Monday, November 17, 2014

The philosophy of Aristotle as viewed by The Ramban...and by Aristotle

The first principle of Traditional Jewish medicine, is to recognize G-d in all aspects of our lives, and to know that the more we involve Him, the more He reveals Himself to us, showing us the sweetness of our existence. One might wonder if it is possible to harmonize this fundamental of Judaism with the empiricism of Aristotle, who "apparently" believed that all knowledge and concepts can be acquired only through one's perceptions.

Indeed, though the Rambam, (Maimonides) in Morah Nevuchim (The Guide to the Perplexed),  does praise Aristotle as being the greatest of the philosophers, and of  having reached the highest level of understanding that a human being can reach short of prophecy, nonetheless, The Ramban ( Nachmanides) who lived a little less than a century later, ridicules Aristotle and views his conceptions of science as being myopic.  

In his Treatise, "Toras Hashem Temima"  (The Torah of Hashem is perfect), the Ramban states: "...Hence you see the stubbornness of the leader of the philosophers (Aristotle), may his name be erased, for he denies a number of things that many have seen, whose truth we ourselves have witnessed, and which have become famous in the world.  In ancient times, for example in the days of our teacher, Moshe , of blessed memory, they were known to all, because in that generation, all of the sciences were spiritual, such as the subjects of demonology, sorcery and the different varieties of incense offered for Heavenly works.  For since they were chronologically closer to the creation of the world and the flood, there was no one who denied the concept of creationism,   or who rebelled against Hashem. Rather, they would attempt to enhance their spirituality by worshiping the sun, moon and constellations, and they would draw certain shaped forms in order to receive higher powers.  Even among the philosophers, as is written in the  book of  Talismans (אלטלסמש), it was possible for a person to bring down a spirit and the power of speech to images. When the Greeks arose, (and they were a new nation who had not received wisdom as an inheritance), as explained by the author of the Kuzari (Rabbi Yehuda Halevi), that well known man (Aristotle) arose and denied everything other than physical senses. He sought out science based only upon the senses while denying the spiritual ones.  He claimed that the subject of demons and the art of sorcery  were worthless and all activity in this world is based upon  natural law...."

Yet, ironically,  this very tenet of Aristotle, that Man can only know something as true if he is able to perceive it through his senses, at the end of his life, he recognized was flawed and recanted.   

Four years ago, in this blog, I shared with you a fascinating letter, that I saw in the Me'am Lo'ez, that was attributed to great Greek philosopher Aristotle that he had sent to his student, Alexander the Great of Macedonia.

Recently, though, it was brought to my attention by a colleague, that this letter had originally been printed in  Shalshelet Hakabbalah  by Gedalia ben Yechia 150 years before the publication of Me'am Lo'ez, and that the letter taken from Shalshelet Hakabbalah is more accurate,  in that the original letter most probably was written in Greek and was translated by the Shalshelet Hakabbalah into hebrew. The Me'am Lo'ez, then  translated the letter into Ladino, and later, Me'am Lo'ez was translated into hebrew and later into English by the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.   Additionally Shalshelet Hakabalah also introduces the letter with historical background information which further validates its authenticity.

Here, then,  is a translation of the introduction to the letter from the  Shalshelet Hakabbalah followed by the actual letter:

"Aristotle, the philosopher and head of the sages was the teacher of Alexander and the student of Socrates and Plato. He was born in Macedonia and lived 2 years after the death of Alexander his student, a total of 62 years.  I saw written in the letters of Aristotle – that he wrote that he spoken with Shimon HaTzadik on Godly wisdom and was greatly astonished by his level of wisdom 'in how the "Shimoni" (as he refers to him)  answered me concerning questions that I asked him.' "

"I also saw that Rabbi Yosef Ibn Shem Tov in the introduction to his commentary on The Book of Middot says how he saw in Egypt a book in which was written how Aristotle at the end of his life admitted that everything that was written in the Sefer Torah of Moshe was true, and that he then converted to Judaism." 

I saw in the beginning of  The Kuzari  handwritten notes, and note 42 asks from whence did the philosophers get their wisdom. They answered that it came from the Jews and all the wisdoms copied  their sources and principles from the Jews of Alexandria. Afterwards it was passed down to Persia and Medes, then to Greece and finally to Rome. But with the passage of time and much wandering, they did not remember that their wisdoms were copied from the Jews  and not from the Greeks or Romans."

"The author of the Shvilei Emuna wrote– that he saw it written that when Alexander went to Jerusalem he appointed Aristotle, his teacher, to be in charge of the books of (King) Solomon,  and that  he (Aristotle) copied from there his philosophy, and  called it in his (own) name."

"The Rav (the Rambam) in HaMoreh Nevuchim  (The Guide For the Perplexed) section 1 chapter 71 says that all the wisdoms  originally came from the  people of Israel, but due to the domination of the nations upon us it came into their hands. So therefore, when we learn something from them which appears to be original, the opposite is  true."

"Ibn Rashed who is called Aviro'oh says in the end of his book, Hapelet Hatefila, that the wisdoms came from Israel.  'I also saw these words in an ancient text ,  and I am copying them here word for word and here they are: 'I  testify, with total clarity,  that I heard from the mouth of the sage, Don Avraham Ibn Zarzer who lived in Lisbon,  that the Ishmaeli sage, Ibn Alachtov, (who people used to say of him that there was no one of his caliber in his generation in terms of wisdom and piety) had heard that there was, in the city of Alekhara a book from Aristotle composed at the end of his life, and in that book, he recanted all that he had written previously. The sage Don Abraham ibn Zarzer sent for this book and saw in it matters relating to  Divine providence,  matters relating to the immortality of the soul, and matters relating to the creation of the world.  Aristotle said concerning these as well as matters  relating to nature,  that, 'The “Shimoni” had changed my mind by way of the logic in which he explained certain  miracles and other various arguments. At the end of this book is found the following letter, written by Aristotle sent to his student, King Alexander. 

Here is the text of the letter:

'Blessed is Hashem who  opens the eyes of the blind, and who teaches sinners the path to take. He is extolled with the praise that is worthy of Him, and has graced me with His mercy and  his abundant kindness: For He has extricated  me from  the complete foolishness in which I was mired in all the days of my life pursuing the wisdom of philosophy, and judging everything  according to logic and reason.  

Based upon this,  I authored as many  books as the sand on the seashore.  At the end of my days, however, I debated with a master from the sages of Israel, who demonstrated his strong arm in the Torah, and their inheritance from Sinai. He thus,  drew my heart near with  words of the Torah, showing  me  signs and wonders with true holy names that are  revealed to the senses. 

Yet, because I did not know that most of these things are above logic,  when I did realize this, I gave of my full heart, reflecting with great intensity on the religion of the Jews.   I discovered that  its foundation is flawless,  unlike the dark wisdom of philosophy.  Therefore, my precious student Alexander, oh great king, do not let my books cause you to err, neither  you nor for your friends, the philosophers, for if I could gather together all of my books that have spread to the farthest  reaches of  the land, I would burn them so that not even one would remain to be seen by the princes and their deputies, causing them to err.  For I know that I will receive great punishment from  G-d, having sinned and having  caused the multitudes to sin.  

Therefore, my son, Alexander I inform you and all the people of the world that most of the things that are derived through logic are lies,"For the Highest over the high waits (Kohelet 5:7)." Therefore since it has happened that my books have been  disseminated throughout the western world, I hereby declare, with absolute certainty, that it is not worthwhile to look in them or review them, for their logic is iniquitous and their philosophy is false.  I now, therefore, am discharged from responsibility before Hashem – for I transgressed unknowingly.  Woe unto those that look in them (my books) for they go in a path of confusion leading to destruction. Know also that just as that great sage taught me about our wisdom, this was also the sentiment expressed by Shlomo the son of David by way of metaphor when he says, "To guard you from a strange woman...” (Mishlei 7:5), “Don't let your heart be drawn away to her path” (Mishlei 7:25) and, “All those that come to her will not return...” (Mishlei 2:19).

Woe to the eyes that have  seen,  woe  to the ears that have heard. Woe is to me, alas, my body has  withered and my days have been spent on  matters that damage and provide no benefit. They bring one down rather than elevate him.  The fact that you praise  me, so greatly admire me,  declaring that my fame has spread throughout the nations and will be known for eternity for the many books that I authored--surely death is better than this, that my books have spread throughout the world!  Surely those who occupy themselves in Torah, they will inherit eternal life in the world to come. Yet those who occupy themselves with my books will inherit hell.  So, too, I am prepared to be punished for them all.  

The reason that I hadn't written this letter to you previously, was that I was concerned that you would be angry with me and do me evil. But I have now decided to inform you of my opinion nonetheless.  For I know that before this letter arrives, I will already be lying in a  wooden casket, as I have reached the end of my life.

Peace from the teacher Aristotle who is separating from the world
to Alexander the great king."

From this we can summarize the following:

1.     Aristotle converted to Judaism at the end of his life.
2.  He was appointed to oversee King Shlomo's  works when Alexander the Great conquered Israel.
3.  Some of the wisdom that  he learned from King Shlomo is the basis of some his philosophy.
4.    He engaged in polemic and studied with the great Jewish sage, and Cohen Gadol (high priest),   Shimon HaTzadik,  who he refers to as  the “Shimonite.”
5.    Alexander died in his thirties. Aristotle died at  62 years of age.  

The gemara  (Yoma 69a)  adds yet more information about Alexander and Shimon Hatzadik: Alexander the Macedonian entered into Jerusalem, and that Shimon HaTzadik the  Cohen Gadol went out to greet the emperor in his eight priestly garments.  Upon seeing Shimon Hatzadik,  Alexander descended from his chariot and bowed to him. He told his servants and those that were present that the vision of this man, the Cohen Gadol  in his eight priestly garments appeared to him before each of his victories. The gemara continues that  Alexander asked that an statue in the image of himself be placed in the Holy Temple, to which Shimon replied that this was against the Torah.  However,  to honor the king, all male Cohen children that would be born that year would be named Alexander and that all legal documents  would be dated from the start of that year (ie, 1st year of the King Alexander). He was very happy and gave many gifts to the Temple. Thus we see clearly that Alexander, Aristotle's student, was a contemporary  of Shimon Hatzadik.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Ramban on the spiritual basis of Illness and the ideal role of doctors

 One of the truly great Jewish spiritual leaders, Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, also known as the Ramban, or Nachmanides, lived most of his life in Spain about century after Maimonides.  Like Maimonides, beside being a phenomenal Torah scholar, eminent philosopher and universally recognized leader, he was also a prominent physician, insisting on earning his livelihood as such, rather than taking a salary for a rabbinical position. In his commentary on the Torah, The Ramban, (Leviticus 26:11) speaks in great detail of the spiritual basis of illness, and what the role of doctors should ideally be:

"The following may be taken as a general principle: When (humanity) is in a refined state where it acts as it should , the laws of nature do not at all control what happens. Nothing is left to happenstance, neither as it affects each person, nor as it affects the land. This applies collectively as well as individually. For God `will bless their bread and their water, and remove illness from their midst' (Exodus 23:25), such that  they will never become sick and therefore never require a doctor, or any kind of medical intervention,  even as precautionary measures, `For I, G-d, am your Doctor' (Exodus 15:26). When prophecy was still part of daily life, righteous people acted accordingly. Even if they happened to sin and became sick, they consulted not doctors but prophets, as did King Chizkiyahu when he was sick (Kings II, 20, 2-3). It is said of King Asa that `even in his sickness he did not seek out G-d, but he turned to the doctors' (Chronicles II, 16:13). If it was common for them to go to doctors, why should the verse mention doctors at all? Asa's only guilt lay in the fact that he did not seek out  G-d...."

"What is the role of doctors, therefore, for those who carry out the will of G-d, after He promised that `He will bless their bread and their water, and remove illness from their midst'? The function of the medical profession in times when people live according to  G-d will,  will  be to give nutritional advice - what to eat and drink and what to avoid.   The Gemara reports (Brachot 64a) that for the entire twenty-two years during which the great Rabbah's was Rosh Yeshiva (dean of the Talmudic seminary), Rav Yosef never felt the need to  call any medical practitioner  to his house. They went by the principle that `a door that does not open to charity will open to the doctor' (Bemidbar Rabbah 9:3). This is consistent with what the Gemara also brings down,(Brochot 60a) 'People ought not to depend on medical intervention at all, but it is their habit of going to doctors.`  This means that  had they not become habituated to visit doctors and resort to medicine, sickness would struck only as  a consequence of sin, and healing would occur  only through the will of God. However, since they resorted to medicines, God abandoned them to the vicissitudes of nature."

"As to the rabbinic comment on the verse, `...And he should surely heal him' (Exodus 21:19) - `that from here we learn that the physician has been given sanction to heal' (Berakhot 60a) - this does not mean that license has been given to the sick to resort to medicine! What they meant is that if a doctor is approached by a patient who tends to resort to medicine and is not part of the community of God whose share is life, the doctor should not refrain from treating him, neither from fear that the patient might die under his hand (assuming, of course, that  the doctor is expert in his craft),  nor on the grounds that G-d alone is the healer of all flesh, since this patient has already established the habit of resorting to medicine." 

And even though the Torah states that if two people quarrel and in the course of their conflict one injures the other,  that the attacker must pay the medical expenses of the injured party (Exodus 21:18), this is because Torah law does not rely on miracles, for G-d knew that `the needy will not cease from the midst of the earth' (Deuteronomy 15:11). But when a person's ways find favor in God's eyes, he has no business with doctors."