Sunday 15 December 2019


How Rambam's 'chasidim' may have sung his teachings:


Many people - including those who have been religious all their lives and even those in positions of religious leadership - are not always aware of just how radical Rambam’s views on religion were.

Yes, some will claim to be expert in a ‘sanitized’ Rambam (1135-1204) through their familiarity with his legal work, the Mishneh Torah which was compiled (around 1170/80) and was directed at the general population - but his deeper, theological and philosophical works, including the Moreh Nevuchim (Guide of the Perplexed, compiled a decade later around 1190)[1] express his personal vision of a Judaism for, what he describes as “people of understanding.”

It is best to use Rambam’s own words to illustrate this theological and intellectual chasm between what he calls the ‘simple masses of the Torah observant ’and those of ‘us’ with ‘understanding’:[2]

My loose translation from Rambam’s later work, Ma’amar Techiyat haMeitim (compiled in 1191), follows:

“Our desire - and the desire of all those intellectual individuals (is 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 held by the masses of Torah observant people - because of their stupidity - is to regard Torah and human logic as mutually exclusive!

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

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

In this article, we shall explore some of Rambam’s profoundly radical views on a Judaism that will seem almost foreign to many.  And we will see how Rambam failed miserably in terms of getting his ideas to be accepted by the mainstream, or even a tributary thereof.

NOTE: The aim of this article is not to suggest any change in the way we perform Halacha or view the spiritual realms but simply to highlight Rambam’s little-known ideas about a religion we think we know. Some of Rambam’s views may shock and upset the sensitive Reader.

I have drawn from the writing of Professor Menachem Kellner who is widely regarded as a specialist in the thought and philosophy of Maimonides.[3]


Menachem Kellner describes Rambam’s vision of Judaism as a “remarkably naturalist religion of radical responsibility.” Rambam tried desperately to divert both myth and mystery - which were becoming more and more popular in his time, even half a century before the publication of the Zohar - away from Judaism. 

In his (unpopular) view, the events in the world essentially followed a natural progression without much interference from G-d, and certainly not from the heavenly spheres. Even the messianic era would follow a normative and less miraculous series of events. [See Mashiach – a Natural or Supernatural Event?].

Together with this extremely ‘naturalistic’ (as opposed to mystical and supernatural) position which Rambam took, came a just as stark understanding of the ‘radical responsibility’ that we ourselves carry. There is no mystical theurgy or magic in Rambam’s system upon which one can call to alleviate the ‘cause and effect’ and the subsequent inevitability of reality. In his system, even the events of history are subject to a certain ‘randomness’.


Kellner writes:

“Many of Maimonides’ opponents, in his day and ours, do indeed accept the efficacy of charms and amulets, and fear the harm of demons and the evil eye...

In such a world instructions from God, and contact with the divine in general, must be mediated by a religious elite who alone can see the true reality masked by nature.

This is the opposite of an empowering religion, since it takes their fate out of the hands of Jews, and, in effect, puts it into the hands of rabbis.”

Rambam wanted no share in such a construct of religion that involved any spiritually elite ‘middle-men’ and their ethereal wares.

Yet, Rambam was also an elitist, but of the intellectual kind:


Ironically, Kellner explains that Rambam was “at one and the same time deeply elitist and profoundly universalist.

That Rambam was unashamedly an elitist is clear from the many examples of him completely minimizing what he calls the ‘ignorant’ or ‘stupid religious masses.’ Or, to put it more bluntly, according to Kellner, “the Jewish world in his day was...debased and paganized.

Rambam does not go out of his way to look for synonyms to help him describe the Torah observant community of his day which tried to create a culture of the miraculous and the incredulous. Instead, he tries to create a class of yechidim’ or intellectually and theologically elite thinkers.[4]

That he was a universalist can be seen in the way he downplayed the assumed special uniqueness of a Jew[5] and spoke more about a humankind within a system which had a place for thinking people of all creeds.  [See How Rashi and Rambam Part Ways on the Deepest of Issues.]


Rabbi Professor Isadore Twersky describes Rambam’s view (controversial to many) that the Hebrew language was not more ‘holy’ than other languages:

“Maimonides’ desacralization of language should be seen as an expression of his consistent
opposition to hypostasized [i.e., to attribute real identity to][6] entities endowed with intrinsic sanctity.”


Again, expressing a surprising view of Rambam with far reaching consequences, Kellner continues:

“Among the entities which Maimonides seeks to ‘de-hypostasize’[i.e., to divest real identity from,][7] are the property of holiness, the Hebrew language, the land of Israel, the people of Israel, the divine glory (kavod ), the divine presence (shekhinah), angels, and sin. 

Consistent with this approach, he seeks to present distinctions fundamental to Judaism, such as holy/profane, ritually pure/ritually impure, permissible/impermissible, and, especially, Jew/Gentile as institutional, sociological, and historical issues, and not as ontological [actual][8] matters.”

In other words, all of these ideas which are usually taken, and taught, as real and actual spiritual truths, are - according to Rambam - not real entities but mere ideas which form, not a spiritual function, but a sociological, historical or institutional function instead.

Many (most) religious people today, understandably, would have a fundamental problem with Rambam’s de-hypostasized and desacralized definition of these concepts.


In more contemporary terms, Kellner gives a common example of where the modern mainstream approach is decidedly anti-Maimonidean: 

Today, newly observant Jews generally (although certainly not exclusively) marry other newly observant Jews. In some Chareidi (so-called ultra-Orthodox) circles it is rare for an established religious person to marry a newly observant person. This is because the newly observant individual was not conceived in ‘purity’. 

In Rambam’s system, however, this would not be an issue as there would be no ontological significance in such cases.


People often think that mysticism is synonymous with Chasidism. That is not the case because even the Lithuanian and the non-Chasidic Chareidi world today, have largely adopted the basic ethos of the mystical approach even if they do not profess to be Chasidim or Kabbalists.

Kellner makes the fascinating point that the theological (as opposed to the legal) Rambam has no home, anywhere, within contemporary Judaism:

“...the fact that all contemporary Orthodoxy, hasidic and mitnagdic, is infused with kabbalistic motifs makes it clear beyond the need of demonstration that Maimonides’ ‘de-hypostasization’ [i.e., desanctification] of these notions has few echoes in contemporary Judaism”

And not only is this true of Orthodoxy, but fascinatingly:

“...there seems to be no substantial distinction between Orthodoxy on the one hand, and Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and New Age Judaism on the other; all have enthusiastically adopted kabbalistic motifs.”


For Rambam, the greatest theological divide exists between mysticism and rationalism.[9]
When Rambam confronts G-d, he goes silent. G-d is transcendent and truly a pure, single unknowable entity.[10]

On the other hand, when the mystics confront G-d, they wax lyrical with constructs of complicated hierarchies of energies; with sefirot and attributes, with fallen sparks that require uplifting , with the divisions of ‘before’ and ‘after’ the creation and with tzimtzumim (contractions) which co-exist with the notion of the Infinite Ain Sof.

For Rambam the space between man and G-d was clear, clean and uncluttered. There were no angels [See Angels in Rabbinic Literature.] or demons or evil eyes or predestiny[11] [See A Leaf Falls From a Tree], and G-d was indeed incorporeal [See The Notion that G-d has a Body.]

Anthony Julius, put this very aptly when he said that Rambam sought to “depopulate” the heavens.


While, as mentioned earlier, although Rambam would not have known about the Zohar as it hadn’t yet been published, Kellner writes:

“The world of the Zohar is so unlike that of Maimonides that at times it appears impossible that it and Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed should both be accepted as authoritative in the same religious tradition.”[12]


Moshe Idel, ironically, describes Rambam - known as the Great Eagle and usually regarded as the dominating and powerful giant of the mind - in a rather tragic way: He explains that Rambam crystallized and formulated his rational views, in opposition to the popular and rising mystical trends within the Jewish world during his time.

Yet, ironically, his rationalism unleashed such a wave of opposition and push-back that it caused the very mysticism he sought to undermine, to emerge even more powerfully; and flourish to the extent that it became and remained the mainstream of future Judaism even to this day, eight hundred years later. This appears to have occurred, not despite Rambam, but tragically because of him.

This series of events relegated “Maimonideanism to the status of a largely ignored backwater.”


Rambam raised the value of secular science and physics to the level of Torah study and even to the realm of the metaphysical.

R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch (1808-1888) was the founder of the Modern Orthodox movement which espoused a ‘modern’ philosophy of Torah Im derech Eretz which sought to combine Torah and secular studies. This, as opposed to the ultra-Orthodox movement which was founded in 1865 and which only permitted Torah study and nothing else. [See The Reforms of the Ultra-Orthodox.]

R. Hirsch was regarded as an outlier for his desire to include secular wisdom together with Torah knowledge in the study curriculum, and he was severely criticised for that.

The interesting thing is that Rambam had a far more radical position to that of R. Hirsch:

After considered analysis Kellner explains that according to Rambam:

“...God is ‘author’ of two books—one called cosmos and the other called Torah. For Maimonides (and Gersonides after him), one who wishes to know God must ‘read’ God’s entire oeuvre [library][13]; this can only be done if one combines study of Torah with study of science.”

This is something that Rambam himself clearly writes in his explanation as to why the Torah begins with the creation narrative instead of going straight into the biblical religious laws. He calls religious laws ‘divine science’ and physics ‘natural science’:

“...divine science cannot become actual except after a study of natural science [al-ilm al-tibai].

This is so since natural science borders on divine science [al-‘ilm al-ilahi], and its study precedes that of divine science...

Hence God... caused His book to open with the “Account of the Beginning,” which, as we have made clear, is natural science.”[14]

Thus, in Rambam’s view, the Torah opens with the creation narrative to teach that the path to G-d must begin with an understanding of the role of physical science (al-ilm al-tibai) as a precondition to religious study or divine science (al-‘ilm al-ilahi).


There are different rabbinic models as to how to count the 613 commandments. According to Rambam, the first commandment in the Torah is not to be fruitful and multiply but to know G-d exists. One can only know G-d exists, according to Rambam, by studying his ‘book’ of the cosmos, which, according to Rambam, is science.

This view will hardly resonate practically with anyone within our religious establishments today, other than perhaps a vague attribution to it through lip service.

In Kellner’s words:

“...Maimonides’ position is much more radical than any put forward in modernity. That being the case, it should come as no surprise that it has few, if any adherents today.

Indeed, it is rarely recognized for what it is...”

If I understand Kellner correctly, Rambam’s wrote his Mishneh Torah as a summary of the entire Talmud, to free up time for the student to also get involved with the study of science as part of the Torah study programme.

This is one step even beyond the ‘Torah and Science’ model because now the science and the physics becomes part of the Torah itself.

“Maimonides wrote the Mishneh Torah as part of an attempted curricular reform, one which
would have brought into the Talmudic academy the study of science.

Did he succeed in this reform? I do not believe that there is today or has ever been a single yeshiva or rabbinical seminary in the world operating on these principles.”

It is interesting to note that the Yemenite Maimonidean scholar, R. Yosef Kapach (d. 2000) wanted science to be a part of Limudei Kodesh (religious studies) in modern-day Israel. In fact, according to R. Kapach, the study of science was to be considered a positive commandment of the Torah, because, in his view, it brings one closer to an appreciation of the First Mover. [See R. Yosef Kapach – The Suppression of a Rationalist Tradition?]


Kellner shows how, in his view, some of the leading rabbis of modern times often do not allow for full expression of Rambam’s worldview.  

A case in point is the esteemed Rabbi Aharon Kotler[15] (1890-1962) who is best known for creating[16], in 1943, the full-time Torah learning system, the Kollel (where married men are paid to study Torah all day) in Lakewood, America.

Rambam writes in (as it happens, the exact mid-point of) his Mishneh Torah that not only was the tribe of Levi consecrated as the priestly tribe and dedicated to the work of the Holy of Holies, but also ‘each and every individual human being’[17] could personally rise to such equivalent levels as well.

The expression each and every individual human being (kol ba’ei olam) is always used to refer to all peoples, not just Jews.

This idea played out in the Tannaic debate between the school of Rabbi Akiva, who maintained that the Torah was revealed to the Jews alone; and the school of Rabbi Yishmael, who insisted that the Torah was also given to kol baei olam, ‘each and every individual human being,’ i.e., to non-Jews as well.

Rambam, following along similar lines to R. Yishmael, is expressing his view that not just Jews but any person of noble statue can attain the level of ‘holy of holies.’ This idea fits well with Rambam’s other statements to the effect that worthy non-Jews can attain just as holy levels as worthy Jews.

That being said, R. Aharon Kotler somehow insisted on interpreting the expression each and every individual human being, in Rambam’s text above, as referring only to ha benei Torah the Torah scholars who only study Torah and nothing else. These exclusive Torah scholars, R. Kotler claimed, are the group Rambam was referring to who were likened to the elevated status of the tribe of Levi!

And, he continued using Rambam as his support text, just like the tribe of Levi did not work but was supported by the nation, now (in 1943) the full-time Kollel students would have to be supported by the charity of other Jews who worked and did not study full-time in the Kollel system.

In insisting on this interpretation, R. Kotler also reworked another well-known (but just as contentious) principle of Rambam that Torah scholars should not be paid by members of the community.[18]

Rambam actually wrote:

“One who makes up his mind to study Torah and not work but live on charity, profanes the name of God, brings the Torah into contempt, extinguishes the light of religion, brings evil upon himself and deprives himself of life hereafter….The end of such a person will be that he will rob his fellow creatures.”[19] 

Yet, despite this, R. Kotler turned Rambam into a modern Chareidi leader who encouraged full-time Kollel students to live off charity.

Kellner sums this up as follows:

“This is stunning; Rabbi Kotler turns Maimonides inside out. The man who...wanted advanced yeshiva students to study science, and the man notorious for his objection
to the practice of paying individuals to study Torah, is transformed into a major prop for an institution, the kollel (an institute for the subsidized study of Talmud by married men), which he [Rambam][20] would have had to oppose!...

Rabbi Kotler has done two things to Maimonides here: turned the referent of our passage from all human beings to some Jews, and found a way to draft Maimonides’ support for the kind of institution which he himself created.”

Kellner makes it clear that he does not believe that R. Aharon Kotler purposely misrepresented Rambam, but even more alarmingly, it shows how:

“Maimonides’ views were not understood, let alone adopted.

The hardwired particularism of Halevi, Kabbalah, Maharal and Hasidism has become so much part of the warp and woof of yeshiva Orthodoxy in the last century that only a rare product of that world can read what Maimonides actually wrote, without seeking to force him into the accepted matrix.


Rambam’s views are so radical yet little-known and perhaps, intentionally, well-hidden. They turn many of our important mainstream concepts - which most take for granted as being essential elements of Jewish faith - absolutely on their heads. Recognizing this, Kellner observes: 

“If...Maimonides’ overall aim in his writings was...the use of philosophy to purify what he held to be a corrupted and paganized Torah, then he must be adjudged one of great failures in Jewish history.”

Kellner is correct because if Rambam intended to get this message out to the masses, he was an outright failure in this regard. And even if he directed these ideas towards his imagined ‘elite’ group of 'yechidim', then that group was so small and voiceless as to be rendered non-existent to the extent that it was drowned by the floodwaters of mainstream mysticism.

There are so many areas of religious life today that are extremely popular and most people assume these practices have always been part of the uncontested fabric of Judaism. These include the notion of visiting graves, using mezuzot as talismans against tragedy, singing Shalom Aleichem to angels on Friday nights[21], and the professionalization of the rabbinate to mention just a few.

Again, to be absolutely clear, this is not to suggest that these mystical practices, beliefs and protocols should or should not be disbanded, but this does show how Rambam’s view of religion certainly did not take root within popular Judaism.

It is likely that Rambam never intended for his views to become mainstream, but it is unlikely that he imagined his views to vanish almost entirely from Jewish practice, to essentially become a ‘lost religion’.

It is in this sense that one might say that to the delight of the many and the disappointment of the few, Rambam’s model of Judaism turned out to be the grandest practical failure in rabbinic history.

[1] One would also include Rambam’s Iggeret or Ma’amar Techiyat haMeitim, which he wrote in 1191 in response to the Gaon Ali of Baghdad, who had accused Rambam of not believing in the Revival of the Dead. It is a fair assumption that each subsequent work in time expressed Rambam’s deeper and more personalised thoughts.
[2] Ma’amar Techiyat haMeitim 370
[3] Maimonides’ Disputed Legacy, by Menachem Kellner.
[4] It is so interesting to see how modern Chasidim take a very similar approach and have also developed a degree of, not rational but mystical elitism:
When R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad Rebbe was released from prison, he demanded that Chasidim act humbly as a result of the victory of his release, and not look down or sneer at the opponents of Chasidut.
Generations, later, the Frerdiker Rebbe added; that means even a sneer of Kedusha or holiness, meaning looking down on someone because you are privileged to be following a more sophisticated path in the service of Hashem.
[5] Kellner explains this to mean: “Maimonides can fairly be said to have maintained that the election of Israel was not a fact built into the universe or its history from creation, but, rather, a consequence of the fact that Abraham was the first person to rediscover God.” (See link for more elaboration on this.)
[6] Parenthesis mine.
[7] Parenthesis mine.
[8] Parenthesis mine.
[10] Rambam also maintained that one cannot change G-d’s mind through supplications and prayer. He amended the Talmudic statement which said ‘just like He is merciful so shall you be merciful’ to rather read ‘called merciful’ as he refused to engage in detailed speculation on matters concerning G-d.
[11] In the way in which these ideas are normally expressed.
[12] Not everyone holds this position, as there are also kabbalistic commentaries on the Zohar.
[13] Parenthesis mine.
[14] Guide I, Pines (Chicago 1963), p.9.
[15] See Mishnat Rabbi Aharon (Lakewood 1992), vol. 3, p. 147.
[16] See here.
[17] The full text reads:
“Not only the Tribe of Levi, but each and every individual human being, whose spirit moves him and whose knowledge gives him understanding to set himself apart in order to stand before the Lord, to serve Him, to worship Him, and to know Him, who walks upright as God created him to do, and releases himself from the yoke of the many foolish considerations which trouble people—such an individual is as consecrated as the Holy of Holies, and his portion and inheritance shall be in the Lord forever and ever. The Lord will grant him adequate sustenance in this world, the same as He had granted to the priests and to the Levites.” (Laws of Sabbatical Year and Jubilee, 13:12-13).
[18] See Rambam’s commentary to M. Avot IV.6.  
[19] Laws of Torah Study, 3:1.
[20] Parenthesis mine.
[21] And Machnisei Rachamim at the end of the Selichot service.


  1. Very interesting post, but I think that newly-observant Jews only marrying other newly-observant Jews is as much to do with sociology than purity issues i.e. wanting to marry someone with a similar background or raised-religious Jews seeing them as "contaminated" in some way by the ideas and habits they encountered before becoming frum rather than by ritual purity.

    One also wonders what will happen of the Maimonidean ideal now, given that it is impossible these days for an individual to master all of scientific knowledge (there is just too much, even without including philosophy, which Rambam would have done), let alone combine a mastery of science with a mastery of Torah.

    1. Thanks Daniel,

      I listened to a talk recently by an important quantum physicist who said (and I stand to be corrected) that there are at least 10 different theories on how to define quantum physics today.

      He also said that today science in general has become like a religion with so many fervent adherents in all the various camps.

      So I do agree with you that there is 'just too much' science and physics to master.

      But still, one could argue that Rambam wanted religious people to be grounded in at least SOME science (and not to regard it as the enemy) which together with Torah would bring them, in his view, to a more wholesome understanding of G-d, instead of having religion 'grounded' solely and exclusively in the various theories of the ethereal.

    2. Rambam did have an interesting Shita, studying meta-physics in the wake of physics. You could say that he did his best but the science of his day was wanting. Rambam was not the only one, de Gra (Kol Hator) also called up to study the sciences. Also the Gra tried, but kind of failed (Ayil Meshulash). Rambam and the Gra were right though. In the end, physics and science lead to meta-physics. This is illustrated by the many interpretations of quantum physics.

  2. Hi, thanks for another very interesting post. To be honest, as much as i absolutely love Rambam, i doubt whether judaism could have survived were his views to become mainstream. When one compares the more kabbalistic ideas of mitzvos having massive effects in supernal worlds - both in creating them and filling them with light - to Rambam's massive emphasis on the development of the intellect through the absorption of vast amounts of secular and torah knowledge on top of the complete refinement of ones middos so as to "straighten the mind" and return ones perspective as much as is humanely possible to pre-'cheit Adam haRishon'. I can understand why the average person, let alone some illiterate eastern european peasant farmer, might feel a lot more inspired/ motivated with the former's ideas over the latter's. Rambam's view of the purpose of torah requires far more intellectual ability and effort than the overwealming majority of people possess and i can definitely see many just throwing in the towel. furthermore, taking into account rambam's emphasis on our inability to change g-d's mind and also that hashgacha is reserved for the very few people who reached the aforementioned standards and who are, in addition,also constantly aware of g-ds presence - one wonders how any sort of personal relationship with g-d can be possible? if tefillah is nothing more that a chance for introspection then crying out in pain to a g-d who technically is listening (in that being omniscient he knows what you are saying) is almost pointless if the aim is both to beg for respite/ the strength to make it through the challenge and additionally to find a refuge in g-d (אֹמַ֗ר לַֽ֖יהֹוָה מַחְסִּ֣י וּמְצֽוּדָתִ֑י אֱ֜לֹהַ֗י אֶבְטַח־בּֽוֹ). in reality you are completely alone and no one is coming to save you...
    On the otherhand, if my putting on tefillin can have supernal effects, if my just davening by saying the letters of the aleph-beis can shake the heavens, if everything that occurs to me is directly from hashem and is exactly what i need to go through at this point and i feel his presence in my life daily then even though i'll never be the biggest tzaddik and lamdan in the world, at least i'll have accomplished the 'small' amount that i was able to through the above actions. Obviously, even within kabbalistic thought tremendous effort is still required on behalf of the individual and the task is endless - and i don't want it to seem like i'm disagreeing with that. all i'm saying is that this worldview allows for the average person to feel like they are actually accomplishing something worthwhile, that they have a genuine connection with hashem. How many people would have had the mesiras nefesh needed to be a jew if the rambam's view was mainstream?

    also, out of interest: given R' Aryeh Kaplan's idea that something adopted/ rejected as mainstream within the religious communities is driven by a hashgacha for klal yisrael and therefore represents the will of hashem, one could interpret the non acceptance of the rambam's overall world view as proof that it's invalid.

  3. Thanks R. Micha. One wonders, given Rambam's view on hashgacha, whether he would have agreed with R. Aryeh Kaplan's assessment - but yes.

    On the other hand, it seems that Rambam would certainly have agreed with your assessment that his system was not for everyone, and only for yechidim.

    It is a pity, though, that we don't really have an effective surviving group of followers of Rambam, in a Torah world that is already so multifaceted and so well represented from all other quarters.

    If a Breslover, Chabadnick, Satmar Chassid, or Litvishe Chareidi come under theological attack - they can always claim immunity by force of their membership within their group. Unfortunately the defenders of Rambam cannot claim any such immunity and have to go it alone. Hence the title: Rambam's 'Lost Religion'.

  4. Thank you Rabbi Michal for such an excellent essay. I agree with everything you and Menachem Kellner write concerning Rambam. I do feel, however, that there is a small community of Jews who adhere to Rambam's views. I like to call it Rationalist Judaism. But overall, yes, I agree that this group is very small, with almost no representation within modern Judaism.

    Yes, Maimonides was a great thinker and rationalist. If only his ideas were more accepted or mainstream. Although I can see the good in mysticism in the sense that people have meaning, I think rationalism also provides meaning, in this sense. I think the Rambam would argue that his version of Judaism is just as important, in the sense, that humans have a religious duty, what he said were the three goals of Judaism and the Torah mitzvot: to teach the truth and improve the self and society.

    Again, thank you for the essay and keep well.

  5. Thank you Turk Hill. It is a small community, but intellectually a significant one.