MiNofet Tsuf, Iyunim B’Moreh HaNevuchim (Hebrew)
By Jonathan Blass
Kollel Ritson Yehudah
Petach Tikva, 2006
2 vols., 913 pages
In this rich two-volume work entitled MiNofet Tsuf, Iyunim B’Moreh HaNevuchim, Rabbi Jonathan Blass proposes an overarching systematic structure to Rambam’s (Maimonides) thought and discusses various important philosophical topics found in Rambam’s writings. Rabbi Blass is to be praised for giving us this melechet hakodesh, which took him more than ten years to write. The author states that this sefer, which focuses almost exclusively on Moreh HaNevuchim, is a contrast to the treatment of Rambam’s work by typical Maimonidean scholars. Drawing upon quotations from the late Professor Marvin Fox, Rabbi Blass accuses academics of regarding Rambam as an Aristotelian philosopher first and foremost and only then as a God-fearing Jew. In contrast, our author portrays Rambam as a rabbi with much more traditional views. Rabbi Blass’ work includes approbations from three outstanding rabbis (who do not claim to be experts in Moreh HaNevuchim): the late Rabbi Abraham Shapiro, former rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav; Rabbi Yakov Ariel, a leading Religious Zionist rabbi and Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, a Talmudist giant. All of them attest to Rabbi Blass’s piety and maturity in Jewish learning.
Academic scholars will probably take issue with many of Rabbi Blass’s methodologies. To start with, they will claim that he indiscriminately draws from other Maimonidean works to elucidate passages in Moreh HaNevuchim or to nail down his interpretation of a particular passage. For example, on more than one occasion Rabbi Blass quotes from Rambam’s Iggeret Teiman as a proof-text for his interpretation of Moreh HaNevuchim. While other Maimonidean works are, of course, relevant in interpreting Moreh HaNevuchim, they are far from decisive. Rambam wrote various works over a long period of time, and inconsistencies among them may indicate that, as time went on, he changed his mind concerning various philosophical matters (as he did with regard to some of his halachic rulings). Furthermore, this methodology ignores the range of genres in the Maimonidean corpus; Rambam wrote legal works, philosophical tracts, popular epistles, teshuvot, et cetera. Rabbi Blass does not allow for the possibility that Rambam’s exoteric works, for example, were written with a different aim and for a different audience than his semi-popular works. Similarly, his semi-popular works were written for a different audience than his popular works.
At times, when Rambam uses a turn of a phrase that appears in Chazal or quotes a verse from Tanach in a context reminiscent of a Chazal, Rabbi Blass concludes that Rambam uses such language or a specific verse because he is alluding to a particular saying of the Sages. Furthermore, according to Rabbi Blass, Rambam is interested in pointing the reader to a “secret teaching.” On such grounds, Rabbi Blass has Rambam advance the view (similar to that of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook and The Kuzari) that the Jewish nation has a unique metaphysical status, and is in a category of its own. Most Maimonidean scholars will disagree with Rabbi Blass, concurring instead with Professor Menachem Kellner, professor of Jewish thought at the University of Haifa, who maintains that according to Rambam, the Jewish people do not have a special metaphysical status.1 Maimonidean scholars would probably argue that the rabbinic language found in Rambam does not necessarily refer to “secret teachings,” but may be part of his habitual vocabulary. Moreover, they would protest that Rabbi Blass fails to provide a persuasive reason for why certain teachings had to be concealed in the first place.
Maimonidean scholars will cringe at Rabbi Blass’s tendency to elucidate
Rambam by referring to Ramban, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Rav Kook and others whose cultural and religious contexts are in stark contrast to those of Rambam. Ramban, they will say, favored kabbalistic interpretations and excelled at understanding events in the Torah as alluding to later historical periods and events. Both of these methods are alien to Rambam’s thinking. The Kuzari is often at odds with Maimonidean ideology. And while Rav Kook praised Rambam, Maimonidean scholars will note that Rav Kook’s kabbalistic and philosophical approach is wholly distinct from that of Rambam. For Maimonidean scholars, Rabbi Blass’s work is lacking in that it disregards the obviously deep divisions in Jewish belief that exist in an effort to make everybody say more or less the same things.
Finally, scholars will gripe at two related chapters in the second volume. One chapter lists several of Chazal’s aggadic teachings that Rambam contradicts in his writings. The second attempts to show how Rambam did not really disagree with Chazal. Medieval thinkers, from the Geonim on, including Radak, Abraham Ibn Ezra and others, did not feel bound to accept the aggadic teachings of Chazal.2 Furthermore, Rambam was quite willing (as Rabbi Blass himself notes) to relegate a troublesome Chazal to the category of a “minority view,” as he did to numerous rabbinical endorsements of astrology.
As a philosopher who has written on Rambam’s philosophy, including Moreh HaNevuchim, I find myself sympathetic to most of the objections I have listed above. It is precisely for this reason that I believe Rabbi Blass’s work is so important and so welcome.
Academic scholarship on Moreh HaNevuchim is heavily dominated by Orthodox Jews. This is especially true in Israel, where I can think of at least a dozen Orthodox scholars who have published in this area and who comprise the vast majority of Maimonidean scholars in Israel today. This situation has prevailed in Israel for many decades, and it seems to be similar, if not quite so pronounced, in the United States. At the other end of the spectrum, however, we find that yeshivot and other non-university Orthodox institutions of learning seem to have forsaken the study of Moreh HaNevuchim. There are several reasons for this, including a suspicion of philosophy in an age of secularization. (Two philosophical works that are nevertheless studied in yeshivot: Chovot Halevovot, which has a mussar flavor and Kuzari, which makes a clear distinction between the God of Abraham and the God of Aristotle.)
The result is that in the Orthodox world, Moreh HaNevuchim has been abandoned to Orthodox academics, scholars who, with a few exceptions, seem to have an agenda in addition to mere historical interest in Rambam. This agenda helps explain why Orthodox academics are so attracted to his work: the agenda is Modern Orthodoxy. More specifically, it is certain aspects of Modern Orthodoxy, namely the endorsement of “secular studies,” especially the humanities, and the recognition of the influence of non-Jewish culture on traditional Judaism.
To many Orthodox Maimonidean scholars, Rambam—the greatest of the great—confirms more than any other Torah-true Jewish philosopher how an Orthodox Jew can position him or herself squarely within the general culture. By emphasizing how Rambam studied Aristotle, Plato, Neo-Platonism, Al Farabi, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Bajja and the whole gang, these scholars create a model to be emulated by contemporary Orthodox Jews.
In addition, showing how Rambam borrowed freely and heavily from non-Jewish philosophers can establish that Jewish thought is indebted—and is permitted to be indebted—to non-Jewish thought. This in turn helps provide a rationale for the creation of new hashkafot (outlooks) today drawing from modern rather than ancient and medieval non-Jewish thought.
I remember how excited I was many years ago when I read an article by Herbert Davidson, a prominent Orthodox scholar, which showed that Rambam’s Shemoneh Perakim borrows heavily, sometimes almost word by word, from Al Farabi’s Aphorisms of a Statesman. As a religious academician, I felt vindicated to discover that Rambam was so deeply immersed in the non-Jewish culture of his day!
The more Rambam can be shown to diverge from standard traditional Jewish points of view, the more Orthodox scholars are emboldened to do so as well, but now this occurs in the name of “Modern Orthodoxy” rather than medieval rationalism. Most Orthodox Maimonidean scholars are happy to conform to the norms of academic research and to arrive at conclusions that are not necessarily informed by their religious sensitivities. And here is why Rabbi Blass’s work, irrespective of any particular content, is so important: Rabbi Blass presents a Rambam who is quite different from Maimonides. His Rambam is one whose intimate chavrutot are solely the Torah greats of his age and those who preceded him; one whose secret teachings are not embedded in far-out views by today’s conventional Orthodox standards, based on Islamic or Greek philosophy, but are rooted in allusions to sayings of Chazal! To Rabbi Blass, to study Rambam is to engage in a religious task, and so in order to publish a book about Rambam one must receive rabbinic approbations attesting to one’s piety and Torah learning. Rabbi Blass’s Rambam is one who presents an overarching elegant structure in which all of his ideas fall nicely and neatly into place, much like the Gemara shiur I used to hear from my rebbe.
Orthodox academics should read this work—not with the expectation of agreeing with Rabbi Blass—to become exposed to an entirely different, serious perspective that should cause us to rethink the prevalent secular mood and methodologies of the discipline. If a secular bias can exist in the discipline, then why can’t a traditional religious bias exist just as well?
Rabbi Blass and those who endorsed his work, despite the fact that they are not experts in Moreh HaNevuchim, surely have an agenda of their own. And that agenda is to argue for the autonomy of Torah studies from secular studies, and to contend that Jewish thought is internal to Torah, and not beholden to “outside” influences. In their view, it is primarily the Rishonim who must be consulted if we are to understand Rambam. And while others find that certain Maimonidean ideas reflect non-Jewish philosophical influences, to Rabbi Blass they may be simply concealing secret teachings that are based on Chazal.
By conveying this view of Rambam to the public, Rabbi Blass has provided Orthodox Maimonidean scholarship with the opportunity to engage in self-reflection. As a result of such a critique, perhaps more non-academic rabbis and roshei yeshivah might learn to appreciate the contribution of academic scholarship to understanding the Great Eagle in a way that non-academic study alone cannot. I strongly recommend that the non-academic rabbi and rosh yeshivah study the recent translation of Moreh HaNevuchim into Hebrew by Professor Michael Schwarz, professor emeritus of the Departments of Jewish Philosophy and Arabic Language and Literature at Tel-Aviv University. Professor Schwarz, an Orthodox Jew, provides a superb translation with a commentary that summarizes scholarship on Moreh HaNevuchim and includes extensive references to Torah literature.
Rabbi Blass has provided Orthodox scholars, in the disparate worlds of the university and the yeshivah, with an opportunity to rethink their positions, to benefit from the insights of each other, and most of all, for each to ask of themselves the question, “Are you absolutely sure?”
Yehuda Gellman is professor of philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
1. See Menachem Kellner, Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People (Albany, 1991).
2. See, for example, Ibn Ezra on Bereishit 22:4, on the age of Yitzchak at the Akeidah. Chazal state that Yitzchak was thirty-seven years old at the time; rejecting this, Ibn Ezra states that Yitzchak was probably around thirteen.