Maimonides and the Origin of Rational Infallibility


Reading a marvelous book that I got as a result of being associated with Library Thing: Israel Drazin's Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind. From it, we get some very interesting insights such as:

from Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind
Israel Drazin

Nevertheless, Maimonides teaches that the acceptance of rabbinical opinions applies only to halakhah, rules relating to behavior, but not to rabbinical opinions on non-halakhic matters. The reason for this conclusion should be obvious. The early rabbis' views were usually based on the science of their times; these primitive conclusions inevitably led, at times to error on the part of the rabbis. Therefore, Maimonides insists, one is free to analyze and consider the opinions of the rabbis and then accept, reject, or modify them; in fact, this is the very purpose for which God granted humans intelligence: to study and evaluate.

Maimonides records his assessment of rabbis and other sages of the former historic period in the introduction to his Mishneh Torah. He writes that the halakhic component of "the Babylonian Talmud is binding on all Israel. . . because all the customs, decrees and institutions mentioned in the Talmud received the assent of all Israel." Thus only the "customs, decrees and institutions," the halahkic elements received "the assent of all Israel." However, the non-halakhic opinions did not receive that assent and thus are not obligatory.

It sounds something like a cross between Papal infallibility on matter of doctrine and the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium . Either way, it seems a good summary of what infallibility touches and what it doesn't. The Pope's opinions about algebra, while conceivably interesting and worthy of pondering, are not binding. Nor is his opinion of evolution (except in its cautions related to the spiritual life), nor any scientific, literary, historical, or philosophical matter.

Of course, Papal infallibility is limited at any rate to ex Cathedra pronouncements and clear articulations of the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Catholic Church. But the Pope's endorsement of a movie does not make that a good movie per se. His announcement (should he decide to decree one) that Titian was the world's foremost painter and should be revered for his voluptuous nudes would be merely an opinion. One would need to weigh that opinion against one's evaluation of the Pope as an art critic and aesthete, but one would under no circumstances be bound to obedience on the matter of Titian as uber-artist.

I don't know why I'm saying all of this except that I guess I thought it was interesting that this same point is a point of contention in circles outside of the Catholic Church. It had never occurred to me that others struggled with this same doctrine.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 12, 2009 7:22 AM.

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