Science and Philosophy of Maimonides
A History of Jewish Thought: 4 Chapters of Rambam’s Yesodei HaTorah.
This shiur with Rabbi David Sedley will examine the sources of Rambam’s “science” chapters, and look at how Rambam’s ideas and interpretation of verses differed from those who came later (and earlier) than him.
Science and Philosophy of Maimonides: Lesson 1
KNOWLEDGE VS. BELIEF: SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY OF MAIMONIDES: In this class we will begin with the first halakha of Rambam’s Mishne Torah. Rambam begins with the first mitzva, which is to know that there is a G-d. This raises an obvious contradiction with the familiar formulation of Ani Maamin, which says “I believe with perfect faith” in G-d. Are we supposed to “know” or to “believe”? Another difficulty is the very command to know (or believe) in the Commander. If one does not have a priori knowledge (or belief) in G-d, how can He command anything at all? How does Rambam avoid the problem that knowledge/belief must be a meta-commandment? We will also look at Rambam’s concept of knowledge, and what is a valid source of knowledge. And we will have a look at Aristotle’s views on knowledge.
Science and Philosophy of Maimonides: Lesson 2
SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY OF MAIMONIDES: ETERNITY AND EXISTENCE: In this shiur we will (hopefully) look at Hilkhot Yesodi HaTorah 1:2-4. We will compare and contrast Rambam’s concept of “There is nothing but G-d” with the of the Baal Shem Tov (as recorded in the Tanya).
Science and Philosophy of Maimonides: Lesson 3
ARISTOTELIAN MOTION: SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY OF MAIMONIDES: Rambam tells us in chapter 1 of Yesodei HaTorah that we must believe in G-d as the Prime Mover. This creates several issues for the modern reader. Firstly, the concept of a Prime Mover is based on Aristotle’s concept of motion, which has not been in vogue since the time of Newton. Secondly, Rambam himself struggles to explain how a Prime Mover can interact with a physical world. What kind of G-d does Rambam want us to believe in? Nevertheless, this concept plays a very important role in Rambam’s theology. In fact, Rambam claims that it is this logic which led Avraham to discover G-d. Join me as we examine Rambam’s sources, modern thinking on physics and G-d, and how we can tie up all the different pieces.
Science and Philosophy of Maimonides: Lesson 4
INFINITELY ONE: SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY OF MAIMONIDES: Rambam rules that G-d is one, and that his oneness is unique. This is a necessary conclusion from that fact that it is impossible for G-d to have any body or form. We will look at the difference between Rambam’s way of thinking about G-d (One) to the post-kabbalistic/chasidic approach, in which G-d is related to as if He has aspects (or Sefirot) and is comprised of different parts. Along the way we will look (hopefully briefly) at infinities of different sizes. And we will see how the Leshem (Rav Elyashiv’s grandfather) resolves the apparent contradiction by positing that Rambam is speaking before tzimtzum, whereas the kabbalists are speaking about the world after tzimtzum.
Science and Philosophy of Maimonides: Lesson 5
HAND OF G-D: SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY OF MAIMONIDES: Can G-d create a rock that is so heavy that He is unable to lift it? This is an old theological paradox, because either answer implies that G-d is not omnipotent. I believe that the answer to this question is a matter of dispute between Rambam (and others) and the Baalei Tosafot (most explicilty Rav Moshe Taku). They formulate the question slightly differently. Must G-d obey the laws of human logic (and therefore by implication he cannot create a paradoxical rock) or is He not subject to any limitations (and therefore He can perform actions which make no sense to our minds, and create anything at all)? Even though the Tanach and Gemara many times refer to G-d as though He were physical, Rambam claims that every instance is metaphorical, and that belief that G-d has any kind of physical body is heretical. For this claim, Rambam himself was branded a heretic. Rambam, it was claimed, abandoned Jewish tradition in favour of non-Jewish (Greek) philosophy. In this class we will look at the Rambam’s view, and his sources. And we will look at some of those who disagree with him (some quite vigorously).
Science and Philosophy of Maimonides: Lesson 6
LOVE OF G-D: SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY OF MAIMONIDES: We begin chapter 2 of Yesodei HaTorah, where Rambam explains the mitzva of loving G-d. We will see that Rambam himself gives several different explanations (in different places) of how to perform this mitzva. We will also look at alternative opinions of Rishonim and Acharonim.
Science and Philosophy of Maimonides: Lesson 7
METAPHYSICS: SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY OF MAIMONIDES: In Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah chapters 2-4 Rambam gives a basic overview of physics and metaphysics, in order that people should be able to come to love and fear G-d. We will have a look at Rambam’s division of matter into three, and see how he deals with the topic of angels. Rambam conspicuously does not mention demons anywhere in Mishne Torah. The Vilna Gaon accuses Rambam of being influenced by philosophy to contradict the Talmud and Midrashim. We will also see why the moon landing was impossible according to Rambam, and how Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky came to terms with the contradiction between Rambam and Neil Armstrong.
Science and Philosophy of Maimonides: Lesson 8
GREEK WISDOM AND KABALLAH: SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY OF MAIMONIDES: In this final class, we will discuss two essential ideas that come out of the fourth chapter of Rambam’s Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah. Rambam states that maaseh bereishit, maaseh merkava and pardes (all terms which are normally used to refer to various parts of kaballah) are (more or less) Aristotle’s physics and metaphysics. If so: How does Rambam understand the Gemara’s prohibition against learning chochma yevanit (literally “Greek wisdom” often understood as referring to Greek philosophy)? We will look at the different Gemara’s which statet his prohibition, and look at the views of the various RIshonim on this matter. And then we’ll see how that understanding has changed in modern times. And did Rambam know kaballah (as conventionally understood). At first glance the answer seems obvious – Rambam never mentions kaballah, and defines “kabbalistic concepts” as referring to Greek philosophy. Surely there is no way of saying that the Guide for the Perplexed is a work of kabbalistic wisdom. And yet there are commentators who claim that Rambam was well versed in kaballah, and disguised those ideas by pretending to speak about Greek philosophy.
Rabbi David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and six children. He was born and raised in New Zealand before making Aliya in 1992. He left Israel temporarily (for eight years) to serve as a communal Rabbi in Scotland and England and returned to Israel in 2004. He has translated Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary on Pirkei Avos and is the co-author of Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement Through Counting the Omer (both Judaica Press). Over the years Rabbi Sedley has worked as a journalist, a translator, a video director and in online reputation management. He also writes a weekly Torah blog on the Times of Israel.