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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.


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