Skip to content

Parashat Yitro 5781 — 02/06/2021

Parashat Yitro 5781 — 02/06/2021

Beginning with Bereishit 5781 (17 October 2020) we embarked on a new format. We will be considering Rambam’s (Maimonides’) great philosophical work Moreh Nevukim (Guide for the Perplexed) in the light of the knowledge of Vedic Science as expounded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The individual essays will therefore not necessarily have anything to do with the weekly Torah portion, although certainly there will be plenty of references to the Torah, the rest of the Bible, and to the Rabbinic literature. For Bereishit we described the project. The next four parshiyyot, Noach through Chayei Sarah, laid out a foundational understanding of Vedic Science, to the degree I am capable of doing so. Beginning with Toledot we started examining Moreh Nevukim.

Shemot 18:1-20:23

Last week we ended listing various approaches to the disconnect between astronomical observation and Aristotelian physics. This week I would like to return to last week’s quote from Prof Pines and use it to see where Rambam stands.

Recall that Rambam wishes to harmonize two apparently contradictory positions. On the one hand he needs to defend the traditional Jewish position that the universe was created at a particular time by Gd. On the other hand, he wishes to defend Aristotle’s project of explaining all observation of reality on the basis of logical deduction. The latter proposition is made more difficult because Aristotelian physics is in fact not consistent with the observed reality of the motion of the heavenly bodies. In fact, the Ptolemaic system of cycles and epicycles did a much better job of predicting planetary motion – so much so that it was not superseded until the time of Kepler and Newton (16th and 17th centuries), a millennium and a half later. In fact, certain anomalies in planetary motion (excess precession of the perihelion of Mercury) were not explained until Einstein published General Relativity in 1915. Incidentally, a large part of Talmudic argument is involved in reconciling divergent opinions of different Sages, by, for example, applying the different opinions to different situations. Here, however, it appears that we have a logical contradiction, which is of course more difficult to deal with.

Here are the steps Rambam takes, according to Prof. Pines. First, he lowers expectations:

They serve to build up an image of Aristotle regarded as an earnest seeker of truth tentatively propounding more or less plausible theories. As Maimonides twice points out in the Guide … the science of mathematics was in an imperfect state in Aristotle’s time (a fact that invalidates that philosopher’s astronomical theories) and has progressed since then.

The point here is that it is not necessary for everything Aristotle says to be correct. He may have been the “state of the art” in his time, but what he built up could only be as firm as the foundational knowledge which he took as his premises, and that foundational knowledge was in a more primitive state in Aristotle’s time (almost 1500 years before Rambam).

Now Rambam considers whether it is even possible to come up with a rational theory of heavenly motions:

[Rambam was prepared to] believe that the true science of astronomy was beyond human ken, or that at least no theory concerning the celestial spheres could be held to be as certain as the science of terrestrial physics expounded by Aristotle. This does not, however, necessarily mean that the “order of nature” and a “conformity to the nature of existence,” i.e., an intrinsic rationality that accounts for the possibility of a scientific explanation, do not subsist in the heavenly as well as the sublunar phenomena. The affirmation of such a rationality, which is a fundamental position of Maimonides, … does not depend upon the existence of an adequate astronomical theory.

We see here what Rambam is and is not prepared to give up. He is not prepared to give the rationality of the universe – if the universe is not rational then the whole program of science and philosophy is meaningless – it is a futile search for order and regularity in an existence that intrinsically has no order to it. This would call into question the idea that Gd, the Creator of the universe, is the supreme Intelligence, guiding the dynamics of Creation in accordance with a Divine plan, however much that plan may be hidden from our understanding.

Rambam is further able to countenance the possibility that the laws of nature on earth may be different from the laws of nature in the heavens. To a certain extent he was correct even according to modern physics, simply because conditions in space differ so vastly from conditions on earth. Bodies are more massive, speeds and energies are greater, and therefore there are phenomena that we can observe in space (quasars, neutron stars, black holes, etc.) that we cannot recreate at the lower energies available on earth. Although ultimately, we believe the laws are the same, their application differs under different circumstances. Of course, Rambam would not have imagined a world of black holes and cosmic background radiation and an expanding universe, so he certainly could have admitted that the sublunar world was qualitatively different from the celestial spheres, and even that the laws governing the latter were “beyond human ken.” Since the laws governing heavenly motion may be different from the laws governing motion on earth, the lack of an “adequate astronomical theory” does not prove that such a theory cannot, in principle exist.

And finally, continuing in the same vein:

Maimonides makes out quite a good case for this contention, suggested by these quotations, that in so far as the Aristotelian proof of the eternity of the world is dependent on physics it has not the force of a demonstration…

By “not having the force of a demonstration” we mean that Aristotle’s proofs are not irrefutable. This is because they are not based on pure logic, but instead are contingent on actual observations and inferences from those observations (“physics”). If the observations are wrong, it can call the conclusions derived from them into question as well.

Rambam has managed to diffuse Aristotle’s challenge to the Jewish view of Gd’s creation of the universe ex nihilo by showing that Aristotle’s proofs are actually contingent on data – and lurking in the background is the skandalon that the data they had at the time (and certainly the data we now have) do not support Aristotelian physics and astronomy. He can now turn to Scripture to support the notion of Creation. See where a good education in Talmud study gets you!?!


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Yitro

Yitro, the name of Moses’ father-in-law means “abundance, plenty.” Supremely Abundant and Plentiful is Gd so this parshah’s name suggests that even as human beings we can rise to the level of Oneness with Gd, the level of Oneness in which the duality between Gd and us exists as a play, some fun in which our individualities learn to with the supreme in the field of duality.

Yitro was priest of the Midianites-Midian was a son of Abraham and Keturah and his name is commonly translated as “strife, contention.” What kind parents would give their son such a name? Just as“Yisroel” (Israel) is usually translated as “wrestled with Gd” or “prevailed over Gd” and yet it is better to translate it as “embraced Gd,” “united with Gd” so it is better to translate “Midian” as “evaluate, judge.”

This meaning is especially apt because in this parshah Yitro, hearing the news of Gd’s triumph over Egypt (Mitzraim, “Restrictions”) evaluates this victory, declares that the Gd of Israel is Supreme, and begins to worship Him and also because, using his evaluating ability recommends to Moses that he not act as judge in all cases brought to him but that he appoint a hierarchy of judges who can evaluate the less complicated cases and only those which require the full attention of Moses’ Consciousness, need be brought to him. Then Moses can “make known Gd’s statutes and teachings.”

This sets up the central portion of Torah, the Divine Situation in which Gd Himself makes known His Primary Teachings and not only Moses but all our ancestors get a view of Gd and hear His Voice.

This Blessing is something Gd has prepared Moses for but the other Children of Israel He has not yet fully prepared and so they are frightened and say to Moses (paraphrasing) “You speak to us; if Gd speaks to us, we will die.”

They say this after Gd appears to them as Fire, and they hear His Voice as He gives out the fundamental principles of our faith (actually, of any moral life) what are commonly called the “Ten Commandments” but which literally mean “the ten words” or “the ten sayings.”

Moses responds” “Fear not for Gd has come to exalt you in order that His Awe shall be on your faces and you shall not sin.”

Nonetheless, the people remain away from the mountain, as Gd commanded, while Moses approaches Gd and Gd tell Moses what further to say to the people.
Since the purpose of life is to return to the Primordial Oneness in which the separation between individual and Gd does not exist, we must find some way that we can experience Gd without being afraid and then to dissolve the separation – to not stand in the way when Gd dissolves the separation – between us.

The Ten Sayings can be looked at as descriptions of how we live when we are in harmony with Gd and when Oneness dominates in our awareness; they can also be looked at as guides to behavior so that we rise to the level in which the Harmony is Full and the separation dissolves, both from our side and from Gd’s.

This is the level when all our behavior is fully an expression of Oneness and even though we appear to each other’s senses as limited individuals, with limited physiologies, in reality we are Totality, All-in-All, Oneness behaving as finite individuals while remaining All.

Just our simple, innocent, decent lives raise us in this direction, return us little by little and in a way, a lot by a lot, to Love, Joy, Wholeness, Oneness.
Our prayer books (siddurs), Torah, words of the wise (Kabbalah), weekly services, special holidays all add extra delight, comfort and speed to this Restoration.

Let’s continue!

Baruch HaShem