Science and Medieval Philosophy: Maimonides

Maimonides drew upon scientific knowledge in his interpretations of Jewish law.

In proscribing astrology and magic, Maimonides had demonstrated his awareness of their corrosive effect on Judaism (see Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, chapter 11). In his emphatic denial of the legitimacy of these arts, he had sought to establish barriers against the incursions of astral determinism and theurgy to insure the integrity of Judaism. But he was no less infatuated with the natural world than Bahya, Bar Hiyya, or ibn Ezra [other medieval Jewish philosophers and mathematicians, who were interested in astrology and magic].

In fact, in a manner quite different from them, he allowed the authority of Jewish revelation to be severely constricted and even undermined in those areas where recent knowledge about the natural world, particularly astronomical matters, appeared to challenge the wisdom of the rabbis.

Passion for Nature

Reminiscent of Bahya ibn Pakuda’s enthusiastic outpourings about the majesty of nature and its relation to divine worship, Maimonides was no less passionate in his own pronouncements, even situating them in the beginning of his code of law as a basic principle of the Torah:

“And what is the way that will lead to the love of Him and the fear of Him? When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom, which is incomparable and infinite, he will straightway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great name; even as David said, ‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God’ (Psalm 42:3).

“And when he ponders these matters, he will recoil frightened, and realize that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge. And so David said: ‘When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers–what is man that You are mindful of him?’ (Psalm 8:4-5).”

Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei haTorah, 2:2.

Torah Grounded in Reason

In the introduction to his Guide of the Perplexed Maimonides argues that Torah must be grounded in reason and that divine science (metaphysics) can only be successfully undertaken after studying the natural sciences (physics).

Among the natural sciences, he favored medicine, as his own medical practice and extensive writings testify. Unlike his contemporary Judah Ha-Levi, he refrained from claiming that all the sciences originally came from Israel, but he did believe that the rabbis once cultivated the sciences until, because of the exile, they neglected them.

By recognizing that wisdom did not originate from Israel alone, Maimonides exhibited a tolerance and an appreciation for non-Jewish, especially Muslim, philosophic learning as an important addition to the study of Torah. It was enough to assume that philosophy and the sciences constituted an original part of the oral law, as he indicated in his famous paraphrase of the talmudic passage in Kiddushin 30a.

Integrating Without Superimposing

As Isadore Twersky has shown, Maimonides was also not averse to introducing scientific knowledge into his formulations of Jewish law, not only “to integrate science, to relate a scientific vocabulary and axiology to rabbinic law, but also to recognize its autonomy and not to superimpose it on the structure and fabric of the halakha [Jewish law].” (See Twersky, “Aspects of Maimonidean Epistemology: Halakha and Science,” in Neusner et al., eds., From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism.)

Recognizing the legitimacy of knowledge outside Judaism is one thing; allowing it to contradict positions articulated by the rabbis is another. In one of the sciences, namely astronomy, Maimonides allowed the more recent knowledge of the scientists to supersede that of the rabbis.

He first acknowledged this possibility in commenting on a famous incident recorded in the Talmud (Pesahim 94b) of the rabbinic sages preferring the opinion of Gentile scholars on an astronomical matter (Guide of the Perplexed, 2:8).

Rabbinic Imperfections

Later, commenting on astronomical distances recorded in rabbinic literature, he was even more explicit: “Do not ask of me to show that everything they [the rabbis] have said concerning astronomical matters conforms to the way things really are. For at that time mathematics was imperfect. They did not speak about this as transmitters of dicta of the prophets, but rather because in those times they were men of knowledge in these fields or because they had heard these dicta from the men of knowledge who lived in those times” (Ibid, 3:14)

He thus concluded that “whenever it is possible to interpret the words of an individual [rabbi] in such a manner that they conform to a being whose existence has been demonstrated”–that is, that they conform to the scientific truth, as in the case of astronomical distances–it is fitting to do so. But if they cannot be so interpreted, rabbinic statements should be regarded as only individual opinions, not the halakhah, and therefore may be rejected (Ibid).

Maimonides’ view that contemporary astronomical knowledge was superior to that found in the Talmud and should be accepted even when it contradicted the views of the rabbis was revolutionary. That he appears to limit its applicability to astronomy should be considered together with his epistemological stance vis-a-vis celestial physics and metaphysics.

No Theory Is Certain

For Maimonides, human knowledge was limited to material things. While the truths of terrestrial physics could be known, no theory of the heavens was certain. Rational assumptions about the heavens were analogous to religious beliefs: they could never be fully demonstrated by reason.

Might I infer from this that while neither rabbinic theories about the heavens nor contemporary scientific theories are ever certain, when we are forced to accept one against the other, the contemporary view more closely approximates the truth than the rabbinic one, although it is not synonymous with the truth itself?

Abraham Maimonides, in his treatise on the aggadot [rabbinic teachings on biblical narrative], appears to go one step beyond his father: “We are not obligated… to argue on behalf of the rabbis and uphold their views expressed in all their medical, scientific, and astronomical statements [or to believe] them the way we believe them with respect to the interpretation of the Torah, whose consummate wisdom was in their hands” (“Ma’amar al Odot Derashot Hazal,” in Milhamot Adonai, ed. R. Margulies).

Note that Abraham includes all the sciences–both terresrrial and celestial–in the category of contemporary knowledge that can supersede that of the rabbis. The expansion is significant in allowing all sciences, both certain and less certain, to be placed above rabbinic sapience with respect to their truth value.

While Moses Maimonides had safeguarded Judaism from astrological determinism, he had, at the same time, attenuated the unassailable truths of Judaism to mere interpretations of religious law while enhancing contact with and even subservience to contemporary speculations about the natural world.

Maimonides’ position was stretched even farther in the 16th century by Azariah de’ Rossi, who quoted Maimonides in support of the view that non-halakhic statements of the rabbis need not be accepted as absolute truths, but only as the personal opinions of the person to whom they were attributed.

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe (Yale University Press).


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