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Focus On:The Rambam - Maimonides and the Four Fundamentals of Torah by Professor Yoseph Udelson
Focus On:The Rambam - Maimonides and the Four Fundamentals of Torah

Volume 4 , Issue 2

What does it mean to praise Maimonides as one of the world's most influential philosophers? To most of us, who are not philosophers, actually not very much. In our contemporary world, philosophy is a rather arcane and peripheral subject confined to isolated ivory towers, and it is difficult to be impressed greatly by someone's accomplishments in an area we regard as generally irrelevant. But when discussing Maimonides's era, "philosophy" means something entirely different.

To speak of "philosophy" before the 17th century c.e. means to discuss the epitome of academic scholarship. It encompassed learning theory, psychology, logic, mathematics, physics, and astronomy. In other words, at the time of Maimonides, "philosophy" referred to what we now mean by "science" in its broadest sense. And Maimonides demonstrated that this "natural philosophy," i.e., scientific knowledge, coheres with, and is encompassed by, the wisdom of the Torah.

To understand Maimonides's achievement in this regard, it might be useful to refer to his central "philosophic" work, Morah HaNevuchim, The Guide of the Perplexed. Actually this is a very strange "guide," especially for Maimonides to have authored. In all his other works, he is famous for his clear, orderly presentation of material, all outlined and then logically explained in explicit detail. But in this book, Maimonides provides no outline, no chapter titles, and no obvious logic of presentation. In fact, in the introduction, he cautions his readers that the work is deliberately abstruse and purposely contains apparent contradictions, its true intention being visible only in lightning "flashes" of cognition by the attentive reader.

Who Were the Perplexed?

A strange sort of "guide," indeed, for the "perplexed." It is as though a person renowned for his knowledge and kindness offered a lost wayfarer a map home, but one without a key and with all its road signs written in code. In order to begin to grasp why Maimonides chose this method of presentation, some attention must be paid to who the "perplexed" were and what it was that they were not clear about. And to answer this question we must briefly survey Jewish intellectual history at least a thousand years before Maimonides, to the time of the Second Temple, when the Jewish people first encountered Greek speculation.

Greek thought is abstract and theoretical. Its focus is on possible solutions to rational queries. Since solutions are speculative, they depend entirely on logical consistency and can disregard the concrete realities of the existing world in which each individual human life is embedded. A striking example of this approach is Ptolemaic astronomy: in the totality of its mathematical calculations, it contradicts the Aristotelian cosmology of the real world that even Ptolemy accepted, and in its specific calculations for planetary motion, it repeatedly contradicts itself. Thus, although such a mathematical model of astronomy could obviously never conform to reality, the Greeks found it useful as a set of ad hoc theories to predict specific celestial movements to a reasonably accurate degree.

Traditional Jewish thought presents a striking contrast to that of the Greeks. In both the Written and the Oral Torah, the details of existence provide the parameters for thought; for the Sages, theory must be immersed in the multitudinous particulars of concrete reality. But even beyond this, the Sages were well aware of the dangers inherent in abstract speculation, a thought process that is capable of molding a fictitious and distorted image of reality that deceives even its originators. For their part, the Sages insist that ideas generally be expressed and explored through the discussion of the familiar, mundane details of everyday living. The multifarious interactions and intricate particulars of domestic, civil and commercial relationships arising among ordinary individuals living in typical Middle Eastern communities provide the Sages with the most numerous instances with which they explicate the eternal values transmitted in Torah. The most immediate example of this traditional Jewish approach is found in the wide-ranging discussions of the Talmud.

Contents of Revelation Are Facts

Implicit within this focus upon the specifics of living are four fundamental principles that derive from the revelation of the Torah at Sinai, where the contents of this revelation themselves are facts as concrete as the acquisition of an inheritance by a first-born son. So, to comprehend the history of the relationship of Jewish thought to Greek, it is necessary to recognize the conscious allusions to these Torah principles transmitted through the Talmud and Midrash.

A summary of the four is found in the Sages' saying, "He is the place of the world but the world is not His place." (Bereshit Rabba 68:9) In its simple meaning, this refers to the important concept that God is both immanent (i.e., "fills the world") and transcendent (i.e., "encompasses the world"). But close analysis of the Sages' careful wording reveals its multiple references. These emerge from comparing each of the two consistent clauses with the asymmetrical statement as a whole. Employing this analysis, the negatively phrased "the world is not His place" alludes to the two principles of (1) Divine Unity and (2) creation of all existence from nonexistence. And the positively phrased "he is the place of the world" alludes to the further two principles of (3) individual Divine Providence and (4) moral free will. As a brief discussion of these four will indicate, taken as a unit, these principles are unique to Torah and to Jewish thought and have no counterpart in Greco-Roman speculation.

Divine Unity is explicitly affirmed in the Shema: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One." (Dvorim 6:4) Upon analysis, we discover two concepts are actually encompassed by this Torah principle of Unity: external and internal, so to speak. By "external Unity" is meant that there exists nothing divine or eternal but God Alone, Who is also not to be identified with any pagan deity. This is what is commonly meant by "monotheism."

But Judaism also teaches a second level of Divine Unity, one unacceptable to any of the major Greco-Roman philosophic schools and also to the other two later monotheistic religions: central to the Jewish understanding of Divine Unity is "internal Unity" - that God is "simple," noncomposite in His Essence. This asserts that the Essence of God is unknowable, undefinable and indescribable within the finite boundaries of human thought and language. We, as inescapably finite creatures, are capable of knowing and discussing God, therefore, only in terms of (1) His actions ("He is the place of the world") and by (2) defining what He is not ("The world is not His place").

Repudiated by Christianity

This clear explication of Divine Unity by the Sages, a thousand years before Maimonides, is distinctive to Jewish thought. It is either explicitly rejected, or in some cases merely ignored, by Greek and Roman philosophers and is specifically repudiated in Christianity (with its notion of a "triune," composite unity) and in Islam (with its notion of a Divine Essence composite with co-eternal Divine "attributes").

Given the Sages' asymmetrical statement that "He is the place of the world but the world is not His place," the second principle follows as a corollary of the first. This implies the creation by God of all existence from complete nonexistence (yesh m'ayin). It is certain that this unique Torah teaching was consciously explicated by the Sages and that they were, indeed, familiar with the contrary doctrine of an eternal pre-existent matter advocated by all major Greco-Roman philosophic schools (i.e., Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Epicurean). This is clear from the midrash which relates: "One philosopher said to Rabban Gamliel: Your God is a great Artist, but He found good paint that assisted Him.... He [Rabban Gamliel] said to him - he [the philosopher] should burst!" (Bereshit Rabba 1:9) Thus, fully aware of non-Jewish philosophic opinion, the Sages of the Talmudic era asserted the second Torah principle, that "in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Bereshit 1:1) from total nonexistence.

"He is the place of the world" implies the third fundamental Torah principle: individual Divine Providence. The Torah clearly teaches the existence of natural laws of cause and effect created by God; it also records instances of their miraculous Divine suspension, as with the splitting of the Red Sea. Even more, the Divine Presence within creation - "He is the place of the world" - implies that occurrences in the life of each person are guided by God. Nothing happening to an individual is by accident and by compulsion; rather it is the result of Divine purpose and intention applied specifically to him. Therefore, unlike the Greco-Roman philosophic schools, which wavered between belief in blind random chance and blind causal necessity, the Sages taught that each person should "know what is above you - an Eye that sees, an Ear that hears, and all your deeds are recorded in a book." (Avot 2:1)

Human Moral Free Will

In its turn, the fourth fundamental Jewish principle follows as a corollary of the third. Unlike classical gentile philosophers and predestinarian Muslim theologians, the Torah explicitly insists on human moral free will, as it declares: "I have set before you the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life." (Dvorim 30:19) And the Sages, reflecting this Torah principle, teach, "Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted." (Avot 3:15)

Moral free-will equally implies human responsibility - reward and punishment - as effect follows cause. As the Torah instructs in the Shema:

And it will be if you will diligently obey My love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time.... Take care that your heart not be lured away...for then the Lord's wrath will flare up against you, and He will close the heavens so that there will be no rain. (Dvorim 11:13-17)

Hence the Sages teach in Pirkei Avot, "Reflect on three things and you will not come to sin: know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an accounting." (3:1)

These four fundamental Jewish principles - Divine Unity, creation from nonexistence, individual Providence, and moral free-will - taught in the Torah and throughout Talmudic literature, provide a basis for a unique intellectual perspective not duplicated by any other system of thought and in contradiction to all classical schools. As long as the Jewish people remained within their own traditional cultural milieu and spoke their own language (i.e., Aramaic), these fundamental assertions of the Torah and of Talmudic literature, in their concrete realist form, were readily comprehensible, and there was no need for the Rabbis to adopt non-Jewish abstract modes of presentation. (By contrast, Philo, living in Greek-speaking Alexandria, did believe an abstract philosophic exposition was necessary to transmit Torah concepts to the Hellenistic Jews resident there.)

But by the 10th century c.e. the circumstances of the Jewish people had drastically altered. In the preceding centuries, the Muslims had created an Arabic-speaking empire throughout the Near East, and the Jewish people within this empire had become thoroughly acculturated to the dominant language and modes of conceptual expression. The process had gone so far that many Jews, no longer familiar with Hebrew and Aramaic, had no access to the Torah or the Talmud, and were unable even to repeat the daily prayers.

Extensive Intellectual Confusion

To complicate the situation further, in the cultural capital of the empire, Baghdad, there was a cosmopolitan intellectual and religious milieu. Judaism was facing challenges from without by Islam, Christianity, and Dualism; from within, traditional positions were being undermined by Biblical critics, who were intent on infiltrating the Jewish school system, and by sectarians, who rejected established halakhic procedures. Beyond even these widespread theological assaults from within and without, there was extensive intellectual confusion among Jews and non-Jews newly exposed to various trends of pagan Greek and Indian philosophy. Uncertainty, doubt, lack of authentic information and guidance were the prevailing conditions among Arabic-speaking Jews at this time.

Rabbeinu Saadya Gaon (882-942) dedicated his life to providing genuine guidance for the Jewish people living within Islamic lands and to combatting the challenges to authentic Torah Judaism from within. Central to his efforts was a massive literary endeavor. Among his works, Saadya produced for the general Jewish population an Arabic translation and commentary on all the books of the Written Torah and a new, comprehensive edition of the prayer book with complete instructions, explanations, and halakhic considerations written in Arabic. For a more specialized audience, he also wrote a commentary on the ancient book of Kabbalah, Sefer Yetzirah.

But Saadya also recognized another urgent need. By the 10th century, Greek, Roman, and Indian abstract speculation had become the primary conceptual framework for all Arabic-speaking intellectuals. As a result, Jewish thinkers, even when desiring to identify genuine Torah concepts, no longer had ready access to traditional Talmudic modes of presenting the four fundamental principles. So Saadya set about to formulate these thousand year old Jewish principles in the language and conceptual framework comprehensible to the intellectuals of his culture and time.

In his HaEmunot v'HaDeot, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, Saadya provides an authentic Torah guide to Jewish fundamentals in the conceptual form familiar to the intellectuals of his own milieu. In his introduction to the work, after discussing the intellectual anarchy prevailing in the 10th century, Saadya explains:

I saw in this age of who were seas of doubt and overwhelmed by waves of confusion...; it is my duty to help them therewith and my obligation to direct them to the truth.

He then sets out in ten chapters a detailed exposition and defense of the Torah's four fundamental principles, employing abstract philosophic formulations to do so.

What is of particular interest to us about Saadya's book is its innovations. As we have seen, its central principles are not at all novelties; they had been fully expounded a millennium before in Talmudic literature. New are (1) the conceptual expression of these principles, (2) the language of presentation, and (3) the audience addressed. Saadya adopts the abstract speculative categories and style prevalent among Arabic-speaking intellectuals, the kalam, as a vehicle for the traditional Jewish principles, fashioning and phrasing them so that they become vessels for Torah teachings. Saadya did not choose this mode of presentation out of any preference, but rather was compelled to adopt this method because it provided the only intellectual categories accessible to most of his readers.

That this is so is evident from Saadya's second innovation. Aiming to reach people no longer familiar with the Holy Language, his work is written in Arabic, the language with which his general readership was most comfortable. Naturally, forced to use a non-Jewish medium, Saadya employs its conceptual framework as well. The genius of the work is exactly its successful utilization of non-Jewish language and modes of conceptual expression as vehicles for unalloyed Torah.

Intends to Instruct All

Additionally, Saadya intends to instruct not just Jewish readers, but "my species, the species of rational beings," i.e., human beings in general. He intends, in this book, to demonstrate to all the world - to all thinking people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike - that the four Torah principles are the most intellectually defensible positions any system of natural philosophy can adopt and that any school of thought rejecting these views cannot be valid. Saadya thus interprets his intellectual responsibilities as applying both to his own people and to all mankind.

Brilliant as The Book of Beliefs and Opinions is, the following two centuries witnessed intensified intellectual and philosophic confusion. In particular, the kalam, which in Saadya's time was dominated by scholars who rejected the prevailing Islamic acceptance of co-eternal Divine "attributes" and of predestination, had become, in the meantime, transformed into a mere instrument for propagating just these Muslim theological views so very contrary to the fundamental teaching of the Torah.

This employment, among Muslims, of the same conceptual terminology to defend opposing theological views was further complicated by new speculative elaborations. For instance, Saadya had adopted the kalam method of explicating the Torah principle of the Divine creation of existence from nonexistence. Nonexistence was referred to by the kalam in the 10th century as "nothing." But during the course of the following two centuries, kalam speculation had postulated that "nothing" was really "something," viz., Platonic eternal pre-existent matter. Thus Saadya's presentation of the Torah's principle of Divine Unity and of creation from nonexistence were no longer necessarily evident to his later readers: did "nothing" mean "nonexistence" or did it mean "pre-existent matter co-eternal with God"?

Fragility of Kalam

Finally, the kalam, itself, as a conceptual approach, was stumbling under the assault of newer, more systematic schools of philosophic speculation. Originally cobbled together by Muslim scholars from fragmentary knowledge of Greek thought, the kalam never achieved a rationally coherent explanation of natural phenomena. As the full corpus of classical thought became available in Arabic, the fragility of the kalam's arguments became increasingly apparent.

Because the kalam had become so identified with the defense of the four Torah fundamentals, to some it appeared that the weakness of Arab philosophic rationalization in the face of the onslaught by natural philosophy implied equally a weakness in Torah itself. Especially among the most acculturated and sophisticated of Jewish scholars, the eternal truths taught by Torah seemed to falter impotently before the brilliant achievements of a confident, systematic Greco-Islamic science. Such were the distressing perplexities that confronted thinking people in the 12th century.

It was to meet this challenge that Maimonides composed The Guide of the Perplexed. His goal is extraordinarily ambitious. Employing the abstract conceptual framework current in his era, he argues persuasively that the solution to the contentious issues in natural philosophy so perplexing people is to be found in the four fundamental principles revealed in the Written Torah and explicated extensively in Talmudic literature. These provide notions possessing more intellectual integrity and logical coherence than any alternative system. And believing, like Saadya Gaon before him, that these principles are valid universally, Maimonides writes in Arabic as the vehicle most available to communicate his ideas effectively to Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike.

When we recall that, following the Greco-Roman tradition, contemporary natural philosophy emphatically rejected three of the four Torah principles, the immense difficulties of Maimonides's task become evident. Only Divine Unity was considered rationally acceptable; in fact, many 12th century advocates of classical Greek opinion believed unassailably proven the assertions that matter is eternal and that there is no Providence in the lives of individuals. To complicate Maimonides's task still further, the rival monotheistic religions, unlike Judaism, do not accept the principle of Divine Unity as entailing the notion of noncomposite, simple Essence. The philosophers either accepted these non-Torah theological opinions or were indifferent to the entire issue.

Despite so much "academic" opinion and "theological" apologia against him, Maimonides displays neither doubt nor compromise in his explanation of the Torah's teachings on the four fundamental principles. And, as a result, their defense succeeds brilliantly.

In his rigorous analysis of the arguments perplexing his readers, Maimonides explains that all the various opinions on the issues raised by natural philosophy should be analytically classified as falling into one of three technically defined categories: (a) imagination, or intellectual fantasizing with word-pictures; (b) assertion, or claims derived by logical analysis of available evidence; and (c) demonstration, or rationally uncontrovertible concepts. With these categories, a thorough discussion of contending views can proceed.

Maimonides is aware that many doubts and much confusion had arisen from the faltering of the reasoning of the kalam. He therefore assures his readers that no one need be deterred from accepting the Torah principles because of the failure of the kalam. Arguing that its approach was entirely the product of imagination, Maimonides explains that it was never anything but a feeble defense with which to attempt to withstand the assaults of philosophy's rationalist assertions and demonstrations. Then wielding these categories of argumentation himself, Maimonides utterly demolishes what still remained of the kalam as if it were so much rubbish to be cleared away.

Demonstrating Divine Unity

Having disposed of the distractions of the imagination, Maimonides turns his attention to the opinions of Greek-inspired natural philosophy. Its mistaken views he counters with the same weapons it had itself previously employed to defeat the kalam. Maimonides now elegantly argues that, upon careful analysis, the only principle that can actually be demonstrated philosophically is that of Divine Unity, the other opinions being assertions. And, explaining what is entailed in the demonstration of this principle, he shows how it must include the notion of God's simple, noncomposite, unknowable Essence. The "attributes," then, are either negations ("The world is not His place.") or descriptions of Divine action ("He is the place of the world.").

Establishing that all the other opinions are only assertions, Maimonides reminds the reader of the irreconcilable conflict within science itself between the assertions of Ptolemaic mathematics (i.e., astronomy) and the assertions of Aristotelian physics (i.e., cosmology): although the one depended on the other, they cannot both be true! The point is that logical and useful as assertions may be in natural philosophy, they need not be demonstrably true and, if examined too closely, may even prove embarrassingly untrue.

With these arguments in mind, Maimonides investigates the opinion that matter is co-eternal with God. He establishes clearly that, in fact, this opinion is assertion, not demonstration, as was often mistakenly believed. He then proceeds to explain that the Torah's teaching - that God created all existence from total nonexistence - although also only an assertion, possesses more evidence in its favor than the rival Greco-Roman assertion. On this basis, Maimonides concludes that although it is ultimately a matter of faith (i.e., being beyond demonstration because it is beyond the ken of finite human intellect), the rational evidence, once properly analyzed, favors the principle taught in the Torah and expounded by the Sages.

Maimonides proceeds to the issue of Divine Providence. As he explains, some natural philosophers reject the concept altogether, while others claim that Providence applies only to the celestial realm and to the terrestrial species as a whole, but that the lives of individuals are always governed by chance and the dictates of the cause-and-effect laws of nature - never by God. But linking the principles of Providence with his explanation of Divine Unity, Maimonides shows how if there is Unity, there must also be individual Providence. Thus, natural philosophy's assertion that Providence cannot apply to individuals contradicts its own more authoritative demonstration of Divine Unity. Accordingly, Maimonides convincingly concludes that the life of each individual human being is, indeed, governed by Divine Will and Wisdom.

Arguing for Human Moral Free-Will

Following the persuasive conclusion of this line of inquiry, Maimonides emphatically argues for the fourth Torah principle, human moral free-will. Given individual Providence, free choice is the logical corollary. Only a misguided theology and imagination could have advanced a notion such as "predestination," an anachronistic echo of classical pagan beliefs long abandoned even by those who now denied free-will. Individual free-will, Maimonides explains, is possible precisely because of God's governance. Accordingly, Maimonides includes in the Guide a discussion of reasons for obeying the commandments of the Torah.

With his uncompromising integrity and rigor, Maimonides provides detailed guidance for those perplexed by the cacophony of competing contemporary claims among natural philosophers. Amid the contending opinions, the Guide explains that the most intellectually respectable and defensible philosophic principles are exactly those Torah fundamentals delineated by the Talmudic Sages over a thousand years before, at the first encounter of Jewish and Greek thought. While at the initial meeting each utilized its own conceptual framework, in the Guide, Maimonides employs the abstract expressions of natural philosophy to illustrate the superiority of Torah principles over all adversaries. And, writing in the language common to Near Eastern intellectuals of his era, Maimonides clearly teaches that these four principles of the Torah should be recognized as the fundamental truths upon which any genuine natural philosophy - science - must be established among all peoples. As so they remain today!

Yoseph Udelson is a Professor of History at Tennessee State University.



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