Sunday 18 February 2024

461) Maimonides unplugged


Recently discovered text in Maimonides' handwriting


This article – based extensively on the research by Professor Menachem Kellner[1] penetrates directly into the thought of Maimonides. It offers a no-holds-barred approach to pure Maimonidean ideology as interpreted by Kellner, a recognised authority on Maimonidean thought. 

Most Torah lectures, and Halachic decisions reference Maimonides, yet astoundingly very few of the presenters of those forums are always aware of how Maimonides (Rambam) actually viewed Judaism. Not surprisingly, then, many will find Kellner’s research into Maimonidean thought to be perplexing if not perilous to the traditional ideas they cherish and hold dear. 

This first section of this article asks what Judaism would look like if Rambam hadn’t existed. It argues that Judaism is indeed morally and theologically the richer and more expansive for his contributions.

The second section, however, examines some unexpected teachings of Rambam that don’t seem to fit that picture of expansiveness.

The third section offers a practical solution suggested by Kellner, to deal with the perplexing conundrum of how to deal with the differences between section one and two.


Section One

What would Judaism look like without Rambam?

Kellner begins by asking the question: What would Judaism look like today had Rambam not lived? Eight examples follow: 

1) We probably would have no Shulchan Aruch (Code of Law). Rambam (1135-1204) wrote his Mishneh Torah which was the first formal codification of Jewish law. Without that revolutionary innovation, it is unlikely that R. Yakov ben Asher (1269-1343)[2] with his Arba’a Turim, and R. Yosef Karo (1488-1575) with his Shulhan Aruch, would have had the boldness and authority to write new codes of law. 

2) Rambam was the first to successfully present Principles of Faith, creating an orthodoxy with a dogma which: 

was unprecedented in Judaism and changed the face of the religion” (Kellner 2012:24). 

3) Rambam used his tremendous rabbinic authority to integrate secular science and Torah study: 

“For Rambam, God, as it were, ‘wrote’ two books: Torah and Cosmos [see Ralbag in his commentary on Exodus 32:32]. The truly devout Jew realizes that he or she must study both books, or only have access to half of God’s works” (Kellner 2021:24). 

This innovation did not, however, gain the same traction as the previous two did. 

Thus, considering some of the abovementioned examples of Rambam’s ideas that were either well-received or well-ignored, it has to be accepted that his innovations significantly changed the face of Judaism in one way or another.


The ‘credibility’ problem

Perhaps, more than any other rabbi, Rambam suffered from a ‘credibility’ problem when it came to some of his views that were considered too radical. Some, after passing the ubiquitous denial stage, just refused (and still refuse) to believe he even said such things: 

“It is obviously the case that Rambam’s views were strongly criticized, when it was admitted that he actually held them” (Kellner 2021:25). 

David Berger expresses the same idea of widespread ignorance of Rambam’s theological teachings: 

“[M]any people who revere him [Rambam] reject his positions or even regard them as heretical without knowing that he held them at all… Thus, it is easy to compile a list of explicit positions of Maimonides…that would be labeled heresy or near-heresy in many contemporary yeshivas…Maimonides’ iconic status was achieved at the price of consigning many of his views to the black hole of forgetfulness” (Berger 2005:71).[3] 

This is nothing new.

4) Already in the fifteenth century, Spanish commentator to the Moreh Nevuchim (Guide For the Perplexed) Shem Tov ben Yosef ibn Shem Tov wrote: 

“Many rabbinic scholars said that Rambam 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, and even more that they are with the ruler in the inner chamber, for on this basis the scholars who are engaged with physics and metaphysics have achieved a higher level than those engaged with Torah!” (Commentary on Moreh Nevuchim, III:51). 

This is another example of how Rambam changed the face of Judaism: 

“[W]ithout Rambam, would not thousands of Jews who believe in modern science and reason have given up their belief and commitment to Torah?... Without the example of Rambam, those who oppose the reliance upon ‘da’at Torah’ in non-halakhic spheres…would have a much harder time” (Kellner 2021:26). 

5) Rambam is also the main resource for Judaism’s opposition to astrology.[4] 

6) Furthermore, since the majority of the Jewish world (including non-Chassidim) has essentially adopted the Zohar and Kabbalah as foundational material for their Judaism: 

“[h]ad not Rambam presented the Jewish world with an alternative to Kabbalah, would all Jews today embrace various offshoots of Kabbalistic Judaism?” (Kellner 2021:27).


The essential ‘mystical’ nature of contemporary Judaism

A fascinating question arises out of this. According to Moshe Idel and others, the Jewish world turned predominantly to Kabbalah and the Zohar (first published only in around 1290, about 86 years after Rambam’s passing) as a response and counter to Rambam’s intense rationalism. It is true that mysticism certainly existed in earlier times in the less structured forms of Heichalot and Merkavah literature,  but if this analysis is essentially correct and the dominance of modern Kabbalah was a response to Rambam’s rationalism – then it is possible that the shape Judaism may have been very different if Rambam had not inadvertently stared the mystical revolution with his rationalism. In this sense, the Rambam turned out to be his own ‘worse enemy,’ as it were: 

“Rambam ironically brought about the defeat of Jewish rationalism, as no observer of the Jewish world today can possibly deny” (Kellner 2021:27).


Messianic expectations

7) Rambam tried to lower the temperature of messianic expectations by expounding on his view of a natural process of messianism not involving any supernatural or mystical events. Instead, Rambam’s messianism was presented as 

“as a process that takes place in this world, without overt divine intervention, and with no violations of natural law” (Kellner 2010:27). 

Rambam’s natural messiah is fundamentally different from popular and contemporary expectations of a Jewish messiah.


The thorny matter of Rambam’s universalism

8) Rambam was one of the most profound and consistent universalists in Jewish history. Unlike Yehuda haLevi, he did not believe there was a “separateness” between Jews and non-Jews: 

“The Torah is true, he held, and is certainly the most effective route to human perfection, but it is not the only route—there are other ways of achieving human perfection [see Iggerot ha-Rambam[5]]” (Kellner 2012:25). 

This view, similarly, did not prove to be a particularly popular one, nor, like so many other of his views, did it become well known. 

Rambam did not just pay lip service to the idea that all human beings are truly created in the image of G-d.  Unusual for a rabbi, he went against the grain and “insisted that there is no essential difference between Jews and non-Jews” (Kellner 2021:28). 

Kellner maintains that Rambam’s uncompromising stance on, and unpopular commitment to, universalism mitigates, to some degree, the sense of superiority often expressed by other schools of Jewish thought. He openly addresses the heart of a very controversial matter: 

“[H]ad Rambam not enunciated a universalist vision of Judaism would almost all Jews today be even more particularist than they are? It is my distinct impression that most secular Israeli Jews, and almost all Israeli Orthodox Jews, as well as some secular Jews (to one degree or another) in the Diaspora and almost all Orthodox Jews there, are convinced that there is something inherent, intrinsic, metaphysical, or mystical that distinguishes Jews from non-Jews” (Kellner 2021:27). 

Yehuda haLevi, Nachmanides and Maharal of Prague developed a “special strand of Jewish thought” (R. Isadore Twersky 199I:261)[6] of ontological[7] particularism that emphasised how different Jews were from other people. 

“I fully, and sadly, admit that in the eyes of some Orthodox and certainly many Haredi leaders, non-Jews have no worth and purpose in and of themselves; they are, in effect, only static, background noise to the real business of the universe” (Kellner 2021:29). 

This is a far cry from what Rambam wrote (MT, Hilchot Avadim, 9:8) quoting Iyov (31:15), that Jews and non-Jews are all created equal by G-d and formed “in the same womb” (וַיְכֻנֶנּוּ בָּרֶחֶם אֶחָד). 

Kellner cites a passage from R. Shlomo Aviner who adopts a more contemporary approach: 

“Gentile graves in an enclosure do not cause ritual impurity according to the basic law (ikkar ha-din) since their souls are not so holy and the difference between their bodies without a soul and their bodies with a soul is not all that great. Therefore, the departure of the soul in their case does not constitute so terrible a crisis…. Jewish graves do impart ritual impurity since their souls are holy; however, their bodies without a soul is not holy and, therefore, the departure of the soul is the terrible crisis of the departure of the divine vitality from the body—and this constitutes the ritual impurity of death” (Aviner 5759:230).[8] 

Aviner had good traditional Kabbalistic sources to base his position on.[9] Kellner comments on Aviner’s text: 

“According to this disturbing text, the difference between a live Jew and a dead Jew is immense; the difference between a live non-Jew and a dead non-Jew is much smaller. To be clear, R. Aviner neither says nor even implies that the killing of a non-Jew is a light matter, but will all his readers understand that? 

Aviner similarly writes in his commentary on Yehuda haLevi’s Kuzari: 

“In that we are the segula of humanity, we are also the heart of humanity. We are more human than the others” (Aviner, commentary on the Kuzari, I,136). 

Such a view, with all its sources and provenance, would never have been possible in light of Rambam’s teachings on the essential universalism of humanity. Rambam interpreted the words from the Torah “Kedoshim tiheyu” (You shall be holy: Lev. 19:2) as implying that there was nothing inherently holy about the Jewish People that they merited to receive the Torah. Rambam says that this verse was not referring to the present. Not that you are intrinsically holy, but that through the Torah you shall become holy in the future. 

For Yehuda haLevi, the Torah could have been given only to Jews. Rambam implies that the Torah was given to the Israelites simply because it records what “actually happened, not what had to happen” (Kellner 2021:34). Kellner, famously explains Rambam as saying that under different circumstances, it could just have easily been another nation if they happened to have an ancestor who discovered one G-d. In Rambam’s view, G-d did not choose the Jews, the Jews chose G-d (despite many references to the choseness of the Jews). 

Kellner, of course, is very cognisant of the controversial and emotive nature of these universalist teachings of Rambam and acknowledges that: 

“For many Jews this is an extremely attractive picture of Judaism. For other Jews, of course, it is a total distortion of our faith” (Kellner 2021:36). 

But Rambam is not always so binary and simple. He is an extremely complicated thinker and the fact is that it is very difficult to put him in a box and categorise him. Rambam is often used as an authoritative source to advocate for various theological, sometimes mutually exclusive, positions.


Section Two

Rambam as a complicated thinker

Rambam’s views, when taken as a whole, have the ability to upset people on both sides of the aisle. Rambam is good for universalists, rationalists who reject magic and the use of theurgy and superstition in religion, and for those unhappy with the rise of radical messianism. However, in many other instances, Rambam can also be “deeply problematic for many of those same Jews” (Kellner 2021:37). 

Rambam on Avoda Zara (Idolatry)

Rambam’s understanding of G-d is sometimes not what we would expect. Rambam’s G-d is aloof and unknowable: 

“Rambam’s God is loved (…[it] is a mitzva, of course [to love G-d]), but does not love; Rambam’s God is beyond all emotion” (Kellner 2021:39, footnote 50). 

Elsewhere, Kellner explains how, unlike the many depictions in Kabbalah about G-d’s love and needs,  Rambam’s G-d has no emotions or desires: 

“[T]he worship of someone who believes that the Tabernacle in the desert and the Temple in Jerusalem were constructed out of divine need is, once again, avodah zarah in the strictest sense of the term—the worship of an entity that is not God” (Kellner 2023:306).[10] 

Rambam’sstrict theological orthodoxy” (Kellner 2021:39) impacted his definitions of serving G-d and therefore his views on what technically constitutes Avodah Zara (Idolatry). If one wants to be consistent and honest in understanding Rambam, one needs to take his views and theology wherever they lead. Christianity, therefore, is considered by Rambam to be a form of Idolatry. Notable rabbinic exceptions to this view are Meiri (1249–1310) and R. Yakov Emden (1697-1776) among others, but Rambam’s views on Christianity are so fundamental that: 

“without exception, rabbinic authorities who convict Christianity of avoda zara (idolatry – literally: “alien/foreign worship”) rely on Rambam to do so” (Kellner 2021:39). 

Now Kellner drops an unexpected theological bombshell. No one, it seems escapes the application of Rambam’s strict theological orthodoxy. Rambam’s stance against idolatry: 

“has other consequences. Among them…: the necessity of relating to many contemporary expressions of Judaism as avoda zara…

Logical consistency and intellectual honesty would then demand that they must also convict Ramban, Kabbalists, Hasidim, R. Hayyim of Volozhin, and much of the so-called Lithuanian yeshiva world, among many others, of avoda zara. In other words…Rambam’s views on the nature of avoda zara are problematic for anyone who subscribes to those aspects of contemporary Judaism that are infused with Kabbalah. Most aspects of contemporary Judaism (not just Orthodoxy) are infused with Kabbalah and its doctrine of sefirot. The question arises: why condemn Christianity as avoda zara on Maimonidean grounds while giving a pass to Kabbalah-inflected Judaisms?” (Kellner 2021:39-40). 

Rambam did not believe in many concepts perpetuated by contemporary Judaism. He did not see angels the way most religious Jews understand angels. They were symbols for forces of nature, instead, or seen in dream-like states but not manifesting in reality. In this sense, Rambam removed all intermediaries, beings, whether good or evil, sefirot or spiritual spheres and hierarchies between G-d and humans. Rambam effectively: 

“depopulated the heavens, disenchanted the universe, and sought to lighten the burden of religious observance (as in Guide III:47). He battled against astrology and magic, denied their efficacy, and railed against those (such as Ramban after him) who maintained that magic was forbidden [specifically] because of its [alleged] efficacy…

However, calling Christianity idolatry on Maimonidean grounds should, for consistency’s sake, force one to reject as idolatry many mainstream trends in Judaism of the last thousand years” (Kellner 2021:40). 

Regarding the notion of Sefirot, in some mystical formulations they become the object to which prayers are to be directed, and: 

“[u]nless taken as entirely metaphorical (which is not the way it is generally taken in kabbalistic texts), the doctrine of sefirot must undermine God’s unity” (Kellner 2021:40, footnote 56). 

Some anti-Kabbalist rabbis have dramatically maintained that Kabbalah infringes upon G-d’s unity more than Christianity because the latter has only three intermediaries while Kabbalah has ten Sefirot. 

For Rambam, truth was truth no matter the uncomfortable consequences. He wrote that “we must accept the truth no matter its source” (Rambam: Introduction to Commentary on the Tractate Avot). 

Rambam on feminism

Another difficult area where we seem to run into a notably ‘limited’ worldview after Rambam’s expansive universalism, is feminism. 

“For those interested in expanding the role of women in Orthodoxy in general, and in advanced Jewish education in general, Rambam is, to put it mildly, not helpful” (Kellner 2021:43). 

Rambam is opposed to teaching women Torah (Laws of Torah Study, 1:1 and 1:13). The interesting thing is that in this regard, Rambam did not have to take this position. Instead, he chose to, because he had Talmudic precedent from Ben Azai (Mishna Sota 3:4) who obligated women with a commandment to study Torah. Some have argued in Rambam’s defence that his views simply reflected the social practices of the Muslim world in which he lived, but he still said what he said: 

“Rambam frowned on women going outside of their homes more than twice a month, ruled that women cannot hold any positions of secular or religious authority, and that husbands can beat their ‘disobedient’ wives with a rod. Unfortunately, he did not simply express a preference, but decided halakha in light of those norms” (Kellner 2021:43). 

Where do these ideas leave us after promoting Rambam as a forward-thinking rationalist and universalist theologian? There are various ways to deal with issues like this, but let us see how Kellner suggests a possible solution for such perplexities.


Section Three

Dealing with Maimonidean theological conundrums

The Reader may have their own solutions and theories but the following is Kellner’s  approach: 

“One can admit that for all his greatness, Rambam’s Judaism is simply too abstract, too abstruse, too demanding, and too discomfiting for most contemporary Jews” (Kellner 2021:43-4). 

We have seen that in strict Maimonidean terms, many formulations of contemporary Judaism may be technically defined as Avodah Zara.  Does this mean that we must regard these mystical formulations of Jewish theologies as idolatrous? Kellner says no. He suggests that the best way to view Rambam (and perhaps many other classical rabbis) is different from the way we would normally view or submit to a Rebbe or Halachic authority. 

So Kellner agrees in theory that there may be popular but technically (in Rambam’s view) heretical theologies that have attracted huge followings, but he does not accept that: 

“the Maimonidean view must guide our normative practice on this matter today… I do not, in fact, believe that almost all Jews are worshipers of avoda zara…

Honesty demands that I admit that I pick and choose among Rambam’s positions…

Does that make me less a Maimonidean? On the contrary, accepting Rambam’s teachings uncritically would perhaps be the least Maimonidean thing I could do. Rambam invited critiques of his halakhic writings and was very much aware that contemporary scientific understanding of the heavens (the universe above the sphere of the moon) was provisional and open for revision” (Kellner 2021:44-5). 

On this approach, it seems that Rambam expected his readers to be critical and offer better solutions when the need arose. This is in keeping with his teaching to accept the truth from wherever it comes. 

“Today’s perplexities include much more than the apparent contradiction between science and Torah. They also include contradictions between the morality of the Torah and our convictions… Thus, those of us who see Rambam as a model to be emulated are faced with a severe problem: the blatant conflicts between some of Rambam’s positions and our Jewish values” (Kellner 2010:47). 

Rambam, himself could say: 

“if you think that God is in any sense corporeal, that God has any human emotions, that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked literally midda ke-neged midda, that divine providence governs every act of every human being (or at least that of Jews), then you simply misunderstand Torah” (Kellner 2021:48). 

Rambam could say all that and more because he was Rambam. But we cant, especially today, so many centuries later. 

“ Maimonidean Judaism is indeed austere and demanding, and, it appears, far outside the mainstream of traditional understandings of Torah. Asking contemporary Jews to practice a Judaism that in effect downplays the significance of prayer and mitzvot, that denies that Jews in and of themselves are in any way special, that rejects traditional views of reward and punishment, etc., demands of them a great deal!” (Kellner 2021:49-50). 

This may be too much of an ask from an average contemporary Jew. 

“How can I justify picking and choosing among Rambam’s positions? To that, I answer that I am admittedly eclectic… Is eclecticism something of which to be ashamed? Certainly not. It is an integral part of the human condition…

R. Sa’adia Gaon was, in many ways, a Jewish Kalamist. Rabbenu Bahya ibn Pakuda adopted ideas, motifs, and stories from his Sufi contemporaries. Should they all be accused of eclecticism? Are halakhists whose pesak reflects the influence of the Zohar guilty of eclecticism? Are Jews today who revere Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and who, despite that, seek out competent current medical advice rather than relying on Rambam’s…professional medical writings, ‘guilty’ of eclecticism?” 

Kellner writes that, whether people admit it or not, even Halacha (law), never mind Hashkafa (theology), follows a path of eclecticism. There is a significant component of selectivity in determining Halacha: 

“[D]espite what many Orthodox rabbis will tell you, halakhah has a history…it is not a mathematical science, but halakhic decisions reflect the ideological commitments of those making them…This last point is reflected in Blu Greenberg’s famous (if perhaps exaggerated) comment that ‘Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way’” (Kellner 2023:293). 

Even those who do condemn Christianity to idolatry are selective and eclectic about such a decision. This is because, according to the Mishna, Jews may not conduct business with an idolater three days before the idolater’s holy day, lest he use the money from the Jew for his idolatrous purposes: 

“[I]f Christianity is avodah zarah, then no business may be conducted with Christians in Israel on Sundays, or three days before Sunday (M Avodah Zarah 1). I know of no rabbi who actually decides halakhah in this fashion. 

Kellner concludes with a rather profound argument favouring eclectic choice of Maimonidean and perhaps other ideas as well, provided they are done with integrity: 

“Why some people gravitate to the liberal end of the spectrum and others to the conservative end is a subject for psychologists, perhaps, not for theologians. It is our job to act with integrity and responsibly when we choose which of the many possibilities offered by our tradition to adopt” (Kellner 2021:52). 

In this conceptualisation, Rambam was not looking for Chassidim. He did not want to create a mass movement of like-minded followers. He did not want to be a Rebbe or a Godol. He was comfortable with critical thinkers. The Maimonidean path, unusually, allows for such critical deviance.

[1] Kellner, M., 2021, Today’s Perplexed: Between Maimonidean Promise and Peril, Tradition, vol. 53, no. 4, Rabbinical Council of America, 23-52.

[2] Also known as the Baal haTurim, he was the third son of the Rosh.

[3] Berger, D., 2005, ‘The Uses of Maimonides by Twentieth-Century Jewry’, in Moses Maimonides: Communal Impact, Historic Legacy, Edited by B. Kraut, CUNY Press, 62–72.

[4] See: “Letter on Astrology,” in Lerner, R., 2000, Maimonides’ Empire of Light: Popular Enlightenment in an Age of Belief, University of Chicago Press, 178-187.

[5] Iggerot ha-Rambam, ed. and trans. Y. Sheilat (Hotza’at Sheilat, 1987), 553.

[6] Twersky, I., 1991, Rambam and Eretz Israel: Halakhic, Philosophic, and Historical Perspectives’ in Perspectives on Rambam, Edited by J. Kraemer, Littman Library, 257–290.

[7] Ontological may be defined as taking “things that are abstract and establish that they are, in fact, real.”

[8] Aviner, Me-Hayil el Hayil, cited by Yosef Ahituv, ‘State and Army According to the Torah: Realism and Mysticism in the Circles of Mercaz Harav’ (Hebrew), in Dat u-Medina ba-Hagut ha-Yehudit be-Me’ah ha-Esrim, ed. A. Ravitzky, Israel Democracy Institute, 466.

[9] See: Zohar, Bereishit, Chayei Sarah, 131a and Bereshit, Vayechi, 220a.

[10] Menachem Kellner, M., 2023 ‘Thinking Idolatry with/against Maimonides: The Case of Christianity’, in Alon Goshen-Gottstein, ed., Idolatry: A Contemporary Jewish Conversation, Academic Studies Press, Brookline, MA, 290-311.



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