Skip to main content

Thought for the Day: Jewish Philosophy -- Rambam vs Rabbeinu Yona

Even though Newton (Sir Isaac) is claimed by physics as one of their own, that is not entirely true.  Newton's field was really philosophy.  In fact, Newton spent a good deal more time trying to derive the exact date and time of Creation than he did on his physics.  Over time, his methodologies of analysis and mathematical language -- including his newly invented calculus -- became the norm for describing the physical world; and those are what has lasted.  Even in that, though, you will find a fair amount of philosophy.  Newton's universal law of gravitation makes the bold and totally untested (perhaps even untestable) assumption that the entire universe is run by a single set of principles and by studying what is happening on earth, one understands what is happening everywhere.  Since nearly all of our data comes from earth based laboratories and observations, it's a safe statement to make.

The Talmud is not at all interested in making safe statements; it is wholly and only interested in saying what is True.  In addition, the Talmud has no interest in addressing topics that do not make a practical difference in our conduct in this world.  It is not rare for a discussion to end with מאי נפקא מינה/what (practical) difference results?  When the gemara does not explicitly ask that question, then it is up to the interested reader.  For example, the gemara (.ברכות כג/Brachos 23a) quotes Rav Zvid as saying that as long as one knows that he will not need to relieve himself within approximately 72 minutes, then his bracha is a bracha.  The gemara, however, has two versions of this quote: one is a quote by itself, one is as a comment on the previous mishna.  The reader must ask מאי נפקא מינה/what (practical) difference results?  And the interested reader will be rewarded with the realization that one version is saying that such a person is allowed to make the bracha l'chatchila, the other is saying that his if forbidden to make the bracha, but if he does anyway he as fulfilled his obligation.

The real codification of Jewish philosophy didn't really begin till nearly the 10th century.  At that point we find a split whose source (I believe) is quite misunderstood; to the detriment of all concerned.  The Rambam is often seen as the great rationalist who is at odds with other Rishonim (notably Rabbeinu Yona) who are more (for lack of a better term) grounded in faith and received wisdom.  In fact, though, the real difference is much more in their terminology and audience.

The Rambam (as I just learned from shiur by R' Yitchak Breitowitz) was, while still being supported by his brother Dovid, a professor of philosophy in an Arabic university.  Not surprisingly, his terminology is classical philosophical (ie, Aristotelian).  Also, the Kara'ites (original Reform Jewish Religion) was  major problem in his era.  The Rambam was writing to "enlightened" students who also knew classical philosophy and who needed cut and dried answers to perceived big problems.

Rabbeinu Yona, on the other hand was living in medieval Europe... the surrounding culture offered no real attraction to the Jews (other than economic).  Moreover, European Jewry has access to the more kabalistic writings, so their was no need to address philosophical questions in a foreign  (ie, Aristotelian) vocabulary.  Rabbeinu Yona's writings, therefore, are full of Chazal and scriptural verses.

At the end of the day, the Rambam is not more of a rationalist than Rabbeinu Yona and Rabbeinu Yona is no more of a fundamentalist than the Rambam.  In fact, Rabbeinu Yona wrote his great שערי תשובה specifically as an apology and reconciliation for having misrepresented some of the Rambam's ideas.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Thought for the Day: Battling the Evil Inclination on all Fronts

Yom Kippur.  When I was growing up, there were three annual events that marked the Jewish calendar: eating matzos on Passover, lighting candles on Chanuka, and  fasting on Yom Kippur.  Major news organizations around the world report on the "surreal" and "eerie" quiet of the streets in even the most secular neighborhoods of Israel.  Yom Kippur.

As you know, I am observant of Jewish law.  Some have even called me "ultra orthodox" (not in a kind way).  Given that, I have a question.  How likely do you think that I would be tempted to eat on Yom Kippur, that most holy day of the year?  Let's make the scale zero to ten, where zero is "as likely as driving through McDonald's on Shabbos and ordering a Big Mac with extra cheese." and ten is "as likely as breathing regularly".  Take your time.  If you answered "zero"; thank you, but -- sadly and penitently -- no.  The answer is more like nine; I'd like to say lower, but i…

Thought for the Day: Coming Into This World for Torah, Avodah, and Acts of Loving Kindness

This TftD is so self-serving that I should be embarrassed.  But I am not... talking about grandchildren is always off budget.  I have, bli ayin hara, a beautiful new grandson; born at 6:11 PM CDT last Friday night.  The secular (aka -- by me, anyway -- slave) date is October 20, 2017 CE.  The Hebrew (aka Real) date is certainly Rosh Chodesh חשון/Cheshvan and certainly in the year 5778 since Creation.  The date, you ask... good question!

Sundown on Friday night was 6:01 PM CDT, which means he was born either at the end of the last day of תשרי or the beginning of the first day of Cheshvan; a period know as בין השמשות/twilight.  What's the big deal, you ask... I am so glad you asked.  We all deal quite handily with בין השמשות every week and every holiday; we're just stringent.  We start Shabbos and the first day of Yom Tov before בין השמשות; that is, before sundown.  Likewise, we end Shabbos and the first day of Yom Tov after בין השמשות; some 42, 50, 60, or 72 minutes after sundo…

Thought for the Day: Prayer II -- How?

Now that we know that the obligation to pray is nothing more (nor less!) than a divine decree, we are going to also need instructions from heaven on how to implement that decree.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to have instruction from heaven how to implement heavenly decrees.  One only needs to look at the shambles that one modern ism has made of the very important Torah principle of תיקון עולם/improving and fixing the world.  They have taken words out of context and used them to support their own nefarious schemes.  (To the point that Google Translate actually translates -- not transliterates -- תיקון עולם as Tikkun Olam.  Amelia Bedelia would be proud; we are not amused.

The Torah teaches us how to pray in two complementary fashions.  One is the way in which the concept is presented as an obligation, the other is by giving us examples of how to practically implement those instructions.

The obligation is introduced in the second paragraph of "sh'ma" -- וּלְ…