Thursday, October 6, 2011

Rambam and Chazal - Part 1

This post is a continuation of our recent post entitled The Heart of the Matter and is written specifically for the purpose of responding to one of the remarks found in the comments section of the aforementioned post.

In his post entitled “Must a Jew Believe Anything?”, Rabbi Slifkin discusses some of M. Kellner’s views on the philosophy of Maimonides. Since Rabbi Slifkin enthusiastically endorses Kellner’s ideas, it behooves us to analyze the Kellner/Slifkin approach to see if it satisfies the rigorous standards of mainstream Torah scholarship.

Rabbi Slifkin, quoting M. Kellner, avers that Rambam’s primary theological focus is the status of the mind. According to Rabbi Slifkin, Rambam understood the goal of Judaism as the perfection of the intellect. Accordingly, it would seem to follow that the commandments of the Torah which enjoin physical activity do not possess independent qualities of goodness. In and of themselves they do not serve to increase the quality of the human condition; rather, they are vehicles for the refinement of the human mind, the intellect.

And while there is certainly room to dispute this notion, on a certain level it seems valid, enjoying support both in the works of Maimonides and Chazal. For instance, the Medrash Tanchuma (Shemini 8) asks:

Does the Holy One, Blessed be He really care if we slaughter an animal and eat it…or does He care if we eat pure [animals] or impure?... Behold the commandments were given only to perfect mankind…                     

But then Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows:

Kellner then proceeds to discuss Rambam's view of the role of belief in Judaism and how it differs from the normative view. For Rambam, influenced as he was by Greco-Muslim philosophy, perfecting the intellect (which requires correct beliefs) is the goal of Judaism. Thus, those who believe in a corporeal God have utterly failed as Jews, no matter how many mitzvos they perform; whereas Ra'avad, reflecting the normative position, considered such people to be fine Jews, some of them even greater than Rambam (albeit mistaken).

Here’s where the Kellner/Slifkin approach begins to deteriorate. Ra’avad is clearly not disputing Rambam’s inclusion of Divine Corporeality into the categories of Heresy because he believed that people who do mitzvos are fine Jews despite their beliefs, and even better than the Rambam. If this was so, he would have disputed all five categories of heresy, not just corporeality. Ra’avad explains his position! The reason he disputes the specific category of Corporeality is because both the Torah and Chazal consistently use anthropomorphic descriptions of God. As such, Ra’avad considered the adoption of corporeality a legitimate error as opposed to the adoption of a heretical belief. See Kesef Mishna ad loc. who concurs with this understanding of the Ra’avad. Also, see Sefer haIkkarim for an alternative (and vastly toned down) version of the Ra’avad’s comment and an in-depth treatment of the machlokes between the Rambam and Ra’avad. Anyone studying these sources will immediately discern the erroneousness of the Kellner/Slifkin approach to the comment of the Ra’avad.

Unfortunately we have not yet addressed the concerns of the commenter mentioned at the beginning of this post. Accordingly, part 2 of this post will B’H continue with an extensive treatment of Rabbi Slifkin’s assertion that the contrast between the Braisa in Yevamos (47a) which outlines the parameters of proper conversion and the Rambam’s paraphrasing of that Braisa in the Yad serves as “the most striking example of the difference between Rambam's view and that of classical Judaism”.    

Stay tuned…

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