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Maimonides for the 21st Century


by Rabbi Reba Carmel

From the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents.

Discussed in this essay: Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism: Secrets of The Guide for the Perplexed, by Micah Goodman. University of Nebraska Press, 2015, 296 pages.

“GOD IS THE GREATEST THREAT to religion.” So begins Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism, by Dr. Micah Goodman, an Israeli scholar and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. In a mere 250 pages, Goodman liberates religious practice from the perfunctory, frees God from the tedious constraints of language, and reframes the relationship between God and religion.

Rabbi Moses (Moshe) ben Maimon (1135-1204), known by the acronym Rambam, was the most influential Jew of the Middle Ages. His codification of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, became the standard to which authorities through the centuries referred. (“The Rambam,” wrote Joseph Karo, who compiled the Shulkhan Arukh three centuries later, “is the greatest of the decisors, and all the communities of the Land of Israel and the Arabistan and the Maghreb practice according to his word, and accepted him as their rabbi.”) Maimonides was also famous for integrating Aristotelian philosophy with Judaism, following a pathway blazed by his Muslim contemporary, Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes, who created a new intellectual atmosphere of openness to Aristotelian thought. (Maimonides, it should be noted, did much of his writing in Arabic and was widely recognized as a mind to be reckoned with in the Muslim world.) This integration of empirical “science” and religious tradition would help justify more humanistic and even secular approaches to Judaism in later centuries.

Theologically, the Rambam maintained that the insistence that we can change God’s mind or influence God through prayer or religious practice is heretical. It would be impossible to take God seriously, he wrote, if God were so malleable as to yield to human will and intention. The indescribable nature of Maimonides’ God became anathema to Jewish mystics in their determination to assign actual attributes to God — and a comfort, of sorts, to Jewish secularists, who have tended to interpret “indescribable” to mean non-existent or irrelevant. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes about the Rambam: “for an atheist, Maimonides’ philosophy shows us what happens if you remove all anthropomorphic content from your conception of God: you remove all content of any kind.”

The Rambam was no atheist, however; his famous Thirteen Articles of Faith, which he considered binding on every Jew, included belief in the existence of God, the absolute unity of God, the incorporeality of God, the eternity of God, that there is divine providence, and other theological affirmations.

Plunging into the Rambam’s most daunting work, The Guide for the Perplexed, completed between 1185 and 1190, Micah Goodman (whose book, in Hebrew, has been an Israeli bestseller) transforms this medieval rationalist philosopher into a meaningful voice for the 21st century. This is no Rambam lite: In addressing some of the most timeless, difficult, and unresolvable issues that still gnaw at the human soul and psyche, Goodman presents Maimonides as both a self-help counselor and as a deeply nuanced theologian prescribing the discipline and the self-conscious imagination demanded to create and live a just, ethical and spiritual life.

It is impossible, however, to understand the influence and reach of the Rambam’s writings without considering the historical context of his life and the political and religious unrest that plagued minority communities at that time.

SHORTLY before Maimonides reached bar mitsve age, Spain was invaded by the Almohades, fanatical Muslims who offered non-Muslims a choice of conversion or death. After eight generations of life in Muslim Cordova as judges, rabbis, and civic leaders, the Maimons were forced to flee. For the next decade, Moses, his parents, and his brother David wandered through southern Spain and northern Africa, finally landing in Fez, Morocco (1159-1165). They and their community were still plagued, however, by the spreading persecution of the Almohades.

In 1165, the Rambam left his family and undertook a precarious sea journey to Palestine/Israel. Making his way from Acre to Jerusalem, he ultimately settled in Cairo, Egypt’s thriving, heterogeneous Jewish community. During his first few years there, a series of calamities struck him: his father died; he was witness to religious strife between Christians and Moslems; he himself suffered a protracted illness; and his beloved brother David, a merchant who had supported the family, died during a sea voyage in 1173.

About the impact of his life of wandering, the Rambam stated the following in 1172 (from A Maimonides Reader, edited by Isadore Twersky, Behrman House, 1972):

. . . although I always study the ordinances of the Lord, I did not attain the learning of my forebears, for evil days and hard times overtook us; we did not abide in tranquility. We labored hard and had to rest. How could we study the law when we were being exiled from city to city, and from country to country? I pursued the reapers in their paths and gathered ears of grain, both the rank and the full ones, as well as the withered and the thin ones. Only recently have I found a home . . .

Maimonides would remain in Cairo until his death, serving as personal physician to the sultan and as nagid, the appointed leader of Egyptian Jews. He married twice (his first wife died), and had a son, Abraham, with his second. (Abraham was only 17 when Maimonides died. He remained in Cairo as a community leader and scholar.)

Having endured persecution, displacement, exile, and loss, the Rambam became a vigorous defender of Jewish communities around the world who sought his advice when faced with their own religious persecution. In crafting his responses, he relied upon ethics, morality, and the exigencies of the moment to arrive at decisions that supported the communities’ best choices while retaining the moral integrity of Judaism.

Two of his most famous letters were written in 1161-62 and 1172, respectively. The first, his epistle on conversion (Iggeret haShemad), is unapologetically polemical, a bold assault against a certain scholar who had belittled, marginalized, and written off the Jews of a particular community who had chosen to outwardly feign being Muslim while under the draconian Almohade regime. (A generation earlier, the Rambam’s father had written a letter of consolation to the same community.) Marshalling every resource — legal, theological, rhetorical, and emotional — the Rambam encouraged and supported them in their despair.
In his epistle to Yemen’s Jews (1172), he responded to a community’s request for advice regarding the blunt-force persecution they were subjected to externally, as well as insidious erosion from within. This matter had begun in 1165, when a recent apostate had declared himself the messiah. In his responsum, the Rambam reviewed the entire history of persecution and suffering of the Jews. He attempted to mitigate the community’s distress by taking a broad philosophical perspective on history and assuring them that faith in God’s promises must be as firm as their faith in God’s existence. Their suffering did not imply the absence of God: “As it is impossible for God to cease to exist, so too it is impossible for Israel to cease to exist.” His support earned him the veneration of the Jews of Yemen, who transcribed and disseminated his works for generations.

WRITTEN between 1185 and 1190, Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed, the principal focus of Goodman’s book, seems intended to insure the continued strength of a moral and ethical Jewish community. In that regard, it is both accessible and democratic. For the Rambam, mitsves (commanded deeds) and Jewish observance are the essential components of morality and ethics. Religious practice is not about having a relationship with God, but with other Jews; it is the foundation of belonging and of peoplehood.

Yet the more one is spiritually deepened by religious practice, the more one may feel, according to Goodman (paraphrasing William James) a sense of divine “presence.” In its most focused forms, religious practice can even generate ephemeral religious moments of encounter with that presence. True faith, to Maimonides, means knowing that such moments disappear yet remaining loyal to the knowledge of their existence, despite their unpredictability and rarity.
For the Rambam, any characterization of God, subjecting God to the limitations of language, can only be enunciated in negative terms: God is not without mercy; God is not disunified; etc. Maimonides thus wrests God from anthropomorphism: God does not feel angry, compassionate or vengeful, God does not have an outstretched arm or a strong right hand or a footstool for his feet, God does not visit the sick or clothe the naked. We describe or presume to know God in corporeal terms because we live a physical existence. However, anthropomorphizing God is the ultimate hubris, since it places humanity as the central reference point for the existence and meaning of the world.

In framing how we should refer to God, Goodman moves to a discussion of prophecy — asking, if God does not speak, how it is possible to explain the multiple dialogues that the Torah records between God and Abraham, God and Moses, God and the prophets. Prophecy, explains the Rambam, is the perfect union of reason and imagination, unencumbered by emotion or ethical compromise. Through that union, the prophet can connect to the cosmic intellect and reveal metaphysical truths.

Maimonides points out that the ability to cultivate a prophetic personality is not particular to Jews, but the mitsves are. He sees mitsves as intended to bring about spiritual perfection and expand the Jew’s ability to be closer to God and hence heighten the development of a prophetic personality. While conceptually, therefore, non-Jews certainly may possess the ability and discipline to cultivate a prophetic imagination, the Torah and its mitsves give Jews an advantage in engendering proximity to the cosmic intellect.

The purpose of Torah and mitsves, however, is not merely esoteric, but ultimately demands a commitment to action, to ritual observance that protects and perpetuates the theoretical truths of Judaism. Goodman explains,

while mitzves do indeed affect the world, they do not directly influence God or nature. Instead, they work by transforming the person who fulfills them . . .We might say that the mitzves were not given for God’s sake but for man’s — in order to shape a new kind of human being.Underlying all of Rambam’s writings about the reasons for the commandments is the notion that a person’s character is his greatest achievement and that the mitzves are, above all, tools to build a whole, balanced personality.

Creating a moral self and a just society is the Torah’s singular purpose, Maimonides says, and sound governance is essential to accomplish that goal. When Moses asks God to allow him to “know God” (Exodus 33:18), God refuses, since the essence of that request is Moses’ desire to become godlike. However, Moses also made a worthier request of God: “Show me your ways” (33:13). That request was granted, because Moses was seeking to comprehend the sublime, elegant perfection of the laws of nature as God created them, in order to create a just, balanced society that reflects the elegant balance of the natural world. A person with such understanding, the Rambam writes in The Guide, “. . . has achieved demonstration, to the extent that it is possible, of everything that may be demonstrated; and . . . has ascertained in divine matters, to the extent that that is possible, everything that may be ascertained; and . . . has come close to certainty in those matters in which one can only come close to it . . .”

Exodus 34:6-8 recounts Moses’ description of God through what has become known as the Thirteen Divine Attributes (not to be confused with Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith). To the Rambam, however, God does not possess human characteristics and therefore cannot possibly be “compassionate” or “slow to anger,” as claimed in these Biblical verses. Rather, these attributes represent a human projection onto nature, which can appear gloomy, ill-tempered, and erratic, as well as calm and gloriously beautiful.

The Thirteen Attributes should nevertheless be emulated by a good leader — who should be compassionate, slow to anger, full of goodness, etc., while rendering decisions that are rational and well-considered. In other words, good leadership must emerge from wisdom, says the Rambam, but should appear as if it arises from feeling. An emotional leader is reactive, whereas a wise, rational leader is proactive and meticulously thoughtful:

It behooves the governor of a city . . . to [take] actions [that] . . . proceed from him according to a determined measure and according to the deserts of the people who are affected by them and not merely because of his following a passion. He should not let loose the reins of anger nor let passion gain mastery over him, for all passions are evil; but, on the contrary, he should guard against them as far as this lies within the capacity of man. Sometimes, with regard to some people, he should be merciful and gracious, not out of mere compassion and pity, but in accordance with what is fitting.

Moses’ request to God to understand the pure elegance of the natural world is thus motivated by a desire to become a better leader and shepherd his people to a perfect, just and moral society.

If we are able, however, to harness reason to craft a moral self and a just society, how is it possible to explain both evil and providence? Maimonides’ perspective on these elements of reality integrated his personal and communal tragedies.

Divine providence, he believes, has no role in the rational, balanced society. Evil, trauma, and death simply happen, and ultimately evil is not evil unless we perceive it as such. Goodman writes:

The Rambam delineates three types of evil. First, the evil which is simply the consequence of living. We cannot avoid the natural disasters, illness, and death [that] often overtake us. Secondly the evil we cause one another through crime or war, which [Rambam] believes can be limited by a strong and just political framework. Thirdly, the evil which a person causes to himself, arguably the most common.

A basic principle emerges from this categorization. The closer a particular type of evil is to us, the more common it is. . . . [T]he evil we do to ourselves is the most widespread of all. Maimonides is not trying to ignore the presence of evil but to change our perception of its source. Many people feel themselves to be passive victims of cosmic evil. However Maimonides transforms man from a hapless victim of evil to its primary cause. . . . If one is the cause of his own pain, then he is also its cure, and herein lies the Maimonidean “therapeutic” approach. By changing our habits and aspiration, we can reduce or eliminate our suffering. We need to rid ourselves of the expectation of external redemption and accept responsibility for our condition. Theodicy ­— justifying God — does not help us to reduce suffering; on the contrary, it can hinder us.

For the Rambam to ask why his brother died, or for Job to try to understand the reason for his suffering, is misguided, he says, a futile attempt to understand the cosmic reason why things happen to us personally. That question will never be answered — although the Rambam does believe that people can bring about their own misfortune by failing to use reason to crystallize their values. A focus on wealth, for example, could lead a business person like his brother to undertake a precarious ocean voyage. His drowning, however, is an event that does not inherently have an “evil” value, even though it causes grief.

Our perception and integration of events should serve to shape our values and sharpen our moral judgment, the Rambam says. Job understood this, that the fragility of life and circumstances are objective realities that unfold irrespective of our actions. By the end of the book of Job, the protagonist remarried, regained his wealth, and was father to stunning daughters (Job 42:11-17). The final verse states that he “died old and contented.” Just as circumstances, inexplicably and with brutal speed, robbed him of everything, so too was his life, inexplicably and without warning, redeemed.

The Rambam, too, was robbed of home, family and stability. Although he gained the trust of the Egyptian sultan and was respected and honored as a leader in his own community and abroad, he was profoundly cognizant of the fragility and fluidity of circumstance. Still, he believed that personal redemption was possible with the attainment of balance, wisdom, and reason, and societal redemption with the establishment of a just, moral state. The failure of wisdom and reason, on the other hand, can lead to a displacement of values, poor decisions, and potentially disastrous effects.

THE STRUCTURE of Rambam’s universe appears to be orderly and supremely rational — and profoundly discordant with his own experience. Yet the perfect order that he demands does not imply that there is only one truth. Society’s diversity means that a plurality of truths exist.
In explaining the role of doubt for the Rambam, Goodman references two Talmudic figures, Rabbi Akiva and Elisha ben Avuya. The Babylonian Talmud (Hagigah 14b) portrays the two of them, along with Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma, entering pardes, an orchard — a metaphor for seeking entry into the deepest, hidden world of God. Ben Azzai, the account says, looked at the divine presence and died. Ben Zoma went mad. Akiva entered and returned in peace and Elisha ben Avuya — known as Akher, the Other — became a non-believer. Elsewhere in the Talmud, Akher’s heresy is shown to be prompted by his witnessing the success of a lawbreaker and the accidental death of a law-keeper which leads to the sudden and appalling realization that the world is not a just place. Maimonides criticizes Akher’s inability to live faithfully despite this insight and the doubt it engenders. In contrast, not only did Akiva recognize the existence of a multiplicity of truths, but he admitted to the unknowable.

Redemption, to the Rambam, involves knowing the limits of what we can know. We are fated, he said, to live in the space between yearning for absolute knowledge and the limits of our knowledge. There are no definitive answers; therefore, Rambam invites us to create our own. In fact he offered two alternative paths in his Guide ­— either to remove oneself from the world entirely and become a mystic, or to enter the world and create change. He invites us to live life as William James might have described it, as a reaction to an unseen presence, and in hope that after living that life long enough, we may come to know that presence.

Rabbi Reba Carmel, our new contributing writer, has served as a facilitator for the Jewish Dialogue Group regarding Israel/Palestine and has edited their facilitator’s manual. She received facilitation training both from JDG and the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia, and is active in the Cheltenham Multifaith Council in Pennsylvania.