Sunday 20 February 2022

372) R. Yitzchak Arama and the subtle demise of Jewish rationalism



Many people, including rabbis, are surprised to discover that the concept of a rationalist Maimonidean Judaism exists. Maimonides’ thought is not the Maimonides of the Mishna Torah compiled around 1180 which many are familiar with (and which, by Maimonides’ own description, was just his summary of the Talmud) - but rather the philosophical Maimonides of the Moreh Nevuchim or Guide of the Perplexed, compiled later in 1190. The personal hashkafa or worldview of Rambam can only be seen in the latter work. Although Rambam passed away about eighty years before the Zohar was first published in 1290, he presented a strong rationalist worldview and deeply opposed the mystical thought that was brewing during his lifetime. The mystics repressed his rationalist ideology during the following few centuries when Kabbalah became dominant (and they continue to do so today), and his rationalist thought was essentially eradicated from Judaism.

Astoundingly, in our lifetimes, eight centuries later, through the writings of modern scholars such as Rabbi Dr Natan Slifkin, Dr Avi Harel, Professors Marc Shapiro, Menachem Kellner and Rabbi Kapach, we now gain an insight into this lost and often censored Maimonidean thought. Whether one agrees with Maimonidean thought or not, these scholars have done ground-breaking work in restoring, if not returning, another jewel to the crown of Judaism.


It is my contention that no serious study of Judaism can be undertaken without this basic, fundamental and core understanding of the distinction between mystical and rationalist Judaism. Mysticism, for centuries has been presented as the raison d'être of Judaism and as its only and deepest layer of theological thought, but history shows otherwise.

We must remember that around and immediately after the period of Maimonides, rationalist thought was, in many circles, the dominant ideology. Missing that point, makes everything else a montage, if not a blur, albeit a comfortable and reassuring one, living and thinking within the neat categorisations of the hierarchical structures of the spiritual and mystical realms without an awareness that an alternative system of Orthodox Jewish rationalist thought may exist.

Whichever side of the mystical/rationalist debate one chooses to take, to be fair, one still needs an acute awareness of this differential, and the spiritual tension and angst that follows in its wake.

In any theological system, foundational concepts such as ‘angels’, ‘demons’ or a ‘supernatural messiah’, for example, either exist or they do not. Mystical Judaism and Kabbalah claim they do - rationalist Maimonidean Judaism claims that angels are perceived in the imagination only and do not manifest as reality, and the messiah and messianic age are natural progressional developments and not supernatural revelations. The outcomes and consequences of these two systems are fundamentally different. This must be clear no matter which system of theology one chooses to subscribe to.

Aryeh Kaplan, a rabbi and a nuclear physicist, who researched Kabbalah from original texts, similarly shares his discovery of the same polarity of theological haskafa that we are addressing. He writes that as a result of his immense research into old texts:

“I gradually realized that Jewish philosophy [i.e. rationalist thought and philosophy][1] almost comes to an abrupt end in the 14th and 15th centuries. And from there on, almost all of Jewish thought and theology is dominated by Kabbalah” (Kaplan 2017: n.p.).

James Robinson similarly identifies the fifteenth century as the period when the abrupt demise of rationalist Jewish philosophy occurred. He identifies even further just which specific rabbinic writings and commentaries came to signify the end of rationalist Maimonidean thought:

“…with [Yitzchak] Arama [1420-1494] and [Don Yitzchak] Abarbanel [1437-1508][2] we can recognize the beginning of the end for philosophical exegesis” (Robinson 2011:475)[3].

It is, accordingly, quite evident that Jewish rationalist thought as championed by Maimonides had been all but obliterated from theological discourse by the fifteenth century leaving mystical Judaism as the only viable option. Mystical groups like the sixteenth century Safed and Lurianic Kabbalists as well as the seventeenth century Sabbatians flourished in such a theological environment, perhaps in part, because no rationalist alternatives were available.

This trend continued - bar for a small group of Yemenite Maimonidean rationalists known as Talmidei haRambam who claimed that the Zohar was a forgery - until relatively recently when scholars began re-examining the lost philosophical and rationalist thought of Maimonides.



This article, based extensively on the research by Professor James Diamond[4] looks at how, Yitzchak Arama, one of the leading rabbis of the fifteenth century, began to subtlety subvert Maimonidean rationalist thought. It is fascinating to see how scholars are able to almost freeze moments in history which went on to influence future ideologies and eradicate others.

Yitzchak Arama closes the rationalist era

Arama’s strategic style

Yitzchak Arama (1420-1494) did not challenge Maimonides (1135-1204) directly. Instead his attack, two and a half centuries after Maimonides, was far more subtle and delicate but effective nonetheless. Diamond describes his work as a nuanced attempt at creating a perceived:

balance between what he considered a foreign Greek body of rational knowledge on the one hand, and a supra-rational revealed knowledge native to Judaism’s prophetic tradition on the other…”

Yet he was not content to remain with a balance of mystical and rationalist ideology because his ultimate aim was:

 to close the chapter on Jewish philosophical exegesis which Maimonides spearheaded” (Diamond 2016:201).

Arama could do this because, as Mark Saperstein[5] suggests, he was:

 the most influential preacher in the generation of the expulsion from Spain.”

Arama’s fear of rationalism assumes biblical proportions

Although Arama is respectful to Maimonides, he believes Maimonidean rationalism will have disastrous consequences for believing Jews as it will distort their pure faith. The title of his work, Chazut Kasha[6], or nightmarish vision taken from Isaiah 21:2:

חָז֥וּת קָשָׁ֖ה הֻגַּד־לִ֑י הַבּוֹגֵ֤ד ׀ בּוֹגֵד֙ וְהַשּׁוֹדֵ֣ד ׀ שׁוֹדֵ֔ד

A harsh [grievous or nightmarish] prophecy has been announced to me: the betrayer is betraying and the raveger ravaging…”

It is quite apparent just who Arama is alluding to when he uses the term “betrayer” and “raveger”. He is forewarning the world in a prophetic-like manner of the nightmarish dangers of Maimonidean rationalism.


In rabbinic literature, the expression Chazut (chazon) indicates the most catastrophic of all visons:

עֲשָׂרָה לְשׁוֹנוֹת נִקְרֵאת, נְבוּאָה, חָזוֹן, הֲטָפָה, דִּבּוּר, אֲמִירָה, צִוּוּי, מַשָֹּׂא, מָשָׁל, מְלִיצָה, חִידָה. וְאֵיזוֹ הִיא קָשָׁה

שֶׁבְּכֻלָּן רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אָמַר חָזוֹן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה כא, ב): חָזוּת קָשָׁה הֻגַּד לִי[7]

Already we see the subtle nuances at play. Arama knows that Maimonides has issues with spiritual visons and prophecy from above and generally prefers to explain these visions as some form of “intellectual apprehension…and not sensory apprehension,”[8] or as Diamond (2016:205) paraphrases Maimonides:

an awareness that crystallizes in the realm of thought rather than a visual sighting.”

Maimonides is clear that these visions and revelations are not to be taken literally:

the words to see [ra’oh], to look at [habbit], and to vision [hazoh] are applied to the sight of the eye and that all three of them are also used figuratively to denote the grasp of the intellect…Know this.”[9]

Yet Arama intentionally emphasises the most catastrophic and powerful of these visions, “chazon”, in very real and concrete terms that are not to be minimised or rationalised away. For Arama, prophecy is real and direct and any other explanation is a betrayal of Judaism.

Arama writes that the Maimonidean interpretation of prophecy has ripped out a fundamental component from Judaism, to the extent that these rationalist ideas have:

עד אשר נפתה לב העם בכלל לגרש האמונה האלהיית מלבם ולהחליש בה כחם יותר מכל העמים

seduced them to banish their divine faith and weaken them more than any other nation in the world.”[10]

The Torah speaks in the language of the sons of man

Another matter regarding which Arama crossed swords with Maimonides concerned the interpretation of the Talmudic adage:

דִּבְּרָה תוֹרָה כִלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם

 the Torah speaks in the language of the sons of man”.[11]

Typical of Maimonides’ rationalist approach, is his explanation that the messages of the Torah are often directed towards the “lowest common denominator” (Diamond 2016:206) of human society. This is where Maimonides makes his (in)famous distinctions between the upper (intellectual=philosophical) elements of Jewish society and the lower elements, which he also refers to as the “ignorant masses”. For the most part, according to Maimonides, the Torah directs its teachings at the latter segment and speaks to “the imagination of the multitude” in order to reach the largest audience.

This is why the Torah speaks in anthropomorphisms (where G-d is described in human or corporeal terms such as G-d’s hands, voice, etc.):

“…inasmuch as the multitude cannot at first conceive of any existence save that of a body aloneFor this reason it behooves us to explain the matter to those whose souls grasp at human perfection…to put an end to the fantasies that come to them from the age of infancy.”[12]

Maimonides expects sophisticated readers of the Torah to understand this principle and to pierce through such false narratives.

In a sense, scripture is a text that can only be preserved by its overcoming” (Diamond 2016:207).

Maimonides explains in words that don’t sit well on the modern ear but make the point that the Torah is designed:

to make it possible for the young, the women, and all the people to begin with it and to learn it.”[13]

Arama again subverts this rather elitist understanding of Maimonides and introduces a different interpretation of the anthropomorphic passages found in the Torah. Arama insists that the Torah must depict G-d in human terms to emphasise a concept that Maimonides was rather ambivalent about, namely, Providence. By ascribing human characteristics to G-d, G-d become a kind and caring being concerned about His creation.

According to Arama, the Torah text is not  "preserved by its overcoming", but specifically by its literal intent. Again, Arama is subverting Maimonides by claiming that the human language and characteristics ascribed to G-d in the Torah are good for people because they will see that G-d cares, provides, judges and even gets angry – and this all bodes well for religious behaviour. To achieve this end, the Torah is even prepared to sacrifice ‘philosophical technicalities’ such as believing that G-d has a material form or body of sorts.

שההישרה האלהי לא תקפיד אל טעות ההמון בצר מצדדי הגשמות לא כהקפדתה אל טעותיה בהעדר הידיעה ומיעוט ההשגחה וסילוק היכולת שזה מביא אל שיבוש דעת לבד וזה מביא אל כפירה גמורה

Arama maintains that the Torah text cares less about possible technical confusion as to corporeality and the make-up of G-d (which is what bothered Maimonides), and cares more about theological errors concerning G-d’s “omniscience, providence, and omnipotence, since the former involves only confusion while the latter involves heresy.”

ובאמת רצה השם ית׳ בצדקת נפשם יותר מבפלפולם אם שניהם כאחד לא יכילם דעתם

For Arama, it is the religious experience that trumps theological accuracy which he disregards as mere “pilpul”, or meaningless debate. For Maimonides, believing that G-d has a body is not just a debatable subject but a heresy. Arama inverts Maimonides and suggests, instead, that believing Maimonides’ notion that G-d’s providence is unknowable and transcendent is what amounts to heresy.

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

What is the ‘soul’?

According to Maimonides it is the sechel or intellect that distinguishes humans from animals. Arama believes, instead, in something higher that the intellect. The intellect dies when the person dies. But for Maimonides, it is only the intellect that actually survives the body:

the rational soul…[is all] that remains of man after death.”[14]

Adam’s sin

According to Maimonides, Adam’s sin was abandoning rationalist thought. Adam rejected his human sechel, or intellect, became concerned with the mundane, and the consequences were that he became more animal-like in his need to acquire food and sustenance. Arama believes, instead, that it was Adam’s very embrace of rationalist thought (eating the tree of knowledge) that brought his downfall. Thus, according to Arama:

when he [Adam=man] veers away from that path [of revelation][15] and tends toward the speculative (ʿiyuni) which denies revelation…then surely the earth will be cursed.”[16]


According to Maimonides, Job was an inferior human being specifically because of his simple faith. Job is described as a “tam”, a simple person. Maimonides bemoans:

the fact that knowledge is not attributed [to Job]. . . only moral virtue and righteousness in action are ascribed to himfor if he had been a ḥakham [wise person][17], his situation would not have been obscure for him.”[18]

And once again, Arama subverts and undoes Maimonides by emphasising simple faith over rationalist philosophy:

שלא הגיע שלמות האדם בכל מה שהתפלסף והתחכם להתנהג על גזירת השכל האנושי לבד רק במה שיכנע לשמוע אל השכל האלקי בכל מעשיו

“…perfection is not acquired by philosophizing and rationalizing in order to conduct oneself exclusively in accordance with reason, but rather in submission to the dictates of the divine intellect in all his actions.”[19]

Akeida – the binding of Isaac

According to Maimonides, Abraham did not suspend judgement when he agreed to sacrifice Isaac. Diamond (2016:219) explains that:

Abraham acted, not contrary to but in consonance with, the dictates of reason after three days of ‘thought, correct understanding, consideration of the truth of His command, love of Him, and fear of Him.’[20]

Arama, of course inverts that Maimonidean notion and as Diamond (2016:218) explains:

Abraham graduates from the philosopher who loves God to the faithful servant who fears God and is willing to perform a divine commandment ‘even when it is contrary to reason and when it is abhorrent in the extreme to one’s will.’[21]

Maimonides’ rationalism is Abraham’s mistress Hagar

Arama’s “nightmare” is that Hagar, Abraham’s secondary wife, who, in his (Arama’s) view represents Maimonidean philosophy and rationalism, might become so powerful that it becomes Abraham’s primary wife instead of Sarah (who represents prophecy and simple belief).

Hagar’s subsequent belittlement of Sarah, as a result of her newly gained advantage and putative superiority, indicates the ever-present danger of philosophy’s mounting arrogant confidence in its self-sufficiency for the attainment of perfection without revelation” (Diamond 2016:209).

It is as if Arama is suggesting that Maimonidean rationalist thought be banished from the house of Israel just like Abraham banished Hagar from his house when he threw her out into the wilderness.


Yitzchak Arama was part of a concerted effort to rid the Jewish world of Maimonidean rationalism. He challenged Maimonides on every level because Maimonides was too removed and too rational for a sustained religious engagement by the popular society, particularly the generation of the Expulsion from Spain that was not looking towards rationalism for spiritual support.  On the contrary, it turned more towards mysticism.

Arama particularly disliked Maimonides’ definition of G-d who should be a loving, caring G-d who hears our every prayer, and actively engages in divine Providence to benefit us, but instead is coldly depicted by Maimonides as a mere “First Being” who:

if imagined to be non-existent, then nothing else could possibly exist, and if it were imagined that that all other beings were non-existent, He alone would still exist.”[22]

The G-d of prophecy, revelation and simple Hashgacha Peratit (individual divine Providence) was a better model for sustainable religion.


These types of writings during the fifteenth century spelt the end of the era of Maimonidean rationalism.  With balance, one can understand why there was objection to rationalism and one can reciprocate by also understanding why Maimonides objected to an oversimplification of religious beliefs.

What is difficult to understand is why Maimonidean thought - which had a rightful place for centuries amongst various other theologies including Kabbalah - had to be totally obliterated and eradicated to the extent that most people today are unaware of basic Maimonidean theology while remaining quite conversant with the underlying tenants of basic mystical theology.


[For more on Yitzchak Arama see Kotzk Blog: 270) THIRTEEN QUESTIONS – NO ANSWERS:]

[1] Parenthesis mine. Rationalist Maimonidean thought is frequently referred to as ‘philosophy’ and Maimonides (1135-1204) is referred to as haPilosoph, the Philosopher, as he was influenced by Aristotelian (384-322 BCE) thought.

[2] Parentheses mine.

[3] Robinson, J. T., 2011, ‘Philosophy and Science in Medieval Jewish Commentaries on the Bible’, in Science in medieval Jewish cultures, Edited by Gad Freudenthal, Cambridge University Press, New York, 454-475.

[4] Diamond, J., 2016, ‘Isaac Arama’s “Nightmare:” Closing the Philosophical Exegetical Chapter Maimonides Opened’, in European Journal of Jewish Studies 10, Brill, 201-222.

[5] Saperstein, M., 1989, Jewish Preaching 1200–1800: An Anthology, Yale University Press, 17.

[6] Isaac ben Moses Arama, Chazut Kasha, ed. Chaim Yosef Pollak (Pressburg, Czechoslovakia: Victor Kittseer, 1849), issued as vol. 5 of Akedat Yitzchak.

[7] Bereshit Rabbah 44:6. See also Shir haShirim Rabbah 3.

[8] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, I:44.

[9] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, I:4.

[10] Akedat Yitzchak, Bereishit, 7.

[11] b. Nedarim 3a.

[12] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, I:26.

[14] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, I:41.

[15] Parentheses mine.

[17] Parentheses mine.

[18] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, III:22

[19] Chazut Kasha 5b.

[20] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, III:24.

[21] Chazut Kasha 6b.

[22] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, “Laws Concerning the Basic Principles of the Torah,” 1:1.


  1. Because the two are irreconcilable.

    1. They certainly are but that never stopped irreconciliatory views from being expressed in Torah. ‘Hilkach Nimrinhu leTarvaihu'...Therefore let us express both (world-views)!

      We have chassidim and misnagdim, and we have religious zionists and religious anti-zionists. Some would argue that the position of Erets Yisrael in hashkofa is a make or break issue, yet both schools exist.