Across Israel, Meir Panim responds to the growing needs of the country’s 1.75 million impoverished residents through various food and social service programs.
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 holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.
If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.
Comments are closed.
The Drama Mamas are not an ordinary theater troupe. “When we audition actresses,” says Elisheva, who also serves as the show’s director, “we like to explain to them that the main qualification is that you can honestly say, I have never been on a stage before, but I have always wanted to be an actress!”
Under the plan, a person who was not a citizen of either the Jewish or Arab state was to be appointed governor to administer Jerusalem and to conduct external affairs…
While Brooklyn College is famed for its plethora of Jewish professors and students, it is not a Jewish institution. The 92nd Street Y is. According to its own mission and history statement, it’s “a proudly Jewish institution since its inception.”
I was singing, dancing, jumping and, sweating. Just joy and happiness. One child on my shoulders after another. What happiness! And then, the little boy on my shoulders – he could not have been older than six – began to cry.
Alcohol on Purim is viewed by many as the drinking equivalent of the Autobahn: no limits, no control.
Why not tell us that Purim is to be commemorated with reading the megillah, dispensing mishloach manot, giving gifts to the poor, and partaking in a Purim feast?
At the core of traditional Judaism is the belief that our world has a Creator. This Creator knows all that goes on in our world, and remains actively involved in all of its events – no matter how insignificant some of those events might seem.
Make no mistake: the potential here is enormous. If all of these budget items are approved, they could be a game changer for Jewish day schools and their budgets.
There are those who believe all Israelis must share equally in the military defense of Israel while others say Torah study affords at least as much security as military service. In many respects, The Jewish Press has long reflected this dynamic.
Mr. Obama’s latest “amendment” of the Obamacare law, however, has elevated the arrogation of legislative power to an art form. And he has done so for blatantly political reasons.
What do at-risk youth and more than 30,000 square feet of groceries have in common? The answer is Moisha Binik.
Halpert doesn’t know why he was fired, and YU apparently won’t explain
There’s also the issue of accusing the Jews of being excessively materialistic and exploitative of non-Jews. You see a lot of that in far-left propaganda – that the Jews are overwhelmingly concentrated in the petty bourgeoisie, which in itself is an archaic class form, and thrives on tricking people and squeezing money out of them through illicit methods of trade.
Recently dubbed “the greatest living figure of chassidic music” by NPR, Shenker still composes several new pieces every year. He is currently recording an album of some of his Haggadah compositions, which he hopes will be out before Pesach.
Schanzer, who holds a doctorate from King’s College London, is currently vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and has testified before Congress on Middle East affairs on several occasions.
We want to hire couples who are going to reach out to singles to become their spiritual leaders and introduce them to someone of the opposite gender because there’s a lot of casual relationships but not nearly enough serious dating going on. This generation – even if they had rebbeim in yeshiva or seminary – they’re not connected anymore. There isn’t really anyone looking out for them at this point.
The 100 divrei Torah in this book originally appeared online and were distributed via e-mail. Unsurprisingly, therefore, many of them address contemporary issues. For example, on Parshat Mishpatim (and elsewhere), Rabbi Angel berates Israel’s chief rabbis and others for making life increasingly difficult for would-be converts to Judaism. On Parshat Vayigash, Rabbi Angel scolds 40 Israeli rabbis who signed a proclation prohibiting Jews from selling land in Israel to non-Jews.
All these polls asked either “Do you agree that Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians?” or, alternatively, “Do you agree Israel behaves toward the Palestinians like the Nazis do?”
For his latest book, City College’s William Helmreich walked 120,960 blocks – in other words, nearly every block of New York’s five boroughs.
Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/interviews-and-profiles/did-the-rambam-really-say-that/2009/11/11/
Scan this QR code to visit this page online: