Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Boundaries of Rationality

or The Rambam was an Empiricist…NOT!

by Chaim G.

There is an open Jewish Jihad on much of the J-Blogosphere to purge Judaism of it’s “irrational” strains. Many opine that “pure” Judaism is palatable to men and women of reason and that “authentic” Judaism shuns all magical- thinking obscurantism.

When taking the big-tent tradition of the Oral Torah into consideration this POV is demonstrably false yet, in order to maintain this mirage, many Bloggers love to downsize the “legitimate” Torah-expositors fraternity and to hang their hats on such hyper-rationalist pashtonim of parshanus hamiqra and p’sak as the Ibn Ezra, the Ralbag , RSRH and most of all, that towering colossus, the Rambam.

Yet, that same Rambam who consistently explains Ta’amei HaMitzvos reasonably in Moreh Nevuchim, who presents a decidedly non-mystical eschatology, who praised Aristotle to the skies, also codified the imperative for, and centrality of, irrationality in Judaism.

The following passage illustrates the Rambam’s BALANCED vision of Judaism that mandates BOTH the empirical and irrational approaches:

“It behooves a person to contemplate the holy Torah’s laws and, as much as his faculties allow him, to know their ultimate purpose. (Still) a topic/concept for which he can find no reason nor any cause should not become lightly esteemed in his eyes. And he should not ‘violate the boundary’ to ascend to the Divine lest He (i.e. G-d) ‘break through’ to him. (An allusion to Shemos 19:24) and a person’s thoughts / intellectual approach to Torah ought not to be equivalent to his approach to other, mundane, matters.

Come and see how stringent the Torah was about the misappropriation of consecrated property: Once the name of the Master of the World (i.e. G-d) has been uttered over mere sticks and stones, dust and ashes, they become consecrated with mere words, yet anyone who (by deriving pleasure or benefit form them) treats them as he would the mundane… requires atonement. Certainly a mitzvah that the Holy Blessed One Himself legislated should not be rejected merely on the basis of not being able to discover it’s rationale. He should not accuse G-d of things that are untrue and his thoughts about them (Torah matters) should not be equivalent to his thoughts about mundane matters.”
To see the rest of the passage click here. [DB: No hyper link was provided]

Maimonides Laws of Me’ilah=Misappropriation of Consecrated Objects-Funds (8:8)

Maimonides clearly articulates and vigorously advocates an intellectual double-standard predicated on the existence of two distinct dimensions; the mundane and the sacred. His rule of thumb is to approach things empirically and logically and to reject that which cannot be rationally proven. But kodesh is an exception to this rule. In the kodesh dimension of reality we are instructed NOT to reject that which cannot be rationalized and to accept as true and just even that which cannot be proven. To do otherwise would be to be moel b’hekdash by applying a single standard to both the mundane and the sacred.

Elsewhere he writes:

“And the knowledge of this matter (i. e. the fundamentals of Theology that he had expressed above) is a positive commandment as it says: “I am the Lord thy G-d’”

Ibid Yesodei HaTorah=Fundamentals of the Torah 1:6

In light of the first Maimonedean passage I cited it would seem that those who understood the word knowledge in the second passage to mean apprehending G-d through rational philosophical inquiry completely missed the boat. What with incorporeality, transcendence, theodicy and the predestination vs. free-will conundrum, G-d Himself is the supreme (Supreme?) irrational Torah Concept. Even Moshe who, at Sinai, was granted license to ignore the boundaries set for others, who always spoke to G-d “face to face”, was denied his request to apprehend G-d’s glory (see Shemos 33:18,20,23).

So what did the Rambam mean when he wrote ““And the knowledge of this matter is a positive commandment"?

Stay tuned for part two.

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