Maimonides in Teaneck- updated

Last week the accomplished Maimonidean scholar Yair Lorberbaum of Bar Ilan University spoke at Davar. I will deal with his talks and writings in a later post. What I want to discuss first is the reaction to Maimonides in Teaneck.

Lorberbaum presented Maimonides’ Introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed focusing on how the Torah is only parabolic knowledge. He presented Maimonides’ two models for the parable of the narrative portions of the text of the Torah. The first model considers the parable only an insignificant wick lit to provide light to find a pearl. The second model considers the parable like filigrees of silver around a golden pendent. In the first, the story is insignificant to the message and in the latter the story has its own worth. He started to correlate that with later passages in the Guide concerning those religious ideas that are necessary beliefs for the masses worthless without their function in society compared to the true beliefs that have an intrinsic value.

Before he could finish his initial presentation, the room broke out into a pandemonium of questions. Is this really true?

Aren’t you presenting an extreme position? But Rav Soloveitchik said! We know from the Kuzari that…!

An Israeli educator who was sitting a small distance behind me moved his chair closer to me and asked: Have they never studied Maimonides before? Even in this audience? They have never studied Maimonides outside of citations embedded in Nahmanides or Rav Soloveitchik! They do not know basic Rambam! They could not pass a 9th grade [Israeli] exam in Jewish Thought (Mahshevet Yisrael).

At this point, I decided to remain quiet and listen to the questions. The lecturer never got back to the core of his presentation.

People asked:

Rambam sees everything as natural? Really? Aren’t you an extreme interpretation?

Is God only a mashal?

Lorborbaum answered that according to Maimonides’ criteria the story of Matan Torah would fit the criteria parabolic knowledge, let alone that the Genesis stories certainly are.
(The audience obviously never heard of the Efodi-Narboni commentators who treat much of the narratives as parabolic. And they certainly are oblivious to the ibn Tibbon approach treating it all as parable.)

Someone in the audience wanted to explain the phrase “necessary beliefs” as meaning necessary for the merit in the world to come. They are not false or political. You are making the Torah Hobbsian by introducing political elements! (site owner- I wonder how he came by knowledge of Hobbes without having read Plato?)

Someone else called out- the stories all teach us something in the details.

Someone else called out that Maimonides was talking about the need to use literary analysis on the Bible- not this theory of parables.

A psychologist asked about the danger of telling kids the truth. How much can you tell them? But more importantly if you don’t tell them they will have shattered beliefs when they get older. They belief system will completely shatter.

To this Lorberbaum told an anecdote of how he had a class of yeshiva bochrim and the first class they could not handle that this was Maimonides’ view. It took them an entire semester to grasp Maimonides.

A 30 year old former Chabad person said this is why he left Chabad- because the Rebbe’s interpretation of Maimonides as magic and miracles made no sense in the text of Maimonides.

A senior member of the community, law partner, who sits on the boards of the various day schools said to me privately after the talk: “This is new to me; my era was concerned with the problem of the Holocaust.” He said that his kids know this stuff (one of them took me for it) and they are in Jewish education. They tried to teach it in the local HS and it did not go well. You can only push the kids so far. There is a fear to push.

The subject of this post is the community not Maimonides’ Guide. I assume this lack of knowledge is typical. The community has almost never directly opened the Guide of the Perplexed. They only know a safe version through quotes elsewhere.

I have been asked to explain more of the original Maimonides. Since the discussion became derailed, I cannot tell you where it was going. So here are the passages of the Guide that were under discussion. It is the Friedlander edition, modified to fit the Pines edition. The basic outline of the logic of the passages is that people use their reason and then cannot tolerate the literal sense of the Bible. The goal is to understand how parabolic knowledge works. “Ignorant individuals” and those with philosophic training but no knowledge of parabolic knowledge may, God forfend, look at the external sense and not at the inner meaning of metaphysics. He gives two very different models of how parables work.

Human reason has attracted him to abide within its sphere; and he finds it difficult to accept as correct the teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Law,

Having spoken of parables, I proceed to make the following remark:–The key to the understanding and to the full comprehension of all that the Prophets have said is found in the knowledge of the figures, their general ideas, and the meaning of each word they contain

This work has also a second object in view. It seeks to explain certain obscure figures which occur in the Prophets, and are not distinctly characterized as being figures. Ignorant and superficial readers take them in a literal, not in a figurative sense. Even well informed persons are bewildered if they understand these passages in their literal signification, but they are entirely relieved of their perplexity when we explain the figure, or merely suggest that the terms are figurative. For this reason I have called this book Guide for the Perplexed.

What is really meant is the apprehension of profound and difficult subjects, concerning which our Sages said, “If a man loses in his house a sela, or a pearl, he can find it by lighting a taper worth only one issar. Thus the parables in themselves are of no great value, but through them the words of the holy Law are rendered intelligible.” These likewise are the words of our Sages; consider well their statement, that the deeper sense of the words of the holy Law are pearls, and the literal acceptation of a figure is of no value in itself.

The wise king said, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in vessels of silver” (Prov. xxv. 11). Hear the explanation of what he said:–The word maskiyoth, the Hebrew equivalent for “vessels,” denotes “filigree network”–i.e., things in which there are very small apertures, such as are frequently wrought by silversmiths.

See how beautifully the conditions of a good parable are described in this figure! It shows that in every word which has a double sense, a literal one and a figurative one, the plain meaning must be as valuable as silver, and the hidden meaning still more precious: so that the figurative meaning bears the same relation to the literal one as gold to silver.

17 responses to “Maimonides in Teaneck- updated

  1. By the time I got through the words Yair Lorberbaum and Teaneck I was already chuckling. This was one of the less controversial subjects he could have spoken about.

  2. There is some irony here since I have frequently heard in what i think is the same “the community” (not teaneck per se, granted) the idea that we are rationalist, “torah u-madda” types in the tradition of Maimonides, and the backwards black hatters can only maintain their backwards ways by ignoring maimonides’ non-mishneh-torah works, they are afraid of knowledge/philosophy and so supress the Guide, etc.

  3. Can we get over the mock surprise? We have all attended Yeshiva University, Sushi Metsuyan, and other landmarks of Greater Bergen County. We all know that MochaBlue is not a coffeehouse for melancholics from the 16th century, that Keter is not referring to the supernal crown of the godhead etc. And we all know it is hard to make a living to support said lifestyle and that those who choose to read articles by Yair Lorberbaum all day will not necessarily be able to take up residence on Winthrop Road.

  4. Like the congregants in Teaneck I do not know enough about this position. Would you lay it out a bit more explicitly? I assume this understanding of Maimonides has him talking of entire stories, like Genesis 1-11, and not just anthropomorhisms.

    As I understand your post, on this view many/all/some of the narrative of the Torah never happened. My question is how do we determine which narratives did occur and which didn’t, since they are all presented in straightforward declarative sentences. Do we allow Biblical criticism, archeology and the like to determine our attitudes. Also, if some story never happened, was the story nevertheless given by God to Moses? Are the 613 mitzvot actually commanded by God? 2) Why did the Rambam present the 13 dogmas that must be held if one is not to be a heretic. Was this also for political or other pragmatic reasons? 3) Did the Rambam believe there was an afterlife when the righteous are rewarded and the bad are punished? 4) How is this view different from the position held by Leo Strauss? Are all these questions incredibly naïve?

    • Yair Lorberbaum never got a chance to present his views. Most of your questions assume one specific construction or the following of a specific interpreter. My own opinion is that Maimonides is subject to a range of interpretations since he used diverse sources and lived in different cultures, and then his interpreters lived in different cultural worlds. So I wont make any arguments in 100 word blog comments.
      Yes, Lorberbaum was assuming that most of Genesis and possibly Exodus were parabolic. He never got a chance to develop it. Maimonides specifically excludes the law from these discussions. He actually inserts the statement that it does not apply to the law right in the middle of passages cited.
      Maimonides say in the passage that I quoted that the words of the prophets are to be understood as parabolic or figurative, not as declarative statements. Maimonides uses the criteria of language, logic, argumentation, and metaphysics to decide. He did not use the realms of history or historical study. Maimonides does, however, use a historical argument to explain the original function of the commandments.
      The commentary on the Mishnah is different than the Guide.
      Leo Strauss held that he was hiding his views.Here we are dealing with his views that are out in the open. Maimonides was quite open about his Platonic naturalism. It is in the Mishnah Torah. Strauss was looking for an impious Averroistic reading behind the naturalism. Afterlife is spiritual as a perfection of intellect to cleave to a higher emanated intelligence in very non-twentieth century ways.
      How’s this for a start. Much more than this and I am more comfortable moving to specific verses and specific commentators medieval and modern.

    • How is this view different from the position held by Leo Strauss?
      The difference is that Strauss thought that all philosophers are atheists, and good philosophers are secretly atheists. This means there can be a wide range of heterodox readings of Maimonides, in which Maimonides believes some small part of what he says, (e.g., he believes the first five of the 13 ikkarim but the rest are “necessary beliefs” which he may or may not accept, as per Menachem Kellner) and still “qualify” as an anti-Straussian.

  5. how do we determine which narratives did occur and which didn’t, since they are all presented in straightforward declarative sentences.

    First you ought to clarify the purpose of figuring out which are which. And in this Maimonidean schema there is no reason to do so. The only question is which kind of story it is and thus to what degree it is essential to the knowledge it contains. Whether it happened or not does no bear on that question. Maimonides never held a verificationist theory of truth.

    Perhaps the larger lesson of the incident is what happens when you mix modernist epistemologies with medieval philosophy.

  6. I count myself lucky to have been taught pieces of Maimonides by Rabbi Moshe Sokol. It was fascinating watching him try to open the minds of the congregants, that Maimonides is not a typical “traditional” interpreter, that he has very different ideas, based on different sources, than American Ashkenazic folk religion. We did Hil. Deiot and then Rambam’s views about the afterlife and Moshiach. The afterlife idea was totally different than anything I had seen – all that remains is that part of the intellect which is one’s true ideas about God. He compared the MT with passages in the Guide and the PhM to get the full span of Maimonides’ views.

    I mean, yes, from reading the intro to the Mishnah Commentary slowly, I knew that Rambam doesn’t think like anybody else. Still, it’s different with a good teacher who can integrate all the different passages.

  7. “Parabolic knowledge”? Knowledge traced indirectly, on a curve/parabola? Of course, knowledge expressed or learned by parables is also indirect; but is it parabolic? Not linear, to be sure – but “parabolic”?

    • This is useful for a start.

  8. Brill wrote:

    “Last week the accomplished Maimonidean scholar Yair Lorberbaum of Bar Ilan University spoke at Davar. I will deal with his talks and writings in a later post. What I want to discuss first is the reaction to Maimonides in Teaneck.”

    Davar is not Teaneck. Had Lorberbaum spoken at Rinat (at an adult ed lecture), or at Beth Abraham, or at Beth Aaron, there likely would have been a different reaction.

  9. Also, of the folks at Davar, I’d estimate that half were not at all surprised with Lorberbaum’s presentation, and were familiar and comfortable with Rambam’s positions.

    They didn’t speak up.

  10. Thank you AS. I stand corrected. The Merriam-Webster on my desk does *not* have it (smaller edition); but the American Heritage Dictionary in my study does indeed show Rabbi Dr. Brill’s usage as the *first* definition of ‘parabolic’, and my usage as only a second definition. Where’s the little emoticon for ’embarrassed’ ?

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