Jewish Journal


January 4, 2013

WWMD? What would Maimonides do?



Earthrise - Credit: NASA

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides, also known by the acronym Rambam, lived over eight hundred years ago (1138-1204 CE). He never saw the planet Earth as Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders did on December 24, 1968, when Anders took the now iconic Earthrise photograph while flying over the lunar surface during the first manned orbit of the Moon. We do not know if Maimonides even imagined such a sight.        

When on December 16, 1992, the Galileo Orbiter was almost four million miles from our home planet, it shot an amazing picture of Earth with the Moon in the background. Maimonides never had the opportunity to see Earth and Moon from this perspective either.    

Living some four hundred years before Nicolaus Copernicus considered the nature of the solar system and Gallileo Galilei fashioned his first telescope, Maimonides did not realize that the Earth circled the Sun, and not the other way around as was commonly understood in his day. Nor could he have known that the Sun was but one medium sized star in a rather pedestrian galaxy known as the Milky Way which spans 100,000 light years and is similar in size and shape to the spiral galaxy NGC 3370 as seen in a picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Similarly, he would not have known either that our galaxy consisted of a few hundred million stars, give or take, or that the Milky Way was but one of a few hundred million galaxies, give or take, in the visible universe.   

When Rambam died, Charles Darwin was still twenty-six generations into the future. The notion that all living things shared common ancestry with other living things had not yet been conceived. Nor certainly, did anyone in or before Maimonides’ time envision the double helix of DNA which serves to transmit genetic information from parent to offspring.

What, though, if Maimonides were with us today? What if he could see what we can see? What if he could know what we now know ?

What if Rambam learned that the universe as we understand it began in a sudden explosion some fourteen billion years ago, inflated and is now, even now, expanding at an accelerated pace? What if he were taught that matter and energy are convertible?  What if he were confronted with the uncertainties of quantum mechanics? What if he saw pictures of Earth taken from the Moon or beyond, or were presented with a composite picture of cosmic microwave background radiation?

What if Rambam read not just Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, but contemporary studies on evolution? What if he simply visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, or some similar institution, and saw cladigrams replete with examples of the development of incredible varieties of past and present life forms? What if he could review human genome studies?

With all this information, given his temperament, his outlook, one wonders, to borrow a phrase from another group, WWMD? What would Maimonides do?

The question is not entirely fair, of course. We could, if we were so inclined, ask what James Madison would do to restructure government in a United States of America now extended fully and formally across North America and to Alaska and Hawaii, thoroughly industrialized and a great financial and military world power. Or, what Mozart would do if he were familiar with the works of Stravinsky or Sibelius or, for that matter, just Brahms and Beethoven. 

Who knows? The answer may say more about the person asking the question than it does about the subject of the inquiry. After all, taking someone out of his historic context and placing him in a new one would not necessarily mean that he would merely apply his original philosophy or approach to a new set of facts and conditions. Still, the question remains: WWMD?

To begin to consider this perplexing question, we can seek clues, naturally enough, in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed (the “Guide” or “GP”). The Guide illustrates how deeply immersed Rambam was in Jewish tradition, in the lore of the ancient Sages. But when those wise men opined on a matter of science, Maimonides tended to prefer, when he could, to accept demonstrable evidence over conjecture, even pious conjecture.

For instance, in at least two instances discussed in the Guide, Maimonides considered what the ancient Sages said about certain astronomical events. At one point he recognized that those who preceded him were necessarily limited in their understanding of certain matters. He said:

“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.”

(GP Part 2: Chapter 14. All references are to Friedlander’s translation, Cosimo ed.  2006.)

At another point, Rambam discussed the then current belief, once espoused by the Sages, that the Sun and other heavenly bodies produce “mighty and fearful sounds” as they circuited in their orbits, a belief he says that was connected to a “theory of the motion and of the stars in a fixed sphere.” He noted first that Aristotle rejected that belief, holding that the Sun, Moon, planet and stars produce no sound. Second, he contended second that the Sages themselves had abandoned their theory on the motion of the stars. He concluded his thought by commending the Sages for so doing because “speculative matters everyone treats according to the results of his own study, and everyone accepts that which appears to him established by proof.” (GP, at 2:8.) 

Both of these instances underscore the importance to Maimonides of the best science available at the time. And both show a willingness to depart from the generally accepted wisdom of the Sages when that wisdom was not grounded in good current science.

The preceding reference to Aristotle is telling. In the Guide, we also find that Maimonides reached beyond the confines of traditional Jewish thought to other philosophies, in particular, but without limitation, to the Greeks, and specifically to Aristotle.  So, if he was traditional in his devotion to the teachings and practices of the community into which he was born, he was also liberal in his willingness to consider a variety of sources of information.

Yet while Maimonides was open to new, and non-traditional ideas, he was not necessary accepting of them.  Aristotle, for example, held that the universe was eternal. As Maimonides understood it, this meant, among other things, that the universe had no beginning.  Maimonides did not defer to Aristotle on the concept of the eternality of the universe.  Rather, he believed that the universe had a beginning, that there was creation ex nihilo.

Maimonides refutation of Aristotle on this point was intended to preserve the underlying truth, as Maimonides saw it, of the Biblical creation story. Maimonides may have viewed some of that story as allegorical, but he accepted as accurate the core concept of a beginning of matter and time. So he characterized Aristotle’s view was mere argument, unproven and not “sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text.” (GP, at 2:25.) Even here, though, he acknowledged that if Aristotle’s theory were proven, “the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected and we should be forced to other opinions.” (Id.)

Of course, challenging someone eight hundred years ago on the basis that the proponent of a scientific theory lacked evidence was rather easy. There was not much evidence around. We know now, (but have only known for less than one hundred years), that Rambam was more correct than Aristotle, at least on one issue. The universe, to the extent we can perceive it today, appears to have had a beginning some fourteen billion years ago. Cosmologists are fairly confident of our understanding of the origin event, to within an exceedingly small fraction of its initiation.

But Aristotle’s theory of eternality, a discussed by Maimonides, incorporated another element as well.  Aristotle also thought that “everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change and that there is nothing supernatural.” (GP, at 2:25.) Rambam believed that accepting that part of the argument “would necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion . . . unless the miracles are also explained figuratively.” (Id.) Today we are well aware of what might be called fixed laws, or at least laws that operate consistently within certain parameters.

What would Maimonides do with that information? Rabbis Marc Angel and Natan Slifkin can both fairly be described as Modern Orthodox. Both stress Maimonides’ commitment to understand the natural world and to seek its underlying Truth. Angel argues that “Rambam would surely not expect us to continue to operate on the basis of Ptolmaic theories.” (Angel, Maimonides, Spinoza and Us (Jewish Lights 2009), at 162.) To the contrary, Angel contends that because of his rational approach, Maimonides would consider it foolish to reject what contemporary science has proven beyond a reasonable doubt. (Id. at 164.) Slifkin, too, acknowledges Rambam’s tendency to favor natural, non-miraculous explanations of phenomena and suggests that he would have no problem accepting modern scientific views on, for instance, cosmology and evolution. (See Slifkin, The Challenge of Creation (Zoo Torah, 2d Ed. 2008), at 62, 147, 221 n.1, 268, 343 n.2.)

But where does this lead? Angel’s chosen standard of proof is a stringent one, used in criminal, not civil cases, cases. More importantly, would Maimonides really embrace today’s scientific teachings as a way to know God or would those same teachings lead him elsewhere? Would Maimonides, like nearly seventy-five percent (75%) of Jewish scientists surveyed at elite research universities simply take an atheist position? (See Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxfor U. Press, 2010), at 36.)

A contemporary conservative rabbi, Jeremy Kalmanovsky, has written that “finding God inhering naturalistically in all things – a theory usually called panentheism – is the only adequate response to science.” (See “Heavenly Theology and Earthly Religion” in Jewish Theology in Our Time (Jewish Lights, 2010) at 25.)  Would his inclination toward naturalism carry Rambam to that conclusion too? And, if he reached that point, what would be the consequences in terms of theology, prayer or otherwise?

We cannot forget that Rambam also departed from the Sages’s emphasis on action, on mitzvot, and taught that in order to be part of the Jewish community, to earn a place in the world to come, Jews needed to adhere to certain principles, including the existence of God. So he formulated the first Jewish creed, consisting of thirteen principles of faith. These principles included the beliefs that God existed, that God was one, that God conveyed God’s law to Moshe on Har Sinai, that the Messiah would come and the dead would be resurrected. How, if at all, would Maimonides’ principles be affected by his newly acquired scientific knowledge?

Our consideration of the question is complicated by the fact that Maimonides wrote in Arabic, and apparently obscurely at that. And what we read, we read in translation. Translations of dense writing, written less than forthrightly, do not exactly provide a firm foundation for determining with precision the writer’s intent. But translations are not the only impediment to understanding Maimonides, or even the most important. As Natan Slifkin has noted, there is considerable debate about the true nature of Rambam’s views. (See, Slifkin, above, at 69.)

Menachem Kellner of the University of Haifa, reviewing a new book about the Guide, titled his review “Mymonides and Hismonides.” And, we should add, Hermonides, too. Kellner’s point was that Rambam has become something of a Rorschach test, “few have read him, fewer have understood him, and yet everyone wants him in his or her camp.” That certainly seems to be the case.  Self-described progressive or liberal Jews look to Maimonides as a kindred modernist, open to secular thought and science. But Orthodox scholars such as Marc Angel and Natan Slifkin hold tight to Rambam as well. Much in his approach allows them to integrate contemporary science with traditional Judaism, and, so, to live authentically Jewish lives with intellectual integrity. 

Even those who, like Mordecai Plaut, are offput by what they see as the encompassing and robust science of the modern age, because its very “restriction to the empirical” renders it “entirely unsuited” to helping us love God refer to Rambam as authoritative, in this case for the proposition that we should not study modern science. Plaut’s point is that the modern science, with its emphasis on impersonal forces, devoid of purpose, is “radically different” than the world in which Maimonides lived, so much so that today he would reject it.

That Maimonides is understood quite differently by so many may complicate our consideration of the question raised, but it also underscores the importance of the question. So we still need to consider how this medieval philosopher would respond to our modern age. And we ask again, if he were here today: WWMD? What would Maimonides do?

Note: A version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.

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