Sunday 2 July 2023

435) An ‘enlightened’ rejection of Maimonides


An 1830 edition of  R. Shmuel David Luzzatto's work Ohev Ger, It examins Aramaic translations of the Torah by Onkelos, analysing variant texts found in manuscripts and other sources. 


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Micha Gottlieb,[1] examines the sharp anti-Maimonidean writings by an Orthodox nineteenth-century rabbi, R. Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865). He lived during the Haskala (Enlightenment) Period and his writings reflect severe criticisms of the fact that the Haskala had adopted and appropriated Maimonides (1135-1204) as an example of ‘one religious leader worthy of emulating. 

The Haskala adopts Maimonides as the paradigm of ‘worthy rabbinic thought’ 

The Enlightenment movement went out of its way to highlight only certain aspects of Jewish history and thought, to encourage its followers to pursue what it considered a loftier, more rationalist Judaism which was more in touch with the age of Modernity. This included the notion of elevating Maimonides to an exulted and exemplary status, and  was expressed almost as a mission statement by two of the Haskala’s idealogues, Moses Mendelssohn and Simon Baraz: 

1) Moses Mendelssohn

Moses Mendelssohn founded the Berlin Haskala in 1763.[2]  The Haskala chose Maimonides as an unusual rabbi who stood for secular education and the elevation of rationalism over what they considered to be superstition and xenophobia which they claimed had dominated contemporary Judaism. This was just three years after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov, the mystic who founded the Chassidic movement. 

“[T]hey had to show how Judaism authorized embracing secular knowledge and culture. To this end, Maimonides became a central figure for them” (Gottlieb 2009:261). 

Mendelssohn went to great lengths of virtue signalling to emphasise that “our master Moses bar Maimon (may his righteous memory be for a blessing)” was the great “Sar haTorah (Prince of the Torah).” And because he studied and endorsed Greek literature and Aristotelian logic, such intellectual excursions were therefore permissible under Jewish law, and even to be encouraged. 

2) Simon Baraz

Twenty years later, in 1783, another Maskil (member of the Haskala), Simon Baraz authored a biography on Maimonides. He too exulted Maimonides for his open-mindedness. He showed that Maimonides, in his first work as a young man, had written his commentary on the Mishna specifically in Arabic for all to understand. Thus, he paid particular attention to universal ethics and morality which applied to both Jews and Gentiles and which he highlighted in his commentary. This way: 

“Maimonides showed his commitment to popular ethical-religious education and eschewed the prevailing method of study, which was theoretical and confusing” (Gottlieb 2009:262). 

Baraz went on to praise Maimonides’ Guide For the Perplexed, particularly for its inclusion of ideas from Aristotle, Plato, Galen, and Themistius. This claimed Baraz, “distinguished him from all the other famous sages.”[3] Baraz also mentions that, because of his open approach, not all rabbis agreed with him and jealous, ignorant rabbis, therefore, attacked him.[4] Baraz writes: 

“You the Maskilim among the nation should hang at the gates of Maimonides’ books . . . [and] follow his path loving truth and peace, seeking the good of all peoples Jews and Gentiles alike, and so become an ornament among the nations.”[5] 

R. Shmuel David Luzzatto's Torah commentary.

R. Shmuel David Luzzatto and his vehement attacks on Maimonides

R. Shmuel David Luzzatto, also known as Shadal, was a member of the Haskala and he joined the Wissenschaft des Judentums. However, when it came to his outspoken views against Maimonides, he certainly did not toe the line of the Haskala as presented by Mendelssohn and Baraz who intended to promote Maimonidean thought for the new modern era. 

Maimonides is ‘anti-Jewish’

R. Luzzatto presents a detailed criticism of the views of Maimonides and determines that they are, in his view, anti-Jewish. This is a very unusual position for a Maskil to adopt. 

Among his criticisms of Maimonides are the following: 

Maimonides is ‘too close to Atticism’

Maimonides is too close to Atticism (named after Attica in Greece and synonymous with Greek and Hellenistic ideology). R. Luzzatto consciously uses the term “Atticism, because (especially in the Hebrew translation) Atticism is close to atheism, to which he compares Maimonidean thought. Maimonides speaks of the gradual perfection, over time, of humankind. But R. Luzzatto mocks that notion because it reduces the value of tradition and the authority of the rabbis of old. R. Luzzatto writes that the Greeks, and by extension Maimonides, effectively reverse the rabbinic slogan of “if our ancestors were men, we are as donkeys” to read, “our ancestors were donkeys and we are men.”[6] 

Maimonides over-emphasises the intellect

R. Luzzatto claims that Maimonides was mistaken to place an undue premium on Sechel (intellect). Ethics and not intellectualism, he insists, is the essence of Judaism. Ethics comes from more from feeling than thinking. Maimonides and the Greeks see ethics as the way to prepare for the intellect. Ethics is simply the human protocol to assist in the development of the intellect, which remains primary. Judaism, however, maintains R. Luzzatto, sees ethics and morality as the highest good and the intellect is just part of the process to attain morality

R. Luzzatto suggests that an over-indulgence in intellectualisation only causes strife, jealousy, wars and the fraying of family bonds.[7] 

Maimonides ‘contaminated’ Judaism

R. Luzzatto observes that, unfortunately, people like Maimonides, ibn Ezra and the Spanish scholars who were seduced by Arabic Falasifa, contaminated Judaism by introducing rationalist ideas in the guise of authentic Judaism. But fortunately, rabbis like Rashi, Yehudah haLevi, the Tosafists, and other (mystical) opponents of rationalist thought, have saved Judaism from this corruption.[8] Maimonides is regarded “trouble-maker.”[9]

[See: Kotzk Blog: 290) WAS RASHI A MYSTIC?

Maimonides disregards ‘Providence’ and ‘Immortality’

R. Luzzatto challenged the very theological compliance of Maimonidean ideas to the terms of authentic Judaism. He pointed out that reward and punishment (or providence and immortality) are integral to the doctrine of the Torah as that is the only way to keep adherents on the path of righteousness and morality. However, a study of the thought of Maimonides seriously negates the centrality of these basic principles. 

“Maimonides’ intellectualism…leads him to reinterpret these ideas [of reward and punishment, providence and immortality][10] to the point of denying them” (Gottlieb 2009:267). 

Maimonides views the main component of the soul to be the intellect. If it is not activated and employed, the existence or potential of the soul is called into question.[11] The intellect is the only part of the soul that survives death and is perpetuated in some way.[12] This implies that only the intellect is preserved and it therefore follows that “there is no other-worldly punishment for evildoers” (Gottlieb 2009:268). This is because if they have not used their intellects, they will not exist in a future realm where they can be punished. 

This is what Maimonides writes: 

הַנְּקָמָה שֶׁאֵין נְקָמָה גְּדוֹלָה מִמֶּנָּה שֶׁתִּכָּרֵת הַנֶּפֶשׁ וְלֹא תִּזְכֶּה לְאוֹתָן הַחַיִּים שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (במדבר טו לא) "הִכָּרֵת תִּכָּרֵת הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִיא עֲוֹנָה בָּהּ". וְזֶה הָאֲבַדּוֹן הוּא שֶׁקּוֹרִין אוֹתוֹ הַנְּבִיאִים דֶּרֶךְ מָשָׁל בְּאֵר שַׁחַת וַאֲבַדּוֹן וְתָפְתֶּה וַעֲלוּקָה וְכָל לְשׁוֹן כְּלָיָה וְהַשְׁחָתָה קוֹרְאִין לוֹ לְפִי שֶׁהִיא הַכְּלָיָה שֶׁאֵין אַחֲרֶיהָ תְּקוּמָה וְהַהֶפְסֵד שֶׁאֵינוֹ חוֹזֵר לְעוֹלָם

“The vengeance, than which there is none greater, is that the soul will be cut off and will obtain no share in that life, even as it is said: ‘That soul shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him’ (Num. 15.31). As for hell, it is what the prophets call figuratively by different names, such as, pit of destruction, burning flame, leech, and by every word which means decay and destruction is it called, because it is an expression of terminating decay from which there is no regeneration and a loss which remains forever unreturned.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Repentance,” 8:5.) 

R. Luzzatto cannot accept this, and for him, the resurrection of the dead as it is normally understood as a reward in the afterlife for a good and moral life led on earth, is far more preferable.


Just as perturbing for R. Luzzatto is the concomitant Maimonidean understanding of Hashgacha Peratit (individual Providence) which differs drastically from the mainstream perception of the concept. 

“Famously, [Maimonides][13] writes that providence is dependent on the degree to which one has perfected one’s intellect” (Gottlieb 2009:268).[14] 

This concerns R. Luzzatto because Providence, in the Maimonidean model, is generally only for the intellectual, and it negates the mainstream notion of the importance of ethical living, which is rewarded with ‘prosperity’ in both this world and the next.


A return to a form of ‘corporeality’

This brings R. Luzzatto to almost desperately and perhaps reluctantly call for a return to a simple and questionable belief in corporeality (Hagshama, the notion that G-d has some form of ‘body’). This personification and anthropomorphism of G-d was a popular idea expressed amongst some early rabbis, something that Maimonides was vehemently opposed to. 

“But, asks Luzzatto, what is so terrible about these beliefs if believing that God watches all with his eyes and writes everything in a book encourages one to act ethically?” (Gottlieb 2009:268-9).

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

The ‘arrogance’ of establishing Principles of Faith

R. Luzzatto accuses Maimonides of great arrogance because, unprecedently, he prescribed the Thirteen Principles of Faith. This is not found in the Talmud or the writings of the Geonim. R. Luzzatto counter-claims that one should be judged by what one does, not by what one believes in. Again, Maimonides was led astray by his commitment to rationalism, which considers intellectual belief to be of supreme importance.


A new definition of a ‘Jew’ and ‘human being’

It is at this point that the gloves come off. In keeping with the accusation of extreme arrogance, R. Luzzatto criticises Maimonides for his view that “one who does not perfect his intellect is not truly a human being” (Gottlieb 2009:269). Along similar very harsh lines are the surprising and disturbing views of Maimonides that: 

“[A] Jew without proper belief, i.e., who does not believe what Maimonides considers to be the basic principles of Judaism, is not an Israelite, but a heretic whom it is a commandment to hate and kill…[and] Gentiles who generally hold incorrect religious beliefs need not be treated as human beings” (Gottlieb 2009:269). 

Maimonides is ‘anti-Gentile’

R. Luzzatto, I believe, intentionally and tendentially dropped these bombshells to make the point that the Wissenschaft was very wrong in claiming Maimonides as their exemplar for a universal Judaism that embraced intellectualism and good inter-religious relations with non-Jews. This way, instead of Maimonides being the great ambassador of lofty intellectualism and the unanimity of a multifaceted universalism extending to all faiths: 

“Maimonides’ intellectualism…leads him to adopt hateful attitudes towards Gentiles” (Gottlieb 2009:269). 

To strengthen his argument even further, R. Luzzatto brings the case of a seventeenth-century Dutch Orientalist, Costantin Van Oppyck, who after reading Maimonides, declared that Jews regarded Gentiles as animals. This observation would have served R. Luzzatto well in his polemic with other Maskilim like Mendelssohn and particularly Baraz who, as mentioned earlier, encouraged the Wissenschaft to promote Maimonidean thought as it would serve as “an ornament among the Gentiles.”

[1] Gottlieb, M., 2009, ‘Counter-Enlightenment in a Jewish Key: Anti-Maimonideanism in Nineteenth Century Orthodoxy’, in The Cultures of Maimonideanism, Edited by James T. Robinson, Brill, 259-287.

[2] More accurately, the movement was started officially in the 1770s, but Mendelssohn published his commentary on Maimonides’ Treatise on Logic in 1763.

[3] Simon Baraz, 1824, ‘Toledot Rabbeinu Moshe Ben Maimon’, in Bikkurei haItim, Vienna, 112–113.

[4] Ibid. 107–110.

[5] Ibid. 114.

[6] Luzzatto, S.D., 1912, Studies in Judaism, Warsaw, vol. 1, v–vi.

[7] Ibid. vii.

[8] Ibid. vi.

[9] Ibid. vol 1, 164.

[10] Square brackets are mine.

[11] Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, translation by S. Pines (Chicago, 1963), 1:70, 173–174.

[12] Ibid. 3:27, 511.

[13] Square brackets are mine.

[14] See Guide 3:18, 474.


  1. Appreciate the write up (and your wonderfully intriguing and informative blog in general). Shadal also hits Rambam hard in his commentary to devarim 6:5 In what sense do you mean that R. Moshe mi-Dessau aka Moses Mendelssohn started the berlin haskalah? Do you mean it in the sense that he was open to general knowledge and presenting judaism in a rationally compelling way (as he was pro keeping traditional halacha)? By that barometer Rambam and his camp were also maskilim . .

  2. Thank you Nachum. I simply mean that historically, he is recorded as the founder of the Berlin Haskala.

    1. I hear you. I suppose it is a historically used convention. And maybe unwittingly he did start down a path that willy nilly had a high probability of ending the way it did. Altho I do feel like the maskilim that were pokrei ol Torah umitzvos kind of appropriated him and his stardom to their cause in an effort to lend themselves legitimacy knowing full well Mendelssohn would never have approved, with רמבמ"ן aka the German Socrates getting the short end of the stick.

  3. I do agree. I have read some interesting things about him.

  4. Mind boggling to me how Rambam's intellectualism can cause him to be labeled anti-Gentile. If anything, by raising the intellect to ultimate importance, alongside the Torah, the difference between Jew and Gentile would be nearly erased.

    1. As he expressly writes "ולא שבט לוי בלבד אלא כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם אשר נדבה רוחו אותו והבינו מדעו להבדל לעמוד לפני ה' לשרתו ולעובדו לדעה את ה' והלך ישר כמו שעשהו האלקים ופרק מעל צוארו עול החשבונות הרבים אשר בקשו בני האדם הרי זה נתקדש קדש קדשים ויהיה ה' חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי עולמים ויזכה לו בעוה"ז דבר המספיק לו כמו שזכה לכהנים ללוים הרי דוד ע"ה אומר ה' מנת חלקי וכוסי אתה תומיך גורלי" (רמב"ם סוף הלכות שמיטה ויובל)

    2. Shadal's issues are with Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim which is often very different from Rambam elsewhere.

    3. But even in Mishneh Torah we find less universalistic views like:
      אֲבָל עוֹבְדֵי כּוֹכָבִים שֶׁאֵין בֵּינֵינוּ וּבֵינָם מִלְחָמָה וְרוֹעֵי בְּהֵמָה דַּקָּה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן אֵין מְסַבְּבִים לָהֶן הַמִּיתָה וְאָסוּר לְהַצִּילָן אִם נָטוּ לָמוּת. כְּגוֹן שֶׁרָאָה אֶחָד מֵהֶן שֶׁנָּפַל לַיָּם אֵינוֹ מַעֲלֵהוּ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ויקרא יט טז) "לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל דַּם רֵעֶךָ". וְאֵין זֶה רֵעֶךָ:

    4. I wouldn't classify that statement as non-universalistic, to the contrary, it is a mirror image of his intellectual universalism, being that for Rambam correct metaphysical ideas are paramount, the lack of them, and there is no greater lack than polytheism, is a universally damnable offense.

    5. What's polytheistic about a poor Jewish farmer of minor livestock?

    6. Halacha is definitely particularistic. I thought you were talking about theology specifically where Rambam holds all folks to the same philosophically rigorous standard (contra R"T regarding christianity for example).

    7. Nachum, thanks for your engagement. I must just mention that although people often tend to think that I support the ideology of the rabbis I write about - that's not necessarily the case. Sometimes quite the contrary. But I certainly do try to understand, and even defend their conceptualisations. So, by suggesting what I think Shadal means, does not imply I hold or reject his views empirically.