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Sunday, 1 October 2017

145) RAMBAM'S 'ANGRY CONFESSION OF FAILURE'?

INTRODUCTION:

What follows is a fascinating look a piece of writing from Rambam (1135-1204) and is taken from his Maamar Techiyat haMeitim.

Although this is an often neglected Maimonidean work, it has huge importance because composed in 1191, it was one of his later writings. In it, he expresses some reticence over aspects of his better-known previous works, such as his Commentary on the Mishna  (written in 1168) and his magnum opus, Mishneh Torah (written in 1178).

Essentially, he writes that he wished he had spent more time setting out the principles of the basic theology of Judaism instead on primarily focusing on the halachic details (as in his Mishneh Torah) and on didactic philosophy (as in his Moreh Nevuchim or Guide for the Perplexed).

Here is Rambam’s candid look at his self-confessed criticism of his own previous writings:






And when we[1] undertook the task (of writing this work Maamar Techiyat haMeitim), we realised that it was (no longer) appropriate to follow the format (of our previous writings according to our original) intent (i.e. Mishneh Torah, where we only dealt with details of the commandments[2] and not the basic theology).




In other words – (what we did in our previous compilations was) to explain and elaborate on the branches (and details) of our faith, while omitting the root (principles).


We omitted them (the fundamentals of theology) and did not explain them nor did we justify their truth.
Dr Fred Rosner cites D Hartman; “One should read Maimonides’ Treatise on Resurrection as a tragic and angry confession of failure.”[3]



(And) certainly, (there is much need to explain the fundamentals of theology) because I met an individual who was one of the wise (leaders) of Israel and as G-d lives, he knew how to deal (proficiently) in matters of Torah according to the thinking (inculcated) into him from his youth.

He knew how to debate, use pilpul and argue points of law by virtue of his training and in accordance with the worldview of the  Torah culture in which he was raised.[4]




Yet he was doubtful as to whether or not G-d was corporeal (having a form of a body) with eyes, hands, feet and intestines as one can understand from the (literal interpretation of many) verses of Scripture!



Indeed, I met others from some lands who absolutely proclaimed that He was corporeal! And they conferred the title of ‘heretic’ upon anyone who held to the contrary ( who believed that G-d was not a physical being)! They (also) referred to (those who believe in a non-physical G-d) as an apostate and epicurean, and supported their view with many proofs[5]

Perhaps these people were so preoccupied with detailed texts that they simply interpreted Scriptural expressions like 'G-d's outstretched arm', in a literal sense. Ane we know that nothing is more misleading than text, without context.




And I have heard other similar (interpretations that G-d has a body) from some people I have not met. See The Notion that G-d has a Body.

And I know that these lost (and mistaken) people (who think that G-d is corporeal), are considered untouchable (astute leaders) and regard themselves as wise sages of Israel – yet are instead the most ignorant of human beings, and more perverse than animals.



These (scholars) minds are filled with the senselessness of old (senile) women and meaningless imaginations of the blind and of (senile) women[6].


(After observing the belief systems of some of these lauded leaders of Israel) we (now) realise that need to (remedy the situation) by writing, in our (future) Talmudic compilations, (about) fundamental theological principles (and not just law).


(And these fundamentals need to be presented as simply) as a narrative (or in simple point form, without any proofs, arguments or embellishments - as we did with our legal code, Mishneh Torah[7]).
Theology is usually presented with such embellishments and elaborations to make to more palatable for the thinking readers. But Rambam realises that a complicated format of presentation would not work because he acknowledges it didn’t work for his philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed, as he goes on to state:


And not through (the bringing of complicated philosophical) arguments (as we did in the Guide).
In other words, he felt the need to present the fundamentals of our belief system in clear simple point form so that all could understand them – even the scholars for whom he has little respect, as he goes on to say:


(This presentation of the fundamentals of our belief system must be as simple as possible) because when one brings (complicated philosophical) arguments concerning these fundamentals, one needs clarity (of thought) in many intellectual disciplines. This is something the Talmudists do not know (or have any experience in) at all.


This is because those who only involve themselves in the study of Talmud, have no other knowledge.



(This was) as pointed out in The Guide for the Perplexed:


This is what it says at the beginning of the Guide: “Our intention with this treatise is not to present (philosophical theology) to the masses, nor to those just beginning their inquiry (into theology), nor to those who have only studied the wisdom of Torah.”

To this point, the Vilna Gaon who desperately tried to restore the crown of wisdom back to the Torah scholars, said: “As much as an individual is lacking in secular studies – so he lacks one hundred fold in his understanding of Torah. This is because Torah and secular knowledge go hand in hand.”[8]




(For these reasons) we have chosen to present (the basic fundamentals of what a Jew is supposed to believe in) in a manner that (even if the Torah scholars cannot understand this, then) at least the simple masses will know them (the fundamentals of our faith)!


ANALYSIS:

I have always felt that not enough emphasis has been placed on the fundamental principles of Judaism.  Anyone born into the religious system, or who comes into it, is taught all the detailed technicalities but the basic theology is often rather vague. Many times this theology is just left up to the child or individual to develop for themselves. The result is often an imprudent and underdeveloped belief system not unlike those of other popular religions, with one or two substitutions or changes which are usually more in name than in depth of concept.

To compound the problem, the very notion of theology, or hashkafa, is considered something to be left for the baal teshuva (a new returnee to religious Judaism) and for weekend outreach retreats for non-religious people. No self-respecting religious person would need exposure to hashkafa, because he or she is already well trained in the rituals and practices. Even our schools relegate hashkafa to the weaker classes because understanding Judaism’s complex and multifaceted theology is considered beneath those capable of more advanced education.


For anyone interested in the writings of Rambam, this must be seen as a very important piece because he refers back to his other major works and acknowledges their shortcomings.

But what’s fascinating is the way he does this.

He admits that he took it for granted that all practising Jews understood the basic fundamentals of Jewish theological monotheism. Especially the learned scholars! Yet he says that he made a mistake in that assumption, based on his empirical observations.

His Mishneh Torah was one of the first attempts at codifying Judaism, yet he expresses regret that he omitted the most important pre-cursor to Judaism, namely, basic hashkafic theology. This led to the creation, again by his own admission, of a system where people could become expert at details but more base than animals when it came to basic first principles.

And some of these experts in detail, could, in his own words; never understand the depths of basic and fundamental Judaism because their only tools were the Torah and not the secular sciences!

And this was eight hundred years ago. What would he say about the state of religious theology today where no scholars worth their salt would want to be seen grappling with basic theology as it’s considered beneath them and is only for beginners. The scholar can give a good pshat within a pshat, but first principles may have gone out the window!

Would it be presumptuous to say that today, the sense of history, the consideration of the developmental process of Judaism, its context, and its useful contribution to humanity may also sometimes have vanished together with the understanding of its basic theology?





[1] Rambam chooses to write here in the plural, using the term ‘we’. However, a few sentences later, he switches to the singular and uses the term ‘I’.
[2] This follows the commentary of R. Mordechai Dov Rabinowitz in Iggeret haRambam, published by Mosad Harav Kook.
[3] See Moses Maimonides’s Treatise on Resurrection, Translated and Annotated by Fred Rosner, p. 18.
[4] See note 2.
[5] Or discourses. An alternate reading, suggesting a printing error would replace ‘rabot’ with ‘berachot’ (derashot berachot) referring to tractate Berachot which contains many aggadic interpretations which should not be taken literally. See note 2.
[6] This analogy would be very offensive to modern woman but one must understand that 800 years ago, women did not study and were primarily and almost exclusively caregivers. It is certainly not our intention to insult women and it must be said that a modern writer would and should never be able to get away with writing in this idiom today. Had Rambam lived in our times, I believe he would have chosen more appropriate literary imagery. We must take this as a cultural and historic discrepancy.
[7] See note 2.
[8] From R. Baruch of Shklov in his introduction to his of Sefer Uklidus, Euclid’s Book of the Elements, which the Vilna Gaon commissioned him to translate into Hebrew so that Torah scholars might study secular wisdom as well as Torah.

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