Originally published in The New London Forum: Journal of the New London Synagogue, 3:2 (June 1985).
Maimonides or the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) was born in Cordova, Spain, eight hundred and fifty years ago. He is undoubtedly the most influential of all the Jewish thinkers through his Code of law, upon which the Shulchan Aruch is based: through his Guide for Perplexed, in which he sought to present Judaism in the most refined and spiritual terms; above all, in his intellectual honesty, making him the supreme hero of every Jew unafraid to use his mind critically in pursuit of religious faith.
We have very few details about Maimonides as a person. Was he tall or short, thin or fat? The portrait frequently said to be of him—with a little beard, a turban and more or less nondescript features—is not authentic. Students of his writings cannot imagine the austere figure which emerges from them actually sitting for a portrait. Nor do we know much about his family life. He was married, no doubt happily, but we have no information about his wife, not even her name. His son, Abraham, followed in his father’s footsteps to a large extent and, of course, we know that his father was a dayan in Spain and was descended from a long line of dayanim. A dayan, in those days, was a scholar who voluntarily undertook to render decisions in Jewish law. Maimonides, like many other mediaeval teachers, held that it was wrong to accept payment for teaching the Torah (the professional rabbi did not emerge in Judaism until some time after his day) and earned his living as a physician. In addition, he served as the leader of the Egyptian Jewish community. At one time he was so busy with his medical and communal activities that he wrote to advise a favourite pupil not to visit him. The visit would be futile, he wrote, since there would be no time for the two to have a worthwhile meeting. Beyond these and a few other details that can be culled from his writings (especially from his letters) it is the thought of the man rather than the events of his rather uneventful life that has grasped the imagination of successive generations of thinking Jews.
Was Maimonides a rationalist? Ahad Ha-Am in a famous essay (with the revealing title: Shilton Ha-Sekhel, ‘The Supremacy of Reason’) argued that he was the supreme rationalist for whom reason was all. This view is as one-sided as that which turns him into a crypto-Kabbalist. (There was an old legend that towards the end of his life the Rambam was convinced by a Kabbalist of the error of his ways, or, rather, his thoughts, and he was ‘converted’ to Kabbalism.) The truth is somewhere in between. He believed in reason but seemingly held that it was unreasonable to be too reasonable so that there is more than a touch of mysticism in his writings. In a short article it might suffice to give one or two illustrations of his use of reason and one or two illustrations of where he finds reason less than adequate, compelling him to fall back on belief.
His struggle for a rational approach to Judaism is evident on practically every page of his writings. It was this that led him to try to discover the reasons behind the apparently unreasonable precepts of the Torah. He could not imagine God ordering humans to carry out meaningless acts simply as a demonstration of obedience to Him. Some of his reasoning is extremely bold, at any rate for his day, as when he remarks that the sacrificial system was introduced not because it has intrinsic value but only as a means of weaning the people away from idolatry. Moreover, unlike the Kabbalists in the middle ages, who found mystical reasons for every detail of the precepts, Maimonides argues that if you are to have a law and discipline in the religious life you have to have order and order is promoted by the details of the law. For instance, driving on the left has no advantage over driving on the right. It is simply that all who drive must drive on the same side if chaos is to be avoided. By the same token, to have four and not five tsitzit is not because there is any particular significance to the number four (as the Kabbalist would aver). The number is, in a sense, quite arbitrary but important for the sake of order. It could have been three or five and it would have been as meaningless to ask why these numbers as to ask why four.
Another example of Maimonides’ strict adherence to the way of reason is his determined opposition to magic and superstition. He waxes wroth at those who write into the mezuzah the names of angels for protection or who write the mezuzah so that its words taper to a point. These people, he says, convert the mitzvah, attesting to God’s unity, into a talisman for their own, selfish and self-serving, use. He rejects belief in demons and although he does believe in angels, which are mentioned frequently in the Bible, he thinks of these as purely spiritual forces, arguing that all the Scriptural references to angels appearing in human form are to angels seen in a dream. It is not that the angels actually appear in human guise, like men with wings, but that the prophet or whoever else perceives them in this way does so while he dreams with his imaginative faculty, as Maimonides puts it, strongly at work. When he was asked how he could reject astrology since the Talmudic Rabbis did believe in it (and he has throughout the utmost veneration of the Rabbis) he replied: ‘Man has been created with his eyes in the front not in the back of his head’. In a remarkable passage in the Guide, he observes that if he had been convinced by reason that Aristotle was correct in holding matter to be eternal he would have accepted this view and interpreted the creation narrative in Genesis so as to square with the Aristotelean view. In fact, he goes on to say, his reason does not allow him to follow Aristotle here and that is why he prefers to hold fast to the Jewish tradition.
For all that, it would be a gross error to see the Rambam as a complete rationalist. He is too good a thinker to hold that the human mind can grasp the Mind of God. Dealing with the doctrine of the Chosen People he does not try to explain why God should have chosen a particular people to convey His will to mankind. For Maimonides this is akin to asking why God arranged it that strawberries only grow in this climate and not in that. All one can say is that it is God’s will. Similarly, when faced with the old conundrum, how can man be free to choose since God has foreknowledge and therefore knows how he will choose, Maimonides remarks that we must hold both beliefs; that man is free and that God has foreknowledge, without trying to know how this is possible. God’s knowledge, he writes, is God Himself so how can humans hope to understand.
Nor is a mystical element lacking in the outlook of the great sage. It was no cold rationalist who writes (and in his Code of Law at that) of the man who reflects on the majesty of the Creator as manifested in the universe as becoming love-sick for God; and who interprets the Song of Songs as a dialogue between the soul and her Maker. Nor would such a rationalist ever have thought of saying, as Maimonides does in his Guide, that the ideal, extremely difficult of attainment, is for God to be in the mind at all times and that those few who can approximate to this ideal can walk unharmed through fire because they are immune from all natural hazards. It has to be said that, for all his originality and breadth of vision, Maimonides was a child of his age. He clearly states the mediaeval belief as fact that the sun, moon and stars are fixed in revolving spheres. These are intelligent beings who sing God’s praises as they move in obedience to His will (the ‘music of the spheres’ in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice; Shakespeare and his contemporaries had the same world view as Maimonides; Newton, to say nothing of Einstein, had yet to be born). Nor could he have known anything of Biblical Criticism, for example, so that, as one of the principles of the faith, he formulated that it is essential to believe that every single word of the Torah was communicated directly by God to Moses. He had what we would today call a fundamentalist view though, since that particular challenge could not have been presented to him, he was no fundamentalist. We can be confident that if he were alive today he would face this challenge with integrity and in the spirit of intellectual honesty in which he faced the challenge of Aristotelian philosophy in his day.
It is a common error to quote Maimonides’ formulation of faith as if there has been no progress in the world of thought. What was a perfectly respectable position in the twelfth century is not necessarily a respectable position for us to hold today, any more than our present- day knowledge of the universe will be true for all time without revision. In matters of Jewish law and insofar as the law follows Maimonides (it does not do so always) it is proper to ask what Maimonides said, and to follow it. In matters of faith, the more correct approach is not to ask what Maimonides said eight hundred years ago, but what he would say if he were alive today.