Sunday 28 November 2021

360) Why was The Guide For The Perplexed intended to be a secret document?





Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204) places tremendous importance on the meaning and usage of words. He dedicates major sections of his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide For The Perplexed[1]) to explain how words are used in the Torah. He believed that most of the rabbinic world during his time misunderstood and misrepresented many basic words, especially those used in relation to G-d. Yet, for some reason, he also wanted this writing to remain hidden. This article explores some readings selected from early sections of the Moreh Nevuchim.

Against Hagshama – Corporeality


According to many accounts, the rabbis around the twelfth century were largely inclined to believe in Hagshama, corporeality, where G-d is said to have some “form” or even a “body”. This would seem most surprising to many, especially from our modern perspective where this certainly is not the case today. However, it is probable that many, if not most, of the rabbis around the Tosafist period in northern France and Germany (Ashkenaz), were “hagshamists” or corporealists, including Rashi.

[See Kotzk Blog: 074) THE NOTION THAT G-D HAS A 'BODY' - In Early and Modern Rabbinical Writings:]

Rambam was well aware of this and he dedicated his Moreh Nevuchim to try and eradicate such belief as he maintained it was too close to idolatry. He was quick to point this out by his outspoken rejection of common interpretations of various words and concepts, particularly the many biblical anthropomorphic references (where G-d is described in human terms) which form part of the very sensus literalis or peshat, of the Torah text itself.

Again surprisingly, rabbinic literature, particularly Talmudic and Midrashic sources, have many descriptions of G-d as a corporeal being, having some physical form. One well-known example is the Talmudic description of G-d wearing Tefillin[2] (although, of course, today we largely interpret these metaphorically, this wasn’t always the case). In a work entitled Shiur Komah, attributed to R. Yishmael and R. Akiva (first and second centuries CE), the angel Metatron is said to have revealed these teachings to Rabbi Yishmael, who in turn transmitted them to Rabbi Akiva. The purpose of this book is to “measure” the “figure in the form of a man” which Ezekiel had seen in his vision.[3]

The Karaites took umbrage to the Shiur Komah and used it as one of their arguments against the Rabbinites, yet Ibn Ezra, Rabbi Moshe Narboni and Yehuda Halevi defended the Shiur Komah maintaining it was not to be taken literally but rather as an allegory for much deeper mystical teachings. The Zohar (although only published[4] in around 1290) is traditionally said to have been authored by R. Shimon bar Yochai one of Rabbi Akiva’s most eminent students, who was influenced by this book. However, Rambam rejected the Shiur Komah in its entirety as it implied that G-d was a corporeal or physical being:

I never ever believed it came from the rabbis...It is nothing more than a forgery by the Greek darshanim. It would be best to destroy the work as it is nothing but idolatry.[5]


Against Anthropomorphisms[6]


Rambam took his opposition to corporeality a step further in that he interpreted all anthropomorphic references in the Torah, as mere metaphors. Marc Shapiro (2011:49-50)[7] explains that Rambam’s rejection of corporeality was quite revolutionary because:

there is little doubt that a popular view in rabbinic times was that G-d indeed had a form.

He cites Meir Bar-Ilan who explains that:

in the first centuries Jews in the Land of Israel and in Babylon believed in an anthropomorphic G-d.[8]

Shapiro (2011:52) also cites Philo (b. 25 BCE) who adopted the approach that while these anthropomorphisms were the proclivity of the unsophisticated, nevertheless there was some use for its misguidedness in that:

…we must be content if such men can be brought to a proper state, by the fear which is held over them by such descriptions.[9]

But Rambam did not share the view that at least these people still held onto their faith albeit by a false theology.  Leo Strauss explains that Rambam wanted to address those “believing Jews who are perfect in their religion” but have additionally “studied the sciences of the philosophers, and are perplexed by the literal meaning of the Law.[10]

Rambam dedicates his Moreh Nevuchim to his student, Yosef who starts out not knowing that according to the Jewish view and “according to demonstration”, angels have no bodies[11] and G-d, too, has no body[12]. The problem is that the peshat, or plain reading of the biblical texts lends itself to corporealist interpretations of G-d, Heaven and angels. According to Straus, Rambam held that belief in G-d’s corporeality was tantamount to idolatry and that technically:

[n]ot idolatry but the belief in G-d’s corporeality is a fundamental sin.[13]

Besides defining corporeality as idolatrous, Rambam considers it nonsensical and childlike:

לכן צריך לבארו לאשר לקחו עצמם בשלמות האנושי ולהסיר מהם אלו המחשבות המתחילות משני הנערות אליהם

For this reason it behooves to explain the matter to those souls who will grasp at human perfection and…put an end to the fantasies that come to them from the age of infancy.[14]

Similarly Rambam writes:

The purpose of everyone endowed with intellect should be wholly directed to rejecting corporeality.[15]


Rambam criticises rabbis who take Midrashim literally


Rambam does not mince his words and he attacks those within the rabbinic community who would have taken the oft fanciful interpretations presented in Midrashim as literal depictions of biblical reality:

וראינו עוד - ש'הדרשות' ההם אם יעין בהם סכל מהמון הרבנים לא יקשה עליו מהם מאומה; כי לא ירחיק הסכל הנמהר הערם מן ידיעת טבע המציאות הנמנעות

If an ignoramus among the multitude of Rabbanites should engage in speculation on these Midrashim, he would find nothing difficult in them [i.e., he would take them literally and on face value] inasmuch as a rash fool, devoid of any knowledge of the nature of being [i.e., of reality][16], does not find impossibilities hard to accept.[17]


Rambam praises Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonatan


Maimonides praises the Aramaic Targumim or translations of the Torah by Onkelus the Convert and Targum Yonatan, who tried to move away from literal and anthropomorphic translations. As Straus puts it, Rambam “does explicitly what Onqelos did implicitly”.

Rambam attempts to systematically demonstrate a non-literal reading of a variety of words the Torah projects upon G-d, such as voice, speech, image, likeness, sit, stand, ascend, descend etc, and the readers are told that the first purpose of the Guide is to divest these difficult biblical words of their corporeal implications.

On a technical point, Maimonides mentions that Onkelos usually translates biblical statements like “The L-rd will descend” (Exodus 19:11), as G-d “manifesting”. Onkelos does this so that readers should not think that G-d really descends upon the earth.

However, there is one exception. On the verse in Genesis 46:4 “I will descend with you into Egypt”, Onkelos does not substitute his usual euphemism for G-d descending (i.e., as G-d manifesting) but he leaves it to be read literally as “I will go down with you into Egypt”. The reason is that this narrative is introduced by the defining expression “And G-d spoke to Israel in the visions of the night”. In other words, from the outset, this narrative is framed, not as a depiction of reality but instead as a vision. And because it was clearly presented as a “vision of the night”, Onkelos was prepared to leave the literal reading just as it was:

[T]here is a great difference between that which is said to happen in a dream or in the visions of the night…and that of which it is said without qualification.[18]


Rambam on “vestiges” of idolatry in the Torah


Straus, however, observes that Rambam is actually far more radical than just wishing to redefine biblical vocabulary. Rambam believed that the Torah contained allusions to diluted vestiges of ancient idolatry and it needed to do so as a concession to the Israelites, as they would not have followed G-d unless the Torah resembled the then-contemporary language and ritual of religion as it was understood at that time.

Joshua Berman (2020:4)[19] takes the example of animal sacrifices to illustrate this point:

Rambam saw the institution of animal sacrifice in the Torah as concessive in nature. Israel knew no form of worship other than the worship of idols she had seen in Egypt. The Almighty chose, therefore, to establish norms of worship in a form the nation could recognize.

In the ancient context, religion was defined by sacrifice. The ancient Israelites would not have comprehended a religious system that did not involve sacrifice. Therefore, the complex institution of sacrifices became part of the Israelite system of worship, not because of its intrinsic spiritual value but because of cultural and theological considerations at that time.

In his commentary on Leviticus, Ibn Caspi (1279-1340) endorses this idea by saying that he will not comment on the Torah portions dealing with sacrifices, because: is well known that Moses was coerced into writing them since God doesn’t really want sacrifices. They were only meant to accommodate that generation...and there is no harm in not mastering those the commentary of Rashi is sufficient.

Rambam takes two lengthy chapters in his Moreh Nevuchim[20] to contextualise the institution of the sacrifices. Berman (2020:4) explains:

[Rambam] identifies the specific heathen practices relating to the god Ares, Hindu practice, and the cultic norms of an ancient culture he knew as Sabean…

He explains specific mitzvot [precepts][21], such as the prohibition against using honey or leavened bread in the sacrificial worship of the Temple, in light of these ancient practices.

In ancient mythology, although Ares represented courage and war, he also stood for the utmost brutality, bloodlust and savagery. Ares was given various animal sacrifices after victory.

Stauss similarly speaks of these Sabian practices:

It looks as if Maimonides wished to draw our attention to the fact that the Bible contains idolatrous, pagan, or “Sabian” relics. If this suspicion should prove to be justified, we would have to assume that his fight against “forbidden worship” and hence against corporealism is more radical than one would be inclined to believe or that the recovery of Sabian relics in the Bible with the help of Sabian literature is one of the tasks of his secret teaching.[22]

The eight-hundred-year-old Guide takes on new meaning today because only since the time of Napoleon, have these types of “Sabian” writings, known as the traditions of the Ancient Near East, been discovered and analysed. We now know more about the practices of the Ancient Near East than ever before.

Maimonides wishes he could have had access to this wealth of knowledge:

[T]hey have been out of practice and entirely extinct since two thousand years. If we knew all the particulars of the Sabean worship, and were informed of all the details of those doctrines, we would clearly see the reason and wisdom of every detail in the sacrificial service, in the laws concerning things that are unclean, and in other laws….”[23]


Rambam adjures his readers to secrecy


It is hard enough to say such things in the religious world today so one can imagine how much harder it would have been for Rambam to express “Sabian” connections to the Torah, back in the twelfth century. This is why Rambam had to conceal these radical teachings of his. Rambam writes in his Introduction to the first part of his Guide:

I adjure - by God…- every reader of this Treatise of mine not to comment upon a single word of it and not to explain to another anything in it save that which has been explained and commented upon in the words of the famous Sages of our Law who preceded me…[24]

Rambam is binding his followers to a promise that they will only quote him on safe matters that have already been expounded upon by the sages of the Talmud. Nevertheless, he still is prepared to put his ideas in writing because:

סוף דבר אני האיש אשר כשיציקהו העניין ויצר לו הדרך ולא ימצא תחבולה ללמד האמת שבא עליו מופת אלא בשיאות לאחד מעולה ולא יאות לעשרת אלפים סכלים, אני בוחר לאמרו לעצמו, ולא ארגיש בגנות העם הרב ההוא

To sum up: I am the man who when the concern pressed him…and he could find no other device by which to teach a demonstrated truth other than by giving satisfaction to a single virtuous man while displeasing ten thousand ignoramuses – I am he who prefers to address that single man by myself and I do not heed the blame of those many creatures. [25]


Rambam writing for dual audiences


Rambam was a complex and controversial thinker and notoriously wrote differently for different audiences, including for the ”vulgar” or “ignorant masses” (his words) as well as those “who have studied the sciences of the philosophers”. As Straus put it:

Maimonides deliberately contradicts himself, and if a man declares both that a is b and that a is not b, he cannot be said to declare anything.[26]

This is why it is sometimes confusing and difficult to ascertain for which audience Rambam is writing. Rambam explains his vacillating position by distinguishing between “true beliefs” and “necessary beliefs.” The latter are based on tradition and keep the masses spiritually satisfied, but essentially the core of Judaism comprises only the “true beliefs”.[27] Unfortunately, most people are not ready for “true beliefs” and therefore much of religion revolves around “necessary beliefs”.

Describing the nature of “necessary beliefs”, Shapiro (2011:119) cuts straight to the chase:

[I]t is ‘necessary’ for the masses to believe that God is angry if they disobey him in order for them to control their behaviour. In addition, it is ‘necessary’ for the masses to believe that God responds instantly to the prayer of someone wronged or deceived; for them to believe otherwise would be damaging to their faith…

Ironically “true beliefs” sometimes need to be concealed almost like the mystical tradition was once concealed. This, therefore, appears to be the reason why Rambam intends his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide For The Perplexed) to be a secret document, and why he feels compelled to write:

God…knows that I have never ceased to be exceedingly apprehensive about setting down those things that I wish to set down in this Treatise. For they are concealed things: none of them has been set down in any book – written in the religious community in these times…[28]

[1] Referred to alternately in the two English translations as Guide For the Perplexed (M. Friedländer,1903) and Guide Of the Perplexed (S. Pines, 1963).

[2] b. Berachot 6a.

[3] Ezekiel 1:26.

[4] In manuscript form.

[5] Maimonides, Teshuvot HaRambam 117.

[6] Ascribing to G-d human characteristics and form, such as G-ds “hand”.

[7] Shapiro, M.M., 2011, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press.

[8] Bar Ilan, M., 1993, ‘The Hand of God: A Chapter in Rabbinic Anthropomorphism’, in Rashi 1040-1090: Homage a Ephraim E. Urbach, Paris, 331.

[9] Philo De somniis i. 40:237.

[10] Introductory Essay by Leo Strauss to Shlomo Pines’ translation of The Guide of the Perplexed, The University of Chicago Press, 1963, xvii.

[11] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, I 43, “For according to our opinion the angels have no bodies”. See also I 49.

[12] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, I 9, “For it will be demonstrated to you that He…is not a body”.

[13] Introductory Essay by Leo Straus (Pines 1963), xxi-xxii.

[15] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed (Pines 1963), I 28.

[16] Parentheses mine.

[17] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed (Pines 1963), I, 6a.

[18] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed (Pines 1963), I 27.

[19] Berman, J., 2020, Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith, Maggid Books, Jerusalem.

[20] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32 and 3:46.

[21] Parenthesis mine.

[22] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed (Pines 1963), Introductory Essay, xxvii.

[23] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:49. Translation by M. Friedländer (1903).

[24] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed (Pines 1963), Introduction, 9a.

[25] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed (Pines 1963), I.

[26] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed (Pines 1963), Introductory Essay, 1963, xv.

[28] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed (Pines 1963), Introduction, 9a.


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