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.
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.