Close your eyes, breathe in deeply, now exhale slowly… That was easy, wasn’t it? Not for everyone…
Professor Daniel Rynhold may teach modern Jewish philosophy, but his recently published book is titled, An Introduction to Medieval Jewish Philosophy.
At the behest of the book’s publisher, Palgrave MacMillan, Rynhold authored a primer for laymen on some of the main issues discussed in such famous medieval Jewish philosophical works as Rav Sadia Gaon’s Emunot Vedeot, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari, Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim, and Ralbag’s Milchamot Hashem.
A lecturer at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Rynhold previously wrote Two Models of Jewish Philosophy: Justifying One’s Practices (Oxford University Press, 2005) and serves on the editorial boards of Le’ela and the Journal of the London School of Jewish Studies.
The Jewish Press recently spoke with him.
The Jewish Press: What’s your background? How did you wind up becoming a professor of Jewish philosophy?
Rynhold: Between high school and university I spent a year in Israel at a yeshiva called Hakibbutz Hadati, and there was a shiur there on the Kuzari. The person teaching it was a rationalist, so he was also teaching us, simultaneously, Maimonides’s problems with the Kuzari.
I had never before encountered Jewish philosophy, and I was fascinated by this shiur. It changed my career direction. I was holding a place at Cambridge to study natural sciences and, literally, as a result of this shiur, I decided I didn’t want to be a scientist. I wanted to study and teach Jewish philosophy. So I decided to pursue a philosophy degree at Cambridge.
In An Introduction to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, you discuss a lot of controversial issues. For instance, although almost every Jew assumes that creation ex nihilo (something from nothing) is a fundamental Jewish belief, the Ralbag, in fact, holds the Platonic view that God created the world from preexisting matter. You write that even the Rambam, who disagrees, maintains that one can be a believing Jew and reject ex nihilo.
It’s actually not a particularly radical view. There are midrashim that Maimonides mentions in the Guide to the Perplexed that look at the creation story this way.
What’s more interesting, but also more controversial, is the idea that Maimonides countenances the possibility of an eternal universe. The way Maimonides writes the Guide lends itself to varied interpretations [since Maimonides explicitly states that in “speaking about very obscure matters it is necessary to conceal some parts”]. And there are a number of respected scholars who argue that buried deeply beneath the surface, Maimonides is expressing the Aristotelian view that the world is eternal.
What is this preexisting matter that Plato and the Ralbag speak of?
It’s very difficult to say exactly, but just like a potter takes unformed clay and makes it into a pot, by analogy God took some unformed matter and formed it into the world.
In the book, you also write about Ralbag’s controversial view that God does not have detailed knowledge of events on Earth. Can you elaborate?
There’s a very well-known problem concerning the clash between God’s foreknowledge and human free will. If God genuinely knows and has known for all eternity everything that will occur, then the fact is that God knew for all eternity that at this point in time we would now be speaking. Therefore, come this point in time, however we might feel about it, there was no question we would end up speaking.
Now there are all sorts of attempts to squirm one’s way out of this dilemma, but evidently the Ralbag accepted it as a genuine dilemma and therefore something had to give. He could say, “Well, if God does genuinely know everything that will occur, then human beings don’t have free will as we ordinarily understand it.” The Ralbag, however, takes the other path, which is to deny that God knows that we are now talking. God does not actually have knowledge of particular things and particular events.
To some people this view sounds blasphemous.
Absolutely, and one shouldn’t pretend it didn’t sound blasphemous to certain people back then. Chasdai Crescas [14th century] attacks him for it in his work, Or Hashem. Crescas tries to squirm his way out of the dilemma by taking the alternative route, which is to deny the ordinary common sense understanding of free will.
The Ralbag is not the only “radical” in your book. The Rambam also comes across as something of a “radical,” especially regarding his views on prophecy and Olam HaBa.
Let’s begin with prophecy. The Rambam presents three opinions, and the interesting thing is that the opinion he dismisses as that of “ignoramuses” is probably the opinion one would form from a straightforward reading of Tanach. That opinion holds that God chooses certain people to be prophets. It’s simply a miracle; God can choose anyone He wishes to become a prophet.
However, Maimonides attributes that view to the pagan multitudes and contrasts it with the view of philosophers. According to philosophers, prophecy is basically a kind of natural achievement. If a person is morally perfect and reaches a level of intellectual perfection (and for Maimonides you also have to have a certain kind of perfection of the faculty he calls the imagination) you will become a prophet. It’s something that can be achieved rather than something that God miraculously creates in a person. Rambam advocates this view but adds that God can prevent somebody who would naturally become a prophet from becoming one.
Now that’s a surprising view because it implies that all the people in Tanach who speak to God are basically brilliant Aristotelian philosophers who achieved some grand intellectual perfection that yielded truths about the universe and God. But that’s not the impression people get of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – let alone Moses.
The Rambam also maintains that people must achieve a certain measure of intellectual perfection to enter Olam HaBa. Correct?
Absolutely. According to the Rambam, what is it about us that’s immortal? It’s our intellect.
So the Rambam believes that an extremely kind, pious Jew who remains ignorant of certain philosophical truths does not enter Olam HaBa?
Correct, which is obviously problematic given a more mainstream, traditional understanding of Olam HaBa.
What is one supposed to make of all these “untraditional” views?
Well, it’s a good question. I don’t want to give the impression that medieval times were incredibly tolerant. They most certainly weren’t. But it does seem to me that at a theological level we may have become a little less tolerant and a little less thoughtful.
Should we consider these positions legitimate Jewish views nowadays?
If they’re views held by the Rambam or the Ralbag, I would imagine people would hesitate before saying they’re not legitimate Jewish views. People nowadays who may say they’re not legitimate views might be blissfully unaware that those were views taken by people they hold in great esteem.
What is your next book about?
Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of religion. Nietzsche criticizes religious existence for being life-denying, psychologically destructive and symptomatic of a “sickness of the soul.” I’m currently working on a book with a British colleague, Rabbi Dr. Michael Harris, which will be investigating possible theological constructions that can be built from within the tradition in order to bring a “Nietzschean sensibility” to Judaism.
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).
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