I’m currently working through a bunch of Maimonides’ texts for a paper that I’m writing and have been reminded how brilliant he is when taking shots at his opponents. In “Helek: Sanhedrin, Chapter Ten” he lists three possible ways of reading aggadah, and I couldn’t help but procrastinate make contemporary comparisons.
Maimonides first names those that attempt to follow the teachings of the sages literally. “They believe that all sorts of impossible things must be. … The members of this group are poor in knowledge. One can only regret their folly.” Though they are no doubt reading wrongly and “humiliate” the sages, it’s hard to blame the masses too much–hard unless you’re a preacher, whom apparently he could not stand. Preachers, he says, should just admit that they don’t understand much. My teen years spent sleeping through church feel vindicated, as apparently preachers have been annoying for at least 800 years.
However, the real jabs come for the second group. There is a group that is so stupid that they think that the sages should be read literally and therefore dismissed. Really, the audacity of these people: “They imagine that their own intelligence is of a higher order than that of the sages, and that the sages were simpletons who suffered from inferior intelligence. The members of this group are so pretentiously stupid that they can never attain genuine wisdom. … They regard themselves as cultivated men, scientists, critics, and philosophers. They are more stupid than the first group; many of them are simply fools. … If these fools had worked at science hard enough to know how to write accurately about theology for the masses and for the educated, the real meaning of [the sages] would be clear to them.”
Obviously, Dawkins, et al came to mind here: “philosophers” who, thinking they are so obviously smarter than thinkers of the past simply because they were born later, end up sounding like fools. Thankfully, Maimonides has some advice for people like this: “when, in some of your hours of leisure, you leave off drinking and copulating–collect yourself and reflect, for things are not as you thought following the first notion that occurred to you.” Hmm. About that…