Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Maimonides and Spinoza on Scriptural Interpretation I

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!!!

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

First, I want to say I find this to be a fascinating subject and I thank you for taking it up.

>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?

This is not necessarily a weakness in the Rambam's approach. On the contrary, the willingness to interpret the text figuratively, when necessary, arguably makes for a much more durable theology. This is especially true since the advent of modern science, where maintaining a belief in the divine authorship of the Torah requires one to choose between rejecting scientific truths or reconciling the text to those truths. (It is hardly necessary to provide examples, but the Creation account, the Flood, Dispersion of the Nations, and details of the Exodus, are the more obvious ones.)

Mikeskeptic

littlefoxling said...

Isn't this a little intellectually dishonest? Given a contradiction between our reason and the text, the 2 choices we are considering are to reinterpret the text or to conclude that our philosophy (= reason) is wrong. But, the more likely explanation would be a 3rd possibility. That our reason is correct, the simple interpretation of the text is the correct one, and the text is just wrong.

There seems to be a bias here towards assuming the text is accurate.

Once you accept that bias, the Rambam's position is not really hard to accept. If we knew the world was eternal and we assume the text does not err, the only possibility is that the text thinks the world is eternal. Just as, for example, nowadays, no (normal) frum people would suggest that the Tanach feels that nothing existed more than 6,000 years ago.

Anyway, great post. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

MikeSkeptic, I agree with you 100%, but the question is whether that undermines the whole concept of learning something from Scripture or not.

LF, yes, of course the Rambam proceeds with the assumption that the Tanach is true. And of course, I would hesitate to call it a bias and would say that he had good evidence for his position (from his perspective it was even more solid, being that many of the issues that fuel the skeptics today were unknown in his time.On the other hand, he had to deal with the eternity of the universe problem, which was no different than any other contemporary science-Torah conflict.)

But again, what is amazing is his apparent willingness to allow philosophical speculation to twist the meaning of the text, all the while maintaining its Divine origin.

I don't want to make every post a forum for the discussion of TMS. Only some of them :)

littlefoxling said...

I don't want to make every post a forum for the discussion of TMS. Only some of them :)

OK, we don't have to have a whole fight about this time. But, I am curious. Since you say, he had good evidence for his position . What evidence is it? Is this Kuzari again? Did the Rambam agree with Kuzari? I am just curious as to what you mean. I won't make it into a whole fight about TMS again.

Anonymous said...

>but the question is whether that undermines the whole concept of learning something from Scripture or not.

Yes, there is an attraction to fundamentalism, which is why it is so popular in OJ. I'll wait to hear your spin on it, but I've always understood the Rambam as saying we assume the meaning of the text is literal, except to the extent that reason forces us to abandon that assumption. This position is somewhat defensible if one assumes a static world in which the outer boundaries of what reason can tell us are fixed, because one could then say that the author and his original audience both knew (or at least the author reasonably expected his readers to know) what those boundaries were, so that the text's meaning is fixed. However, the position does begin to look intellectually dishonest once you realize (which the Rambam may well not have) that the metaphysics of Aristotle is different from the metaphysics of today and from the metaphysics of the early Israelites. Also, reason leads to science which can tell us things about the history of creation and the genealogy and birth of Israel that were not certainly not known in ancient times and may tell us things in the future that we don't know today. We are then left with a text on which we can't rely because there is no way for us to tell where fact ends any myth begins.

Mikeskeptic

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

LF, yes, the Rambam mentions an argument similar to Kuzari in his Letter to Yemen. In the Moreh Nevuchim, he states that one can perceive the divinity of the Torah from the depth of its content and the perfection it imparts to human beings (he mentions this in Iggeret Teman too).

MikeSkeptic, I don't think that Hazal or the Rambam ever saw the text of the Torah, especially the Beresheet-parts, as a scientific account in the modern, materialistic sense of the term.

The Torah teaches mankind how to conceptualize reality and understand existence. For example, evolution is irrelevant to the Torah because it is not designed to tell us how things got the way they are; it is presenting us with a way to construe the universe as God's creation, and not offering a play-by-play of how God brought it to the point it is now.

So the days of creation, for example, really identify different components of the world as it is experienced by human beings, and explicates their order, hierarchy, etc., relative to the "whole". And the story of Adam is more about human nature and internal conflict than about history, just as the subsequent stories show us ways to conceptualize, philosophically, the development of society and the necessity of diversity.

Because the Torah is focused upon presenting a theological view of existence and human life, it can be an eternal document. Only a superficial understanding of both science and religion, in which the material details, descriptions and measures are held above all other concerns, can there be a genuine conflict between science and Torah. But if the Torah is seen as a theological or philosophical paradigm for contextualizing science, anthropology, etc., rather than providing specific data for use in those sciences, then it essentially transcends them.

littlefoxling said...

yes, the Rambam mentions an argument similar to Kuzari in his Letter to Yemen. In the Moreh Nevuchim, he states that one can perceive the divinity of the Torah from the depth of its content and the perfection it imparts to human beings (he mentions this in Iggeret Teman too).



Thanks. Per your request, I won't respond to these here. Some other time.

Anonymous said...

>I don't think that Hazal or the Rambam ever saw the text of the Torah, especially the Beresheet-parts, as a scientific account in the modern, materialistic sense of the term.

I'm not sure whether you're being cute by using "scientific" to mean something other than literal. Did Chazal not believe that the Egyptians were descended from Noach after the Flood? If you mean that Chazal didn't read Bereishis literally, I would love to hear your evidence for that. In one of your previous posts, you seemed to be arguing that when the Midrash interprets Doson as hinting at a deeper meaning, it doesn't really mean that the brothers didn't go to Doson.

I also have a lot of philosophical difficulty with defining the limits of the Rambam's approach. Even if one accepts that DH is currently less plausible than TMS (I know you don't want this post to be about that so I'll concede you that point), would you be prepared to reinterpret Yetzias Mitzraim and Sinai (perhaps along the lines of the Conservative position on Torah Min Hashamayim instead of Torah Misinai) if evidence were discovered in the future that warrants it? My point is that you can't totally separate theology from history, since so much of the Torah's meaning is rooted in the history it recounts. Gid Hanashe, anyone?

Mikeskeptic

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