Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Avraham's Journey

The latest book from the MeOtzar HaRav Foundation is Abraham's Journey, and features R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik's teachings on the life of Avraham the Patriarch. As is his style, R. Soloveitchik focuses on the life struggles of Avraham and how he overcame them and succeeded. What I found interesting, although not surprising, is the little attention paid to the specifics of Avraham's intellectual journey to discovering God. R. Soloveitchik (p. 40) quotes the Rambam's description of Avraham's discovery of God (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avodah Zarah 1:3), which includes a Cosmological Argument: "How is it possible for the sphere to continue to revolve without anyone controlling it? Who makes it revolve? Surely, it does not cause itself to revolve."

However, R. Soloveitchik focuses on the relationship aspect of this search. He even finds religious significance in the Rambam's outdated science (p. 42):
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Maimonides held that questing for God is a spontaneous process. The whole world as an entity is puled by the Almighty and attracted to Him. Even dead matter, whose motion science has interpreted and formulated in mathematical equations, is driven toward the Creator. The Aristotelian explanation of circular motion, which Maimonides accepted, is completely wrong from a scientific standpoint, but it contains a metaphysico-theological truth. The universe is in physical motion because motion represents a metaphysical quest for the Almighty...
I'd like to focus on the type of intellectual argument that the Midrash attributes to Avraham. According to the Rambam, it is a Cosmological Argument. Anything in motion had to have a mover so there must have been a First Mover, i.e. God. This is consistently the Rambam's approach to proving God (cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah 1:5; Moreh Nevukhim 2:1). But what is his source that this was Avraham's thought process?

There is actually little talmudic or midrashic background for this. To my knowledge, there are only three midrashim that discuss this subject. One is in Bereishis Rabbah 39:1 (and parallels) and is about Avraham coming across a palace in flames and deducing that someone must own the palace; so, too, the world must have a governor. While it might seem that this is an argument from design (or, more accurately, an argument to design [Antony Flew makes this point in his book, There is a God]), as discussed in this post (link) it is not at all clear that this is the intent of the Midrash. Many suggest that it is a discussion about Providence.

A second is in Midrash Rabbah 38:13 (and parallels) and is about Avraham rejecting idols because there seems to be a stronger force than any particular idol. I don't see here any argument for God. It is just an argument against worshipping gods that are not the strongest.

R. Chaim Kanievsky, in his Kiryas Melekh on the Rambam (cited in the Frankel edition of Mishneh Torah), suggests a source that is not from any standard midrashic text but a manuscript that was first published only relatively recently -- Mishnas Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 15). This midrash seems to be an argument from (to) design: If the sun, stars, land, etc. moved of their own volition then they would not follow set rules and patterns; rather, they must have been made by a Creator who actively manages them according to a schedule.

Perhaps the Rambam interpreted the second midrash as a Cosmological Argument. Maybe in Avraham's rejection of idols for being overpowered he was really rejecting them for not being a First Cause.

Maybe he saw in the third midrash that Avraham looked for a God who caused other beings to move, i.e. a First Mover.

Or maybe, perhaps, the Rambam saw the Sages attributing various theological arguments to Avraham's thinking and the Rambam attributed to Avraham the argument that he, the Rambam, felt was most conclusive.

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