In the previous post, we explored Spinoza's argument against Maimonides' method of interpreting Tanach. We saw that it is, in fact, a serious critique that seems to be well substantiated. We were left with the question of whether philosophically inclined Rishonim actually derived their theological positions from Scripture, or simply twisted the text to accord with conclusions that they reached independently.
I believe that, in order to answer the difficulty Spinoza raises, we must look more closely at its premises. One of Spinoza's theses throughout the TTP is that Tanach should be understood on its own terms as a self-sufficient body of literature. Of course, he is of the opinion that it is full of both internal and external contradictions. But he emphasizes that if we are to honestly comprehend the message of a given passage in the Bible, we need to ignore any preconceived notions we may have and allow the text to speak for itself.
At the same time, Spinoza vehemently rejects the notion that Tanach has anything to tell us about theological, metaphysical or scientific matters. When it discusses such topics, it represents nothing more than the crude opinions of the prophets on these issues. His view is that the Tanach is primarily designed to inspire people to pursue the virtues of charity and justice in their dealings with one another. (We will analyze this position further in a subsequent installment of this series.)
Taken as a whole, then, Spinoza's critique is founded on one fundamental principle: that the Bible is not an authoritative resource for metaphysical, scientific or philosophical insight. Therefore, it need not be reconciled with other information we discover or conclusions we reach about the external world. It is a guide to human action, nothing more and nothing less.
This is where Maimonides parts ways with Spinoza. In the minds of the Rambam and likeminded Rishonim, the Tanach is a source of knowledge about the world, albeit not the only source; we also have our senses and our powers of reasoning. Neither of these three entities provide us with a complete, independent account of the whole of reality. However, since each one does contribute a dimension to our understanding of truth, we must view them as complementary to one another rather than contradictory.
Thus, if through reasoning the Rambam arrives at certain conclusions about prophecy or angels, and he is confident that his conclusions are well-founded and accurate, he perforce assumes that the Tanach will fit in with his theory. Similarly, if the Ralbag posits a specific theory of Divine Knowledge and is confident in his analysis, he will naturally expect to find confirmation for it in Tanach. This doesn't necessarily mean that either the Rambam or the Ralbag would have formulated the positions that they did from the Tanach alone. It simply means that they expect Tanach, sense perception and human reasoning to converge and yield a single consistent, intelligible worldview.
An analogy to scientific research will bolster this point. When a physicist is confronted with experimental data that run contrary to a theory that is well-established based on other evidence, his first move will be to effect some reconciliation between the new findings and the old findings. Because he is convinced that one system of natural law manifests itself in all physical phenomena, he proceeds with the assumption that the data complement one another somehow, and that further investigation will show how they fit together. Sometimes, interpretations offered for the anomalous data may seem forced or stretched, but they are motivated by the premise that there is a pervasive unity in nature and that data from different sources must ultimately reflect that unity.
The Rambam and the Ralbag approach Tanach with the same attitude - it is one of several pieces of "evidence", all of which must be harmonized if they are to develop a comprehensive and consistent metaphysical theory. Thus, just as the wisdom, spirit and vision of the Bible influence the direction of their philosophical musings, so too, the conclusions they derive from those musings influence the way that they interpret and understand the content of the Bible.