by Mordecai Plaut, Jerusalem
The first of the 14 parts of the famous Yad HaChazaka of the Rambam is the "Laws of the Basic Elements of the Torah." The word for "basic elements" may also be translated "foundations" or "basics." It is yesodei.
This part of the Rambam's comprehensive work of Jewish law embraces the basic beliefs that a Jew must share. Each of these is a separate mitzva. They are: 1) to know that there is G-d; 2) not to consider any possibility of any other gods; 3) to believe and understand His unity and uniqueness; 4) to love Him; 5) to fear Him; 6) to sanctify His Name (kiddush Hashem); 7) not to profane His Name (opposite of #6); 8) not to destroy things which are called by His Name (either words or buildings); 9) to listen to His prophets; 10) not to test prophets excessively.
The Rambam's entire monumental work is organized by the 613 mitzvos and these first ten, that are covered in this part, are the foundations for the other 603.
There are 10 mitzvas mentioned here and there are 10 chapters in this section of the Yad, but the 10 mitzvos are not evenly distributed over the chapters. The first 4 chapters cover the first 5 of these mitzvas and the first three of those five are covered in the very first chapter.
The next three chapters cover the next two mitzvas. The second chapter opens with the mitzva to love G-d. (In what follows I cite portions of the text of the Rambam by reference to the chapter and passage. Thus "II:1" stands for chapter 2, passage 1 of the "Laws of the Basic Elements of the Torah.") II:1 -- "This G-d, the most honored and awesome, it is a Mitzva to love Him and to be in awe of Him as it says: "and you should love Hashem your G-d" . . . and it says: "you should be in Awe of Hashem your G-d."
It is the next sentence which is our primary focus here: II:2 -- "And how is the way to love of Him? When one contemplates His deeds and His great and wondrous creatures, and one will see 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 the Hashem hagodol, "the great name." Rambam continues saying that that 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." The rest of the next three chapters is a short summary of the cosmos as seen by the Rambam and apparently also by the educated people of his time.
There is no doubt that the obligations to love and to be in awe of G-d are exceedingly important. In these passages, the Rambam first asserts that the way to achieve these mitzvas is to study the deeds and creations of G-d and thereby to appreciate His wisdom. Then he proceeds to give us basic principles of these deeds and creatures, so that we can therewith fulfill these mitzvas.
The modern view of the world is quite different from what Rambam presents. The sort of information and insight that the Rambam gives in chapters two through four of these basic laws is supplied nowadays by science.
Thus, it is quickly and almost universally assumed, instead of the old version of the cosmos found in the Yad, we should study the modern scientific view of the cosmos in order to truly fulfill this most important mitzva. These passages of the Rambam are often cited as the justification, or rationalization, for study of modern science within a Torah framework.
Very little critical attention has ever been paid to the substitutability of modern science for what the Rambam gives. It is always assumed without argument that in our age we can simply "plug in" what we know of the cosmos in place of those three chapters in the Rambam's Yad. I submit that the subsitution is quite problematic.
What I would question specifically is the utility of modern science for fulfilling the mitzva of Ahavas Hashem, love of G- d.
This is not to say that there is no reason to study modern science. There could be reasons to study it that have nothing to do with love of G-d. It has always been recognized that logic and grammar, for examples, are important to study, but no one has ever suggested that they bring to love of G-d. Their importance lies elsewhere. The issue is: "Does modern science serve, as the Rambam writes of his science, to bring immediate love for G-d?" and not "Is modern science worthy of study?".
Also, let me say that I do not view the two systems of science -- medieval and modern -- as mutually exclusive. An appreciation of medieval science will not necessarily negate modern science.
To put it simply: There is no doubt that to build a skyscraper or a wristwatch, modern science is terrific. On the other hand, the Rambam said that his science was very effective in bringing to love of G-d. Now it is very clear that medieval science cannot perform the tasks that modern science does so well. The question is the opposite: Vis-a- vis love for G-d, can the modern version do the job of the older one?
If we simply look at modern scientists, those who do modern science, we find that most do not experience any immediate love for G-d, and many live their entire lives without any love for G-d. In general, in modern times it seems very much that the love of G-d one has is completely independent of the science one knows. If one knows and loves G-d from other sources, then one will also love "from" the science he does. If one does not know G-d, then he is unlikely to find Him in science.
Of course, the things that one learns in science can help the scientist to love G-d, but so can much else that he learns. In these aspects, usually one takes away no more than one originally brings. If we look at the results of study of science in modern times as measured by its students, it would be hard to defend the recommendation of the Rambam. To complete the circumstantial argument, let us note that in medieval times most of the scientists (called then natural philosophers) did believe in a transcendant Being and presumably loved him.
All this is only circumstantial and perhaps unsatisfying, but certainly a comparison of the scientific world today and a thousand or two thousand years ago dies indicate that ancient science is more coincident with love of G-d than mondern science is. This is, as modern science likes to say, consistent with the hypothesis that ancient science was better at bringing to love of G-d than modern science.
Before going on to a more detailed presentation of the relevant features of the two systems it is worth noting something else. It is very interesting in this context that the Rambam does not mention the wisdom that one sees in the human body as a source for love of G-d. Many people are nowadays impressed by the way the body, or one of its subsystems, functions. This feature of the creation, its wondrous complexity and subtle interrelationships which modern science has discovered and described so extensively, is what is assumed by modern readers to be the aspect of things that brings one to love G-d. We will argue that the Rambam did not see this insight as what brings a person to love of G-d.
Perhaps the best example of the wonderful systems found in creation has always been the body. The Rambam was a doctor already by the time he wrote the "Yad" and he was certainly familiar with the body. Even though medicine of those days was far from ours in its understanding of the human body, the body had nonetheless already impressed people with its complexity and subtle interrelationships. The fact that the Rambam left out the complexity and synergy in the human body as an insight that brings to love of G-d is an important indication that the Rambam was not trying to make that type of argument in his description of the cosmos in these basic laws.
In the Moreh Nevuchim, there is in fact a reference of this sort in Part III, chapter 19. There the Rambam is dicussing the verse in Psalms 94: "Will the one who formed the eye not [be able toî see?" He writes that this and the subsequent verses are a rejoinder from King David to those philosophical positions that maintain that G-d is not aware of those details of the world which depend on sensory perception, since He has no physical senses. To this David replies, in the interpretation of the Rambam, that noone can think that by chance there came to be a particular pure fluid [in the eye], and beneath that another fluid, and so on, "could any thinker imagine that this fell by chance? Nay, but it must be the result of intention . . . the act of a thinking being."
But all this relates not to love of G-d but to His awareness and abilities. From complexity we know that there is a G-d, but we do not necessarily love him. If we look at a cell phone, we know that some engineer designed it and we may be impressed with his achievement -- but that does not make us love him.
Finally, the things that Rambam does cite as the means to love in chapters 2-4 are not particularly impressive for their complexity, nor does the Rambam present them as showing that characteristic.
An Introduction to the Rambam's Science
In order to appreciate the differences between Rambam's science and our own, we have to get to know his a little. One of the fundamental analytical axioms in his time was that all things have an abstract form which gives them identity. The essence of any thing is its form. Our mind is such that it can abstract the form of the things that it perceives, even though our actual perception of things is of both form and matter in combination.
The idea of form is a deep and difficult one, especially for modern readers who have little experience with it, but we cannot go into it here in great detail. To get some idea of what it is, one should try to reflect on what is actually present in the mind when recalling something not physically present. As an example, recall tomatoes.
The general idea that appears in our mind is not itself red or juicy or any particular size. It is an idea that does not have those characeteristics. Think about the relationship of that idea of tomato, present now in your mind, to the size of particular tomatoes and you will begin to see what is essential as opposed to accidental in the form of things. When you elminiate everything that is not essential from the idea of tomato in your mind, what is left is the essence of tomato.
The idea of forms of things was a fundamental analytical concept for thousands of years and is part of a whole way of looking at things. Most people have heard of it, but few have ever taken it very seriously. In order to appreciate the world as the Rambam would have us see it, it is essential to take it very seriously indeed.
The idea of forms is central to the whole world view of medieval science. A consequence of this idea is the first thing that the Rambam mentions in his short presentation of science in these chapters: II:4 - "Everything that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in His world is divided into three classes: There are creatures compounded of matter and form that become and decay constantly, like the bodies of man and animals and plants and metals. There are creatures composed of matter and form, but they do not alter from body to body or form to form like the first class, but rather their form is forever fixed in their matter and they do not change like those [thingsò do]. And they are the heavenly spheres and the stars in them. And their matter is unlike the other matter and their form is unlike the other forms. There are creatures that are form without matter at all, and they are the angels that they have no body or corpus but are only forms, distinct one from the other."
Then he goes on to discuss angels in the rest of chapter 2. In chapter 3 he discusses mostly the heavenly spheres, but he closes with the beginning of his discussion of the familiar bodies in our area beneath the sphere of the moon.
Beneath the sphere of the moon, G-d first created one matter. This matter is completely different from the matter of the heavenly objects. For this matter He created four forms which are also different from the forms of the heavenly objects.
The first form is the form of Fire, which combined with some of that original matter to become physical Fire (the "body Fire"). G-d also combined the form of Air with some of that original matter to become physical Air. Similarly for elemental Water and Earth.
Chapter 4 opens with a discussion of those four basic bodies. Everything under the sky is composed of them, including animals, plants, metals, stones, clods of dirt. Note that there is no simple equivalence between the elemental Earth and familiar clods of dirt. One might have asked, if what was meant by the element Earth is clods of dirt, then would all dirt, of whatever color and composition be elemental Earth? What about rocks and ores? In fact, the dirt under our feet is no more elemental Earth than the trees above. Both are combinations of the four elements. The matter of all is in turn composed of the four elements mentioned above.
The upshot is that all familiar bodies are composed of matter and form, but their matter itself is composed of matter and form. This is so since, at least, their matter is composed of the four elements. Only the four elements are composed of only form and matter and nothing else. That is to say, only they have exactly one matter altogether. This, by the way, is the reason that they are called "elements" because they and only they are composed of exactly one matter (plus form). At least this is the view of the Rambam expressed in IV:1 - "...it is found that all bodies under the heaven except these four elements are composed of matter and form, and their matter is composed of these four elements. But all four of these elements are only composed of matter and form."
This is the sense in which these four are elemental -- not in any physical or chemical sense. It is true that other people before and after the Rambam did ascribe a physical or chemical primacy to these four, and even Rambam also assumed that all things were physically composed of these four basic elements. However, the primary perspective from which they were classified elements is on the basis of their matter.
Thus the modern notion of physico-chemical elements is not at all competitive with this. Hence it makes no sense (or it is a gross and unfair simplification) to say that in earlier times they thought there were only four elements "whereas" now we know there are over 100. The words "elements" used in both cases are really not much more than homonyms.
The idea of both matter and form are abstract analytical notions, as the Rambam says explicitly. We do not ever see either alone but only perform the analysis in our minds which separates them and shows us that they are real.
The result is that the world is ordered in a natural hierarchy. There are the basic elements with only simple matter and their forms. Then there are other creatures built from them, eg, chemical elements, and others built from them, eg, amino acids, and so on and on, up to animals and people. Yet, as we reflect on things from this perspective, we find that the true form of animals and all the more so people is not in the physical shape of their bodies but in their minds. Onward we proceed to the heavenly creatures and on through the angels to contemplation of the Divine.
The direction of our thoughts is "upward" in a nonphysical sense. We are drawn and led and pushed onward, outward, upward, away from the raw physical and into abstract and on into the spiritual. We cannot avoid this motion. The whole system is structured to force our thought in that direction.
How much different is the modern interestó The entire preoccupation is with the physical. How do various bodies interact? How do we reduce one physical system to another? How can we predict when things will happen? These are difficult and interesting things, but they do not lead UP.
Up and Away
Modern scientific discourse has specifically banned all terms which refer to nonmaterial entities. Modern science and modern philosophy are both very proud of the fact that scientific discourse is limited to subjects based on the material world. The limitation has not been as easy as many had thought it would be, and it still may not be as complete as some would like it to be, but nonetheless they know what they like and what they do not like, and none of what they do not like is allowed any place in scientific discourse.
Since science is officially neutral on anything out of its scope, this limitation is not something that disturbs those who do accept the reality of the transcendant and the spiritual or other nonmaterial things, along with the importance and authority of science, since they can separate the limitations of science from the broader perspective which they enjoy in the other-than-scientific lives. Though it is certainly possible, and even without any difficulty, to remain a strict empiricist in the laboratory while enjoying a broader perspective in the rest of one's activities, yet it is really hard to see how the narrow- minded scientific perspective is one that could bring one IMMEDIATELY to love G- d. This perspective involves a preoccupation with sticks and stones, with the lower parts of humanity and of the creation.
A recurrent theme of all the ethical literature in the Torah tradition is that this sort of preoccupation is the goal of the part of man's spirit which pulls him away from G-dã It is part of the constant effort of the yetzer hara to increase our interest in the physical aspects of our existence. Of course in the modern scientific context the interest is not one of simple or gross gratification of material desires. Nonetheless, even though the interest is ramified and relatively intellectualized, it is hard to see how it can bring to such immediate love for something as throughly non- empirical as G-d. It is especially hard to see it as a method of choice for achieving the 4th and 5th mitzvas mentioned by the Rambam, which is the position of the Rambam vis-a-vis the science he mentions.
Before going on I would like to give some examples of the engrossing preoccupation of modernity with the material amd how it many times spills out of the lab and into our consciousness. One is given by our reaction to the phrase "origins of Man." As it occurs in modern discourse, it immediately summons to mind the issue of evolution and the associated controversies. Think of the phrase "origins of Man" and what comes to mind is the question of apes as our ancestors. I suggest that the very definition of the issue in this way is wrong and an important victory - albeit rhetorical - for one side. The issues that are suggested by the phrase "origins of Man" in modern discourse relate exclusively to the origins of only man's bodyø In fact, by all accounts we also have a mind, and by most also a spirit. Whatever the early stages of our bodies, our spirit did not start with the apes. In anyone's book, Moses is more important in the origins of our soul than is Cheetah. I would even go further and argue that the origin of our bodies is not really all that interestingæ How is it that such a fuss can be raised in high schools about what story should be told of the origin of man's body - this or another - when they completely lack ANY detailed discussion of the origin of our culture? If origins are an important topic of study - and they are - certainly the roots of the more human parts of humanity should be covered. The fact that all discussion is focussed on how to present the origins of man's body is testimony to the blinding and overwhelming material prejudice built into much of modern discourse.
Another example is the "vastness of the universe" suggested by the immense expanses of interstellar space. Again, the immensity is only the immensity of the physical cosmos. All that dead matter is no more imposing than a clock without hands. Without the addition of a mind to appreciate it, it tells nothing (from Mumford). The power of our own mind is much more awesome than the large lumps of dead space dust that swirl around in astronomer's telescopes.
To return to the main theme, it is hard to see how all this can serve as the method of choice to come to love G-d. How does it all bring us closer to Him? By the account of Torah, the physical world is categorically most distant from G-d. This does not mean that it is insignificant or should be ignored, but it does mean that it must be understood for what it is and kept in proper perspective. Although the scope of science is carefully limited internally, in that it only allows discussion of empirical concepts, yet the broad context of science is just as carefully avoided. No equal time is given to the presentation of the fact that science does not refute metaphysics or religion but only avoids them. The impression is given that, as Ben Gurion is supposed to have said, "modern science makes us atheists." This is not strictly true, of course, but there is no doubt that, as Bacon wrote, "it inclineth the mind toward atheism." Bacon wrote that if one goes on one gets back to faith, but the modern tendency is to be satisfied with the initial impression.
In fact, the points that the Rambam makes in summary also point away from modern science. IV:12 - "When one contemplates these things, and recognizes and is familiar with all the creatures, including angels and spheres and Man and such things, and one sees the wisdom of the Holy, blessed be He, in all the things formed and created, [thení one increases his love for [G-dã and his soul thirsts and his flesh pines to love [G-dã blessed be He." Rambam also discusses the fear man feels when he measures himself against the higher, holy bodies and certainly against the pure forms. The argument here is pretty specific for some aspects of natural philosophy which are no longer part of the way the world is perceived in our times. There is essential mention of creatures which are not part of the modern view of things in the discussion of the way we are to interpret what we find.
As we have said, the world as presented by Rambam falls into a hierarchy which thrusts us up and out of the material and toward the spiritual. The foundation is the basic, original matter (which is not accessible to observation but an analytical construct) with the elements constructed from it and on it with the addition of their forms. On these are built combinations of elements and combinations of them and so on to the bodies of plants, animals and humans. All this leads to the heavenly spheres and on up through the angels to love of G-d Himself. The motion of the mind in this kind of study is up and down along a spiritual/material dimension rather than just around and around within the material world. I think that this is am important difference, and it certainly includes elements mentioned essentially in the argument and exposition of the Rambam. I think that the burden is now on those who would use the Rambam to justify study of modern science to show how it can be done.
Maybe the point could be made as follows: as Aristotle wrote, there are 4 senses of "cause": formal, material, efficient, and final. Modern science is interested exclusively in the third. But this is not a hierarchical sort of cause. This sort of cause is on the same "level" as its effects. The activity is "horizontal." Rambam's analysis is based on formal causes. This is a structured cause: the cause is logically and spiritually higher than its effect. This thrusts one upward in a spiritual sense, or at least forces motion along an axis which leads to the spiritual.
In summary, again, all this is not to criticize modern science or suggest that it is wrong or false or unworthy of study. It is true and worthy of study. The issue is: Can the modern version of science serve as the method of choice to come to love G-d? Is modern science within the scope of the recommendation of the Rambam? There is certainly much to be learned from the achievements of modern science, but I have suggested that love of G-d is not one of them -- at least not in the sense that the Rambam suggested.
To Contact Me