Monday, August 10, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages – Authority and Sources

Jonathan Dauber – Knowledge of God as a Religious Imperative in Early Kabbalah

Students of Isaac the Blind referred to themselves as Kabbalists. They developed their own traditions, combining many different elements. Kabbalah is not just the sum of existing traditions, it created something new. Why this impulse to fashion new traditions? One explanation is the coming of philosophy in the form of such thinkers as Abraham bar Hiyya, Abraham ibn Ezra and Maimonides and the translation of Greek philosophy from Arabic sources. Moshe Idel updates Heinrich Graetz who argued that Kabbalah was a reaction to philosophy. The Kabbalists were trying to set the record set. They saw themselves as the true interpretation of Judaism as opposed to philosophy. This first reaction does not preclude the possibility that Maimonides played a positive role in Kabbalistic thought.

The various philosophical works mentioned share the commonality that the study of philosophy could have religious value. Judah ibn Tibbon translated Bahya ibn Pekudah who believed that one had to “pursue this wisdom.” This is a philosophical turn that does not come from rabbinic thought. In his commentary on Song of Songs, Ezra of Gerona, a student of Isaac the Blind, argued that actively seeking out and gaining knowledge of God is the principle of everything. This is following Maimonides who held that the first commandment is to seek out the first cause. As Jacob Katz points out, Ezra of Gerona’s list of the commandments are close to Maimonides. Rabbi Ezra sees the source from Deuteronomy “and you should know today” and not the “I am the Lord thy God.” This is like ibn Pekudah.

Philosophy would say that one cannot actually study God, but only his actions. Ashur b. David saw the sephirot as God’s actions. Asher b. David was the nephew of Rabbi Isaac. His Sepher HaYichud presented Kabbalah in a popular manner. He uses “and you should know today.” As he explains, Moshe, the prophets and the Messiah charged us to investigate the Creator. This is identified as the catalyst for his work.

The Gerona Kabbalists, who came later, are more hostile to Maimonides than the Provencal Kabbalists. Early Kabbalah is open to a moderate Maimonides. We need a reverse of Menachem Kellner’s book on the influence of Kabbalah on Maimonides and talk about Maimonides’ influence on Kabbalah.

Arthur HymanMaimonides on Intellect and Imagination

Maimonides wrote the Guide to the Perplexed to offer a philosophical interpretation of the Torah. He never, though, provided the philosophy itself. Instead he relied on the Arabic books of his day. Leo Strauss, years ago, pointed this out that the Guide is not a work of philosophy. The main purpose of the Guide is to elucidate difficult points of the Law. It becomes the task of the interpreter to construct the background of Maimonides philosophy. Maimonides does not follow one Muslim philosopher consistently. He does not develop full theories of the intellect and the imagination. His interest in the intellect is largely psychological. With the imagination he is interested in the political, its role in prophecy and the creation of a society.

Maimonides attacked the Mutakalim because confuse the categories of the imagination with the intellect, assuming that anything that imaginable can exist. Maimonides is troubled by the Metukalim’s proof for God from creation. These are categories based on the imagination. All that could be pointed to from creation is that there are certain irregularities in the cosmos which imply the existence of God. Maimonides attacks Avicenna as well because he claimed that the intellect enters from without and can return there. Maimonides goes with the early Greek interpretation of Aristotle which claimed that the intellect is a material element that arises in the human being.

This is interesting because it does not offer a mechanism for life after death. Did Maimonides believe in individual immortality or did he follow ibn Bajja and Averroes and believe in collective immortality? Maimonides actually quotes ibn Bajja in the guide. Samuel ibn Tibbon and Moshe Narboni along with more recent commentators such as Shlomo Pines believed the later. Alexander Altmann held the former. Is Maimonides even entitled to a view on life after death? According to Aristotle anything that comes into existence must cease to exist. Maimonides held certain exceptions, such as the world which will forever be maintained by a specific act of God’s will.

Maimonides believed that the masses understand the categories through their imagination while the elites understand through their intellects. Should the masses be enlightened? Averroes said no because it would lead them to unbelief. Maimonides disagreed at least in terms of teaching them that God has no attributes.

Imagination has a positive role to play, for Maimonides, in prophecy. A prophet needs to have imagination. A philosopher and a lawgiver could get by with just intellect. Following the platonic model of the philosopher returning to the cave, the imagination is required for the parables needed to convey ideas to the people.

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