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Nissan 5768

The King's Palace

Written by the rabbi


Hassidic Jews relate that once, when many Torah sages were gathered around the table of the Rozhiner Rebbe, the rebbe asked, "Why do people not agree with the Rambam?"

One of them replied, "The Rambam writes that Aristotle understood the celestial spheres better than Ezekiel the Prophet. Is it surprising, then, that people do not agree with him?"

The Rhoziner responded, "The Rambam is right. Two people entered the king's palace. One of them walked through each chamber and studied scrupulously the magnificent vessels and treasures, and he could not satiate his eyes. The second also walked through the chambers of the palace, but his only thoughts were: This is the home of the king; here are the vessels of the king...soon I shall surely see the king himself, face to face!"

Hassidism's attitude to Rambam is a complex one, and many Hassidic leaders have had reservations about the study of his philosophical doctrine. R' Menachem Mendel of Kotzk used to say that for a person who has filled his belly with Talmud and Jewish law, Rambam's "Guide to the Perplexed" is a guide; for one who has not, it is perplexing."

Because of his strong connection with philosophy, the Rambam created new definitions of what perfect faith is. In his opinion, reaching human perfection calls for observing and understanding God's presence via the intellect.

The first of Rambams Thirteen Principles of Faith is the knowledge of God knowledge, not faith. Even reward in the World to Come wears an intellectual garb in Rambams doctrine. According to Rambam, the passage "The righteous sit, wearing their crowns, enjoying the glory of Gods presence" refers to enjoyment that comes from grasping intellectual axioms and the pleasure that comes from acquiring an intellectual knowledge of Gods existence. On this scale, Rambam held Aristotle in great esteem as he who had reached the highest possible level.

All of this sheds light on the way Rambam was viewed by the Hassidim. It leads us to the claim, enunciated in our story, that Rambam held Aristotle in higher esteem than he did Ezekiel the Prophet. This statement compares two ostensibly disparate worlds: the world of prophecy and the world of philosophy. Ezekiel is mentioned in this context because of his vision of the Divine Chariot; Aristotle is mentioned as he who represents the world of philosophy because Rambam so espoused his thought.

From our story it becomes clear that the Rozhiner Rebbe was not disturbed by the comparison of the two. He did not tend to draw a fundamental distinction between the prophet and the philosopher.

One who studies Rambams "Yesodei HaTorah" will discover that his ideas appear to be very similar to well-known Kabbalistic ideas. The first four chapters of "Yesodei HaTorah," which deal with the realms of God, the angels, the spheres, and creation, are likely to be viewed as paralleling the four "worlds" of Kabbalah the "World of Emination," the "World of Creation," the "World of Formation," and the "World of Actions"; Rambams ten "intellects" can be seen as paralleling Kabbalahs ten "sefiroth" (divine attributes or powers), and so forth.

It appears possible, then, to arrive at intellectual cognizance on either a prophetic or philosophical level.

The Rozhiner Rebbe justifies the claim that Rambam compares Aristotle, who comes from the world of philosophy, and Ezekiel, who comes from the world of prophecy. If we look at things from an intellectual standpoint, we might well say that Aristotle understood the fabric of the sublime worlds better than Ezkiel the Prophet.

However, here the Rozhiner Rebbe changes the system of values by which he judges matters. Perhaps Aristotle knew more than Ezekiel, but does it matter if he knew more or less? The real question is not what you know but how that knowledge affects you.

Two people walk through the kings palace. One of them turns his attention to the precious objects, magnificent vessels, and treasures. For him, the palace is a fascinating place that must be analyzed. He recognizes that the contents of the palace are all beautiful, wise, interesting, but he stops here; he refrains from seeking out the king himself.

It may well be that the second person walking through the palace knows less about the palace itself, but as he walks along he is permeated with a sense of attachment to the king. For him, the palace has no essential significance; it only has meaning inasmuch as it arouses man to attach himself to God.

Ezekiel picked up where Aristotle left off. Aristotle reached an understanding of all celestial forces, but for him the cosmic activity was everything. Ezekiel too saw the Divine Chariot of the cosmos, but for him this was only and introductory vision to the personal bond between man and God.

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