Monday, July 5, 2010

How Different Were the Rambam and the Maharal

The Rambam (Maimonides) is known as the Paradigm of rationalistic Judaism. Whenever someone wants to show how rational Judaism is they often find themselves quoting the Rambam. On the other hand, the Maharal is the champion of the non-rationalistic (mystic) approach to Judaism. One will often hear a Gemora, that sounds absurd, explained allegorically due to the Maharal's approach. Also, the fact that Maharal believed in Astrology, demons and other mystical creatures and devices, while the Rambam denied their reality, separates these two great thinkers. However, after reading the Rambam's "Introduction to the Chapter of Chelek" I see that these two Torah giants, that are on the opposite sides of the rational vs non-rational argument, had a very similar approach to understanding Aggadita in the Gemora.

First let's hear what Maharal says (found here):

Be'eir haGolah #4 (p 51), translation R' Mordechai Becher, posted to
V15n9 by RGSeif:

Now you will see that most of the words of the Sages were in the form of metaphor and the analogies of the wise... unless they state that a particular story is not a metaphor, it should be assumed that it is a metaphor. The matters of great depth were generally expressed by the Sages using metaphors, and should be understood as metaphors unless they are explicitly indicated to be taken literally. And therefore one should not be surprised to find matters in the words of the Sages that appear to be illogical and distant from the mind. (Berachot 61a:The evil inclination looks like a fly)

So the Maharal explains Aggadita Gemoras, as a general rule, as allegories and metaphors. This is what one would expect from a non-rationalist, because he is trying to show how the Sages were never wrong. Therefore, anything they say that can be misconstrued or misinterpreted as the Sages being wrong is changed into an allegory in order to show they had a deeper meaning and thereby they are saved the embarrassment of being proven inept. However, wouldn't we assume that a rationalistic approach would be to assume that the Sages made incorrect statements?

This does, in fact, seem to be the view of the Rambam and his son, Rav Avraham. From Rav Avraham's Essay on Aggadita (Found Here):

To begin with, let me point out that if a person puts forward a certain theory without offering proof, expecting people to accept it at face value just because they respect him, he is sadly mistaken; his approach flies in the face of both the Torah and common sense. It goes against common sense, because he wants people to believe something without evaluating and investigating whether it squares with the facts. And it runs counter to the Torah, because it goes against the truth and is unethical. The Torah [tells us not to curry favor with anyone], saying [to a judge], "Do not give special consideration to the poor, nor show respect to the great" (Leviticus 19:15). And it says also, "Do not give anyone special consideration when rendering judgment" (Deuteronomy 1:17). And there is no difference between a person who believes an idea without supporting evidence and one who trusts a person's statement simply because he respects him and holds that it must be true since it comes from a great scholar. This does not prove that the statement is true.
Accordingly, we are not required to endorse all the theories of the Sages of the Talmud on medicine, physics, and astronomy in every respect just because we know the authors to be outstanding personalities and eminent scholars in all facets of the Torah. Of course, when it comes to Torah knowledge, the scholarship of the Sages is unsurpassed, and it is their responsibility to teach it to us, as it says, "You must keep the Torah as they interpret it for you" (Deuteronomy 17:11), but this does not necessarily apply to all other branches of knowledge. You can see that even the Sages themselves when faced with an issue that could not be proven by debate and logical arguments, said, "I swear, that even if Joshua b. Nun had said it, I would not have obeyed him!" (Berachot 24b)3Which means, "I would not believe him although he was a prophet, since he cannot prove his point by the talmudical rules of logical argument."
Let me offer you one conclusive proof that no one will refute. It is this: We find that the Sages themselves said that the opinions expressed in the Gemara with regard to general medicine are not borne out, like for instance when the Gemara says that wearing a "preserving stone" is a safeguard against miscarriage, or other things mentioned in tractate Shabbat. They tested these remedies and found them not to have any therapeutic value.
 Also, the Rambam himself speaks of the Sage's ability to make mistakes in scientific matters. He says (The Guide for the perplexed 3:14 found here):
You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science.
So we see that Rav Avraham and his father, the Rambam, admit that the Sages could err in non-Torah related areas. However, this does not mean that we are supposed to understand their Aggadita Gemoras (non-halachic) in a literal fashion. For Rav Avraham also says in his introduction (Essay on Aggadita):

It is important to understand that the homiletic expositions and stories in the Talmud have underlying meanings that are shrouded in secrecy, and most of the commentators did not even attempt to probe their deeper meaning.
.... If you follow my guidelines in understanding the aggadic teachings of the Sages, you will come to grasp their deeper meaning, and, as a result, you will not make light of them or deny that they are true. Neither will you fall into the trap of thinking that the miracles that happened to the Sages are as momentous as those that happened to Moses and Israel at the parting of the Red Sea, or as remarkable as the parting of the Jordan for Elisha and Elijah. Such misconceptions arise when you take the derash (i.e., homiletic interpretations) literally and accept only the surface meaning of the text. But there is abundant evidence to show that the aggadic tales and teachings, aside from their plain meaning, have profound hidden significance.
The Rambam also discusses this idea in a few places. First, the Rambam says later on in the same chapter of The Guide quoted above (3:14):
But I will not on that account denounce what they say correctly in accordance with real fact, as untrue or accidentally true. On the contrary, whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so.
The Rambam is pointing out here that in every instance that we CAN interpret the Sages to be in congruence with the facts, we should. This idea is even more explicitly discussed in the Rambam's introduction to Perek Chelek (The 10th chapter of Mishnayos Sanhedrin and Talmud Yerushalmi and the 11th chapter in Talmud bavli). The Rambam discusses three groups of people that interpret the Sages words on Aggadita (non-Halachic discussions):

What you need to know, with regard to matters pertaining to the words of the Sages (May they be remembered for blessings), is that there are three groups of people (who interpret their words).

1) The first group, and it is the majority of what I have seen [in the sense] that I have seen their books or I have heard about what they say from others, [is made up of people] that interpret the Sages based on their simple reading and they do not believe the sages have a hidden meaning in any way. [The people in this group believe] that the impossible things the Sages say are obligatory for existence. Indeed, these people [interpret the sages this way] because they do not understand the Sciences and they are far from understanding [deeper meanings]. There are none among them that are men of integrity that can realize this by themselves (that some of the words of the sages are similes and therefore the message is the main point and not the simple meaning) and there is no one that points this out to them. The [people of this first group] hold that the Sages, may they be remembered for blessings, with all their righteous and sweet words only intended what could be understood according to their (the people of this first group) knowledge, which is the simple (vulgar) reading. [They believe this] even though some [of the Sages words (understood according to the simple meaning)] lead to slander against the Sages and they (the words) appear to be far from intelligent [so much so that] if they were read and explained according to their simple and vulgar meaning to a regular person, even more so to a wise person, the [regular person or wise person] would be in wonderment of how [anyone could think this] and they would say, "How could it be that there is a man in the world that thinks like this?!?! Also, [how could it be] that anyone thinks this is an acceptable belief and even more so that it is a proper belief?"

This is the group (the First group) that has a lack in knowledge that troubles themselves with their foolishness because they honor and glorify the Sages, according to their(this First group) understanding, [but really] they denigrate the [Sages] without understanding them. By the life of G-D (A serious exclamation)! This group destroys the beauty of the Torah and darkens its radiance and they are assigning to the Torah of G-D the opposite of what it is intended to be. For G-D said regarding the Perfect Torah (Devarim 4:6), "[The nations of the world] shall hear all of these decrees and say 'Surely this is a wise and discerning people, a great nation!'" However, this group tells over the literal words (not according to the allegory and true meaning) of our Sages, may they be remembered for blessings, that when other nations hear these words they say, "Only a nation of fools and rascals that is a puny nation [would say this]."

The majority of the time this is what is occurring with the interpreters [from this group]: They are explaining and making known to the greater nation [ideas] which they do not know (causing them to distort these ideas of the Sages). Who would grant [the people from this group], since they do not know or understand, that they should be silent[, that would be Wise for them]. In the same manner that it says [in Iyov 13:5,] "Who would grant that you fall utterly silent; that would be a wise thing for you!" Or they should say, "We do not understand the intentions of the Sages in this case, and we do not know how to explain it." However, they think that they understand it and try to make known and explain it to the nation according to their weak mental [abilities]- they do not explain what the Sages actually said. They preach at the head of the nation [their understanding of] tractate Brachos and Perek Chelek and other things according to the literal understanding, word for word. (Translation and elucidation provided by me, E-man)

I will translate the rest later, but for our point I think it is clear what the Rambam is saying. We must understand the words of the Sages, when they seem contrary to the truth, in an allegorical and metaphorical way when possible. The Sages, in Aggadita, were trying to teach us deeper meanings and the simple reading of their words is worthless. Not just worthless, but detrimental! The Rambam insists that we understand the words of the Sages in a deeper way and not make them seem unintelligent.

This view of the Rambam seems to make him almost in the camp of the Maharal. Both believe that the words of the Sages have a deeper meaning and excluding that deeper meaning is an incorrect way to learn Aggadita. The only thing that separates the Rambam and Maharal is to what extent the Rabbis sayings were to be made into allegories. The Rambam and his son, as we have shown above, believe that the Sages were incorrect in believing in the power of astrology and other mystical types of things. However, the Maharal believes that astrology and other mystical things, like Sheidim, do actually exist.

Therefore, the Maharal and Rambam agree on most things in the Gemora, when the Sages say something that seems untenable, we must try to understand the deeper meaning in their words. Where the Maharal and Rambam seem to differ is, basically, their own views on certain laws of science. The Maharal believed in Mysticism and, therefore, did not need to make the Sages words into allegory only type of Gemoras, whereas, the Rambam would have to make these Gemoras into allegories or individual opinions of Sages.

However, whether you are a rationalist like the Rambam or a mystic like the Maharal, it seems like no one would condone a simple literalistic interpretation of the untenable Gemoras unless it is IMPOSSIBLE to explain otherwise. Only then is one to claim, according to the Rambam, that this Gemora is a Daas Yachid (individual opinion that we do not hold like). The Maharal says that the words of the Sages should be understood as metaphors "unless they state that a particular story is not a metaphor." Showing that there are practically no Aggadita Gemoras that one can assume are literal. The Rambam also says (In Perek Chelek while dealing with the third group, the right way to understand the Sages), "Everything the Sages say that are impossible we should understand them as speaking through the language of puzzles and parables."

However, there are some Gemora's that the Rambam finds impossible to explain as parables and is willing to agree that there are a few beliefs found in the Sages that are false. However, he explains that these beliefs are not communal beliefs by the Sages. When there are beliefs that the Sages have that contradict logic and reality AND they are impossible to relate through allegories or metaphors THEN the Rambam ascribes those beliefs to a minority opinion in the Sages. As the Rambam says in his letter on astrology (found here):

I know that you may search and find sayings of some individual sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man's birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen to him. Do not regard this as a difficulty, for it is not fitting for a man to abandon the prevailing law and raise once again the counterarguments and replies (that preceded its enactment). Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden. Or there may be an allusion in those words; or they may have been said with a view to the times and the business before him. (You surely know how many of the verses of the holy Law are not to be taken literally. Since it is known through proofs of reason that it is impossible for the thing to be literally so, the translator [of the Aramaic Targum] rendered it in a form that reason will abide. ) A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back...

What we see from here is that the Rambam seems almost identical to the Maharal in his understanding of difficult statements by the Sages. It seems that whether you are a rationalist or a non-rationalist, the simple meanings of the Sages does not reveal a real difficulty in the Sages as a whole. As a whole, the Sages were never wrong, according to the Rambam and the Maharal. However, there were some Sages that, individually, were incorrect in their understanding of some sciences. This would also explain why the Rambam and his son seem to ascribe misinformation to the Sages. They mean that there are som INDIVIDUAL Sages that err and believe in the power of astrology and other mystical things.

As stated above, it seems like the Rambam and Maharal do not differ in HOW to read the Gemora. Rather they argue on scientific fact. The Maharal believes in mysticism and, therefore, believes the Sages also believed in mysticism and finds no reason to relate these teachings of the Sages as allegories. The Rambam disagrees about mysticism and, therefore, he DOES relate these statements of the Sages as allegories.


Joshua said...

You seem to be downplaying a very read difference here. The notion that some sages are wrong as individuals about matters of the nature of the world is a very big difference between Maharal and Rambam. This isn't a minor thing. Note how some chareidim today claim that to even argue what Rambam does is apikorsis (cf Natan Slifkin's experience).

E-Man said...


I hear your point. However, it does seem like the difference between them has been exaggerated by some. Both will allegorize statements by Chazal very often even if the plain meaning is wrong.

Also, I would put forth the question "Are we sure the Maharal would not be ok with saying specific daas yachidim in the sages were wrong?" He might even agree with that idea. However, I have not seen proof one way or the other.

Just because some foolish people call others apikorsim for no real reason does not make the difference between them larger.

E-Man said...


I thought the sources that I brought down, with my explanations prove my point pretty well. If you would like to disagree with the points I made feel free to point out where I made an error in Understanding the Rambam or his son.

Joshua said...

I agree that you've interpreted things correctly, I just consider it to be a bigger difference in approach than you do. So this is just a disagreement over emphasis.

E-Man said...

Oh, I think there is a WORLD of a difference in their approaches to Judaism. One believes in mysticism and one believes in rationalism. However, their approach to reading the Gemora and understanding Chazal were VERy similar if not identical. I guess I should have titled the post How Different are the Rambam and Maharal at Reading Chazal.