Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Rambam and Creation

A letter in this week's Jewish Press made me realize that I missed a good article two months ago. The article (in the November 13th issue) consists of an interview with Dr. Daniel Rynhold, who teaches Jewish Philosophy at YU's Bernard Revel Graduate School (link). The interviewer asked Dr. Rynhold about the latter's recent book, An Introduction to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, which I have not yet read.

In the interview, Dr. Rynhold discusses various controversial positions of the Rambam and Ralbag, admitting that they were even controversial in their times. However, Dr. Rynhold adds: "[I]t does seem to me that at a theological level we may have become a little less tolerant and a little less thoughtful... If they're views held by the Rambam or the Ralbag, I would imagine people would hesitate before saying they're not legitimate Jewish views."

Click here to read moreIn response to one of Dr. Rynhold's statements, a letter published in this week's issue (link) states:

In "Did the Rambam Really Say That?" (November 13), Professor Daniel Rynhold maintains that even according to Rambam, one can be a believing Jew and reject creation ex nihilo.

I challenge the professor to produce actual sources from the Rambam's own works to that effect. His contention is not supported by any direct quotes from Rambam in the article.

In fact, in his own works Rambam classifies as a heretic anyone who rejects creation ex nihilo - i.e., that God coexists alongside eternal matter. (See Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah, chapter III, and Rambam's commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin chapter 10.)

In the same vein, in The Guide to the Perplexed, Rambam makes it clear he rejects the views of Aristotle and Plato, who assert the eternity of matter.
The letter writer is both wrong and right. He is incorrect because the Rambam writes explicitly in Moreh Nevukhim (2:25) that he rejects the Aristotilean view of an eternal universe because it undermines religion. However, he also writes there that he sees no reason to reject the Platonic view of creation from eternal matter other than that it has not been proven. Here are his words (link):
If, however, we accepted the Eternity of the Universe in accordance with the second of the theories which we have expounded above (ch. xxiii.), and assumed, with Plato, that the heavens are likewise transient, we should not be in opposition to the fundamental principles of our religion; this theory would not imply the rejection of miracles, but, on the contrary, would admit them as possible. The Scriptural text might have been explained accordingly, and many expressions might have been found in the Bible and in other writings that would confirm and support this theory. But there is no necessity for this expedient, so long as the theory has not been proved. As there is no proof sufficient to convince us, this theory need not be taken into consideration...
So there is, in fact, actual sources from the Rambam's works in which he states that there is no religious problem with believing in creation from pre-existing matter. He is also wrong in claiming that the Rambam writes in Hilkhos Teshuvah that a Jew must believe in creation from nothing. However, he is correct that the Rambam writes in his commentary to Sanhedrin that it is a principle of faith to believe in creation from nothing. This is something that the Rambam added late in his life and can be found in only one edition of the commentary (the Kafach edition).

There are scholars who believe that the Rambam secretly believed in Aristotle's position -- Straussians. I reject the legitimacy of their very approach. Prof. Allan Nadler ably describes the anti-Straussian approach (link):
I was warned about the treachery of the “Straussians” almost three decades before Strauss became demonically associated with the architects of the war in Iraq, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. The late Isadore Twersky of Harvard regularly warned his students against Strauss’s methods and ideas. But the academic anti-Straussianism to which we were exposed in the mid-1970s had nothing to do with American foreign policy. Instead, it was directed against Leo Strauss’s interpretive approach to a Jewish work composed in Arabic more than eight centuries ago in a far saner Middle East: Maimonides’s “Guide for the Perplexed.”

Dissatisfied with the vanities of modern rationalism and liberalism and their unbridled confidence in secularized Western humanity — an arrogance whose origins he traced back to Spinoza — Strauss turned to the medieval religious rationalism of Maimonides as a model of theological and political probity. Strauss held Maimonides’s “Guide” up as a masterwork of esoteric writing, in which the author manages to convey the deepest and most potent truths only to his elite readership, while artfully concealing them from the unsophisticated masses. In Strauss’s view, Maimonides composed an entirely different kind of book for the unwashed Jewish rabble: his 14-volume code of Jewish law, or Halacha, the “Mishneh Torah,” a utilitarian work of legislation that Strauss believed to be essentially devoid of philosophical merit. In other words, the “Guide,” according to Strauss, contained Maimonides’s ideal doctrines, while the “Mishneh Torah” conveyed his systematic rendering of normative Jewish practice, which he viewed as merely instrumental in maintaining Jewish life.

Among Twersky’s greatest scholarly achievements was his learned refutation of this bifurcated view of Maimonides. Twersky documented the philosophical content that subtly saturates the “Mishneh Torah,” which synthesized Maimonides’s rationalist philosophy with the vast corpus of normative rabbinical law. The irony of Strauss’s treatment of Maimonides is that his mastery of the esoteric “Guide” was not matched by a comparable facility with rabbinical literature needed to appreciate the original philosophical content in Maimonides’s popular code, composed for the widest readership.
The anti-Straussians, or traditional Maimonidean scholars, reject the notion of the Rambam lying to the reading public and promoting false views that he thought were politically useful. Therefore, the notion that he believed in Aristotle's view but rejected it publicly for reasons of public policy is unacceptable.

That notwithstanding, Dr. Rynhold was entirely correct when he said that "there are a number of respected scholars who argue that buried deeply beneath the surface, Maimonides is expressing the Aristotelian view that the world is eternal." There are, and they are Straussians.

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