Sunday, 15 October 2017


                                         How Rambam's students may have sung his teachings?


What follows is an astounding and powerful piece of writing from one of Rambam’s final works, Maamar Techiyat haMeitim. See KOTZK BLOG 145.

Amazingly, in this extract, Rambam refers to a group of what he calls the ‘intelligent commentators’, which makes one wonder what exactly he is implying about the other commentators.

He also refers to what he describes as the ‘ignorance’ or more accurately the ’stupidity’ of the Torah observant community of his day.

And he sharply lays out his approach to Judaism in the most forthright and unapologetic fashion imaginable:

My loose translation follows:

(Original Hebrew Text of Rambam can be seen at the end of this post)


Some (of my detractors have criticised me and have) expressed doubt (over my allegorical and non-literal interpretation) of the verse in Isaiah[1] (referring to the Messianic Era):

And the wolf will dwell with the lamb...and the lion, like the cattle, will eat straw.”

(I have suggested that this verse is not to be taken literally but is instead merely) an analogy (describing the peaceful state of the future Messianic Era).

(In truth,) it is not only us[2] who say this.

This verse has already been previously understood (and similarly interpreted in an allegorical manner) by the most intelligent[3] of the commentators, namely R. Moshe Geikatila[4] and Ibn Balam[5], and others[6].

(Actually, another verse in Isaiah supports our view that this notion of the lion is to be taken figuratively):

(The wild animals) will not hurt or destroy...for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of G-d.”[7]
(This verse provides) the reason why the lion will not damage and destroy – (namely) because it will ‘know G-d’. 

(Obviously, then, this cannot be taken literally because the lion cannot reasonably be expected to change his physiological nature by suddenly ‘knowing G-d’ - only humans can.)

Do any of you - within the congregation of Israel, if you have intelligence – imagine that the lion who (currently) devours and tears (other animals) will suddenly repent and change (because it) will know from its creator (to no longer be so wild) and begin eating straw?
If (you believe that this will literally happen) then the following verse will be fulfilled through you:
And the vision of all this is become to you as the words of a sealed book”.[8]
(I.e. You have no understanding of the Prophetic books which remain ‘sealed’ and incomprehensible to you.)
We have already pointed out, in a chapter of the Guide for the Perplexed, as well as in our Compilation (Mishneh Torah) that according to the Sages there will be no change whatsoever in the (natural) order of the world during Messianic times. 

(In other words even after the arrival of Mashiach, the world will continue to function naturally and normally[9], which means that accordingly, a lion will not change its nature and suddenly begin to eat straw.)

(Additionally) know that our (rational) view regarding the many (messianic[10]) issues which we (choose to) interpret allegorically, is not a unilateral one. 

We (openly admit that we) did not receive it as a form of prophecy from G-d who told us to interpret these issues allegorically. Nor do we have an established tradition going back to the Sages who received them from the Prophets to inform us that these issues are to be taken allegorically.

However, what brought us to this (rational[11]) approach, is (simply) our desire - and the desire of all those intellectual individuals[12] – to (always first try to seek a rational explanation instead of a mystical one).

This is opposite to the common approach of the masses (who prefer a more mystical and literal approach as their first option).

(It is evident that) the most underlying principle to the masses of Torah observant people - because of their stupidity[13] - is to regard Torah and human logic to be mutually exclusive!

These (Torah observant people) take everything which they cannot understand with their logic and (immediately) categorise it as miraculous.

They flee from (an interpretation) which could explain a phenomenon as natural.

This applies to their view on the present, past[14] and future[15].

We, on the other hand, strive to reconcile Torah (tradition) with (empirical) logic. And wherever we can (explain something) naturally, we do so (instead of going out of our way to create mystery).

However, when we do have a clear (Scriptural) imperative to categorize something as a miracle, we are compelled to acknowledge that it is indeed a miracle...

(These accounts of the future such as the lion eating straw etc.) may also (simply be typical and common expressions) of exaggeration[16], as our Sages have said ‘the Torah speaks the language of exaggeration’[17]...

In conclusion, these matters (like the wolf dwelling with the lamb etc.) are not cardinal principles of the Torah and (therefore) one does not need to overly concerned with how one believes in them.

One must wait for these issues of faith to become clarified (in the future messianic reality), may it be speedily and in our days, and then we will know whether they are (indeed) analogies or miracles.


One can certainly understand why some could be offended by this provocative piece of writing. 

Rambam appears to completely disregard what he calls the ‘ignorant’ or ‘stupid masses’ and does not go out of his way to look for synonyms to help him describe the Torah observant community of his day, who tried to create a culture of the miraculous and incredulous.

What is interesting though, is notwithstanding his frequent unflattering and very direct language to describe the ‘ignorant masses who are people of Torah’, Rambam is ready to admit that his rational views are not necessarily Divinely ordained.

He is comfortable to use the approach of Occam's razor, choosing to accept normative reasoning in the first instance and only to acknowledges the miraculous as a last resort.

For our contemporary generation, this is very relevant because the mystics do purport to have the weight of traditional authority on their side. The mystical concepts are all based on traditions going back to the Rebbes, the Baal Shem Tov, the Ari Zal and R. Shimon Bar Yochai. There is rarely any speculation that the mystical concepts may not be accurate or authoritative. 

And even those who do not follow the Chassidic traditions do generally have a similar weltanschauung when it comes to emphasizing a perceived bias towards the extraordinary. 

However, Rambam was open to acknowledge that he may be mistaken and that he had no real traditions other than conceptual precedents of some of the ‘intelligent commentators’ whose writing have, for the most part, been lost. Yet he was comfortable to rely on his mind as in his system the intellect was not extraneous to Torah.

Today, most of the religious world has in one way or another, adopted the mystical approach and the culture of nissim veniflaot - miracles and wonders - abounds and flourishes within the contemporary Torah community, as it did during the time of Rambam.

It’s hard to believe that the same man who presented us with the first major technical halachik codification of the Torah which is generally accepted by both mystics and rationalists – could also write like this.

Yet one wonders why we are more prepared to accept the work of his legal pen less than that of his philosophical mind.


[1] Isaiah 11:19
[2] Rambam is writing in the plural.
[3] Dr Fred Rosman translates Anshei tevunah min hameforshim as ‘intelligent commentators’. See Moses Maimonides’ Treatise on Resurrection, p.37. Perhaps an alternate translation could be ‘rational commentators’? A more toned down translation is offered by Merkaz haRav in their ‘The Essay on Resurrection’ p. 222, which has ‘keen commentators’.  (I thank the Honourable Mr Jack Bloom for pointing that out to me.)
[4] Also known as Moses Ibn Gikatila, he was born in Cordova in 1070 and was a noted grammarian. He was a student of R Yonah Ibn Genach (See commentary by R. Rabinowitz in Mosad haRav Kook edition. Hebrew). His name may, in fact, have been  'Jikatiah' as the gimel yud may have been a printing mistake misrepresenting an apostrophe gimel which is pronounced like the letter 'J' in English.
[5] Also a noted philologist. Both their rationalist commentaries have been lost and only small sections remain. (Rabinowitz)

R. Kapach (See Rationalist Yemenites) describes a feud that took place between both Ibn Gikatila and Ibn Ballam: It once happened Gikatila, who was the rabbi of the congregation, got absorbed in a game of chess and arrived late at shul for the Evening Service. The Chazzan happened to be Ibn Ballam and he refused to wait for the rabbi's arrival. When Gikatila eventually did walk into the shul, he became annoyed that the service had already started and the shouted out a verse from the Torah: 'And G-d did not listen to Balaam'. Understandably, Ibn Balaam got very angry and thus began a literary feud between the two, with Ibn Balaam severely criticising Gikatilla's Biblical commentaries.

Rav Sa’adia Gaon (882-942) believed that King David composed all the Psalms, even the ones dealing with future events (which he wrote, according to Rav Saadia's view, with a spirit of prophecy). However, Gikatila took the view that King David did not compose any Psalms which do not contain the name 'David' in their introduction. (Asaph and Bnei Korah, for example, were not contemporaries of David but rather composers living much later during the Babylonian exile.) Furthermore, Gikatila maintains that the final formulation of the Psalms in their present format was by the Men of the Great Assembly.

[6]These would include R. Avraham Ibn Ezra, who stated in his commentary on this verse ‘this is an analogy, referring to the peace which will pervade in those (messianic) days.’ (Rabinowitz)
[7] Isaiah 11:9
[8] Isaiah 29:11
[9] According to the Talmud (Shabbat 63a) the only difference between these days and the days of Messianic times is that during the latter the Jews will not be under any form of servitude from the nations.
[10] See commentary by Rabinowitz.
[11]As opposed to the popular mystical approach.
[12] The Merkaz haRav translation (see Note 3) again tones the text down by using ‘keen-minded people ’instead of the more provocative ‘intelligent person’ as per Dr Fred Rosner, for Ish teuvnah.
[13] Dr Fred Rosner tones this down a little by substituting the word ‘ignorance’ for ‘stupidity’ which is the literal meaning of ‘sichlutam’. The Merkaz haRav translation reads: ‘silliness’. According to the commentary of R. Rabinowitz in the Mosad haRav Kook edition; ‘...because of the religious community’s  ignorance and lack of any depth.’ Either way, none of these adjectives are complementary to the Torah observant community.
[14] I.e.; their views on history incorporate much of the supernatural and mysterious.
[15] I.e.; their views on the Messianic era also incorporate the supernatural and mysterious.
[16] Hebrew; guzma.
[17] Chullin 90b.

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