[Avodah] Was the Rambam Really a Rationalist?

Micha Berger micha at aishdas.org
Tue Aug 7 02:27:55 PDT 2018

On Tue, Aug 07, 2018 at 04:21:44AM -0400, I posted (although really
I posted it at 4:21pm +0800, as I am in Singapore on business):
: ... http://bit.ly/2njjYrK
: Mysticism and its Alternatives: Rethinking Maimonides
: The Lehrhaus
: by David Fried

My own 2 cents (which is only 1.5c American):

I was pretty convinced by the Leshem's Kelalim that the Rambam and the
Qabbalists' metaphysics overlap so much, they are more two different ways
of modeling the same basic beliefs than an actual dispute on core ideas.

To give an overview:

The Rambam (following Aristo) has a metaphysics that centers on a chain
of thoughts from G-d's Thought which had a thought which had a ... and
so on down through the angels, the spheres, and eventually to us and
then physical matter. (See, eg Yesodei haTorah ch 2.)

According to the Leshem, this is a different mashal, but a description
of basically as the Qabbalists' Or Ein Sof shining down from Hashem,
through the various worlds, with the substance of one world being the
forms of the world immediately below....

Would that mean the Rambam was not a rationalist?

Rationalism meant something different back then. Scientific method and
basing oneself on the data wasn't invented yet. Artisto was based on
untested common-sense ideas about how the world works, and how the world
must logically run given a belief in an aesthetic universe.

(Tangent rant: This still happenes, as in recent discussion in the
physics community about whether String "Theory" isn't getting attention
even though it apparently hasn't gotten anywhere, simply because of
it's mathematical beauty. See Scientific American, for example, at
http://bit.ly/2vqSZ1J But returning back to Avodah topicality...)

So "rationalism" in an age where science is testing empiriclly, rather than
relying on what makes sense, is a different idea than what the word meant
when the Rambam first got that title.

Or, maybe we should refine "rationalist" slightly differently than
"someone who tends toward rationalism". Perhaps these dwefnitions are
more useful:

A mystic is someone who finds meaning in how greater G-d and Creation
are than his own understanding.

A rationalist is someone who finds meaning in that which he /can/
understand, the glimpses of Divine Order a human is capable of getting.

Defining the terms not by the ratio of empiricism to mysticism in their
thought, but how much their religiosity is defined in terms of each. Do
they try to explain theology rationally, or revel in the fact that
people can't?

And by that definition, even if the Leshem is right that the Rambam and
Qabbalah gave different models of only slight variants on a single basic
metaphysics, the Rambam wasn't a mystic. And mequbalim are split on the
issue. (The Ramchal being an example of a rationalist mequbal.)

Tir'u baTov!

Micha Berger             A wise man is careful during the Purim banquet
micha at aishdas.org        about things most people don't watch even on
http://www.aishdas.org   Yom Kippur.
Fax: (270) 514-1507                       - Rav Yisrael Salanter

More information about the Avodah mailing list