Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Shemot (Rambam)

“For the Lord God shall not do any thing, unless he Has revealed his secret to His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7)

Parshat Shemot marks the transition to the next book of the Torah—from the story of a single family to the saga of a nation and the drama of its liberation from slavery. It is in this parsha that we first encounter the figure of Moses—first in his infancy, childhood and youth; then in his painful confrontation with the reality of slavery, and his long exile in Midian; and culminating in the meeting with God at the burning bush, which begins his mission as prophet or, as he is often called, as “father of the prophets.” Rambam has a great deal to say about Moses, and the uniqueness of his functioning as prophet —a subject to which we shall return another time. Here we shall continue the discussion begun in HY V: Vayigash, about the nature of prophecy generally, the nature and preparation of the prophet, which is the subject of Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, Chapter 7:

2. Prophets are on various different levels. Just as in wisdom there is one who is wiser than his fellow, so in prophecy there is one prophet greater than another. But none of them see their prophetic vision except in a dream, in a night vision, or during the day when deep sleep falls upon them. As is said ,”In a vision I shall make myself known to him, in a dream I shall speak with him” [Num 12:6].

And all of them, when they do prophesy, their limbs shake and their bodily power fails them, and their [own] thoughts are confused—but their mind remains clear to understand what they see. As was said regarding Abraham, “And behold, a great dark fear fell upon him” [Gen 15:12]. And as was said regarding Daniel, “my radiant appearance was fearfully changed, and I could not summon up strength” [Dan 10:8].

In this halakhah, Maimonides describes certain limitations of the prophetic state: to wit, that it is not experienced in a waking state, but is so-to-speak filtered into the prophet’s consciousness in a state of sleep. (Moses, to whom he devotes a special discussion in 7.6 and in Chapter 8, is the single exception to all these rules). This is so for two reasons: first and foremost, that the vision or experience of the Divine Presence is so overwhelming that a mortal human being, even one who meets the standards described in §1 and has undergone the rigorous program of ascetic practice, intense meditation and reflection, and withdrawal from society outlined there, cannot stand it. “No man can see Me and live.” He cannot even see “the back of the head” or, as Hazal put it, “the knot of the tefillin,” as did Moses; indeed, he does not at all communicate with God while awake, but receives his prophecy through the vehicle of dreams. Secondly, the sleeping state is one in which the conscious, controlling function of the human personality is relaxed: the ego, the will, the desire to do, to act, to accomplish, even to know, is completely absent or dormant. The person thus becomes a kind of vessel, “his mind open to the higher realms,” as he said there.

The body shakes and moves uncontrollably, but the mind remains clear. There is a kind of bifurcation here between body and soul. One is reminded here of descriptions of mystical ascent, and of some Kabbalistic texts in which a person, prior to undertaking a mystical journey, administers his oath to his own soul to return to the body thereafter, so that he not literally die.

What is interesting here is that Rambam says nothing here of the actual contents of the prophetic message. There is naught of the prophetic call from God, nor of the ethical contents, the passion for social justice and the insistence on equitable, decent treatment of every human being as such, which is usually thought of today as the very essence of “prophetic Judaism.” This is not because Rambam is apathetic to the suffering of the oppressed, or because he does not see “lovingkindness, justice and righteousness” as the very essence of “the knowledge of God” (see the very end of Guide for the Perplexed III. 54); rather, he discusses these subjects elsewhere (for one unexpected place where he discusses this, see Ta’aniyot 1.17), because the specific contents of the message of the prophets cannot be easily summed up in a simple formula, and differs from prophet to prophet, and even from one chapter to another within each of the prophetic books. Instead, he focuses here almost exclusively upon the phenomenon of prophecy: the prerequisites of the prophet, his preparation and the experience itself.

3. The things that are made known to the prophet in a prophetic vision are made known to him by way of parable—but immediately there is impressed upon his heart the meaning of the parable in the prophetic vision and he knows what it is: such as the ladder that Jacob our Father saw with angels going up and down [Gen 28:10-22], which was a metaphor for the kingdoms and the subjugation [of Israel] to them; or the creatures that Ezekiel saw [Ezek 1], and the boiling pot and the almond-wood staff that Jeremiah saw [Jer 1:11-14], or the scroll that Ezekiel saw [Ezek 2:9-3:3], and the tub [ephah] seen by Zechariah [Zech 5:6-10], and so on for all the other prophets. Some of them say the parable and its interpretation, such as these. And some say the interpretation alone. And at times they may say the parable itself, without the interpretation, as in some of the words of Ezekiel and Zechariah—but all of them prophesy by way of parable and riddle.

Another aspect of prophecy, which is not self-evident from reading the books of the prophets, is the role of symbolism: namely, that all prophetic messages, presumably even those in which only the overt contents are given, are in fact given by means of dreams and encoded in symbolism. Maimonides presents half a dozen examples in which the prophets were given their messages through symbolic means; but the implication is that even where the message is recorded in the prophetic book in straightforward ethical or political terms alone in the name of the prophet, these were in fact originally given by means of symbols and dream ciphers. Like the use of the dream medium, this too seems intended to soften the awesome, ineffable nature of the prophet’s direct encounter with the Divine, for the reasons given above.

4. The prophets do not prophesy whenever they wish to do so, but rather they focus their minds and sit, joyous and good hearted, and meditate. For prophecy does not rest upon a state of sadness or lethargy, but upon one of joy. Therefore the prophet novices (b’nai ha-nevi’im) sat with harp and drum and flute and lyre and sought prophecy. And concerning this it is said “and they prophesy” [1 Sam 10:5]—that is, they walk in the path of prophecy until they prophesy, just as one says, so-and-so is growing.

The actual preparation for prophecy involves a state of meditation (hitbodedut), inducing a joyful state, including such means as music, and waiting calmly but expectantly. It is interesting that Maimonides uses the same language here as is used elsewhere, both by the Sages and himself, with regard to prayer. Joy, rather than sadness or lethargy, is the proper state of mind or prelude to both prayer and prophecy A more interesting parallel is that in both cases he requires a certain state of receptivity, perhaps even passivity; one must make ones heart or mind “open” to the higher realms (compare 7.1 above with Tefillah 5.4). Interestingly, in Lonely Man of Faith, Rav Soloveitchik draws a parallel between the “prophetic community” and the “prayerful community,” which in a certain sense he sees as the two faces of the same covenantal community. Both are vehicles of direct, personal relationship between man and God; only the direction in which they operate, so to speak, differ (see section VIII. A; Tradition 7:2 (1965), pp. 33-40).

In the final sentence here, Rambam returns once again to the scene with Saul and the prophetic novices to explain that the word “prophesy” (mitnav’in) is a verb, referring to a certain kind of activity, without regard for its specific, overt contents. This goes a long way to understanding why he uses here what would be referred to today as a phenomenological description of prophecy.

5. Those who wish to prophesy are called b’nai ha-nevi’im. And even though they direct their minds, it may be that that the Shekhinah will rest upon them, and it may be that it shall not.

We do not know much about these bands of prophetic novices described in Bible, most notably in an encounter with Saul at the very beginning of as royal career. They seem to have been itinerant mystics who wandered about the countryside, playing musical instruments and entering into ecstatic states. The very fact of their existence suggests a certain proximity between prophecy and mysticism.

Was Maimonides a Mystic?

Having worked through these halakhot, we find ourselves asking the above question. At first blush, the question itself seems absurd. Maimonides is usually considered the greatest antithesis imaginable to mysticism, the Jewish rationalist par excellence. He was constantly invoked by enlightened Jewish thinkers of both the nineteenth and twentieth century as their hero. Such rationalist Litvak types as Yeshayahu Leibowitz utilized him and his writings as the armor bearer and authority par excellence in the intellectual struggle against Hasidism and Kabbalah.

Yet a closer reading, particularly of such Maimonidean texts as these, suggests a rather different picture. But before turning to the implications of this chapter, we must ask a more basic fundamental question: What do we mean by mysticism anyway? Mysticism has become a very popular, “in” topic in both the Jewish world and in Western culture generally over the past few decades—but each person seems to mean something slightly different by the term. Indeed, one dictionary definition of mysticism is “vague or obscure thinking or belief.” Other definitions likewise reinforce the popular image of mysticism as something that is antithetical to reason or good sense: “occult, esoteric”; having to do with “mysteries, esoteric rites or doctrines”; or that which is “beyond human comprehension, mysterious or enigmatic.”

Other thinkers, particularly scholars of religion, offer a more nuanced and subtle understanding of mysticism. Another definition of mysticism is as “the belief that it is possible to achieve communion with God through contemplation and without the medium of human reason.” Gershom Scholem, in the opening chapter of his classic Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (p. 4), cites several definitions. Dr. Rufus Jones describes it as “the type of religion which puts the emphasis on immediate awareness of relation with God, on direct and immediate consciousness of the Divine presence. It is religion in its most acute, intense and living stage.” More briefly, he quotes Thomas Aquinas who defines it as cognitio dei experimentalis, “the knowledge of God through experience.” The motto here is “Taste and see that God is good” (Ps 34:9)—a verse with whose centrality many a Hasidic Rebbe would concur. William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience (beginning of Lecture XVI; pp. 292-293), lists four salient features of mysticism: ineffability; noetic quality (i.e. knowledge attained); transience; and passivity.

Another commonly noted feature involves the confrontation or opposition between mystics and established religion. This is implied in yet another definition, as “the attempt to achieve communion with God directly, without the intervention of religious doctrine, dogma, or institutionalized religion.” Indeed, within the Christian and Muslim religious traditions, mysticism often existed in great tension with the established, institutionalized religion, not infrequently crossing the line to being categorized as outright heresy, resulting in bitter and bloody struggles (literally so! Witness the history of schisms in the Medieval Church in Europe, or the difficult lot of Sufism at the hands of regnant Sunni clerics). Arthur Green, at the beginning of his book Devotion and Commandment, comments that:

This encounter of the mystic or prophet with the mediating agencies of religion is one of those points of tension at which the two faces of the human religious enterprise most clearly reveal themselves: religion as the striving of the individual for inwardness, transcendence, or direct access to divinity, and religion as a group’s articulation of its system of meaning, the “social construction of reality.”

But in Judaism matters were by and large not thus. Mysticism and “established religion”—i.e., halakhah—not only coexisted in harmony, but meshed with one another. Several of the greatest Kabbalists were among the outstanding halakhists of their day, and vice versa: thus, for example, R. Yosef Caro, compiler of the monumental Bet Yosef and Shulhan Arukh, who regularly had mystical visitations by a “Maggid” representing the Mishnah; R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, who authored both the mystical handbook Tanya and of Shulhan Arukh Ha-Rav). In the ancient world we have R. Shimon bar Yohai and R. Akiba, among others; other names include R. Solomon Adret (Rashba) and Rabad of Posquieres (Rambam’s nemesis), etc.

But what indications are there that, in fact, Rambam himself was a mystic? Essentially, a reading of the above six halakhot leaves the clear and unmistakable impression that what is described here is first and foremost an archetypal mystical experience. The prophet, as described here, is a person who has a direct and unmediated experience of God; the prophetic message, with its specific social contents, may ir may not follow (as he says below in §7, in a passage we have not translated here). Other aspects of the description fit perfectly with what we know of mystical experience: the sense of rapture and ecstasy, paradigmized by the ancient bands of b’nai nevi’im; the violent shaking and loss of control of the body, described in §2; the sense that he has become “another person,” i.e., loss of ego-consciousness; the passivity and receptiveness (“his mind is open to the upper realms”) that characterize this state; etc. All this corresponds perfectly to the four characteristics mentioned by James: ineffability, noetic quality, transience, and passivity.

Thus, to anyone who had any doubts, it seems clear that the ideal of Maimonides’ spirituality is several light years distant from the polite, bourgeois religion of rational Enlightenment Jews—Orthodox and liberal alike—who adopted him in the nineteenth century as a contra to the supposedly wild-eyed, primitive Kabbalists and Hasidism. If, as he writes for example in Teshuva Ch 10, the love of God is everything, is an all-consuming passion, and the only thing that really matters in life for one who is an ohev Hashem—then the type of temperate, balanced, never-going-to-extremes religion mentioned above would be anathema to him. (How does this mesh with the doctrine of moderation and “the golden mean” which he advocates in Hilkhot Deot and in the “Eight Chapters”? That is one of the important questions we must address when we study those sections of his oeuvre)

That Maimonides was oriented has a mystical orientation is also reflected in the lot of his descendants. His son R. Abraham was the author of a treatise entitled Ha-Maspik le-Ovdei ha-Shem, which was a kind of handbook to the inner path of religious worship. Similarly, his grandson Obadiah wrote The Treatise of the Pool, a kind of mystical handbook. Both, incidentally, are generally considered to belong to the stream known as Jewish Sufism: that is, that school in Jewish mysticism which was influenced by various ideas and even techniques of Sufi mysticism, while rejecting its Islamic theological superstructure or context. Similarly, Abraham Abulafia, one of the outstanding Jewish mystics of the early thirteenth century, and the originator of what is sometimes called “prophetic mysticism,” used Maimonides’ Guide as the major text through which he taught mysticism throughout the Mediterranean basin, in Italy, Sicily, and the Aegean islands.

But if Maimonides was a mystic, he was most decidedly not a Kabbalist. Kabbalah is of course a vast and multifaceted diverse tradition, but its central, distinguishing motif is the variegated internal life of the Godhead, expressed in the image of the Ten Sefirot, the interplay of forces either within or emanating from God, interrelating with one another in all kinds of diverse ways. There is of course not the slightest hint of such concepts in Rambam’s thought. To the contrary, if anything he was antagonistic to such thinking. Such ideas, had he known of them, would have been pure anathema to him. His was a pure and simple, unadulterated and non-dialectical monotheism. But it was his very love and quest for mystical knowledge of God that fires his philosophical passion and that requires correct doctrine, so that a person not worship a figment of his imagination, but the one true God (we shall elaborate upon his concept of unity in Yitro).

If Rambam did not engage in open polemic with Kabbalah, it was for the simple reason that during his lifetime it had not yet been crystallized into a coherent doctrine. He preceded the Zohar by nearly a century. What scholars refer to as precursors of Kabbalah—Hekhalot mysticism and texts and the Yordei Merkavah of the classical Rabbinic and Byzantine period--is a very different theology from that of the Spanish Kabbalah. Even the earliest of those Kabbalists—Yitzhak Sagi Nahor (Isaac the Blind), Ezra and Azriel of Gerona, the anonymous author of Sefer ha-Bahir, Ramban—were at earliest somewhat later contemporaries of Rambam (e.g., Yitzhak Sagi Nahor lived 1160-1235), and were active primarily after his death.

If one were to define Rambam’s disagreement with Kabbalah in a word, one could say that it was a dispute as to the nature of Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Bereshit, the “Works of the Chariot” and “Works of Creation” that constitute the central theme of Jewish esoteric thought. These are the “great and distant things” to which he refers in 7.1. It is these things that are alluded to in Ezekiel’s Merkavah vision, which is the paradigmatic vision of and personal epiphany of Jewish mysticism; the second chapter of Hagiggah speaks of esoteric secrets being alluded to in this vision, forming a body of esoteric knowledge. Rambam refers to this in Yesodei Hatorah 2-4, and it forms the subject of several chapters in the Guide, couched in deliberately obscure and arcane language, so as to be comprehensible only to those already initiated in the secrets (see Leo Strauss’ writings on this). Kabbalists also write of these things; for them, too, meditation on these matters is part of the path to mystical ascent. But whereas for the Kabbalists the contents of these secrets are the complex and intricate world of theosophy, of the inner dynamic of the sefirot, for Maimonides they are the disciplines of physics and metaphysics, in which one studies the real world and through them apprehends the greatness of He who spoke and created the world.

From Moses to Moses: An Octocentennial Memorial Essay

I had another reason for presenting this psalm about Moses at this point, even though, whereas this parsha is concerned with his infancy, childhood, and early adulthood, the psalm is the expression of a mature, fully developed thinker and even, according to some, was composed immediately before his death, together with the Blessing in Deuteronomy 33. Namely, the other great Moses: Moses Maimonides who, according to tradition, died on 20 Tevet 4905, exactly eight hundred years ago. “From Moses to Moses, there has been none like Moses.” Rambam captured the Jewish folk imagination as the only leader over all the millennia who might be seen as one of the caliber of Moshe Rabbenu—in intellect, in clarity and depth of his teaching, and as a “man of God”—a person who lived on a plane of spiritual existence totally different from and far above that of ordinary individuals.

After devoting an entire year’s writing to Rambam last year, what is there left to say? I will attempt to sum up certain themes which seem particularly important to me, and, at the risk of a kind of banality, ask the question: What is the message of Maimonides for our day? In what ways does he speak to us today?

To start, Maimonides’ Neo-Aristotelian context is no longer relevant for most contemporary people. If we are concerned with creating a contemporary synthesis of Judaism and philosophy, we cannot do so by adopting Rambam’s specific answers, but by acting as he did: namely, by engaging in serious dialogue with contemporary thought and philosophy, its questions and assumptions, and constantly asking two complementary questions: How do I confront or evaluate the ideas of the non-Jewish culture as a believing, practicing Jew? And, what valid challenges, dilemmas, difficulties does this thought pose to my worldview as a Jew; in other words, in what ways is my Judaism challenged from the “outside” perspective? Or, to translate these two into the language of the tradition: on the one hand, “Know what to answer the Apokoris”; on the other, “Eat its core, but discard its shell” (of course, at times distinguishing between core and shell is no mean task!). The fact that no particular school or schools enjoys hegemony today, as did the two great schools of neo-Greek philosophy did in his day, or even as was the case in nineteenth and early twentieth Europe with the interplay between Kant and Hegel in the German idealistic nexus, or with the schools of existentialism and phenomenology that came in their wake, makes the task more complex, but all the more interesting.

Second, his attitude to the body, and specifically to sexuality, is hard to countenance or to square with the contemporary zeitgeist (see on this HY V: Emor). As I am currently preparing a major essay on this topic, in large measure prompted by my difficulties with the Rambam on this count, I shall not elaborate any further here.

On the other hand, there are many key issues in which we moderns may yet be students of Maimonides; nay, at times, it seems that he is almost the only tenable model for being a religious Jew in a modern, rationalistic, intellectually sophisticated age. (Yes, I am well aware that, in this third millennium, we’re definitely supposed to be in the post-modern age, and that talk about rationality and testing one’s beliefs again the yardstick of some kind of objective truth is dreadfully passé, and that in this cultural pluralistic age one can believe any damn thing you like—but all that is in my view so much obfuscation and obscurantism, or else plain sloppy thinking.)

1. Relationship between philosophy and halakhah. Rambam, as I’ve already commented above, is the model par excellence of a Jewish thinker who was not afraid to engage the best and most challenging thought of his age. David Hartman has written some fine and important things about this. But, notwithstanding, it must be remembered that Rambam’s “philosophic quest” was not a totally free intellectual inquiry, as in the modern understanding of the nature of philosophy, but more a quest for knowledge of God, for a harmonious integration of faith and reason; or, more precisely, to formulate a proper belief that an intelligent mind, attuned to the terms of discourse of his age, could accept without intellectual evasiveness. This model is extremely important for our own age, in which the much-heralded revival of Orthodoxy is, in too many circles, accompanied by a kind of withdrawal from serious intellectual engagement with the modern times. There is a certain type of pietism that considers itself as “open,” but carefully limits its engagement with modernity to the pragmatic use of technology and applied science, not to the depth issues of modern thought.

2. Minimal dogmatism. Rambam understanding of the world and how it works was largely a rational one. He accepted natural law, and was reluctant to invoke the categories of miracle or Particular Providence at every step and turn. “The world follows its way.” He would must likely have understood the recent Tsunami in terms of its proximate cause—a deep ocean earthquake, in turn the result of an inherent instability of the earth’s system of tectonic plates. In order to support life, and to facilitate the precise combination of size, rotation, gravitational field, richness of atmosphere, balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces, etc., that enable life to exist on our planet, God had to create the earth as it is—with a molten core at very high temperatures creating a certain surface instability causes major earthquakes and other eruptions now and again, with their terrible human cost. If one were to ask, “Where does this leave God’s justice and compassion?” I suspect that Rambam would have had no easy answers. He might have answered that in many, nay, the majority of events in our world, God simply allows natural forces to play themselves out (see Guide III.12). Scant comfort to those whose loved ones were killed (assuming there is anyone left to mourn—entire extended families, whole towns and villages were wiped out within minutes!). He might add that, while this event may prompt thoughts of the “destructive wrath” of God, as in Psalm 90 discussed in Part I of this week’s paper—but that the Divine wrath does not refer to God’s own “emotions,” but only to that which we experience as such, which would be described in another human being as wrath, fury, anger, etc.

3. Approach to language, to anthropomorphism and to aggadah. Rambam understood language as a tool for conveying meaning to human beings, that of necessity describes God by means of metaphor, and cannot provide a literal account of how and what God is. This approach provides a welcome alternative to the often naïve and even silly things said in the name of a kind of religious literalism. Interestingly, contemporary philosophy is much concerned with issues of the nature of language, the relation between language and meaning, and the necessarily ambiguous nature of interpretation. In recent decades there has been a flowering in the field of literary theory, in which philosophical issues concerning the nature of language and interpretation have been at the forefront. I sometimes wonder whether, if Rambam were to return to life today whether he would have felt at home (once he learned the jargon) in the post-modern discourse involving such concepts as deconstruction, semiotics, intertextuality, etc. (Actually, I suspect that Rambam, while he would have appreciated the sharp awareness of language of these thinkers, would not have appreciated their frequent penchant for vagueness. Rambam liked sharp, clear definitions, whereas some of the post-modernists seem to revel in ambiguity and paradox.)

4. The relation between mind and emotions. The stereotypic view holds that Rambam was a rationalist who lived wholly in his head, the very antithesis of the “mystic” (by the way, one of the most misused and misunderstood words in the English language). But he in fact saw reason and clarity of knowledge as ultimately leading to passionate, ecstatic love of the Divine. A graphologist once asserted that Rambam’s handwriting reveals “a man of powerful emotion, held in check by an even more powerful will.” Thus, his approach was neither that of the cold, detached scientist, nor that of the Romantic, subjective concept of religion (see Soloveitchik’s severe critique of this approach in footnote 4 of Halakhic Man—but the Rav himself, as a true Rambamist, was himself a man of powerful intellect and intense, if highly private, emotion), but rather that of love of God informed and guided by the intellect.

5. Free will vs. determinism. Rambam was a clear and unwavering spokesman for the centrality of free will, with its implication of human responsibility and moral autonomy, both of the individual for his actions and, by extension, for the welfare of the community and society. By contrast, certain schools in Kabbalah and Hasidism are rather deterministic, emphasizing God’s sovereign will and faith in His constant intervention in even the smallest thing that occurs in the world; in the popular mind, such credulity is even a sine qua non of religiosity. Certain schools of this type—such as those of Ishbitz and Zadok ha-Cohen of Lublin—have enjoyed great popularity lately in some circles. But equally, or even more so, human free will is challenged by certain strands in contemporary scientific thought, most notably in the view that virtually every aspect of human personality is biologically or socially determined, making human freedom and choice virtually meaningless. This view is perhaps the most significant challenge to faith today.

6. Universalism. While not often explicitly formulated as such, implicit in much of Rambam’s thought is an approach to the non-Jewish world as also being potentially involved in the quest for true knowledge of God. Thus, we find formulae such as “all human beings….” or the messianic vision in which the entire world will be filled with knowledge of God. Similarly, his attitude to proselytes (e.g., as in his Letter to Obadiah the Ger) is rooted in the assumption that the Jewish soul is not different in any metaphysical sense from that of the non-Jew, that Jewish chosenness is a function of belief alone, and Jewish peoplehood was cultivated by Abraham, the first Jew, as a kind of educational tool for spreading the message of the oneness of God. Nor is prophecy restricted either to the Jewish people or to Eretz Yisrael alone. In an age in which many Jews are withdrawing into a kind of self-centered religious solipsism, reinforced by the ongoing, wearying conflict with the Arab world, it is tempting to turn to old stereotypes and mythical thinking about “goyim” or even “Amalek.” Rambam’s position, in many ways akin to a kind of universal religious humanism, provides a refreshing alternative to such thought.

I would now like to elaborate upon two central issues of concern I find in Rambam.

1. Transcendence and immanence. In this area I find Maimonides’ approach difficult. Rambam (and, quite surprisingly, also R. Yehudah Halevi in the Kuzari, who is often represented as diametrically opposed to Rambam) emphasizes God’s absolute transcendence, His “distance” from the world, interpreting any images of God’s proximity to or interaction with the world of human beings as in some sense metaphor. My own religious sensibility has been shaped by the Kabbalistic-Hasidic view, in which images of transcendence and immanence, memale kol almin and sovev kol almin, God simultaneously “surrounding” and “filling” the universe, constantly interplay with one another. The panentheistic sensibility of Rav Kook, in which God fills the world and is the “place” of the world, albeit the world is not His “place,” opens the door for sensing, for feeling the Divine Presence within the world: “Taste and see that God is good.” “From my flesh I envision God.” Or the Hasidic leit tara panuy miney—“there is no place empty of Him.” A strict Maimonideanism closes the door on such a type of experience. But more than that, it seems to close the door in any real way to a God of history, to a God who is involved in His world.

Of course, I know that logically one can’t have it both ways—a distant, “watchmaker” God when disasters like the Tsunami strike, which otherwise would make God into a cruel monster; and an immanent, intimate God of nature and history when gentle, loving things happen—when I smell a flower or watch a sunset and am moved by their beauty. Such a God would be the product of a kind of sentimentality, of fuzzy, almost wishful thinking. Rambam set out to provide consistent, coherent answers to these dilemmas.

Indeed, on Wednesday of last week, during the height of the Tsunami, when each day brought ever more shocking statistics, I heard a woman tell one of those miraculous Shlomo Carlebach-type stories about a poor shlepper in a shteitel whose Shabbat was miraculously salvaged by what they saw as Divine providence, how they danced and rejoiced before God, and how the all-knowing Baal Shem Tov smiled to see them. I felt, in light of what had happened that week, that there was something annoyingly cloying and naive, like a children’s fairy story, in that whole genre. A beautiful dream, which had nothing to do with reality.

(A digression: Indeed, theologically, Shlomo was a spokesman for the other extreme, for the contra-Maimonidean outlook in which everything is a direct miracle. He was a tremendous soul, in whose presence one felt great warmth and love—that, to put it mildly, one did not particularly feel in the presence of the two great Maimonideans of our generation, Rav Soloveitchik and Prof. Leibowitz—but he lacked intellectual rigor, notwithstanding his outstanding mind and amazing store of knowledge. Yet both Shlomo and the Rav, in their different ways, were central teachers for me. The “third verse” that mediates between them for me personally is Art Green, at one and the same time a neo-Hasidic mystic and a Western, critical intellectual, a heterodox Jew—but more on him another time.)

Returning to Rambam: the bottom line is that, despite everything, the types of experience of which the Tanakh is a record—in which God acts in redemptive, and at times also punitive, ways in the history of our people and in individual’s lives—is somehow real. Rambam seems to close those doors—or is forced into theological gymnastics to reconcile the biblical experience, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the god of the philosophers. (Not for him Pascalian leaps!)

2. The “Two truths,” or Elitism. A second problem found by many with Maimonides’ thought is his gradation of religious truth, in which different presentations of the truth are deemed suitable for different people. His ultimate vision is one in which all of humankind shall enjoy knowledge of God, “like water flowing to the sea.” But he is also keenly aware that most people, in this world, in this aeon, will not attain that level. Hence, he states that certain truths, certain types of knowledge, such as the secrets of Creation or of the “Divine Chariot,” are only to be dispensed to an intellectual elite, to a small cadre of the cognoscenti. As for the masses, and for the interim:

God is only worshipped in this manner [i.e., out of fear of punishment, or in expectation of worldly or heavenly reward] by the ignorant people and the women and the children, who are educated to serve out of fear until their [religious] consciousness becomes broader and they serve out of love….

Hence, when teaching children and women and the ignorant of the people, one only teaches them to serve out of fear and in order to receive a reward. But once their minds become expanded and they achieve greater wisdom, one reveals this secret to them little by little, and one gets them accustomed to this subject gradually, until they apprehend and know Him and serve Him of love. (Hilkhot Teshuvah 10.1, 5)

I know many people who strongly object to this approach, which they call the “two truth theory.” Accusing Maimonides of elitism, telling the truth to only a small group while teaching doctrines that are false or at best only semi-true to the masses. This approach is seen as undemocratic, elitist, even manipulative.

This discussion calls to mind the legend of the “Grand Inquisitor.” Dostoevsky, in a striking chapter in his The Brothers Karamazov, which is one of the most powerful discussions of religion in Western literature generally, described how Jesus returns to earth and encounters the Grand Inquisitor. He is promptly imprisoned and sentenced to the auto-da-fe because his teaching undermines the well-functioning social structure created by organized religion, as taught by the Inquisitor. Jesus’ teaching is based upon human strength and freedom, responsibility and love. The religionist says that he teaches such notions as salvation, the afterlife, sacraments of forgiveness and pardon, which he knows to be false, because it makes ordinary people happy, and enables them to endure the harshness and suffering of their life on this earth. Ordinary people, he says, are weak; they don’t want freedom or the truth, but comfortable illusion and, especially, miracle, mystery and authority. The churchmen, he says, take upon themselves the suffering of the ordinary folk, relieving them of the burden of the lives, and the unhappiness and guilt of knowingly teaching a lie—albeit what they believe to be a beneficial, socially and psychologically constructive, and necessary lie.

Is Maimonides then a kind of “Grand Inquisitor”? To be sure, one of the elements in his thought, one of the rationales for the mitzvot mentioned in his discussion of this topic in Book III of the Guide for the Perplexed, is the social value of halakhah, its benefit for the orderly conduct of society. But unlike the Grand Inquisitor, Rambam was in no sense cynical about the religious truths he attempted to inculcate. He was committed heart and soul to the unity of God, and to the purity of the Jewish concept of that unity as he understood it; similarly, the Torah and the mitzvot were not only of social utility, but bore a significance far beyond that: they were the Divine word. He advocated service of God without any thought or expectation of reward, not because such reward does not exist, whether in this life or the next, but because devotion to God unsullied by any admixture of ulterior, self-centered motives was clearly of a higher and more refined spiritual nature. Beyond that, he was simply not interested in the details of Divine recompense or in messianic calculations, because they were irrelevant to the things he considered of true importance.

Beyond that, Rambam clearly believed that there were certain esoteric teachings within Judaism—Ma’aseh Merkavah & Ma’aseh Bereshit, “Acts of the Chariot” and “Acts of Creation,” which he interprets as metaphysics and physics—that cannot be taught to everybody, but only to a certain small group, a spiritual-intellectual elite, if you will. These most be prepared to undertake the many years of study, the arduous training of the mind, the intense self-discipline, moral-character work, and self-denial entailed in attaining this knowledge to the fullest. In this, he is merely following an ancient tradition, stipulated in Mishnah Haggigah, that these things are not to be taught to everybody, but only “to one person at a time… who is wise and understands by himself. To him one reveals the chapter headings, and the rest he understands by himself.”

It seems to me that the notion of teaching certain subtle, esoteric ideas by means of hint and indirection, expecting the student to ultimately understand by himself, might be compared to the model of the Zen koan: the riddle or paradox that the master gives his student to reflect upon, until he arrives by himself at a certain breakthrough in which his consciousness somehow changes and he understands. There the understanding seems to be more of an intuitive nature, a kind of enlightened state in which the novice suddenly understands how both sides of an apparent paradox may nevertheless be true. The central point, however, is that certain kinds of truth can only be reached by through the student’s own effort; the master or rebbe can do no more than serve as a guide, pointing the student in the right direction. One cannot convey the insight outright, no matter how much one might wish to so do; it is the very nature of real knowledge or understanding, as opposed to information or data, that they can only be attained through the individual’s own inner growth. (Every wise parent knows this: one cannot convey to children one’s own insight into the world, based upon decades of experience, through a tour de force; they need to “learn from their own mistakes.”)

Perhaps the difficulty some have with this approach is that we like to think that, since religion is concerned with ultimate truth, it is somehow unfair, undemocratic, that it be more accessible to some than to others. And yet, so long as there is such a thing as human intellectual endeavor, the serious life of the mind will require training, time, and talent, as a result of which certain people will reach greater attainments than others. Why? Ultimately, because that is just the nature of the human mind is. And if one assumes, as Rambam does, that God is real, than He can be known in some objective way, in however limited a fashion, in which case knowledge of Him will differ according to individual human capacity (see Teshuvah 10.6).

The alternative is to reduce religious truth to emotional, subjective feeling, to ecstasy and enthusiasm based upon “feeling good,” rather than on well thought, rock- certain statements of truth. This is part of a more general cultural malaise in today’s world: lack of respect for the intellect, nor of appreciation of hard intellectual work. Our culture is so flooded with messages from TV, from the printed media, from the internet, etc., that the attention span even of educated adults is shorter than it was in earlier, calmer days: there is such intense competition for people’s attention, that “communicators” must think in terms of instant gratification, of “sound bites,” that “what can’t be said in two minutes is not worth saying.” But this simplifies problems, invites demagoguery, on all sides of the political spectrum, and debases the culture. And it obscures a basic truth: that those things worth learning, are worth investing time. Lepum tza’ara agra —“according to the effort so is the reward.” There is a central idea in Judaism that one must “labor in Torah.” There are no shortcuts for conveying depth and complexity of thought—in philosophy and theology, certainly, but even in such areas as literature. (Anyone who has ever read a given book and seen the movie based upon it will, unless the movie is utterly extraordinary, see the difference in richness, subtlety, depth of presentation and understanding of personality afforded by the former, which by its nature requires greater time, effort and involvement.)

To conclude: it would seem that even the Rambam can be misused. Last week I read a report about various extreme ultra-nationalist religious groups whom, it is thought, might resort to violent acts so as to foil the planned disengagement from Gaza—including (the ultimate insanity) blowing up the Mosque of Omar, located on the site of the ancient Temple, so as to (supposedly) build the Third Temple. One such group, the “Dardaites” (followers of the 19th century neo-Maimunidean movement in Yemen), lead an ultra-simple, back-to-nature life style and consider themselves followers of Rambam, arguing that he listed the building of the Temple among the first mitzvot that Israel were commanded to do upon entering the Land, and that throughout the Mishneh Torah he emphasizes the role of the Temple. While this is true, Rambam was also a person of keen practicality and common sense, as well as one who felt great responsibility to his community and to the Jewish people as a whole. Such foolhardy violence would have been utterly abhorrent to him—as it was to the late Rav Kaphah, leader of the Darda movement in our day and, needless to add, as it would have been to Rav Soloveitchik or to Prof. Leibowitz.


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