Sunday 29 October 2023

449) Maimonides on the authority of the rabbis

A 13th to 14th century manuscript of Moreh Nevuchim from Yemen.


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Menachem Kellner[1] − explores Maimonides (1135-1204) as a democratiser of Jewish law. Maimonides’ theology and worldview have been interpreted in so many ways, many of which are mutually exclusive. The problem is that by just reading his Code of Law, known as Mishneh Torah, he comes across as a dedicated jurist and Halachist. On the other hand, by just reading his Guide of the Perplexed, or Moreh Nevuchim, he emerges as a radical philosopher. Thus, to some, Maimonides is simply a legal Halachist who essentially despised philosophy  (either because they never read Moreh Nevuchim or they claimed it was a forgery). To others, he becomes the Great Philosopher whose deepest thoughts were in grave conflict with normative Judaism. To still others, he becomes a secret mystic who later in his life turns against philosophy and adopts Kabbalah.[2] And there are even those who believe he was a secret Karaite.[3] 

Maimonides became one of the most complicated of all the rabbis whose innermost thoughts were often difficult to fathom. This controversy over who Maimonides really was, did not begin after his lifetime but, instead, manifested immediately when his writings began to become known. We shall try to fathom what exactly it was about Maimonides that attracted such controversy. 

Maimonides encourages ‘concealing’ and ‘revealing’ one's thoughts

It is important to remember that Maimonides did not become open to various contradictory interpretations by accident. In a sense, he invited controversy, because at the beginning of his great philosophical treatise, Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide of the Perplexed), he writes that it is necessary to hide one’s innermost thoughts from the common people: 

“In speaking about very obscure matters it is necessary to conceal some parts and to disclose others. Sometimes in the case of certain dicta this necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of a certain premise, whereas in another place necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of another premise contradicting the first one. In such cases the vulgar must in no way be aware of the contradiction; the author accordingly uses some device to conceal it by all means” (Guide, I, Introduction).[4] 

Here Maimonides acknowledges that sometimes a dual approach is required where in one instance, the discussion must “proceed on the basis of a certain premise,” while other times the discussion must “proceed on the basis of another premise contradicting the first one.” Maimonides believed that this dual approach is neither a problem nor a contradiction but, rather, a requirement if one is to get anywhere in a theological investigation. However, it needs to be hidden from the simple or “vulgar” masses who cannot hold two thoughts at the same time. 

This ‘declaration’ by Maimonides opened up a Pandora's box that has never been and probably will never be closed: 

“With these statements Maimonides precipitated a cottage industry in Jewish intellectual circles, and has kept his interpreters busy ever since for close to a millennium. He also invited debate over his meaning and turned himself into a hook on which a bewildering array of opinions have been hung” (Kellner 1991:75). 

Maimonides, thus, intentionally compelled his readers to engage in soul-searching and made it nigh impossible for a definitive understanding of who he really was. Forever, thinking Jews would be in some state of tension between the interplays of the roles of all latent elements to be found within Judaism. Some would welcome such an approach but many would find it disconcerting. Is Judaism essentially Halachic, mystical, rational, or philosophical or all of the above? 

Democratisation of Judaism

Leaving that important question aside for now, there is one area of Maimonides’ thought that is clear, although often overlooked namely, his view on the hold and hegemony of the rabbinate. Intriguingly, Kellner shows how a major objective of Maimonides and one that probably was the main cause of the controversy surrounding him – was his attempt to: 

“undermine the authority of the rabbis as a class” (Kellner 1991:75). 

This was perhaps the main issue Maimonides’ opponents had with him in the first instance, and most likely surpassed the other issues of his personal philosophies and thoughts. 

Certainly, Maimonides recognised the authority of the rabbis when it came to Halacha, but what concerned him was: 

“in particular, the authority they exercised in matters that extended beyond the narrowly legal” (Kellner 1991:75). 

Maimonides promoted the idea that the role of the rabbis was limited solely to the sphere of legal and halachic rulings concerning the miniature of the law, and it did not extend beyond that. This did not sit well with many of his rabbinic colleagues. 

How far Maimonides intended to go with this idea is difficult to know. He may have gone very far and even ‘politicised’ his views to ‘subvert’ the rabbis as a ‘class.’ Through his writing of the Mishna Torah, which was essentially a summary of the entire Talmud and the first major codification of Halacha,  he was indeed side-stepping the rabbis who would no longer need to be consulted on every matter of the law. 

R. Sheshet ben Yitzchak Benveniste of Saragossa sent a letter to R. Meir haLevi Abulafia,[5] pointing out that even in the realm of basic Halacha, Jews had been freed from their previous reliance on rabbis. This was because the Mishna Torah with its elucidation of the Halachot was now accessible to all. The rabbis had, to some significant extent, been side-lined. 

“No need for any other book” [i.e., the Talmud]

Additionally, Maimonides effectively removed the need to study Talmud, the essence of rabbinic Judaism, as he had already summarised the Talmud in his Mishneh Torah. With the Halachic conclusions presented in the Mishneh Torah, all that was left of the Talmud were legal arguments. But these were now resolved in his Mishneh Torah and, therefore, no longer necessary. He writes this clearly in his own words when he states that it is no longer necessary to study Talmud, since with his Mishna Torah Code: 

“no other work should be needed for ascertaining any of the laws of Israel, but that this work might serve as a compendium of the entire Oral Law ... [such] that a person who first reads the Written Law and then this compilation, will know from it the whole of the Oral Law, without needing to consult any other book between them” (Introduction to Mishneh Torah). 

The “book between” the Written Torah and Halacha is the Talmud. As Kellner puts it: 

“[T]he upshot of his position was in effect to remove from the heart of the Jewish curriculum the one arena in which rabbis are the undisputed masters: Talmud. In both the Mishneh Torah and the Guide of the Perplexed Maimonides subtly restricts the authority of the Sages of the Talmud” (Kellner 1991:76). 

Limiting rabbinic authority to Halacha

This limiting of the role the rabbis play is a recurring theme in much of Maimonides’ writings. For example, he limits the rabbis’ knowledge about messianic matters: 

וְיֵשׁ מִן הַחֲכָמִים שֶׁאוֹמְרִים שֶׁקֹּדֶם בִּיאַת הַמָּשִׁיחַ יָבוֹא אֵלִיָּהוּ. וְכָל אֵלּוּ הַדְּבָרִים וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן לֹא יֵדַע אָדָם אֵיךְ יִהְיוּ עַד שֶׁיִּהְיוּ. שֶׁדְּבָרִים סְתוּמִין הֵן אֵצֶל הַנְּבִיאִים. גַּם הַחֲכָמִים אֵין לָהֶם קַבָּלָה בִּדְבָרִים אֵלּוּ. אֶלָּא לְפִי הֶכְרֵעַ הַפְּסוּקִים. וּלְפִיכָךְ יֵשׁ לָהֶם מַחְלֹקֶת בִּדְבָרִים אֵלּוּ. וְעַל כָּל פָּנִים אֵין סִדּוּר הֲוָיַת דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ וְלֹא דִּקְדּוּקֵיהֶן עִקָּר בַּדָּת. וּלְעוֹלָם לֹא יִתְעַסֵּק אָדָם בְּדִבְרֵי הַהַגָּדוֹת. וְלֹא יַאֲרִיךְ בַּמִּדְרָשׁוֹת הָאֲמוּרִים בְּעִנְיָנִים אֵלּוּ וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן. וְלֹא יְשִׂימֵם עִקָּר. שֶׁאֵין מְבִיאִין לֹא לִידֵי יִרְאָה וְלֹא לִידֵי אַהֲבָה. 

“Some of our Sages say that the coming of Elijah will precede the advent of the Messiah. But no one is in a position to know the details of this and similar things until they have come to pass. They are not explicitly stated by the Prophets. Nor have the Rabbis [of the Talmud][6] any tradition with regard to these matters. They are guided solely by what the scriptural texts seem to imply. Hence there is a divergence of opinion upon the subject… 

A person should not occupy himself with the [rabbinic] Aggadot and Midrashot concerning these and similar matters, nor should he consider them as essentials, for study of them will neither bring fear or love of God”  (Maimonides: Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim uMilchamot 12:2). 

Kellner puts it a little more bluntly: 

“[T]he Sages are simply interpreting biblical verses as best they can. In effect, Maimonides is saying that their interpretations carry no more authority than our own” (Kellner 1991:77). 

Besides eschatological matters, Maimonides also limits the knowledge of the rabbis when it comes to matters of science and medicine: 

“Do not ask me to show that everything they [the Sages] have said concerning astronomical matters conforms to the way things really are. For at that time [when the Talmud was written][7] mathematics were imperfect. They did not speak about this as transmitters of the dicta of the prophets…they had heard these dicta from the men of knowledge who lived in those times” (Guide II:8 and III:15). 

Similarly, in his Introduction to Perek Chelek,[8] Maimonides again undermines the authority of his rabbinic contemporaries “the overwhelming majority of whom, on Maimonides' own testimony there, understood aggadot literally, not allegorically” (Keller 1991:91). 

What emerges from Maimonides’ thought is that we certainly must follow the rabbis when it comes to Halacha, but we do not have to consult them on matters of science, nor even on matters of biblical interpretation. Bear in mind that Rambam in his references to ‘rabbis’ is referring directly to the Sages of the Mishna and Gemara (Talmud). How much more so would these Maimonidean views of limiting the authority of the rabbis apply to the latter rabbis (Rishonim) and particularly to contemporary rabbis (Acharonim)? 

Maimonides could not have written such things

These views of Maimonides, understandably, created such a stir in the rabbinic world, that other rabbis feared the undermining of their authority. Some, therefore, claimed that he could never have written these outrageous views against rabbinic hegemony and that these sections were forgeries. Shem Tov Ibn Shem Tov writes: 

“Many rabbinic scholars said that Maimonides did not write this chapter and if he did write it, it ought to be hidden away or, most appropriately, burned. For how could he say that those who know physics are on a higher level than those who engage in religion…” 

This reluctance to accept that Maimonides had written such things continues to more modern times and we see that even rabbis like R. Yakov Emden (1697-1776) could not believe that the same man who wrote Mishneh Torah wrote Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide of the Perplexed).[9] 

How far was Maimonides intending to go?

Regarding Maimonides’ restriction of the role of the rabbi, Kellner suggests that we just don’t know how far he intended to proceed on this programme of restructuring and limiting the role of the rabbis within Jewish society: 

“Maimonides may or may not have had…a political goal in mind when he wrote the Mishneh Torah and his other books; he is silent on the subject, and therefore we have no way of knowing” (Kellner 1991:76). 

However, what we do know is that Maimonides clearly limited the power of the rabbis to Halachic matters and did not encourage people to consult them on other matters, be they societal, medical or political. This is an interesting view because, in principle, it precludes the possibility of Jews ever adopting the political model of a theocracy. Rabbis can become master Halachic scholars but they can never become supreme leaders. 

Intellectual independence

According to Maimonides, rabbis should never control the way a society thinks, because Jews must always maintain “intellectual independence” (Kellner 1991:76). Although rabbis can expound on the law, they can never tell people what to think. 

When it comes to independence of thought, Maimonides maintained[10] that one accepts the truth from whatever source it is derived, even if the author is ‘unacceptable.’ Maimonides writes: 

“[I]t is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the Sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden... A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back” (Maimonides, Letter on Astrology).[11] 

The idea of never giving up intellectual independence (whilst, of course, submitting to the rabbinic authority of Halacha) is such a dominant theme of Maimonides that it “finds expression in one way or another on almost every page he wrote” (Kellner 1991:78). 

Teachings like the importance of maintaining independence of thought, coupled with Maimonides’ limiting of rabbinic authority in all areas outside of Halacha like science, history, politics, medicine, messianism, eschatology and even theology (Kellner 1991:78)(!) – would have threatened the autonomy of much of the rabbinic world. 


Kellner makes an interesting point because all too often we see that Maimonides is criticised primarily for introducing foreign Aristotelian, Greek and Arabic philosophical ideas into Judaism. These are valid objections and there are arguments for and against such positions. But is it most likely that these, albeit legitimate objections, were sometimes predicated upon something far more pragmatic – his underlying challenge to the far-reaching universal (i.e., extra-Halachic) authority of the rabbis. According to Maimonides, rabbis do have great authority, but only when confined strictly to the realm of Halacha. 

Accordingly: 1) Maimonides’ democratisation of Jewish law through his Mishneh Torah in which he presented his easy guide to Halacha, side-stepping the need for a teacher; 2) coupled with his claim that Talmud study was no longer essential; 3) plus his severe limiting of the range of rabbinical jurisdiction purely to technical Halacha − would have served as a triple blow to rabbinic authority. These three Maimonidean innovations aimed at limiting the absolute power of the rabbis may have been the core reasons why Maimonides, arguably, endured more theological persecution than any other rabbi in Jewish history. All the other well-known objections relating to his philosophy and worldview may have secondary devices.


Further Reading

See my translation of the article by Dr Avi Harel Kotzk Blog: 398) Maimonides’ view on the parameters of ‘faith in the sages’.

[1] Kellner, M., 1991, ‘Reading Rambam: Approaches to the Interpretation of Maimonides’, Jewish History, vol. 5. no.2, 75-93.

[4] Pines, S., 1963, Guide of the Perplexed, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 18.

[5] Marx, A., 1934, 'Texts By and About Maimonides, Jewish Quarterly Review, 25, 371-428.

[6] Square brackets are mine.

[7] Square brackets are mine.

[8] Mishna Sanhedrin, Ch. 10.

[9] Schachter, J., ‘Rabbi Jacob Emden's Iggeret Purim’, in Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature 2, 441-46.

[10] Shemona Perakim, Introduction to Avot.

[11] See "Letter on Astrology," translated by Ralph Lerner, in Ralph Lemer and Muhsin Mahdi, eds.. Medieval Political Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), 235.

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