First of all, I apologize for the delay in presenting this piece. I had every intention of posting it yesterday but I was sidetracked.
In the Seventh Chapter of TTP, Spinoza writes:
Maimonides took a quite different view; for he held that every passage of Scripture admits of various - and even contrary - meanings, and that we cannot be certain of the true meaning of any passage unless we know that, as we interpret it, there is nothing in that passage that is not in agreement with reason, or is contrary to reason. If in its literal sense it is found to be contrary to reason, then however clear the passage may appear, he maintains that it must be interpreted in a different way. This view he sets out most clearly in Chapter 25 of Part II of his book "Moreh Nebuchim", where he says:
"Know that it is not the Scriptural texts concerning the creation of the world that witholds me from saying that the world has existed from eternity. The texts that teach that the world was created are not more numerous than those that teach that God is corporeal. There are ways not barred to us, nor even difficult of access, by which we can explain those texts that deal with the world's creation. Our explanation could have followed the same lines as when we denied the corporeality of God; and perhaps this might have been much easier to achieve, and we might have explained the texts and established the eternity of the world more plausibly than when we explained Scripture in a way that removed corporeality from God, blessed be He...." [Note: Spinoza actually cites the full text.]
Such are the words of Maimonides, and they clearly confirm what we said above. For if he had been convinced on rational grounds that the world is eternal, he would not have hesitated to distort and explain away Scripture until it appeared to teach the same doctrine. Indeed, he would have been quite convinced that Scripture, in spite of its plain denials at every point, intended to teach this same doctrine of the eternity of the universe. (pp.100-101).
On the following page, Spinoza elaborates on his critique:
...He assumes that the meaning of Scripture cannot be established from Scripture itself. For scientific truth is not established from Scripture itself...And therefore, according to Maimonides, neither can Scripture's true meaning be established from itself, and should not be sought from it...Finally, he assumes that it is legitimate for us to explain away and distort the words of Scripture to accord with our preconceived opinions, to deny its literal meaning and change it into something else even when it is perfectly plain and absolutely clear...
In essence, Spinoza argues that Maimonides' approach to interpreting Scripture is nothing more than a process of reading his own philosophical convictions into the text. So, rather than attempting to understand what the Tanach is telling us, we end up shaping its message in light of our preconceived beliefs.
There is no doubt that Spinoza makes an excellent point here, and that, at least at first glance, it is difficult to defend Maimonides' interpretive method. In fact, we can contribute some additional data that seem to strengthen Spinoza's position - namely, the writings of Gersonides!
Gersonides, or Ralbag, was another rationalistic philosopher in the tradition of Maimonides. In many ways, he was more radical in his willingness to accept philosophical doctrine than the Rambam was. For example, he concludes that God has no knowledge of particulars and is only cognizant of universals. Similarly, he maintains that God does not have foreknowledge pertaining to the future actions of human beings; otherwise, he argues, free will would be impossible.
What is most striking about Gersonides, though, is that he utilizes the Tanach to substantiate his points. Both in his commentaries to the Torah and Nach, as well as in his magnum opus, the Milhamot Hashem, the Ralbag derives copious support for his untraditional doctrines from the words of Scripture.
The question is this: Does the Tanach teach theological principles, or not? If it does, then how can both the Rambam and Ralbag utilize the verses of Tanach to prove their diametrically opposed philosophic convictions?
Put differently, did the Rambam and Ralbag really develop their philosophical views from their study of Tanach, or did they formulate their views independently and then try to elicit confirmation from the words of the Prophets?
Clearly, Spinoza would have claimed that the latter option was in fact the case, and that, reality, the Rambam and Ralbag arrived at their own conclusions about theology and then forced the Tanach to corroborate them.
Of all of his critiques of Maimonides, this one is Spinoza's most formidable, in my opinion. How can we explain the Rambam's approach?
To be continued in the next post!!!