Maimonides On the Garden of Eden

Maimonides On the Garden of Eden

In his great short reflection on being a historian, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Yosef Yerushalmi alerts us, and especially Jews, to the difference between history and memory, and warns us against confusing the two. Nevertheless, the edge between them is perhaps not as sharply defined as he hoped – for the very existence of history depends on group memory and memorialization and enactment, which are the very subject of historical analysis, as they create the group as a historical subject.

Things get messier because the history the historians write can become part of the story the group lives by.  That is what Yerushalmi is warning us about: not that we should avoid the history of the historians, but that we laypeople often mistake our stories for history itself. But what if we correct and revise our stories, even our story of origin, in the light of the history of the historians? For example, archeologists, looking at data from underground in both Israel and Egypt, now doubt that there was an Israelite exodus from Egypt. Can we still be Jews without believing that the Israelite sojourn and slavery in Egypt, and the Exodus, actually happened?

Perhaps we could take a step backward and think of ourselves not as the community who remembers and retells and revives the Exodus of our Ancestors in Egypt, but instead as those who inherit a made-up Exodus story that defines who we are.  Perhaps we can rethink the Torah and ourselves in the light of the discoveries of the archeologists and historians! The results of rigorous scientific archeological methods and historical understandings like these – and, on the other hand, the world of the imagination – do not need to be so cleanly separated. That liberal Jewish congregations routinely invite Jewish historians and other scholars to lecture and conduct weekend workshops with congregants speaks to the accepted integration of history into memory. Introducing revised historical understandings and relevant scientific discoveries into the domain of collective retelling and ritual enactment – both of which are intended to foster Jewish identification – makes possible the ongoing transformation of both the community and the text. Text and community, and also the sciences (both social and natural), are in dynamic interrelationships.

Moses Maimonides, in the 12th century, struggled with just this very dilemma, posed by the equivalent of the struggles of “modernity” at that time: namely, the rigorous philosophical and rational methods and scientific explanations of Aristotle, challenging the simple reading and understanding of the Biblical story.  He developed a detailed and deeply thought-out answer to how to come to terms with this rational challenge to tradition. Maimonides devoted his great philosophical opus, The Guide for the Perplexed, to reinterpreting the Biblical text in the light of the science of his day, as well as the revised moral principles and understandings from philosophy. The Israelite story, he held, could (and should) be transformed in imagination to mean what the truths of reason and science had independently discovered and revealed. These new rational understandings could be rendered imaginatively and read back into the Bible in order to teach the rudiments of science and philosophy to the general Jewish public. In addition, a rational politics and revised moral principles could be envisioned and read back into the text.

Maimonides realized that every community, at heart and at origin, is an “imagined community.” All communities are established and preserved on the shaky foundations of rhetoric and story, invented rules and institutions. Their truth lies not in their origin, which he believed was imagined and conventional, but instead in how they incorporated and applied scientific, moral, and political content and virtue. Their content had to be evaluated independently by rational standards of discovery and proof; hence, truths could be derived and established only by applying the scientific method as the test of their validity.  Truth was divided into two kinds: first, the truths of nature – about nature writ large, and also  about the human species; and, second, those derived from these fundamental truths of nature (and human nature), and applied conventionally and imaginatively to political systems in the interest of human justice and perpetuation.

One truth of human nature is that the mind has two basic components: a rational capacity and an imaginative capacity. The latter encompasses all the various mental processes outside of reason, like emotions and motivations and sensations, and also envisions non-present images, putting images together, and remembering them.

The dual character of the human biological constitution as both rational and imaginative had to be accommodated to promote justice and ethics.  There was no getting around this, and the Torah, Maimonides insisted, did just that. Its core truths were rational, but conveyed and institutionalized in imaginative form.  It established a rationally defensible legal tradition and political institutions, but also translated these for the general public into imaginative forms – persuasive stories and rules appealing to divine authority (what Maimonides regarded as the fiction of an anthropomorphic divine ruler). The image of a fatherly divine ruler was the stuff of fiction, stories for the simplest of folk, but nevertheless necessary to ensure social order and civic justice.

The crucial and central question for every society, Maimonides believed, was how it could use the imagination –– story, ritual, history, rhetoric, laws and rules, ceremony and spectacle, and some coercion as well as persuasion — to ensure both its own long-term survival and also its commitment to justice. Jewish society, he argued, had the best and most perfect answer to this problem: the Torah. The Torah applied rational understandings about human nature (derived independently from science and philosophy) to society in the interest of justice and survival, but  also appealed to the heart while being based upon the rational mind.

Reason alone, however, was too fragile a social foundation to ensure societal survival. Maimonides insisted that the Torah even embedded some oblique discoveries of the natural sciences into the stories of the Bible for those who could unpack the metaphors, thus giving the general public a window into a scientific naturalist world view and dampening their superstitious tendencies.

The basic truth was that the Torah’s own literary method and status were imaginative, engaging rhetorical persuasion and institutional and divine authority to apply (what we now call) science to the public interest. Nevertheless, the general public did not realize that the Bible, and the society it gave rise to and maintained, were mere human inventions, and by and large took the text at face value. Hence, society at large would generally remain naively under the Torah’s claim to divine authority.

Nevertheless, those who had a rigorous scientific education, but were still committed enough to the text to ponder it deeply, could discover its actual status and function. For these folks, the imagination could be dispensed with except as a teaching tool, as Moses himself was supposed to have done.  Only as Leader and Teacher did Moses recruit and employ the imagination, Maimonides insisted. Moses felt that the obligation to bring the truths he had discovered about the universe, as the first and greatest philosopher-scientist, to the benefit of humankind through enlightened governance brought about what we would eventually come to call popular science. Stephen Hawking-cum-Dan Brown?!

Maimonides believed that societies needed such symbolic and rhetorical renderings to make the rudiments of science and reason accessible to all, rather than remaining cloistered as the province of only the experts and professors. Hence the lessons of reason needed to be not only applied broadly in order to be accepted and embraced as foundational to a just civic life, but they also needed to be conveyed as a rationalizing worldview.  He wanted the general public to become less superstitious, as Spinoza would call it, and more naturalistic.

Maimonides read into Moses his own commitment to use reason toward both civic and political justice and also toward conveying to the general public a naturalist, scientific worldview. Science and other theoretical rational endeavors, Maimonides insisted, were not just the ivory-tower province of specialists, but needed to be translated into the lived life of individuals and communities. Talented individuals lucky enough to have the opportunity to devote themselves to the intellectual life could discover the true life of the mind through education and study.

The Paradise of living the pure life of the mind was Maimonides’ version and interpretation, his Derash, on the Biblical Garden of Eden, his version of Torah L’ishma. But for society as a whole to benefit, a more directed approach was necessary through cultural transmission, stories, rhetorical persuasion, ritual and ceremonial enactment, rules and guidelines, as well as rewards and penalties. All these, Maimonides argued, were the arena of the imagination at work, the imagination at work in the service of reason to found justice and convey the rudiments of a naturalistic scientific worldview so as to banish the most primitive and dangerous and dogmatic irrationality, like astrology, certainly his major bugaboo. He was keenly alert to the social and political dangers of religious fanaticism fueled by magical thinking and irrational beliefs.

His vision was to apply reason and science for the good of society — to further the instantiation of justice and the public’s devotion to further scientific and other rational inquiry. To accomplish this, a society as a whole had to become civically persuaded to embrace this vision and these values.  That was the task of the biblical prophets and the meaning of prophecy, as established by their founder Moses. All philosophers were intellectual descendants of Moses, who was the first and greatest philosopher-scientist of all time. Moses was also the disseminator of his intellectual discoveries and the founder of the constitution that applied reason toward social justice and the furtherance of reason and scientific knowledge. It was the latter role as societal founder and leader and teacher in the light of reason that made Moses a prophet and not just an ivory tower philosopher-scientist who left social and political vision and civic leadership to others. Moses, according to Maimonides, was the philosopher-king.

Yet, today, in the modern world, can’t we be fully rational? Do we still need the imagination to promote justice?  Isn’t imagination something we can dispense with in the aftermath of the Enlightenment’s exposure of myth and superstition?  The problem still plagues us in new forms, as Yerushalmi points out, with the challenge posed by the discoveries of the historians and archeologists, which challenge our beliefs about ourselves and our origins, in the same way that the scientist-philosophers did in Maimonides’ day.

I believe that Maimonides’ understanding of the problem and his proposal for addressing it were prescient, and have much to offer us today if we but listen and grasp, in our own language and idioms, what he is proposing. Baruch Spinoza extended and modernized the solution of Maimonides, his great mentor, arguing that human nature cannot throw off the imagination or outgrow it –– for the body cannot be overcome or jettisoned. We are embodied creatures, like all other things in nature, Spinoza argued. The dualism of mind and body, even infecting the mind itself in its dual capacities, is not, however, one of kind but of perspective.

Hence, it is not only society as a whole that needs to engage the imagination in the service of reason, as Maimonides held, but all of us.  Even the most educated, the greatest scientists and philosophers, need to be inspired and re-inspired. Pilgrimage isn’t just for some but for all; music isn’t just for some but for all; speeches and political demonstrations and public rituals and spectacles, symbols and signs, holidays and celebrations, are not just for some but for all. We are imaginative creatures as much as rational ones, and necessarily so. I have argued at some length and over some decades that Spinoza anticipated affective neuroscience discoveries made in recent times by neuroscientists of the emotions, especially Jaak Panksepp and Antonio Damasio, the latter even writing a book for the general public titled Looking for Spinoza.

Spinoza held that we human beings, like all creatures in nature, are creatures of emotion: of desire, of love, and of social belonging, and group and interpersonal identification. We tend to group selves and minds that connect as “group-minds,” a term Spinoza himself used. Our glorious human cognitive capacities modify and express these deeper affective selves, who, at the most basic level, are what we are and must necessarily be.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Dr. Heidi Ravven, Professor of Classical & Religious Studies and Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Hamilton College, held a Scholar-in-Residence Weekend at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, NJ on April 5-6, 2024).


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