Shiur #04: Stages and Boundaries in the Study of Esoteric Wisdom

  • Rav Chaim Navon



A.           Do Not Rush into the Study of Metaphysics


As we have already seen, much of the Guide of the Perplexed is devoted to linguistic exegetical explanations of how different passages in Tanakh should be read. In particular, this is the Rambam's focus in many chapters of Part I of the Guide. We shall begin our discussion with one of these chapters, chapter five.


Prior to this, in chapter four, the Rambam had discussed the meaning of the verbs "r-a-h," "ch-z-h," and "h-b-t," (all forms of "seeing" or "looking") when the object of that seeing is God. In chapter five, he elaborates further on this subject. Through his interpretations of these terms he achieves two goals: first, he presents a thorough dismissal of the literal interpretation, which attributes corporeality to God; and second, he demonstrates that the true meaning of these verses is compatible with his philosophical approach.


He summarizes his discussion of these terms as follows:


Wherever in a similar connection any one of the three verbs mentioned above occurs, it has reference to intellectual perception, not to the sensation of sight by the eye: for God is not a being to be perceived by the eye.


It will do no harm, however, if those who are unable to comprehend what we here endeavor to explain should refer all the words in question to sensuous perception, to seeing lights created [for the purpose], angels, or similar beings.


The Rambam proposes two understandings. The first asserts that wherever the text talks about "seeing" God it refers to intellectual perception. This is the true and preferred interpretation. However, there is also an alternative interpretation, which is suited to a simpler level. According to this understanding, the person in question does actually see with his eyes – not God Himself, but rather some being created by God (a light, an angel, etc.). This conception testifies to a lack of intellectual maturity, but it is nevertheless acceptable, according to the Rambam, because at least it does not entail attributing corporeality to God.


As an example of this approach, the Rambam quotes a verse from the Torah that speaks of the greatest of all prophets, Moshe, at the burning bush, where God instructs him to go to Egypt:


And Moshe hid his face, for he feared to look (me-habit) at God. (Shemot 3:6)


Here, the Rambam applies both interpretations. Obviously, there was no possibility of Moshe looking – literally, physically – at God. We might explain that he feared to gaze at the light that was revealed, which had marked the encounter with God. However, the Rambam prefers a different interpretation, recalling his metaphor of the "golden apples within silver filigree" (see shiur no. 2 in this series) – i.e., there are two levels of understanding, both of which may be correct, but one of which is more profound than the other. According to this second interpretation, Moshe is averse to engaging in intellectual meditation on God, since he feels that he is not yet ready for it:


A man, when he starts to speculate, ought not to embark all at once on a subject so vast and important; he should first adapt himself to the study of the various branches of science and knowledge, and should most thoroughly refine his moral character and subdue his passions and desires, the offspring of his imagination. When, in addition, he has obtained a grasp of the true fundamental propositions, a comprehension of the several methods of inference and proof, and the capacity to guard against fallacies, then he may approach the investigation of this subject. He must, however, not decide any question by the first idea that suggests itself to his mind, nor direct his thoughts from the outset and force them to obtain knowledge of the Creator. Rather, he must stop, remain humbly and patiently stationary, and then advance step by step.


Even Moshe, the greatest of the prophets, stood still at the beginning of his path, and did not exceed his limitations. Thus, an average person should certainly know his limitations and not deal in matters that are beyond his level. The “nobles of Israel” serve as a good example of the dangers involved here:


They saw (va-yechezu) God, and they ate and drank. (Shemot 24:11)


According to the Rambam, this verse is a scathing criticism of these nobles: their "seeing" of God was bound up with physical activities. This tells us that they prematurely ventured into metaphysical meditation.


It seems that the Rambam deduced the criticism of the nobles of Israel from an analysis of the intellectual spiritual experience which they achieved:


They saw (va-yir'u) the God of Israel, and beneath His feet there was a kind of paved work of sapphire stone… (Shemot 24:10)


The Rambam hints that this verse should be understood as signifying a deficient perception of God, one which associates Him with matter. (The commentators are divided as to what exactly he means by this.)


Here again is an example of the Rambam's extreme caution in making the esoteric wisdom of the Torah accessible to the masses. However, he does not maintain that the masses remain completely cut off from this wisdom. He asserts that a person should indeed try to elevate himself to the highest possible level of intellectual perception – but he should do so gradually and with caution.


In this chapter we also see the tension between the two functions of the Guide. On one hand, the Rambam declares, "Wherever in a similar connection any one of the three verbs mentioned above occurs, [it] refers to intellectual perception…" – i.e., the book has a lexicographical function. On the other hand, we have seen that this chapter also contains some very important statements regarding the Rambam's spiritual, philosophical, educational and social views.


B.           The Limitations of the Human Intellect


During the Olympics, we find sports commentators debating the question of whether there are any absolute limits to human achievements in the athletic realm. The Rambam raises a far more interesting and important question: whether there is an absolute limit to human ability in the intellectual realm. Surprisingly enough, his answer is in the affirmative. The Rambam asserts that it is not only the perception of the masses that is limited; even the most intelligent person has limits that he is unable to transcend.


There is a considerable difference between one person and another as regards these [intellectual] faculties… This distinction is not unlimited. A boundary is undoubtedly set to the human mind which it cannot pass. (Guide, I:31)


How is it possible to know whether a certain question is beyond the limitations of human understanding, such that we will never be able to find an absolute answer to it? The Rambam proposes a partial indication of the type of knowledge that lies beyond our capabilities: sometimes, man has no desire to know such things. For example, the Rambam lists such questions as: the number of stars in the sky, the number of types of living creatures, etc. We might argue that man has no desire for such knowledge because it is of no importance, but the Rambam argues that the reason is simply because such knowledge lies beyond the limitations of our intellect. In his view, the real problem arises regarding knowledge that is in the "intermediate" realm: a person desires to obtain a certain area of knowledge, which in itself suggests that it is within his ability to grasp, but his intellectual abilities do not allow him to completely comprehend the subject.


Elsewhere the Rambam explains what happens to a person who insists on venturing beyond what the human mind is capable of grasping:


If, however, you overstrain your eye, exerting it too much by attempting to see an object which is too distant for your eye, or to examine writings or engravings too small for your sight, and forcing it to obtain a correct perception of them, you will not only weaken your sight with regard to that special object, but also for those things which you otherwise are able to perceive: your eye will have become too weak to perceive what you were able to see before you exerted yourself and exceeded the limits of your vision.


The same is the case with the speculative faculties of one who devotes himself to the study of any science. If a person studies too much and exhausts his reflective powers, he will be confused, and will not be able to apprehend even that which had been within the power of his apprehension. For the powers of the body are all alike in this respect. (Guide I:32)


A person who overexerts his intellectual faculties in an attempt to comprehend some mystery that is beyond his abilities is like a person who strains his eyes in an attempt to see a tiny picture; ultimately, his sight will be damaged. Likewise, someone who insists on probing a question, for which he lacks the requisite intellect to properly answer, will ultimately cause a weakening of his intellectual abilities.


This is an interesting and important point. The Rambam is usually regarded as an extreme rationalist, who glorified and exalted the power of reason. In general, this is indeed an accurate portrayal. However, he was also aware of the limitations of reason and logic. This acknowledgment ties into his social and pedagogical views, namely, that a person should progress slowly and gradually in his study, and not try to jump all at once to the level of the sages. As noted, it is not only the masses whose intellectual capacity he regarded as limited; even the wisdom of the truly wise has its boundaries.


In the second part of the Guide, the Rambam relates these limitations to his discussion of the origin of the universe, i.e., the question of whether the universe was created by God, or has always existed. The Rambam proves that the claims that this question can be settled one way or another are illusory. The question is not open to intellectual decision, and therefore our conclusion must be to follow our religious tradition. At this point, human intellect raises its hands in resignation.


This does not mean that the Rambam abandoned his stance concerning the importance of the intellect. The intellect has limitations, but it nevertheless remains our main tool for spiritual progress:


It was not the object… in these utterances to close the gate of investigation entirely, and to prevent the mind from comprehending that which is within its reach. (I:32)


The Rambam puts a limit on human intellect, but this boundary is very far off. There is much that one is able to study and perceive before the limit is reached.


C.           Debate


At the end of chapter thirty-one, the Rambam lists several reasons for the existence of debate and disagreement in the world. This issue is of acute relevance to the spiritual world inhabited by the Rambam, since it would seem to contradict his basic assumption that the intellect is the most effective tool for solving problems and setting forth the path to follow in life. If the intellect is such an effective tool, how is it that it leads different people to different conclusions?


According to the Rambam, debate arises first and foremost in those matters in which the intellect is too weak to reach a conclusion. The very existence of debate in profound matters is related to the weakness of human intellect, in two senses: first, human logic lacks the ability to decide such questions; and second, human logic is sometimes not sharp enough to recognize its own limitations. People of supreme intelligence do not end up debating even the profound issues regarding which they are unable to arrive at conclusive answers. They simply acknowledge amongst themselves that they are unable to make any clear assertion on the subject. Debates crop up in such questions because "each one thinks that he has found a way of knowing the true essence of the thing." If people were smart enough to recognize that they have no way of deciding certain issues, the debates on those issues would be far less heated.


Further on, the Rambam quotes Alexander of Aphrodisias, one of the ancient commentators on Aristotle, who lists three reasons for dispute. The first reason is the unwillingness to recognize the truth owing to arrogance and the quest for control, which leads people to think that the truth resides with them. The second reason is the depth of the subject, which renders any intellectual discussion of it too difficult. As noted, the Rambam adopted this principle and was certainly aware of its ramifications: a certain limitation on the power of the intellect, and a recognition that the human mind is incapable of solving any and every problem in a decisive, simple, and efficient manner. The third reason is weakness of the intellect of the individual in question, causing him to arrive at mistaken conclusions.


From what the Rambam says in the first half of the chapter we might have concluded that there are disputes only in those subjects in which the intellect is limited, where there is no unequivocal, logical proof. We have noted that even in this situation, when the subject is too profound to be comprehensively understood through reason, a wise person will stop and not force himself to arrive at a conclusion. However, it is here that the first and third causes enumerated by Alexander become manifest: owing to people's desire to win an argument, and the weakness of their intellect, they do not acknowledge that in this matter there is no decisive proof, and consequently they fail to demonstrate the appropriate humility. In such areas a person may argue, at most, that in his opinion the considerations seem to lean more strongly to one conclusion than to the other. Instead, oftentimes each of the parties claims to have the true answer, and this gives rise to heated debate. In fact, the factors listed by Alexander sometimes apply even where there is decisive proof. The desire for control, and stupidity, prevent people from acknowledging the truth even when it is placed right under their noses.


The Rambam himself adds a fourth reason for dispute: "habit and training." A person likes the views to which he is accustomed and is unwilling to address the possibility that they may be wrong. In contemporary language, we might say that the Rambam speaks out against "common sense," which, in many cases, is simply "popular sense" which has been repeated enough times to have assumed the status of absolute truth. The "common sense" of people in the 16th century maintained that the sun revolved around the earth.


In his introduction to the Commentary on the Mishna, the Rambam expresses a similar idea with regard to the causes of dispute:


But when the Sages tell us, 'When there was a proliferation of disciples of Shammai and Hillel who had not apprenticed themselves sufficiently, disputes multiplied in Israel,’ this is very clear. Because two people who are equals in understanding and study and in knowledge of the hermeneutical principles by means of which we deduce teachings, would have no dispute between them at all in any of these principles; if there were, it would be minor, just as we find no dispute between Shammai and Hillel except in just a few laws – because their method of study in everything related to their study of any of the principles was very similar, and the correct laws that one side used, were also used by the other. But when their students studied less, and their logical thinking in comparison to Shammai and Hillel, their teachers, was weakened, then dispute arose between them in their debates of several issues, because each side argued in accordance with the power of their intellect and the rules known to them. And they cannot be blamed for this, for we ourselves cannot force two people in a dispute to argue in accordance with the intellectual level of Yehoshua and Pinchas.


The point of departure here is the teaching of Chazal: "When there was a proliferation of disciples of Shammai and Hillel who had not apprenticed themselves sufficiently, disputes multiplied in Israel, and the Torah became like two Torah’s" (Sota 47b). This is one of the sources in which Chazal present their theory as to the development of the phenomenon of dispute in Halakha. In explaining his teaching, the Rambam sets down several principles. First, dispute is a negative phenomenon. The ideal is that there be agreement on the correct answer. As a practical expression of this approach, the Rambam omits all halakhic debate from his Mishneh Torah – unlike the approach of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi in his compilation of the Mishna. The second principle that the Rambam asserts is that dispute is not something that need necessarily arise, since two intelligent people who use the same rules of analysis and study will necessarily – or, at least, in the great majority of cases – arrive at the same conclusion. The third point is that the students of Hillel and Shammai should not be blamed for forgetting or becoming confused, since this is the natural result of a decline in the intellectual realm. (He emphasizes this point further later on.)


Here we must devote some attention to the ramifications of the second point raised by the Rambam in his introduction to the Commentary on the Mishna, that the phenomenon of dispute on halakhic matters need not arise. How are we to reconcile this with the Rambam's teaching in the Guide, where he maintains that there are some matters concerning which there is no logical, unequivocal proof, and that in such areas dispute and debate may arise? In Halakha, in general, there are no mathematical proofs, and knowledgeable people, with intellectual integrity, would have to admit that they have no decisive answer. Perhaps what the Rambam means is that, in an optimal situation, intelligent people would acknowledge that the proofs in a given halakhic issue tend towards one of the sides, even though there is no conclusive answer.


In any event, even if we agree with the Rambam's first point, there is still room to disagree with the second: it is certainly possible to think that dispute is undesirable, while at the same time recognizing that it is inevitable. Approaches that are less rigorously rationalistic than that of the Rambam have placed more emphasis on the limitations of the intellect, thereby arriving at the conclusion that exegetical dispute in Halakha is unavoidable. For instance, the Ramban, in his introduction to the Milchamot Hashem, writes:


Any student of the Talmud knows that in a dispute between its interpreters there are no conclusive proofs, nor – in most cases – absolute refutations. For in this wisdom there is no clear necessary answer, as there is, for example, in mathematics.


The Ramban disagrees with the Rambam, maintaining that dispute is a natural phenomenon, because in the halakhic, legal realm there are no decisive proofs; therefore, different people do not always arrive at the same, uniform conclusion. As noted, this does not necessarily mean that the Ramban therefore viewed dispute as a desirable phenomenon.


A rather extreme example of the negative view of dispute is Rabbi Yitzchak Duran, author of Ma'aseh Efod, a commentary on the Guide, who criticizes the Talmud for its multiplicity of debates:


For it is impossible that this work, the Talmud, should alone achieve ultimate success for a person [in his study]… for this work records the great disputes that took place among the Sages of Israel with regard to the laws of the Torah – where only one of the conflicting opinions is correct, while the others are nullified, and there can be no ultimate success [in study] that will follow from the view that is nullified… And this aforementioned work is altogether full of these and other similar arguments. (Rabbi Yitzchak Duran, Ma'aseh Efod, Vienna 5625, p. 6)


Rabbi Duran argues that the Talmud is full of debates, and in each debate there is only one view which is true. Therefore, a student of the Talmud ends up devoting much time to the study of views that are ultimately not accepted. This criticism of the Talmud is quite exceptional in Jewish tradition, but the negative attitude towards the phenomenon of dispute is not all that unusual.


Some opinions have regarded dispute as a phenomenon that is actually positive to some degree. An example is the Arukh Ha-shulchan:


On the contrary: this is the glory of our holy and pure Torah, and the Torah in its entirety is called 'shira' (song), and the glory of song is that is comprises different voices; that is the essence of its beauty. One who wanders about in the sea of Talmud will perceive different qualities in each of the diverse voices comprising it. (Introduction to Arukh Ha-shulchan, Choshen Mishpat)


As noted, this is very different from the view of the Rambam.



Translated by Kaeren Fish