Science and Medieval Philosophy: Maimonides

Maimonides drew upon scientific knowledge in his interpretations of Jewish law.

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By recognizing that wisdom did not originate from Israel alone, Maimonides exhibited a tolerance and an appreciation for non-Jewish, especially Muslim, philosophic learning as an important addition to the study of Torah. It was enough to assume that philosophy and the sciences constituted an original part of the oral law, as he indicated in his famous paraphrase of the talmudic passage in Kiddushin 30a.

Integrating Without Superimposing

As Isadore Twersky has shown, Maimonides was also not averse to introducing scientific knowledge into his formulations of Jewish law, not only "to integrate science, to relate a scientific vocabulary and axiology to rabbinic law, but also to recognize its autonomy and not to superimpose it on the structure and fabric of the halakha [Jewish law]." (See Twersky, "Aspects of Maimonidean Epistemology: Halakha and Science," in Neusner et al., eds., From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism.)

Recognizing the legitimacy of knowledge outside Judaism is one thing; allowing it to contradict positions articulated by the rabbis is another. In one of the sciences, namely astronomy, Maimonides allowed the more recent knowledge of the scientists to supersede that of the rabbis.

He first acknowledged this possibility in commenting on a famous incident recorded in the Talmud (Pesahim 94b) of the rabbinic sages preferring the opinion of Gentile scholars on an astronomical matter (Guide of the Perplexed, 2:8).

Rabbinic Imperfections

Later, commenting on astronomical distances recorded in rabbinic literature, he was even more explicit: "Do not ask of me to show that everything they [the rabbis] have said concerning astronomical matters conforms to the way things really are. For at that time mathematics was imperfect. They did not speak about this as transmitters of dicta of the prophets, but rather because in those times they were men of knowledge in these fields or because they had heard these dicta from the men of knowledge who lived in those times" (Ibid, 3:14)

He thus concluded that "whenever it is possible to interpret the words of an individual [rabbi] in such a manner that they conform to a being whose existence has been demonstrated"--that is, that they conform to the scientific truth, as in the case of astronomical distances--it is fitting to do so. But if they cannot be so interpreted, rabbinic statements should be regarded as only individual opinions, not the halakhah, and therefore may be rejected (Ibid).

Maimonides' view that contemporary astronomical knowledge was superior to that found in the Talmud and should be accepted even when it contradicted the views of the rabbis was revolutionary. That he appears to limit its applicability to astronomy should be considered together with his epistemological stance vis-a-vis celestial physics and metaphysics.

No Theory Is Certain

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David B. Ruderman

David B. Ruderman is the Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History and the Ella Darivoff Director of the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.