In his most recent post, Rabbi Slifkin gives the nod to Menachem Kellner’s book Must a Jew Believe Anything. In so doing, Rabbi Slifkin once again brings into sharp focus the raison d'être of this blog. Rabbi Slifkin writes that “One might quibble with the degree to which Kellner sets Chazal and Rambam at odds with each other, but there can be no denying that there was a tremendous gulf between them”. This, of course, is the fundamental premise which informs the field of “Maimonidean studies” in Western academic scholarship. It is also the furthest thing from the truth. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Rambam’s works understands the absurdity of such an assertion.
First of all, a simple appeal to common sense reveals the fallacy of Rabbi Slifkin’s approach to the Rambam. The Rambam’s most important work, the Yad haChazaka, is based entirely on the words of Chazal (other than the first four chapters of Hilchos Yesodei haTorah where the Rambam takes some of his ideas from Greek philosophy). Now, as a free and independent thinker, what are the statistical probabilities that the Rambam would concur with Chazal’s opinions in each and every one of his myriad halachos? If the term ‘impossible’ could ever be employed, this scenario would surely be a prime candidate. And yet the Rambam never digresses from Chazal. The entire Yad is the Rambam’s expressed opinion based solely on what he understood as the final conclusions of our sages both in matters which pertain to actions and matters which pertain to attitudes of the mind.
Furthermore, he makes countless scientific type statements (i.e. statements which relate to various laws of nature such as ein bishul achar bishul etc.) that are based entirely on Chazal with nary a twitter of dissent. This alone should be an obvious indication of the Rambam’s opinion regarding not only the halachos of Chazal but also their science.
The truth is the Rambam’s opinion of Chazal was so elevated that he annulled himself entirely to their view. If one wishes to understand the ‘essence’ of the Rambam in these matters, to understand the underlying premise which pervades all of his writings, the following select quotations from the Rambam’s preface to his Pirush HaMishnayos are edifying. The translation is mine and is based on Kapach’s edition of Pirush HaMishnayos l’Harambam.
“And this fourth matter, that is, the exegetical sayings found in the Talmud, should not be considered trivial or of little benefit, for they are of enormous benefit in that they encompass within them the most profound allusions and wondrous ideas. When an appropriately deep examination of these sayings is conducted, the absolute good which cannot be surpassed can be gleaned from them. All of the lofty concepts and profound verities that the greatest of wise men concealed in their teachings, all of the conclusions that the philosophers toiled over throughout the generations, all can be revealed in their [Chazal’s] words…” (Kapach ed. pg. 19)
“And therefore, we must establish the truth of their (Chazal’s) words in our hearts. We must delve deeply into them and not hurry to dismiss a single saying of theirs. Rather, if something is found in their words which seems strange in our eyes, we must orient ourselves in the appropriate [corresponding] disciplines until we understand their meaning in this particular topic, assuming that we are even able to comprehend [their words] in the first place. For even our [latter] sages of blessed memory, despite the fact that they delved exceedingly into their studies, were clear of mind, were appropriately fit for the comprehension of wisdom, attached themselves to great people and entirely detached themselves from material pursuits, [and yet despite all this they] attributed a ‘lacking’ to themselves when comparing themselves to previous generations…so much more so ourselves…how can we not attribute a lacking to ourselves in comparison to them. And since they [the latter sages] knew that all of the words of the sages are well established from every angle, they were very protective of them and enjoined against slandering them and stated ‘whomsoever blandishes the words of the sages is judged in boiling feces’ and there is no worse ‘boiling feces’ than the foolishness that leads one to denigrate [the words of our sages]. And therefore, you will never find one rejecting their words but one who chases after lust, who favors materialism, who never enlightened his mind with any illumination whatsoever.” (Kapach ed. pg. 20-21)
Well, there we go. This is what the Rambam really felt about our sages. Those who portray the Rambam as an avant-garde thinker who forged a new path in the explication of Judaism even when it contradicted the opinions of the sages are far from a proper understanding of the Rambam’s true weltanschauung. The Western academic view of the Rambam amounts to nothing more than intellectual sophistry if not outright dishonesty. Dovid haMelech’s saying comes to mind: “lo yadu, v’lo yavinu, ba’chasheicha yis’halachu”.
Now to be fair it is well-known that Rambam was criticized by many gedolim for his involvement in philosophy. The Gra asserts that philosophy caused the Rambam to err in some of his Torah conclusions and the truth is the Rambam himself bemoans the fact that whereas initially he set out to make philosophy a handmaiden to the Torah, ultimately it became a competitor. But none of this detracts from what we are saying v'hameivin yavin.