Shiur #05: Placing Boundaries on Knowledge

  • Rav Chaim Navon



A.        Adapting Knowledge to the Level of the Student


Following his discussion of the limitations of the human intellect, the Rambam proceeds to justify his literary and educational approach, which favors reserving some knowledge for an intellectual elite. We live today in a democratic era, and it is difficult for us to identify with – or even to understand – an approach that favors limiting knowledge to select individuals. The educational philosophy of our times negates this approach completely. It is negated even more strongly by the recent revolutions in mass communication and by the contemporary reality of media, in which everything is accessible to everyone. The Rambam certainly would not have approved of Wikipedia.


At the beginning of chapter thirty-three in Book I of the Guide, the Rambam acknowledges the tension that underlies his educational approach. On the one hand, someone who is ready and prepared to attain complete intellectual knowledge must be helped to progress and to achieve this knowledge, which embodies true perfection. On the other hand, a person who is not ready for this knowledge must not be granted access to it, under any circumstances.


The Rambam presents his view in a manner that deflects any possible objections. He does not write that there are people who are worthy, or inherently capable, of advancing to the deeper levels of wisdom, and others who are not. Rather, he writes that there are people who have already achieved a level of understanding that allows them to study this wisdom, while there are others who have not yet reached this level. This is a moderate description which appears to avoid creating intellectual strata, instead pointing out only different stages of development.


However, the Rambam in fact writes in several places that most people will never attain the required level of wisdom. In the modern world, we emphasize the unique development of every individual on his own special path. In the eyes of the Rambam, however, there is a single scale of intellectual development, and people differ only in their point of departure and the pace of their progress. In his view, there is one pinnacle to which all people should strive. But while some people start off in a high position, and climb quickly, others start off in a lower position and progress slowly. There are, of course, all sorts of combinations in between.


What happens to a person who tries to skip steps on this ladder of the development of knowledge?


He, however, who begins with metaphysics, will not only become confused in matters of religion, but will fall into complete infidelity. (Guide, I:33)


Therefore, as a first stage, a person must be satisfied with knowledge that is suited to a lower level. Contrary to the "esoteric writing" view of some scholars of the Guide, the Rambam is not arguing here that the masses should be fed superstitions. What he is saying is that true beliefs should be formulated for the masses in the form of brief, decisive conclusions. Indeed, this was his aim in drawing up the "Thirteen Principles of Faith" (in his introduction to the chapter "Chelek" in Massekhet Sanhedrin). In his Epistle on the Resurrection of the Dead, the Rambam writes:


We have seen that in our Talmudic works we must explain Torah principles in narrative form rather than in the form of logical proofs, for bringing proofs concerning those roots demands expertise in many branches of knowledge; students of the Talmud may be entirely ignorant with respect to these branches. We have explained this in the Guide of the Perplexed. We have therefore preferred for these truths to be accepted, at least, [if not proven,] amongst the masses.


It is important to remember that the Rambam believed that life in the World to Come is a result of life properly lived in this world – i.e., life that embodies proper character and intellectual knowledge. A person who lives a moral and balanced life – and, above all, occupies himself with necessary truths – will merit eternal life in the World to Come. In contrast, a person whose beliefs are defective will not merit the World to Come. Therefore, the Rambam sought to offer the masses the minimum knowledge that would allow them to earn eternal life. Knowledge of the principles of faith is the entry card of the masses to the World to Come. Hence we conclude that the Rambam devoted attention to the spiritual world of the masses and not only to intellectual giants. He believed that it is possible to equip the masses with true beliefs – although in different garb.


It is possible that the above is stated in overly democratic terms. For in the eyes of the Rambam, when philosophical truths are clothed in concise, popular attire, they are no longer the same truths:


Since all of them [the common people] are incapable of comprehending the true sense of the words, tradition was considered sufficient to convey all truths which were to be established; and as regards ideals, only such remarks were made as would lead towards knowledge of their existence, though not to a comprehension of their true essence. (Guide, I:33)


As the Rambam sees it, if a person is told that God exists, but he is given no guidance in the various logical proofs that are entailed in this belief, then what he grasps of it is not "its true essence.” In general, we view proof as a sort of scaffolding that helps us to build the desired conclusion. Once we have established the conclusion, the scaffolding may be removed. For example, once the well-known formula for solving a quadratic equation has been proven, there is no longer any value to the mathematical proof in and of itself, and there is no harm in forgetting it; the formula works fine without constant reference to the proof of its veracity. However, the Rambam regards knowledge in the philosophical realm as following a different model: a person who knows only the conclusion, without the proof, possesses knowledge that is partial and defective. True knowledge necessarily includes the proof that justifies and produces it.


B.        Why is Metaphysics Not Suitable for the Masses?


In the next chapter the Rambam goes on to explain in greater detail his view that metaphysics is suited only to scholars at an advanced stage of training, and not to the masses. In chapter thirty-three the Rambam employs a metaphor: a common person who starts his studies with metaphysics is likened to a baby who is fed meat and wine. In chapter thirty-four, he addresses the idea expressed through this image even more directly, listing five reasons why gradual study is necessary before one can enter the realm of metaphysics. Let us examine these reasons one by one.


1.          Difficulty of the Subject Matter


The Rambam states that metaphysics is a difficult subject, and the acquisition of knowledge cannot begin with the hardest subjects. In this regard he notes the famous metaphor in which Chazal compare wisdom to water. This metaphor leads the Rambam to a surprising conclusion: a person who is able to swim in deep water may draw pearls from the depths, but one who is unable to swim is advised to keep a safe distance from the water. Why is this argument surprising? Because the conventional understanding of Chazal's teaching is precisely the opposite: just as water is a necessity, bringing life to everything, so too the Torah is vital and brings life to all. The Rambam's interpretation views the water as intended not for drinking, but for swimming. Thus he turns the metaphor from a democratic argument, asserting that the Torah is basic and necessary for everyone, into an elitist argument, according to which wisdom is suited to and intended for only the most advanced scholars.


The Rambam himself writes that our Sages "clarified, by means of this metaphor, different matters." Indeed, in the midrashim we find evidence of both interpretations:


The words of Torah are compared to water… “Ho, everyone who is thirsty, come to the water” (Yishayahu 55:1)… Just as water brings life to the world, as it is written, “A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters” (Shir Ha-shirim 4:15), so Torah brings life to the world, as it is written, “for they are life to those who find them” (Mishlei 4:22)… And just as a person who does not know how to sail in water will ultimately be swallowed up, so it is with the words of Torah: if a person does not know how to sail in them and find instruction in them, he will be swallowed up." (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba parasha 1,3)


In this midrash, as in several other places, Chazal understand the verse, "Ho, everyone who is thirsty, come to the water" as referring to the words of Torah, which give life to the world. Elsewhere, Chazal teach that just as fish cannot live outside of water, so Israel (each and every Jew!) cannot live without Torah (Avoda Zara 3b). However, the end of the midrash does indeed echo the Rambam's assertion that someone who is unable to swim in deep water is likely to drown in Torah.


In the introduction to his Chovot Ha-levavot, Rabbeinu Bechaye cites the same metaphor, but interprets it in a very different manner from that of the Rambam:


“Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Mishlei 20:5). In other words, wisdom is a potential that is concealed in the nature of every person and in the power of his understanding, like water that is concealed in the depths of the earth. One who is wise and understanding will try to inquire concerning that knowledge that exists in his power and in his consciousness, until he reaches it and discovers it and draws it out of himself, just as one seeks out the water that is in the depths of the ground.


Rabbeinu Bechaye understands the metaphor of water as referring not to a body of water in which one immerses himself, but rather water for drinking. However, his focus is on the source of the water rather than on its necessity. One has to exert great efforts in order to reach the water, but it is not located far away; rather, it is deep down inside. The same is true of wisdom: one must work hard in order to achieve it, but it is to be found in the depths of one's heart. This idea recalls Plato's concept of anamnesis. According to Plato, when a person learns something that is true, he is actually being reminded of truths that were known to his soul even before he was born. Rabbeinu Bechaye raises a similar idea, and by means of it he arrives at the conclusion that if the sages share their wisdom with the masses, everyone will immediately recognize the truth of their words, since the same truth is hidden in their own hearts. This clearly contradicts the Rambam's view that there are realms of wisdom for which the masses lack adequate intellectual abilities.


2.          Developing Intellectual Potential


The Rambam maintains that a person is born with vast intellectual potential, but it needs developing. He then asserts that many people fail to realize this potential throughout their lives.


It is interesting that he does not assert here that some people have an intellectual limitation or impairment that is "organic"; he does not even imply a genetic tendency. From what he says later on we see that he does recognize genetic tendencies, but he makes no mention of them here, concerning the intellect. It seems from what he says here that the intellect is limited only by the degree to which a person's intellectual potential is realized, and every individual achieves this to a different degree. According to this view, when two babies are born, there is no difference between them in terms of their intellectual tendencies and abilities. In the introduction to his Commentary on the Mishna, the Rambam writes:


For one intellect may have an advantage over the other in the same manner as the advantage of one’s disposition.


He immediately clarifies:

The intellect of one who knows something is not superior to the intellect of one who is ignorant of that thing; simply, the one is intellect in action, while the other is intellect in potential. (Rambam's Introductions to the Mishna, Shilat edition, p. 53)


In other words, the difference lies not in the measure of the potential itself, but rather in the degree to which it is realized.


However, in chapter thirty-three, the Rambam does speak of a person who is "intelligent, talented, clear-headed, and of quick perception.” Elsewhere, in setting forth the preconditions for prophecy, he writes:


The full development of any faculty of the body, such as the imagination, depends on the condition of the organ, by means of which the faculty acts. This must be the best possible regarding its temperament and its size, and also regarding the purity of its substance. Any defect in these respects cannot in any way be supplied or remedied by training. For when any organ is defective in its temperament, proper training can in the best case restore a healthy condition to some extent, but cannot make such an organ perfect. But if the organ is defective as regards size, position, or as regards the substance and the matter of which the organ is formed, there is no remedy. (Guide, II:36)


From here it would seem that there are, in fact, some fundamental differences between people at birth, and these also influence the intellect.


3.          A Lengthy Process

According to the Rambam, before a person arrives at proper metaphysical knowledge, he must study thoroughly and systematically the realms of logic, mathematics, and physics. Only after he has attained broad and systematic knowledge in all of these areas can he proceed to learn metaphysics. Many people get "stuck" in the middle of this long process of study.


The Rambam adds that only lengthy and thorough study can help a person build a stable structure of knowledge:


There is still another urgent reason why the preliminary disciplines should be studied and understood. During the study many doubts present themselves, and the difficulties or the objections raised against certain assertions are soon understood, just as the demolition of a building is easier than its erection… (Guide, I:34)


What the Rambam seems to be saying is that just as it is very easy to demolish a building if it is not stable and solidly built from the foundations up, so it is easy to arouse doubts and questions in a person whose knowledge does not rest on firm foundations. Thus, even if it seems to a person that he has succeeded in attaining metaphysical knowledge through all sorts of shortcuts, he must know that his knowledge is shaky and precarious.


4.          Differences in Character


If the Rambam seems to imply that in the realm of intellect everyone has similar potential (the differences between people attributable mainly to the degree to which their potential is realized), when it comes to character traits and personality, his position is entirely different. Every person is able to achieve perfection of character, but people have different primary tendencies. One person may have a natural tendency towards good character, while another is naturally endowed with traits that are negative. A person may work on his traits, but perfecting them, for someone who starts off in a negative situation, will require enormous effort and, practically speaking, is almost impossible.


Aside from the differences between people, the matter of age is also significant: an older person is better disposed to attaining proper traits than is a person who is still in his youth.


It is interesting to see, in the opinion of the Rambam, that a person needs proper character traits because of their contribution to a life of intellectual study:


It is not possible to attain true intellectual insights… except for a person whose traits are extremely well trained. (I:35)


We shall discuss this further later on.


Another interesting point arises from the Rambam's enumeration of the traits that a person needs before the secrets of the Torah may be conveyed to him. Aside from philosophical insight, he must also have public leadership ability and oratory skills. Later on we shall discuss why these qualities are necessary.


5.          Taking Care of One's Material Needs


A person has no choice but to take care of his material needs. Without taking care of his physical needs, he will be unable to progress to his spiritual needs. But this preoccupation, according to the Rambam's view, limits one's intellectual ability. Moreover, most people become addicted to superfluous luxuries and the attaining of them, well beyond the minimum which they require, such that the time and energy that they are able to devote to study is greatly reduced.


As a result of all of these reasons, the Rambam limits the study of metaphysics to exceptional individuals only, and does not regard this sphere as part of the basic education that should be offered to the masses. In the next shiur we shall attempt to sketch the boundaries of the bare minimum of philosophical knowledge which, according to the Rambam, should be taught to everyone.


Translated by Kaeren Fish