one person or the people of a nation sin, the sinner sins of his own will, and as I have said, it is appropriate for him to be punished. And Hashem knows how to punish [him]."

Reb Yid takes this to mean that God’s Providence lies upon that individual or that nation directly. What the passage says, however, is that while individuals or nations can sin, God knows how they will be punished. This is talking about reward and punishment, not about Providence. We must distinguish between three things: Providence, Knowledge, and Consequences.

· Providence is necessarily first – it is God’s will that something should happen, and the application of His Will to make it happen.

· Knowledge is, or is about, the happening itself. As Rambam says, God is the Knower, the Knowledge and the Known – the purest infinite Intellect. He knows that something will happen, He knows that it is happening, He is the Happening itself. But Knowledge is not Direction. For instance, my parents know, that absent changes in circumstances beyond our control, that we will be in Parsippany this weekend. (changes could include illness, God forbid, or my sister-in-law giving birth, IY”H, etc. – God is not limited by these circumstances, He Knows what will happen). But that doesn’t mean that my parents are exerting their Will to ensure that I will be in Parsippany. Knowledge, even foreknowledge, is not Direction, is not Causation.

· Consequences are what happens as a result of one’s actions. For our purposes, Reward and Punishment.

We should note that in his 13 Foundational Principles, the Rambam states as axioms of the Torah system, that God Knows all (10th Principle) and that God dispenses reward and punishment as appropriate (11th Principle). The Rambam does not regard it as a necessary belief that God directs every action in the world.

So all this statement says is an affirmation of the 10th and 11th Principles – that God knows what individuals or nations do in this world, and punishes or rewards them appropriately. It says nothing about God’s direction of action in this world.

This would clearly fall outside the scope of the superficial meaning of what he said in Moreh Nevuchim.

As shown above, not at all. It says nothing to contradict what the Rambam said in the Guide. Knowledge of sin, and Consequences of sin, are not Divine Direction to sin.

Reb Yid then gives the example of God imposing His Will upon Paroh, in impeding Paroh’s ability to do teshuvah, as an example of Rambam admitting to individual Divine Providence upon a non-Jew. This is in fact exactly the opposite of what the Rambam is demonstrating. Rambam says: "Since [Par'oh] sinned on his own first and harmed the Jewish people... Hashem judged him by withholding Teshuva from him." It was solely as a Consequence of Paroh’s individual Action that Hashem imposed a punishment on him, to prevent him from repenting. It was solely because Paroh willed to sin, that Hashem then imposed a greater punishment on him. But make no mistake – for Rambam, Paroh, not God, initiated the sequence of events.

Actually, Rambam himself openly states that Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Providence) applies to every detail of creation! In laying out the contradiction between Divine knowledge and the existance of free will, the Rambam says "You should know that everything is done according to [Hashem's] will, and nevertheless our actions are in our hands." (Rambam Hilchos Teshuva 5:7) The Rambam identifies the source of the apparant Knowledge/Choice contradiction in terms of nothing happening except through His will one one hand, and our free choice on the other hand.

No, that’s only one side of the paradox, that’s not his final word on how things are. One way to resolve it is to say that it is His Will that we have free will. He created us with free will, and thus anything we do is by His Will, but not directly. It’s like a teacher, who says “you can write your term paper on any subject you choose within the subject matter of the class.” The teacher didn’t will that Zev should write about the origins of the steam engine, but Zev’s choice to write about the origins of the steam engine is a consequence of, and consonant with, the teacher’s will.

Further, Reb Yid says, the doctrine of individual guidance of every blade of grass follows from the Rambam’s continuation of that paragraph. In fact, that’s not the case. He states the paradox, but does not solve it.

Reb Yid notes that there are several solutions to the apparent stira between the Rambam and himself, or between the Rambam and the Baal Shem Tov. One such solution, that he does not note, is to read the Rambam on his own terms, rather than as a source of quotes to support your predetermined conclusion.

For the proposed solutions:

1) I don’t have a Mei haShiloach to see what the Izbitzer says in context, so I can’t speak to it.

2) The late Lubavitcher Rebbe leaves it a paradox – of course the Besht is true, but we can’t dismiss the Rambam, so we live with the paradox. Paradox is central to Chabad theology (see Rachel Elior’s The Paradoxical Ascent to the Divine), so this works for him.

3) Reb Yid’s rebbe simply denies the Rambam’s own position, and replaces it with the Besht’s, then adding a third type of Providence to the equation.

The Rambam, in the Guide III:17-18, talks about Divine Providence. He explicitly rejects the “every blade of grass has its angel” theory in III:17. Now, there is a whole academic literature on “secrets of the Guide”, where the Rambam says one thing but secretly means another, in accord with his introduction that states that there are hidden things in the Guide. But where the same idea is backed up by the Mishneh Torah? It seems pretty clear that Rambam rejects total providence in the Guide as “absurdity”, says nothing about Providence in the 13 Foundations, and nowhere in the MT states the theory of total providence as a necessity, only as a question that the non-enlightened would ask.

In essence, Reb Yid begs the question. He presumes his answer, that “everyone believes in the Beshtian view of Hashgacha Pratit”, and then has to k’neitch the Rambam, by pulling quotes out of context, by reading them through a filter of “of course Kabbalah is true”, to force the Rambam to agree. In this, he joins a long tradition of Kabbalists who, not wanting to leave the Rambam out in the cold as the greatest mind of the Rishonim, finds ways to pretend the Rambam accepted Kabbalah. In fact, though, the Rambam had his own intellectual mysticism, totally unrelated to the neo-Platonic sephirotic emanationism of the [then proto-]Kabbalah. His concept of Divine Providence flows from that, while the Besht’s flows from Kabbalistic antecedents.


thanbo said...

Dixie Yid, apparently wanting to prevent discussion from occurring in ThanBook, copied my entire post (is this not plagiarism?) and then responded to it on his blog.

I therefore will respond to him, here.

Your response about Paroh is false.

You had written: "You see from this also that even Par'oh, who is certainly not the kind of elevated person being referred to in Moreh Nevuchim, has hashgacha pratis that defines what happens to him in this world according to the Rambam, and he isn't merely subject to some automatic and mechanistic system of natural law."

You said outright that Paroh had hashgacha pratit applied to him, to *cause* him to sin, or continue sinning.

Rambam, however, uses Paroh as an example of how God does NOT apply hashgacha pratit to non-Jews. Rather, as I said, Paroh SINNED OF HIS OWN FREE WILL. Then Hashem applied a judgment against him in DIRECT RESPONSE TO PAROH'S ACT OF WILL.

God knows, God punishes Paroh, but God did not INITIATE the action. There was no Hashgacha Pratit here. Only non-Jew's individual will, and God's punishment for that application of individual will.

As for the Rambam and paradox, you claim "he must hold that that side of the paradox is the truth also". No, not that it IS the truth, but that it APPEARS TO BE true. Obviously some ignorant people, like the Besht, and some Arab philosophers, feel that this theory is true, and it has some appearance of truth, but it's only part of the issue. THE truth may or may not even be comprehensible by humans.

He also misunderstood my critique of "one of [his] rebbeim" (can you see why I thought this was your rebbe? you said he was.)

Not that the Rambam was negating a third type of hashgacha, but that this rabbi was offering a third type of hashgacha, one which is not identical with the Rambam nor with the Besht.

Reb Yid should learn to read his own posts and others' more carefully.

Larry Lennhoff said...

After believing otherwise for years, I finally found what I believe to be a proof text for Hashem's hardening of Pharaoh's heart not removing the possibility of teshuvah:

Shemot 10:1
God said to Moses, 'Go to Pharaoh. I have made him and his advisors stubborn, so that I will be able to demonstrate these miraculous signs among them.

[Moses then warns Pharaoh about the plague of locusts]

10:7 Pharaoh's officials said to him, 'How long will this [man] continue to be a menace to us? Let the men go, and let them serve God their Lord. Don't you yet realize that Egypt is being destroyed?'

Notice that Hashem explicitly said he was hardening the hearts of both Pharaoh and his advisors. Yet the advisors still advise Pharaoh to give up! Plainly they retained free will, and by implication so did Pharaoh.

DixieYid said...

Since you responded in the comment section on my blog, I'll respond to you there.

But for the benefit of the readers of your blog, I'll respond to your ad hominum and strange attack.

#1: It's not an effort to get people not to read your blog since I linked to you twice over there and cited you by name. Plagerism is when someone passes off another's work as his own. I wanted to respond to your comment on Dixie Yid since it is where the post you were commenting on originally appeared and is thus the logical place for the discussion. If I had 2-3 bloggers out there with their own posts commenting on mine, should I go around exhausting myself engaged in three sepperate discussions in three different places? Doesn't make sense. Also, if I hadn't quoted you in full, most people would have only heard the parts of what you wrote that I quoted. I was trying to be more fair to you by letting people see what you wrote in context before reading my response. I thought this was fairer to you. Perhaps you heard what I'm saying with these points since you deleted your earlier comments at Dixie Yid.

At any rate, look forward to continuing the discussion!

-Dixie Yid

thanbo said...

Fairness to me is one thing, but you are not being fair to the Rambam, to pretend he's a follower of the Baal Shem Tov.

thanbo said...

I can't edit comments in this thing, only delete them, and since the first comment is mostly substantive, deleting it and reposting it at the end would leave an unsightly hole.

But I withdraw the paranoid ad-hominem remarks.

DixieYid said...


Thank you very much. You are a big Jew. Also, I appreciate your well-thought and cogent latest response. Later, when I have time, IY"H, I'll respond to that. Yasher koach.

-Dixie Yid