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29 Sivan 5765 - July 6, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly
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Opinion & Comment
A Truly Schwer Rambam: Medieval Science and Modern Man

by Mordecai Plaut

Ahavas Hashem is one of the six constant mitzvos. It is an obligation upon every Jew, all the time. In addition we have the additional mitzvah of Krias Shema which includes as a prominent feature, in its third verse, the mention of this obligation twice a day: in the morning and in the evening. We begin and end each day with a recitation of the mitzvah that we have to love Hashem.

The Rambam gives explicit directions for fulfilling this important mitzvah.

Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah (II:2): "And how is the way to love of Him? When one contemplates His deeds and His great and wondrous creatures, and one sees from these the wisdom of G-d — that it is immeasurable and unbounded — immediately (miyad), he loves and praises and glorifies and has a huge desire to know Hashem Hagodol, "the great name."

The Rambam says that right after this one will immediately also shrink backward and fear G-d, after realizing what a small creature he himself is.

The Rambam continues (II:3): "In accordance with all this, I will explain important generalizations [taken] from the deeds of the Master of all Worlds, so that they can serve as an introduction for one who tries to understand to love Hashem."

Following this the Rambam lays out a general classification of the world as a hierarchy composed of 1] forms with matter, 2] forms with a special eternal matter, and 3] forms without matter altogether.

These three classes are then discussed by the Rambam in reverse order: first a discussion of forms without any matter including an introduction to angels and remarks about the way that Hashem knows things, followed by a discussion of the heavenly bodies which are the bodies composed of forms with a special, eternal matter, followed by a discussion of the earthly bodies and some concluding remarks.

The Rambam was one of our greatest Rishonim and he was particularly expert in the relationship that we should have with Hashem. Thus there can be no question that thinking about these things that the Rambam said to think about, actually brought him and those of his generation to ahavas Hashem.

What about ourselves?

Much of what the Rambam says in these three chapters of Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah was part of the generally accepted view of the universe that was common in the whole world in the time of the Rambam. It was shared by Moslems, and Christians, and even by anti-religious philosophers of the time.

However it is no longer commonly held in our day. This view of the world is regarded as quaint and archaic, or even as false, by many people in our times.

However it seems that people are too quick to ascribe the general feelings that they have towards medieval science to what the Rambam quotes in Mishneh Torah. Even the short summary that we have cited makes it clear that much of the material that the Rambam cites as bringing to ahavas Hashem has merely been pushed away by modern science. It was abandoned but not disproved.

Science decided that angels, for example, in all their variations, were simply not part of its field of interest. It has not shown that there are no angels; it simply decided to ignore them since they are not beings that are knowable through empirical means. As beings made up of pure form, they are forever inaccessible to all of the means of matter. None of the physical senses will be able to discover anything about them — or even whether they exist altogether. They are beyond empirical techniques.

Science has limited its field of interest to empirical knowledge, the knowledge that can be attained through the senses. Angels fall completely outside of this field, so science has nothing to say about them.

In the Rambam (and in his day) no distinction is made between what can be discerned by the senses and what cannot. In fact most of what the Rambam cites in chapters 2-4 of Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah is knowledge that is completely non empirical, even when the subject is the material parts of the world. That is, even when the Rambam is talking about the "ordinary middle-sized dry goods" that make up most of the world, he does not make statements about them that are empirically verifiable.

For example, the thesis (chapter 4) that all creatures in our world are made up of combinations of the four basic forms in matter — earth, air, fire, water — is not something that was discovered through empirical experimentation nor does it make empirical predictions about what will happen in the sense that modern theories do. We cannot describe an experiment that will show whether this thesis is true or false.

The Rambam even says explicitly that his analysis is completely nonempirical (4:7): "You will never see matter without a form nor form without matter. Rather, the heart of man analyzes an existing body in his mind and knows that it is composed of matter and form. And [it] knows that there are bodies whose matter is composed of the four elements, and bodies whose matter is simple and is composed of only one matter. And the forms that have no matter [i.e. the angels] are not visible to the eye, but they are known to the eye of the heart. Just as the Master of All knows without seeing with an eye."

Clearly the very terms of discourse are extremely and assertedly nonempirical, and certainly the things that there are to say about them will likewise not be empirical. In particular, for example, one cannot expect to be able to use this analysis to predict the acceleration of gravity, or the behavior of water at its freezing point or any of the myriad of other things that modern science can tell us.

The entire system is thoroughly nonempirical and should not really be seen as competition for modern science.

It is worth noting that this analysis of the bodies of the world into bodies composed of four ultimate elements, is found in the Zohar (for example Bereishis 42b, Shemos 24a, Tikkunei Zohar, Sefer Yetzirah) and is generally accepted among all later Torah authorities.

Modern science tends to regard the view of the world that was common in the days of the Rambam as having been shown to be false. Many modern non-scientists — including a possibly surprising number from the chareidi community — also assume that it has all shown to be false, and some ignore these three chapters of Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah under the impression that it has all been superseded.

But where does that leave us?

First of all, if we accept that approach, we have to explain why studying a pile of statements that are nothing more than "disproven superstition" or at best "a veil of unsubstantiated beliefs" as they are characterized by modern people, could in fact have led the Rambam and others of his generation to real ahavas Hashem. Those who think that the Rambam merely quoted the accepted wisdom of his day on the authority of the physical scientists of his time— which has since been proven to be false — must explain how it could have brought such great people as the Rambam to true ahavas Hashem if it is so worthless. We are arguing that these ideas were merely abandoned by modern thought as it pursued the empirical ever more enthusiastically, so that is not a problem for us. But if someone thinks — as many do - - that it has been disproven, then there is a serious problem to explain how it is that something that was shown to be false could have led to true ahavas Hashem.

This is truly, for such a position, a schwere Rambam.

I would pose what I think is an even more embarrassing conundrum for them.

What about someone today who studies these chapters of the Rambam seriously? Would he be brought to true ahavas Hashem?

This material has not become less true than it was in the days of the Rambam. The reality has certainly not changed in any relevant way. At most it is our perception of the reality that has changed. Therefore, if one were to study this material seriously, there is every reason to think that it would be as effective in leading the modern student to ahavas Hashem as it was for the medieval student.

But perhaps we can remove much of the difficulty about this for all modern students if we review the Rambam carefully.

It is useful to divide the material that the Rambam discusses as bringing one to ahavas Hashem into one part that may be viewed as competitive with modern science (such as statements about the visible heavenly bodies and about physical earthly elements), and other material that is totally removed from the considerations of modern science such as statements about angels and the human soul. The first group talks about bodies that can be studied empirically (even though we have argued that it makes nonempirical statements about them). The second group talks about things which are by their nature already totally removed from the realm of the empirical, and certainly we cannot make empirical statements about them. The majority is of the second sort.

The second chapter of Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah is all about angels (creatures with form and no matter whatsoever) and Hashem's relationship with His creation and His knowledge of the creation.

The third chapter discusses the heavenly bodies. Much of this chapter could be regarded as competitive with modern astronomy and physics, although about a third of it discusses the knowledge and soul of these entities, something that modern science stays away from.

About two-thirds of the fourth chapter discusses the earthly bodies and their elements. As we noted these are non- empirical statements, but most modern scientists would regard them as competitive with modern science. Nonetheless, the final third of that chapter discusses the soul, a subject that is certainly beyond the ken of modern science.

Of these three chapters, more than half covers material that is out of modern scientific bounds. A scientist may not want to study them, but a religious person with the obligation to love Hashem should not have any problem.

It is precisely these elements that are cited by the Rambam in summarizing what brings to ahavas Hashem in Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 4:12 at the end of his presentation: "When one contemplates these things and understands the creatures, from angels to the heavenly spheres to man, and the like, and he will see the wisdom of Hakodosh Boruch Hu in all the creatures and in all things formed, he increases love for the Mokom and his soul will thirst and his flesh long from love of the Mokom, boruch Hu. . . . (From the context, when the Rambam says "man" I think that it is clear that he is referring here to man's soul and not to his body. There are no specific references to the human body in these chapters.)

In recent generations, the emphasis in the botei medrash has been the human soul, as knowledge of it has been developed in mussar works and commonly studied hashkafic works such as those of the Ramchal.

The Kiryas Sefer on Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah chapter 2, mitzvah 3 (the mitzvah of ahavas Hashem) says: "This mitzvah includes that we should call other people to His service and to believe in Him, and this is because if you love your fellow you will speak in praise of him and call upon other people to love him. By analogy it is the same when we love Him, yis'aleh, and when we grasp His truth we will without a doubt call upon the simple and foolish ones to know this truth that we know. The Sifrei says, Ve'ohavto — make Him beloved to all creatures, as did Avrohom your father, as it says, " . . . the souls that they had made in Choron" (Bereishis 12:5) — referring to those they had enlightened as to the truth of Hashem. Avrohom did this as a result of the fact that he was a lover of Hashem, as it says, "Avrohom who loves me" (Yeshayohu 41:8).

Thus, the emphasis placed in recent times on kiruv is also closely related to ahavas Hashem or should be. A person who is involved in kiruv should arouse his or her ahavas Hashem before reaching out to people, and even before planning reachout activities.

The love that is between Klal Yisroel and Hashem is mentioned 17 times in sefer Devorim, including the main mitzvah of, "Ve'ohavto es Hashem Elokecho, which we mention thrice daily. It is worthy of more effort.


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