Chapters IV & V: Greek Fire

Rambam devotes chapter IV to a study of connations verbs which denote "perceiving with the eye".

Connotation vs Denotation

The august Susanne Langer distinguishes these terms best:

Denotation is, then, the complex relationship which a name has to an object which bears it; but what shall the more direct relation of the name , or symbol, to its associated concept be called?... The connotation of a word is the conception it conveys(Langer, "Philosophy in a New Key", p. 64)

Elucidation on the Connotations of Seeing

Rambam examines the usage of three verbs which all denote "to see" that also share various connotations of intellectual perceiving some idea.

  • raah: when used figuratively, the verb raah connotes intellectual perception. To suggest otherwise would result in a making an anthropomorphic fallacy regarding God's nature, precisely what Rambam seeks to dispel.

  • hibbit: this verb connotes " 'to contemplate' a thing till it be understood".

  • hazah: this verb connotes "to perceive mentally".

Prepared for Aristotle Head-On

With the connotations of these verbs now properly understood, Rambam can crash head-on into his Aristotelean exegesis, with all the logical menaces now duly extinguished.

Dr. Rambam: Prescription for Success

In the following chapter, Rambam explicates the necessity for a liberal education in order to properly tackle the Divine questions:

We take the same position[as Aristotle], and think that a man, when he commences to speculate, ought not to embarck at once on a subject so vast and important; he should previously adapt himself to the study of the several branches of science and knowledge, should most thoroughly refine his moral character and subdue his passions and desires, the offspring of his imagination;

This would be considered heretical by some of Rambam's peers not only in his time, but even today. This is a very dangerous flirtation with apikoros, but even the Kotzker Rebbe, arguably the modern variant of Rambam, would argue that for exalted Sages like Rambam, yes, the rules are different.

He goes on:

when, in addition, he has obtained a knowledge of the true fundamental propositions, a comprehension of the several methods of inference and proof, and the capacity of guarding against fallacies, then he may approach the investigation of the subject... modestly and patiently... advance step by step.

Rambam, who played a critical role in the history of Western civilization, a Sage and master of philosophy, arts, and theology, advocates a broad, liberal, and rigorous course of study and meditation for men who can not stop asking themselves hard questions.

Don't Get Burned(at Taberah)

Notably, though, being a doctor and intuiting the humours and their effect on the mind, he also prescribes physical and psychological discipline: eschewing self-indulgence and ill-temper, both of which can injure not only the perceptive and contemplative faculties but their host, too:

But "the nobles of the Children of Israel" were impetuous, and allowed their thoughts to go unrestrained: what they perceived was but imperfect. Therefore it is said of them, "And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet," etc... the purpose of the whole passage is to criticize their act of seeing and not to describe it. They are blamed for the nature of their preception, which was to a certain extent corporal -- a result which necessarily followed, from the fact that they ventured too far before being perfectly prepared.

Rambam then argues that us non-noble men, how much more obligation do now we have to "...persevere in perfecting our knowledge of the lements, and in rightly understanding the preliminaries which purify the mind from the defilement of error..." He then refers to Solomon admonishing all to also pursue this knowledge before attempting to answer hard questions.

Dr. Rambam: Slobs & Gluttons Don't Go to Heaven... In Fact, They Fry

The trifling exegesis for the fires at Taberah was that the people complained about their lot and were duly punished by an indignant God: this is the kindergarten explanation(doesn't even approach pshat-level exegesis for those who care). Rambam illuminates the real story for us.

Rambam believed that the body, mind, and soul all shared an intimate and mutual interaction. Even from his introduction, Rambam mentions the necessity of physical discipline, saying that it is not possible to achieve proper psychic elevation while remaining tethered to the brothel or food trough.

Rambam writes of the tragic end at Taberah, "... in consequence of their confused perception, they gave way to bodliy cravings." The key passage was, "Also, they saw God and did eat and drink (Exod. xxiv 11)." As we discussed in our review of the three verbs "to see", this portion means that while their minds found God intelligible, despite this ability and gift, they squandered it and instead elected instead to indulge in bodily pleasures, and for this, they were burned alive (save Nadab and Abihu).

This is an explicit warning from Dr. Rambam that the entire man, not merely his intellectual faculties, must be cultivated in order to properly perform any exegesis and avert heresy.