#82 A Journey Through Jewish Philosophy (4)

The fourth part of David’s Jewish Philosophy lecture series considers three giants of Jewish thought from the Medieval Period:

  • Maimonides, the Rambam
  • Avraham ibn Daud
  • Rabbi Levu ben Gershon, also known as the Ralbag.

David explores the centrality of Aristotelianism for these thinkers as well as the influence of Islamic culture on Western theology and philosophy, including within Jewish circles.

Watch the Zoom lecture here.

Some of the central ideas that David examines in this talk include:

  • The Active Intellect as the agent of human knowledge 
  • The evolving intersection between philosophy and Judaism
  • The rational and the revealed 
  • The attributes of the Divine
  • The concept of Tselem
  • Prophecy
  • Miracles
  • The relationship between science, philosophy, and revelation
  • The eternity of the world 
  • The proof for the existence of Gd.

With the use of his own original illustrative graphics, David provides an overview of the ideas and contributions of these extraordinary figures. He also places all three in their respective historical and intellectual contexts.

For a historical overview of the period listen to David’s series, From the Rambam to the Zohar: Jewish History of 12th & 13th centuries, starting here.

This fourth talk in David’s eight-part series, A Journey Through Jewish Philosophy, was delivered on Zoom for Caulfield Shule in 2020.

        

TRANSCRIPT

We are continuing with our journey through Jewish philosophy. And let’s just remind ourselves that capital ‘P’ philosophy is not originally a Jewish exercise. It started with the Greeks, but everybody picks up on it and that philosophy for the Jewish tradition is mostly a reactive exercise. It’s reacting to the thoughts and speculations of the people about what we can know about the universe through our minds – through our rational thought – as opposed to the primary foundation of Jewish thought which is based on revelation.

We go according to what has been revealed to us. That is the whole point of the continuum of Jewish thought and practice – as opposed to philosophy, which focuses on the rational consequences of the mind. Jewish thought, nevertheless, gets challenged by those propositions and has to counter them. 

In the first session we looked at Philo, in the second session we looked at Saadya Gaon, and in the third, we looked at the Neoplatonists of the Golden Age of Spain. We looked predominantly at Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, but also Bahya Inn Paquda and others. And really what that story is telling you is that already for nearly 1500 years, the dominant thought paradigms of Western thought – because obviously there’s China and India, we haven’t even touched on that yet – emerge from this dual perspective created by Plato and Aristotle. If you recall in the first session, we talked about the idea in very, very broad terms that Plato is asking us to make a mental movement away from this reality towards a higher, more ideal form of reality that he wants us to contemplate.

Aristotle is saying: don’t worry about too much what’s happening up there, the task of the human mind is to focus and look into here and what is going on here. And that’s why Aristotle becomes one of the founding paradigms of what’s going on to become Western science. And that’s really the point that we arrive at because what I want to talk about today – in an absurdly short amount of time for the topic matter – is this shift that happens in the 12th and 13th centuries in Western thought. Whereas people for the last thousand years have been dabbling with Plato and we had a series of Neoplatonic thought revolutions within that platonic continuum. All the Neoplatonists from Plotinus going forward but also incorporated within the theological traditions. We looked at that last time.

But now there’s a turn. Now, there is a return within Western thought to Aristotle. There are many reasons for that, and scholars talk about why that happened, but there are some predominant ones. They are that the Greek thought of the ancient world has been carried over predominantly by Arab thinkers, – Jewish thinkers as well, but predominantly by the Islamic world. Now, these texts are starting to be translated into Western languages, and philosophers and thinkers are starting to discern more that there is a distinction between the writings of Plato and the writings of Aristotle. And that the writings of Aristotle are very exciting because they accord with a kind of a newfound perspective on things, which is driving towards what we are going to look at as science.

In the Middle Ages, there is no real distinction between philosophy and science. So, the way that Aristotle looked at the world and the way that those who came in the wake of Aristotle look at the world is pretty much how we look at science today. They didn’t see that their perspectives were any less valid than the way that science looks at the universe today.

I want to get down to the core of who I’m going to talk about today. Some of you will already be aware of who I’m going talk about today, but we need to background that because when we talk about people like my Maimonides, we talk about the Rambam, living in the 12th century and very much of this new, enthusiastic embracing of the philosophy of Aristotle, which I’m going to talk more about.

The Rambam in Context

We need to realise that the Rambam does not exist in a vacuum and that he is in fact quite embedded in things. 

Those of you who are very discerning will notice that on the top of the line we have a series of Jewish philosophers and on the bottom underneath the line we have some people whose names would suggest that they might just be Islamic. 

So, these are the big four. There are many, many Islamic thinkers, but if we look at Al Farabi, Al Ghazali, and Ibn they are living during this 2–300-year period that oversees this shift towards Aristotle. Whereas Al Farabi is a contemporary of Saadya Gaon, and Averroes or Ibn Rushd, who’s living in the 12th century and is a contemporary of Rambam, is really dealing with kinds of ways in which they’re looking at the philosophy of Aristotle. Because more and more, we are seeing the philosophy of Aristotle being focused out of the platonic. 

What I really want to show you here is that even a figure as mainstream Jewish as the Rambam is embedded in a sense in a historical context. He is part of what the Islamic world is bringing to the West from the ancient Greek world.  

The Rambam, of course, needs no introduction. However, I’ll give a very brief one, but before I do that, I realise that I need to talk about what exactly it is that Aristotelian philosophy is giving us. And if we could sum it up in one way, it would be the primacy of intellect. It is the primacy of intellect. Intellect is everything. 

Aristotle grounds being on a universal intellect that thinks or knows itself. Aristotle doesn’t talk about God per se, but whereas it was easy for the Platonics to come along and say: Plato’s ideal realm of ideal forms – that’s heaven – at the top sits the good – that’s God, what the Aristotelians are now realising – and of course, Aristotle as it came to us through Al Farabi and other Islamic thinkers – is that the grounding that Aristotle gives us that at first there must be a necessary being whose existence doesn’t depend on anything else, but that being is a prime cause because it’s the prime cause of all motion in the universe and that that being ultimately is the intellect that is universal and thinks itself – and as it that these are Aristotelian ideas – and that that is God. By the time we get to the late Middle Ages, what we are realising is that this thinking of itself, God thinking of itself, is what creates the universe in the kind of synthesis that people like Al Farabi are making.

The Importance of the Intellect

There are so many things we could talk about with the Rambam, but the real takeaway is going to be – and I’m going to keep coming back and talking about this – is going to be the primacy of the intellect. And not just the intellect of God, but the human intellect as well. Because, and this is essential to understand, when we look at Aristotle in the Middle Ages, well Aristotle, at any time, that is the nature of our reality – and let’s face it, that’s what philosophy is trying to work out – is determined by what we know about it. 

The human being is a rational being. The mind is an organ that can be exercised if you like. And reality is determined by what we know about it. That’s extremely important and I’m going to show you what that ultimately means. And what that means is this. And here’s a nice graph. All these graphs I did because they’re fun to do and they indicate to us what’s going on. 

This is how Aristotle understands knowledge – about how we go about it. There are two broad domains of knowledge, which we call the speculative and the practical sciences. One is looking into the nature of reality, and the other is looking into the nature of human conduct and that which combines all of them, of course, is logic. 

Logic underscores everything – our investigations into the nature of reality, physics, mathematics, metaphysics, all these speculative ideas. Logic is also going to determine our understanding of ethics, our understanding of economics, and our understanding of politics. 

Interestingly enough, in the Middle Ages, although philosophies in the speculative realm and the scientific realm are very Aristotelian, in politics everyone is still going very much with Plato. Plato’s Republic is still a very, very dominant work in the realm of politics. And I might come back to talk about that at some point in a few moments. But I want us to understand the primacy of the intellect and the primacy of knowledge.

It all matches up. By the time you get to the high Middle Ages, to the 12th and 13th centuries, speculations about metaphysics and about the cosmology of the world and our observations of the world match up. And here’s what this means. 

There’s one more graph I want to show you for us to understand really how the Aristotelian universe is being encapsulated in the Middle Ages. Aristotle, and those subsequent to Aristotle’s thinking within the Aristotelian tradition, begin with the idea of an immovable prime mover who is not contingent upon anything else, who contemplates and thinks itself. And in thinking itself generates other intellects and other forms. We can see that that is already starting to get a bit of a Neoplatonic synthesis because they are already emanating other intelligence.

And here’s what it looks like. This is very, very broad, this diagram I’m going to show you now. But it will give you an idea. Let me explain this. All of this, by the way, is by way of introduction to what I need to talk about today. So, we have to do this quickly. 

But the basic picture is that we’ve got the prime mover here and the self-knowing intellect that generates celestial intelligences. The lowest of those celestial intelligences is what is called the active intellect. That is, in a sense, is that which creates and causes knowledge to come into where we live, which is the sub-lunar abode. 

There are different opinions as to whether these particular spheres, these impure intelligence spheres, are above the planets and the circles and the spheres of the planets and the stars as we know them, or whether they can be identified with the spheres of the planets and the stars. Bearing in mind that it’s not just Aristotle who’s contributing to this model, and it’s not just Islamic thinkers who are coming after Aristotle, it is also Ptolomy as well – that whole picture of the universe that emerges to us from the ancient world. But it all matches up because of what we can perceive of the universe, these spheres that surround us, and we can see planets and stars, and they all move around us. Obviously, the earth is in the middle, in the centre of this picture. 

As they’re moving around us, they seem to reflect these divine unchanging circumstances that happen in the celestial realm. All accidents and all changes and all different things and pluralism – and all the ways in which things are corrupt and changing all happen in the centre here in the sub-lunar abode. We are all surrounded by these spheres of intelligence. But what is important is that the highest level of the sub-lunar abode and the lowest level of the celestial surrounds is the active intellect. 

Now I know, I know that all of us, very, very smart people in the 21st century come along and say: oh, that’s ridiculous, that that’s your picture of reality? You’ve got spheres, and then you’ve got a divine intellect happening and it all looks a bit silly. But 800 years ago, that was not silly at all. Because it seems to be the case. They can plot the divine spheres as they move around. Those divine spheres carry a certain type of intelligence that is perfect, that is unchanging. All change happens only here. And the intellect of God spills over into the sub-lunar realm via the active intellect. 

So that’s the basic picture and the big takeaway that we need to look at now and this is a question that doesn’t go away. There might be some details that get changed over the last 800 years, but some things don’t go away. And that is the challenge of saying: Okay, here’s Aristotle’s Universe. This is what makes sense. You’ve got the Torah, now why am I going to obey the Torah when it doesn’t necessarily seem to reflect these amazing discoveries and realisations that I’m getting through understanding the universe as per Aristotle and others? Especially once I have Ptolomy, I have all my scientists, my astronomists, my observers. Everything seems to tell me that the universe is like this. 

Aristotle is also telling me everything I need to know about politics and everything I need to know about economics. He’s telling me everything I need to know about the physical universe, the metaphysical universe. Aristotle was a complete system, and what do I need the Torah for?

Abraham Ibn Daud

So, the first thinker that I want to talk about today, having given that quite a long introduction, because now we’re able to understand what these challenges are is Abraham Ibn Daud who would have been a lot more famous if not for the career of the Rambam, because the Rambam’s career kind of eclipsed him. But he’s the first person who’s coming along and saying: well, wait a minute, we don’t have to try and reconcile scientific philosophy with Judaism. Because that harmony is not only essential – absolutely essential because we need to understand that we are going to take the premises that Aristotle gives us and regard them as correct, that human beings are rational beings, that they have an intellect, that they are capable of understanding the world around them and need to understand the world around them. That’s not inconsistent with Judaism because Judaism is philosophy and Aristotle, and all philosophical traditions are over time gradually evolving into Judaism itself.

Judaism is a rational philosophy. In his famous book Emunah Ramah, he tells you that philosophy is evolving into Judaism and, therefore, our understanding of the harmony between philosophy and Torah is essential. Abraham ibn Daud is going into a great many other things, but I don’t have time to go into that right now, but it’s essential for us to take away that basic idea that what he shows us is that already in the 12th century there are efforts to try and reconcile it, and those efforts are doubling down.

They’re not just saying that it’s possible to reconcile the two. It’s telling us that those two are the same – that Judaism is just an extremely enlightened philosophy, and the rest of the world is just taking its time to catch up.  

Obviously, Ibn Daud had read some previous philosophers. He read Saadya Gaon, he thought that was okay. He read Shlomo Ibn Gabirol who you would recall from a couple of weeks ago, the great Neoplatonic thinker dealing with form and matter. He thought that was absolute nonsense. He threw his copy of Fons Vitae in the bin, and he said: what are we concerned about what’s going on up there with form and matter and these things? It’s all about down here and it’s all about science. And until we understand that Judaism is a science, we are not going to get anywhere. And that’s really, really what he’s positing, that Judaism is a science. 

However, we need to get to terms with the big one. And the big one is born, as you would famously know, in Cordova in the 1130s, that’s Moses, the son of my Maimon. His father was one of the chief rabbis of Cordova, so he grew up in a very esteemed and learned environment. But very soon early on in his life, the Alamohads came through and the family had to go on the run. It was a very, very tumultuous time.

The Rambam

Maimonides emerges over the next 30 to 40 years as the greatest scholar in the Jewish world. We’ve spoken elsewhere about just how amazing he is. He’s not just a big, big rabbi, but he’s also a physician and an astronomer and a philosopher, and he’s just like absolutely dominant in Jewish thought in that era.

Had he just been a philosopher, he would’ve been great, but he perhaps wouldn’t have been so dominant as a philosopher. What gave him his power as a philosopher was his complete credibility within the Jewish rabbinic tradition. He had already written the Mishne Torah, which is a complete compendium of the entire oral Torah, not everyone can do that, and the Rambam did that. And therefore, when he talks about philosophy, he’s really talking as an authoritative spokesperson on behalf of Jewish thought. Very few people can give themselves that particular title, but the Rambam could.

Now the Rambam read Al Farabi. He thought Al Farabi was brilliant. So, with a few nuances, we can take Al Farabi’s system – as I showed you – and use that as the groundwork for the Rambam. The Rambam deals in his famous text Moreh Nevuchim, which means the Guide for the Confused, the Guide of the Perplexed, the most famous book written in the entire history of Jewish philosophy, that is the most famous book written. And it is a profound text. Anyone who makes a journey in Jewish philosophy has to encounter that text has to encounter the Guide for the Confused, the Guide of the Perplexed. And who are the confused? Who are the confused? Basically, anyone except the Rambam. The Rambam’s not confused and he’s coming along to tell you why he’s not confused and why you should not be confused.

Oh, what are you confused about? Well, Rambam, on the one hand, I’ve got science, and on the other hand, I’ve got Torah. How do I reconcile these two? How do I reconcile these products of the rational mind that’s demonstrable telling me what’s going and the Torah that is revealing information to me about what I can do? And in every sphere of life, the Torah is telling me what to do. And in every sphere of life, philosophy is telling me what to do. And when I say philosophy, we mean science. 

Some of you would be aware that that question – how do we reconcile science with Torah? – has never really gone away. And therefore, Moreh Nevuchim remains an important text. Even though the Rambam’s answers to those questions are not the answers that we seek today because our science has changed. The actual project of reconciling the two is absolutely paramount. There is no question whatsoever for anyone who even spends five minutes reading anything inside The Guide for the Perplexed will be left in no doubt that the Rambam believes that knowledge and perfection of the human intellect on rational lines is the primary objective of a human being. And that to shut the door against science is an absolute spiritual and religious travesty. People today who say: I don’t want to know about science, I just want to look at the Rambam are ridiculous. 

The Rambam himself will tell you that every human being in the world has to understand science and has to perfect their mind according to what we know. And the beauty of it is, of course, that Judaism is all based on science, and it’s based on enlightenment, and it’s based on philosophy. So, it’s really all one and the same exercise. But you have to learn mathematics and you got to learn physics, and you got to learn astronomy, and you need to know about these things because that’s part of understanding the world. And also, of course, medicine and all these other, aspects of human life. 

So, the irrational and the revealed are one and the same, equally for the Rambam as it was for Avraham Ibn Daud. Judaism is fundamentally a philosophy about God. It’s philosophy, but the main subject of it is God. 

Moreh Nevuchim is a great big fact book. It’s been translated a few times. You can read it. It’s not an easy read. And therefore, we need to think very carefully about what our takeaways are from it. The primary thing I want us to take away is this idea of the imperative of philosophy and science in our spiritual investigations. And the fact that the reflection of the intellect really is the highest achievement possible for any human being – and that that emerges from the whole Aristotelian shift that is happening in the Middle Ages. 

But there are a couple of points that if the Moreh Nevuchim, if The Guide for the Perplexed, comes up at a dinner party, you’re going to want to know a couple of things that it says inside. So, we’re just going to look at one or two points that are important. 

First of all, it’s amazing how many people run around talking things on behalf of Judaism that haven’t read the text they’re talking about. Because right at the beginning, the Rambam’s going to tell you that those who read the Torah literally are wrong. Literality is an obstacle to enlightenment. I’ll say that again. Literality is an obstacle to enlightenment. The Rambam in chapter two of part one of Moreh Nevuchim gives you a very good example about some guy he met at a party who asked him a question about something and the Rambam totally destroys him, based on this idea that you don’t know what you’re talking about if you’re reading the Torah literally. 

However, the Torah does use certain descriptive modes when it talks about God and that is an issue the Rambam does need to address. What we call attributes. How can we give God attributes? This is important, it’s a bit technical, but it’s important. 

The Rambam realises that there are two types of things we can say about anything and its attributes. There are attributes that are essential and there are attributes that are accidental. In other words, they can change, they can vary, and they’re on a scale. When we talk about accidental things about God, we are talking about the way God acts and is active in the world. These are active attributes, and we can talk about, say, God acted mercifully, God acted with judgment, God acted here, God acted there. That’s fine. But when we talk about what God is in essence, we can only say what God is not. And the way that works is it’s like a double negative. If we want to say God is mighty, we can’t say God is mighty because any attribution like that is comparative to us and God’s not even on the same scale as us. So, we say something like, God is not lacking in power, God is not lacking in wisdom. God is not lacking in goodness. God is not lacking in mercy. Anything we say about the essence of God must be expressed in that kind of what we call via negativa – in a kind of negative way. That means that God in essence is completely removed from any attempt of human language to be able to encapsulate what God actually is. 

This is extremely important to understand because subsequent Jewish thought is going to have to cope with just how far the Rambam put God, in essence, away from us. But it’s okay because we have access to God via the active intellect and the more, we perfect ourselves through our intellect the more enlightened we’re going to become and the more spiritual we’re going to become as we exercise that human organ of the mind. 

The active intellect to the mind is a bit like the light to the eye. In the Middle Ages, they saw the eye as a thing that was capable of adapting to the shape of whatever it looked at. And so similarly, the mind is capable of perceiving forms with the active intellect. But you need to exercise it. You need to exercise it, and in exercising it, as with anything, you perfect it. So, it’s all a very, very holistic system. The Rambam is extremely holistic in the way that he looks at the mind, the body, the world, and the whole cosmos.

The Rambam also talks about the concept of tselem. So, he says, okay, so we have this verse that human beings were created in the image of God. What does it mean in the image of God? Well, of course, God doesn’t have an image. The famous argument of the Rambam is that man is endowed with intellect and that is the meaning of tselem. It is the ability to know and the ability to analyse, the ability to cognise, and the ability to have a rational outcome. All of this is in the province of the human and is shared between us as a reflection of the divine intellect, all the way up to God.

The highest human achievement is the perfection of that intellect. No question. He says it to you, explicitly. And that itself is going to lead to what would be the ultimate perfection of intellect which is what we call prophecy. Prophecy for the Rambam is not some ooga booga woo, I’m a prophet, and God goes zap and you’re a prophet. No, a prophet is someone who has achieved such amazing, prowess and intellect with their mind that they perceive absolute truth in a very, very, clear form. And that’s what prophecy is. It’s not for everyone, but it can be achieved. That led quite a number of other thinkers to try and work out how one could achieve prophecy through intellectual efforts and with varying degrees of success.

But the Rambam’s view of prophecy is that the active intellect in the sense spills over into the human imagination. I’ve got a beautiful quote here from Moreh Nevuchim, these are the words of the Rambam himself: “Prophecy is in truth and reality an emanation sent forth by the divine being through the medium of the active intellect in the first instance to man’s rational faculty,” – remember that’s first, the rational, “And then to his imaginative faculty.” 

So, it comes through as such pure form that you can’t even put it in language the way you receive it. It has to spill into your imagination so that you’re able to couch it in human terms that can be understood. 

So, we can start seeing, this is what the Rambam does. He takes concepts and grounds them in science. His science is not our science, but it’s on the way there. And it’s really the paradigm of thought that is ultimately important here. You also need to realise that the Rambam argues with Aristotle. Make no mistake, the Rambam is a massive fan of Aristotle. He regarded Aristotle as high as anyone could get given that they’ve got a foreskin and that they’re not a prophet of Israel. It’s as high as the human mind would be able to achieve. Nevertheless, he argues with Aristotle on one or two fundamental points and it’s going to have consequences in Jewish thought. And the most famous of those, of course, is that the Rambam tells you: I can accept most of what Aristotle tells you, but I’m not going to accept his idea that the universe is eternal.  

The Rambam believed – because he was told by the Torah – that the universe is created. And what he did was he didn’t prove that the universe was created intellectually he simply proved that Aristotle couldn’t prove that it wasn’t. Aristotle argued that the earth, that the universe is eternal. The Rambam says: You know, all those spheres that we can see, we don’t know enough about them to be able to work out what accidents might be happening with them. 

So, it would appear to the Rambam that the world was created because we don’t know enough about it and because I’m told by the Torah that it was created, and we don’t know enough to prove that it wasn’t. Famously, it was Spinoza about 500 years later who came along and said – and this was in the 17th century: If the Rambam knew what we knew today, he would have to agree with Aristotle that the university is eternal. That argument is still going on and it doesn’t keep too many people awake at night whether the earth is eternal or whether it’s not, whether the university is eternal or not eternal, and who was right, the Rambam or Aristotle. But it’s an important thing to be aware that the Rambam is trying to reconcile Torah with science on the assumption that the Torah is an aspect of the active intellect coming into the world.  

But the Rambam was also extremely controversial. First of all, you have to realise that the Rambam does come across as a bit of a snob. I have to tell you, with all due respect to him. I mean, everything is the perfection of your intellect. So, right down to the fact that even your own divine providence, the idea that God is particularly interested in the minutiae of your life, that fact depends on your intellectual attainments. That fact depends on how much you have accessed the active intellect of the universe through perfecting your mind. Those who don’t do those exercises are just at the whim of the natural laws of the universe. But the more you work on your mind, the more you can be subject to a very specific divine providence.

And not only your hashgacha pratit, not only your divine province, your specific divine supervision grows, but even your olam habah, your world to come. The next world that you’re going go to as a reward for this one is all about what you have attained with your mind in this world. 

The Rambam tells you – not David Solomon or some chazer fressing apikoros on a Thursday afternoon – that the Torah is for the masses. The mitzvot of the Torah are pathways to philosophical enlightenment. And that created a massive debate following the Rambam that ended up with Jewish philosophy being banned for a while because people were coming along and saying: Oh, well the Rambam’s told me that the mitzvot of the Torah are pathways to philosophical enlightenment and I feel already pretty enlightened. So, I don’t exactly need the mitzvot. That’s a very, very big outcome of the Rambam that people were arguing about for a long time. 

Obviously, the Rambam is telling you need to keep mitzvot. He’s just saying that the Torah is really a kind of container born of the imaginative faculty of the prophets in order for people to gain that level of enlightenment. But it’s founded on intellectual principles. 

The other thing the Rambam is telling you that caused a big farible for a lot of people is that the resurrection of the dead, which the Rambam said was one of the principles of Judaism -and we’re going to talk a little bit more about that next week – and people go: oh, well, very good Rambam, that’s very orthodox, that’s exactly right. However, says the Rambam, it’s not necessarily happening in a body because at the end of the day what’s important? The intellect. And it’s the intellect that is going to undergo the resurrection, the immortality of the soul. The Rambam saw Techiyat HaMetim (the resurrection of the dead) in terms of disembodied souls rising again – in contrast famously to the Ramban and other fingers who said that resurrection happens in the body. 

These are not big ideas that keep people awake at night. But in the Middle Ages, trying to ground the Torah science was an incredibly important exercise for people that were living in a world that was starting to become intellectually aware of itself. Remember that the science of the Middle Ages, while it doesn’t compare to the science we talk about today, nevertheless provided the grounding in mathematics and in observation that is going to create the modern world. And the more we’re observing and the more we are seeing, and the more instruments were being refined, and the more people were thinking about these things, the more they wanted to know how does that sit with my spiritual traditions? 

It was happening in the Islamic world, through people at the time of the Rambam like Averroes, Ibn Rushd, and it was happening in the Jewish world through the Rambam, and it was about to happen in the Christian world also with figures like Thomas Aquinas and so on, who were going to also weld their spiritual systems onto Aristotle because the dominance of Aristotelian thinking in the Middle Ages as science was so overwhelming that you had to do that.

The Ralbag

I’m just going to touch in the last minute or two on the other famous Aristotelian from the Middle Ages who’s a little later – he’s living more towards the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century. And I have spoken about this figure elsewhere, and that, of course, is the Ralbag, Rabbi Levy ben Gershon after whom he’s named Rabbi Levy’s crater on the moon. And that of course is because of his tremendous contributions to mathematics and astronomy and so on and all the tables that he drew up and even invented various appliances for astronomy – so a very, very important figure that’s been recognised by world thought for his contributions to astronomy.

There are two craters on the moon named after Jews, by the way, as we’ve discussed elsewhere. But he has a couple of very, very important, points that we need to be aware of that became very, very controversial. He’s Aristotelian on crack. In fact, he went too far because his philosophy has been pushed outside of the mainstream because he argued that miracles, don’t actually happen. The Rambam wanted you to understand that miracles are the laws of nature ordained to happen at that time. The Ralbag says they don’t actually happen. They only appear to happen in the sub-lunar abode. It’s not the case that the sun stopped for Joshua. It’s the case that, from our perspective, we saw it in the sub-lunar abode that way, but it didn’t happen that way.

And, this was a radical thing, but not as radical as his resolution of the concept of free choice by limiting the knowledge of God. The Ralbag says that he thought about it a great deal, and the only way he can find his way out of the paradox between God’s omniscience, the all-knowing universe, and our ability to have free choice in that universe, is by limiting God’s knowledge. God doesn’t actually know the details of what happens. God sets the world in motion through its laws of physics and so on, but for most people, God’s not actually interested in the day-to-day details. And this, of course, is something that Jewish thought is going to have to come back at very heavily. Because we cannot as a spiritual system, rob ourselves of our unique relationship with God because our whole spiritual premise is founded on the idea that we have a relationship with God individually as well as collectively. So, the Ralbag, despite his very impressive intellectual achievements, got a bit outed from mainstream Jewish thought.

But the Rambam is front and centre inside Jewish philosophy and we are going see next week have that incredible emphasis on the intellect and intellectual achievements played out in Jewish thought. But there’s no question that the Rambam’s primary objective in his philosophy, which was to reconcile science as it is understood objectively and rationally in the world, with the spiritual systems of Torah is an absolutely imperative exercise, and many have realised that today. 

You can’t sit in a room and pretend that science doesn’t happen. At the same time, you don’t say: oh, there’s science, so I’ll throw off my tallis and I’ll go and eat at McDonald’s. You can’t say that either. The imperative to reconcile those two is still with us. 

And that’s the fundamental contribution of the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim. And I thank you for following me on that roller coaster.