Science and Medieval Philosophy: Maimonides

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

Print this page Print this page

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 sixteenth 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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

David B. Ruderman

David B. Ruderman is the Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History and the Ella Darivoff Director of the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.