Monday, December 10, 2007

Demons and rationalism

Someone asked me last week about how to view a machlokes in hashkafic reality. For example, there is a disgreement about whether reincarnation is true or not (or more specifically, whether it is an acceptable Jewish belief or not). R' Saadiah Gaon, and others, are explicit that there is no reincarnation. The AriZal, the Ramchal and others describe in detail how reincarnation works.

Are we to understand that one opinion is wrong and the other right? (and if so, how does that relate to our understanding of tradition from Sinai?) Is it possible that they are both right? Or is it possible to say that one was right in his time and place, and the other is correct in his time and place (whatever that means)?

For example, someone one said: I have heard that since the Rambam said they don't exist, there are no demons. Someone else replied: Bunk, as far as I know.

This requires clarification.

Rambam (Hilchos Avoda Zara chapter 11 halacha 16) writes:

All these matters [i.e. necromancy, enchantment, et cetera] are all matters of falsehood and deceit, and it was with these that the early idolaters made the other [non-idolatrous] gentiles deviate and follow them. It is not fitting for Jews, who are the cleverest of the clever, to use such nonsense, or even to think that they are of any use, for it is written, "Surely there is no enchantment in Jacob, or divination in Israel", and it is also written, "For these nations, whom you shall dispossess, listen to soothsayers and diviners; but as for you, the L-rd your G-d has not permitted you to do so". Anyone who believes in these or similar things and privately thinks that they are true and wise, but that [we don't practice them because] the Torah forbade them, is an idiot and lacks knowledge, and is in the category of women and children, who are of an deficient mentality. But those people who are wise and of a perfect mentality know very clearly that all these things that the Torah forbade are not wise, but are merely stuff and nonsense which those lacking in knowledge follow and because of which abandon the ways of truth. Because of this, when warning us against these nonsenses, the Torah says, "You shall be perfect with the L-rd your G-d". (translation from Panix)

Although he doesn't explicilty mention demons in that chapter, it seems that he would include them in all of the other forbidden practices he lists (and Hagahos Maimonios explicitly includes demons as foolishness).

In his commentary on the Mishna (Avoda Zara 4: 7) Rambam writes:

I said this because I konw that most people, and perhaps even all of them are misled by them in a big way, with these things and similar things, and they think that they are true. But this is not so. Even some of the great and good of our Torah thinkn that these things [demons, magic, etc.] are correct, but that they are forbidden by our Torah. They don't konw that these things are null and false and the Torah warned against them like it warns against all falsehood...

So Rambam almost certainly holds that demons don't exist.

The Vilna Gaon certainly understood that as Rambam's meaning, when he writes in Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 179: 6 - note 13):

"This is based on Rambam (ibid), and he also wrote this in his commentary on the Mishna chapter 4 Avodah Zara. But everyone who came after him disagreed with him, because many spells were mentioned in the Talmud. He [Rambam] was drawn after philosophy, and therefore he wrote that magic, spells, demons and amulets, everything is lies. But they [the later commentators] have already hit him over the head, because we find many cases in the Talmud using names and magic.... Philosophy misled him with its sweeping attempt to explain the Talmud as euphemisms and to ignore the simple meaning. Chas V'Shalom beleive in them, and they are not worthy of belief. All the words [of the Talmud] are like their simple meaning, but they have a deeper meaning. Not the deeper meaning [ascribed to them by] the philosophers, which is not a hidden meaning, but [the hidden meaning] of those with the truth [the Kabbalists].

So the Vilna Gaon holds that Rambam was wrong when he denied the existence of demons, magic etc. (It is also clear that even though the Gaon was a rationalist, and some claim that he is part of the haskalah, the truth is that for him the Talmud was always the final word, even if it contradicted rationality and/or science)

Is it possible that in Rambam's time they didn't exist, but in the Gaon's time they did? Was Rambam just plain wrong?

Presumably, bottom line, nowadays we would follow the opinion of the Gaon (?)

So is it 'bunk' or is that just a two storey bed?

Answers on the back of a postcard please.

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