Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Rav Soloveitchik on Rambam's Yesodei Hatora 1:1

Here are the Rav's words about yesodei hatora 1:1.

Maimonides term "Leida" transcends the bounds of an abstract logos and passes over into the boundless intimate and impassioned experience where postulate and deduction, discursive knowledge and intuitive thinking, conception and perception, subject and objects are one. Only in paragraph five, after the aboriginal experience of God has been established by him as a firm reality (in paragraph one) does he introduce the Aristotelian cosmological proof of the unmoved mover.

From Lonely Man of Faith

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Keneth Seeskin's Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed

Here's a good review of the above mentioned book, by Israel Drazin:

Kenneth Seeskin, Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Northwestern University, recognizes that Maimonides classic book on philosophy The Guide of the Perplexed is difficult reading for most people. It is long; made up of three books with 178 chapters. Secondly, Maimonides never intended that an insufficiently educated general audience should read it. He expected that his readers knew the sacred books of Judaism, the classics of Greek philosophy and the commentaries written on these classics. The third problem is that this book was composed in the twelfth century when science was radically different than it is today. Seeskin states that he intends to make Maimonides clear to modern readers. He does so by writing in clear English and by clarifying each point with examples from modern life.

What is idol worship?
Maimonides contends that the Torah considers idolatry to be the most reprehensible wrong. It is another name for ignorance, for disregarding what is rational. People can only worship God when they abandon superstition and other forms of ignorance and seek to understand God and the universe in a rational way. In a word, Maimonides felt that Judaism is a religion that teaches the truth. If people think that the Jewish faith is a belief system for which there is no supporting evidence, only blind reliance on tradition, they are wrong; this is not Judaism. This Maimonidean teaching becomes clear when we understand several of his ideas.

God has no body and human functions
Seeskin begins his book, as does Maimonides in his Guide, by stating that God has no physical form and does not act like a human being. Since God has no eyes, feet, and mouth, God does not see, move about or speak. When the Torah uses such terms as God looking, going up and down, coming near, speaking, and creating humans in the divine image, Scripture is speaking figuratively. The Bible does not intend that these words be taken literally because if they were taken literally, they would be describing a God with a body or doing an act that implies that God has a body.
As in English, God "looking" in the Bible does not mean that God has eyes, it should be understood as thinking, as in "I see your point." When the prophet Isaiah says in chapter 6 that he saw God, he means that he understood something about God. Similarly, when the Bible states that God "comes down," it means that there is a divine revelation, and "going up" means that the revelation ended, as in "she moved on to higher mathematics." God did not move. When Scripture writes that God is "coming near" it means that the person begins to understand, as in "the doctors are getting closer and closer to finding a cure." When a prophet hears God "speaking," he is thinking that he understands what God wants him to do. God has no mouth. The statement that humans are created in "God's image" does not imply that God has a physical form, but that humans are given intelligence. Thus the relationship between humans and God is not physical, but intellectual.

What can humans know about God and how should God be worshipped?
If God has no body, how can people describe God? Maimonides insists that it is impossible for humans to know anything about God. God is unlike anything here on earth. He is not like humans at all. When people speak about God knowing or God being all-powerful, they are saying something that is wrong. All we can do is confess ignorance.
If all biblical descriptions of God should be understood as figures of speech and if we cannot know anything about God, how can we worship God? Maimonides explains that while we cannot know God we can know what effect God has upon the earth and humans. We are unable to know if God is just and merciful; however, we are able to read in the Torah how God can cause justice and mercy to occur. This is really all we need to know about God, that God causes good, and we should copy these attributes of God and also act to produce good results. Thus Judaism is not a religion that encourages passive philosophical thinking about God, it is a practical and active religion that teaches true ideas about the world and helps improve individuals and society.
One of the ways that people can "copy" divine behavior is to remember that the Bible begins by teaching that people are created in God's image. Thus one human duty, indeed the paramount human duty, is to "copy" God by not accepting ideas simply because people claim that something is true; people have a duty to think rationally.
Seeskin stresses that Maimonides was opposed to religious fundamentalism; people must use their reason; this is what God wants. This is the implication of people being created in the "divine image."

How was the world created?
Since we cannot know anything about God other than the consequences of the divine acts, what can we know about how the world came into being? The Torah seems to say that God created the world out of nothing. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato claimed that God formed the world from pre-existing matter. His student Aristotle said that both God and the world existed for eternity. Some scholars are convinced that Maimonides was unable to decide between these three views. Maimonides states explicitly that if he wanted he could read the Bible as expressing any of the three views. "In fact," Seeskin writes, "he is so open minded about it that some scholars think he is actually committed to a version of the Aristotelian position." Seeskin himself thinks that Maimonides preferred the Platonic view.

Do miracles occur?
Should the biblical accounts of miracles be understood literally? Seeskin notes that Maimonides is not altogether clear on this issue. He describes some biblical miracles as dreams and others as really part of the natural order. People viewing an unusual event might think that it is not natural - such as a twelfth century man seeing a plane flying in the air. While Seeskin is correct that Maimonides is unclear whether miracles occur, other scholars say that Maimonides is hinting that all "miracles" fall into one of these two categories, but he does not say this explicitly because he did not want to offend or confuse those people who felt strongly that God interferes with nature and performs miracles.

Does the universe contain evil? Maimonides answers, "No." Some things in nature appear to be evil but are not. It is impossible to have a universe without the imperfections inherent in material things. When a mountain is washed with rain, the rocks that compose the mountain will be eaten away. When the sun shines on part of the earth, the other part will be dark. When a doctor saves a person's life with surgery, the person will experience pain. This is the nature of this world. The eaten away rocks, the darkness and pain are not evil; they are the natural consequences of having a universe.
Why do good people suffer? Maimonides states that God is not behind misfortunes; suffering may come from one of three sources. The first is the one just described. The individual suffers because of the laws of nature. A wind or hurricane blows and harms a person. The second is the harm that people do to themselves, such as by laziness, greed or self-deception. The third is the harm that some people inflict on other people, such as cruelty, murder, robbery and injustice. Maimonides adds that people need to understand that the universe does not revolve around people. We do not know and cannot know why God created the world, but it seems clear that it was not focused on humans who make up a very small part of the world.

What is prophecy? Maimonides describes three positions. The first, the one held by most people, is that prophecy is supernatural. God chooses the person to speak to. The human has no choice in the matter and he or she may be smart or ignorant, rich or poor. The second is a natural view: prophecy is a natural event; it is a higher level of intelligence; only a highly intelligent and well-learned person can be a prophet. God is not involved. The third notion is called a compromise. It is the Maimonidean view. It accepts the second position that prophecy is a higher level of intelligence, but says that while God does not instigate it, God can stop it.
Scholars debate what Maimonides understood by his statement that God can stop prophecy. Seeskin takes Maimonides' words literally, although an individual has attained the level of prophecy and wants to communicate his or her ideas, God may not concur and may stop the prophet from speaking. However, others, such as Joseph ibn Caspi, say that God is not involved at all. He understands that Maimonides is saying that even the most intelligent person will be unable to express an understanding/prophecy if that person is ill or depressed. By saying "God can stop prophecy," Maimonides meant what he said at the end of the section on prophecy, in 2:48: many actions are ascribed to God even though the act is not directly done by God, but is simply the result of natural laws, but they are ascribed to God because God is the ultimate cause of everything, since God created the world and its laws of nature.
What kind of intelligence does a prophet need? A prophet must have both a keen understanding of the world and the imagination of how to implement what he or she understands. The prophet must also be virtuous. A person who only has one of these attributes will not be able to help improve people and society.

The Torah commands
Since prophecy is obtained through intelligence (and can only be stopped but not started by God, according to Seeskin), then, Seeskin writes, the Torah commands must also be the result of the natural use of intelligence. Yet all are divine in the sense that they contribute to human excellence.
Most Jews today and yesterday thought that they must obey God's commands even if they are irrational simply because God as king demanded that they be obeyed. Maimonides rejected this view. He wrote that all the Torah commands, without exception, are rational and have one or more of three purposes. They (1) teach true ideas, (2) help society, and (3) provide for an individual's physical or mental health. Since the goal of the commands is best achieved when people understand why they are acting, it follows that the proper way to observe the commands is to understand why they were instituted, teach this understanding to others and act in a rational way with others. Maimonides understood that most people are unable to do this.
Contrary to the method of study of most people today who feel that they have fulfilled the obligation of Torah study if they simply read the Torah at least in the synagogue without understanding it, as if the Torah were prayers, Maimonides felt that Torah must be studied carefully. He even said that only a person who has mastered secular subjects, such as philosophy and science, can decipher the wisdom in the Torah. A fervent recital of the basic biblical statement "Here Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one" twice a day places the Jew within the community of monotheists, but without study and understanding, the recital does not clarify what the community is committed to and how individuals can help themselves and others.
Maimonides recognized that some biblical commands were developed to wean the people away from idolatry (teach true ideas) and others were instituted because of the needs of people, for example God has absolutely no need for sacrifices, but the Torah allowed them as a concession because the ancient Israelites felt that this was the way to worship and show love to God.

In his appendix, Seeskin mentions that the Maimonidean scholar Leo Strauss put heavy emphasis on the talmudic prohibition against teaching esoteric matters publicly. Therefore Strauss concluded that Maimonides hid his true ideas in the Guide and that Maimonides real message is given in hints and clues. Seeskin writes that his approach is the opposite; he assumes that the Guide was written just like any other book of philosophy.
The difference in the two approaches was shown above in how Seeskin and ibn Caspi interpret prophecy and how Seeskin and others see Maimonides' view on miracles. It can also be seen in the fact that Seeskin ascribes to the generally accepted notion that Maimonides thought that all thirteen of his famous thirteen principles of Judaism are correct, while other scholars insist that he only considered a few of them to be correct.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Rambam and Creation

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

5. Creation

Throughout the Guide, Maimonides considers four accounts of creation: that of the kalam, Moses, Plato, and Aristotle. He rejects the kalam account (GP 1. 71–73) according which one demonstrates that the universe must have been created and then reasons that if it was created, it must have a creator. Like Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides believes it is impossible to show by logical considerations alone either that the universe was created or that it is eternal. Though Maimonides says he believes in creation, he admits one can do no more than tip the scales in this direction. As of Guide 2.13, he limits his discussion to the theories of Moses, Plato, and Aristotle.

Unfortunately Maimonides' characterizations of these alternatives are neither precise nor historically accurate [Seeskin, 2005]. Suffice it to say that his treatment of them is mainly thematic. Briefly stated, they are:

Moses: the world was created de novo and entirely ex nihilo.
Plato: the world was created de novo from a preexisting material substrate.
Aristotle: the world is eternal and its existence is best understood as eternal information of matter.

Based on his explicit remarks, Maimonides prefers the theory of Moses but allows one to hold that of Plato as a reasonable alternative. But there has always been a school of thought that maintains that he is secretly committed to the view of Aristotle [Harvey 1981]. My own position is with those who argue that Maimonides' explicit remarks are an accurate account of his view and that all the arguments he offers point in that direction [Davidson 1979; Feldman 1990; Hyman 1988; Wolfson 1973).

The historical Aristotle did argue that the world is eternal and that whatever is eternal is necessary [On Generation and Corruption 338a1–4, Physics 203b 29, Metaphysics 1050b8–15]. His medieval followers took this to mean that while the world is ontologically dependent on God, there is no moment when it first comes to be and therefore does not owe its existence to a decision to create. As we might say, it exists not because of anything God does but simply because of what God is. Because God's nature does not change, according to this position, neither does the existence or fundamental structure of the world. The most important consequence of this view is that God does not exercise free choice, which is to say that according to the Aristotelian alternative, the world is governed by necessity.

The standard arguments in favor of this position take one of two approaches: either they show that there is something inherent in the nature of the world that makes creation impossible or that there is something inherent in the nature of God that does. An example of the former is that change always proceeds from something to something else, as when a chicken springs from an egg or an acorn develops into a full grown oak tree. If this is true, it is impossible for something to come to be from nothing (ex nihilo). An example of the latter is that if God is perfect, it makes no sense to suppose that God could ever do anything new such as bring the world into being.

Maimonides' answer to the first argument (GP 2.17) is that given the world as we know it, change does proceed from one thing to something else. But why should we assume the creation of the world has to follow the same pattern? An account of creation is a theory of origin, how a thing comes to be initially. By contrast, an account of change is a theory of development or alteration, how one existing thing emerges into another. For all we know, the origin of a thing may be completely different from its development later on. Thus it is presumptuous to suppose that we can extrapolate from our experience of the world as it is at present to the moment of its creation. It follows that the first argument against creation is not decisive, which means that creation remains a possibility.

Maimonides' answer to the second argument (GP 2.18) is that in a perfect being, willing something new need not imply change. If I will today to take a trip tomorrow and events intercede to spoil my plans, I may have to change my mind, but to suppose that something analogous happens to God is absurd. Assume I will today to do something tomorrow independent of external circumstances — to think about the numerical characteristics of pi. And assume that when tomorrow comes, I do exactly as planned. While I would be undertaking something new, to the degree that I had intended to do it all along, it would be misleading to say that I underwent a change. Certainly I did not undergo a change of mind.

Maimonides takes this to mean that it is possible for a being not affected by external circumstances to will something new as long as it is part of his original intention. This is sometimes expressed by saying that changing one's will is not the same as willing change. So once again, the argument against creation is not decisive.

Maimonides is aware that all his arguments establish is the possibility of creation, not its actuality. To go further, and argue for the actuality of creation, he returns to the claim that everything that is eternal is necessary. If it could be shown that there are features of the world that are not necessary, it would follow that the world must have been created. Here Maimonides challenges Aristotle and his followers on the issue of astronomy.

Medieval Aristotelians believed as follows. God thinks and manifests self-awareness. Because God is one and simple, what emerges from God must be one and simple as well. In this way, God generates the first heavenly intelligence. According to Alfarabi, because the first intelligence is aware of two things — itself and God — it is capable of generating two things: the second heavenly intelligence and the outermost sphere of the universe. By contrast, Avicenna held that because the first intelligence is aware of God and duality in itself, it generates three things. The difference need not concern us here. The important point is that God's production of the outermost sphere is indirect; the immediate cause is the activity of the first intelligence. The process continues until we get the ten intelligences and nine primary spheres that make up the standard picture of medieval cosmology.

Maimonides criticizes this account in two ways. First if the originator of a causal sequence is one and simple, there is no way for complexity to arise, and everything else in the sequence should be one and simple as well (GP 2.22). Even if the sequence contains thousands of members, there is no way to account for the complexity of a celestial sphere, which is a composite of matter and form. When we get to the inner spheres, we have to account for even more because not only is there the sphere itself but the stars or planets attached to it. They too are composites of matter and form. How can we have such complexity if we start with something that is radically one?

Second, there are features of the heavenly bodies that defy scientific explanation and thus appear to be contingent in the sense that they were chosen rather than necessitated (GP 2.19–24). If the outer spheres impart motion to the inner ones, we would expect spherical motion to slow as we move closer to the earth. But this is hardly the case. As Maimonides points out (GP 2.19):

We see that in case of some spheres, the swifter of motion is above the slower; that in the case of others, the slower of motion is above the swifter; and that, again in another case, the motions of the spheres are of equal velocity though one be above the other. There are also other very grave matters if regarded from the point of view these things are as they are in virtue of necessity.

If there is no explanation for why the spheres behave in this fashion, or why some stars and planets emit more light than others, or why some regions of the heavens are relatively crowded while others are empty, there is no reason to think the phenomena in question are what they are by virtue of necessity. If there is no necessity, there are no grounds for eternity. The alternative is to say that God created the world as a result of a free choice and fashioned it in a particular way.

Maimonides recognizes (GP 2.24) that his argument does not constitute a demonstration. Just because science cannot explain something now, it does not follow that it will never be able to explain it. As he himself admits, science can and does make progress. But in the case of the heavenly bodies, he thought progress very unlikely. Because they too far away to make close observations, and too high in rank, we can only rely on inferences based on accidental qualities size, speed, and direction. As long as this is true, we will never know their essential natures and will never be able to support claims of necessity. As long as this is true, creation, though not demonstrated, will always be preferable to eternity.

Maimonides (GP 2.25) also offers a practical reason for believing in creation: How can a God without free will issue commandments? Beyond this there is a textual reason: belief in creation does less violence to scripture than belief in eternity. He concludes that the theory of Moses offers the best alternative, while that of Plato, which retains the idea of creation de novo, is acceptable. Though some people fault Maimonides for not coming up with a stronger argument on behalf of Moses, he would reply by saying that given the limits of our knowledge, this is the strongest argument we can expect. Although Maimonides is often seen as part of the Aristotelian tradition, and often expresses praise for Aristotle, his account of creation indicate that he is willing to depart from Aristotle when he thinks the arguments lead in that direction.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Beezrat Hashem

Those two words boldly declare the hope that God is involved in our world, and can be involved in our lives too.

Just a quick thought. Nothing to add.