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The Maimonides Phenomena.

Louise Guay

In choosing to discuss Maimonides in this essay, we have sought to gain a better knowledge of the man, of his period, his religious and cultural background and of his impact on his co-religionists. The very name of Maimonides inspires awe and respect amongst Christian, Moslem and Jewish circles alike. Maimonides was considered as a great scholar by many of his contemporaries and still is admired for his contribution to Jewish thought today.

However, the aura surrounding Maimonidean writings can be somewhat intimidating to one who has not been exposed to his thought nor schooled into Aristotelian metaphysics. Therefore, despite five years of Judaic Studies it is with fear and trembling that this humble student endeavoured to read the Guide for the Perplexed and the letter to the Jews of Yemen. It so happens, that the fears of ill-preparedness for this sage's work were not justified. One cannot help having a sense of déjà vu, a feeling of familiarity with the methodology and reasoning employed in these texts. In many ways the letter to the Jews of Yemen is not unlike Pauline epistles dealing with heresy and polemics. The Guide itself resembles in form and content to Aquinas' Suma Theologica, or Al-Farabi's works. There is even a resounding similarity between Maimonides' efforts to reconcile tradition with reason and Moses Cordovero's efforts to reconcile tradition with the "science" of the Kabbalah. These are only the first impressions of a young reader trying to find something new to say about the great man. But though all seems to have been discussed by numerous scholars about Maimonides and though it appears difficult to presume to bring a new angle to this subject we will nevertheless limit ourselves to outlining the elements that struck us as having the most significance in the evolution of Jewish thought. We will not therefore enter into lengthy discussions on the theological tenets held by the RAMBAM. We will rather consider the "how" and "why" rather than the "what" of the Maimonides phenomena.

Upon reading the history of the Jewish people in the Middle Ages one comes across the incessant and repetitive pattern of oppression, persecution, restoration and so on. Jewish communities in both the Christian and the Moslem worlds are constantly faced with intolerance, forced conversions, limited freedom and movement, confined to the margins of the societies they live in. They are a minority too small to have any real political power yet too large to be ignored. They become an interstitial element in the fabric of economic and religious activity caught between warring Christian and Moslem factions, sometimes even between Catholics and heretics as in the case of the Albigensian controversy. Relentlessly the Jewish community rides the waves of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the blood libels, the plague and of the expulsions. There are inner struggles within the community as well, provoked by the re-emergence of Aristotelian and Platonic thought, the aspirations for scientific rigour, the Karaite schism and finally the advent of Cabalistic teachings.

The continual flux and reflux of Jewish populations in their migrations to find a safe-haven leads to a decentralisation of Jewish authority as more and more communities venture to new countries of asylum (terre d'asile), leading to isolation from the great yeshivot and their rabbinical scholars.

Furthermore, the prolonged exposure to the Christian and Moslem neighbours due to commerce and trade leaves its mark on Jewish faith and creates the need to constantly justify Jewish beliefs and tradition to these religious opponents. Christians and Moslems consider Jewish monotheism as a thorn in their side since the legitimate sons of Abraham obstinately refuse to acknowledge either the Nazarene or the Prophet as authentic continuations of revelation and as heirs to the Sinaitic covenant. Jews are brought into public (and possibly private) debates with these Gentiles who claim to be monotheists in the true Abrahamic sense. It was easy enough for the Israelites to combat overt idolatry when the world was admittedly pagan. But arguing one form of monotheism against another needs more refined tools.

Saadia Gaon really gets the ball rolling when he gives the Jewish world just that tool in The Book of Beliefs and Opinions. Until then, Jewish tradition had been able to survive on the knowledge of the Torah and its various commentaries. Questions inherent to Jewish practice could be solved by being presented to the Geonim and scholars of the day. However, dealing with questions stemming from the outside needed a more systematised approach. It is quite possible that Jews also felt the need to be reassured that their form of monotheism was superior and could withstand outward criticism. For as each Jewish believer fought for the survival of his people, customs and worldview and in view of the overwhelming odds against the community an additional voice had to be heard in order to dismiss doubts and confusion which could arise from confrontations which could only prove detrimental to one's faith. In his introductory remarks Saadia Gaon addresses just that:

Saadia Gaon wishes to demonstrate rationally that the Jewish faith is reasonable and though he claims to treat the matter scientifically and philosophically he succeeds nevertheless only in developing a systematic theology which is more akin to the rabbinical commentaries than to Greek metaphysics. His efforts are still quite laudable since they paved the way for future attempts at reconciling faith and reason.

Saadia Gaon tentatively supplements Torah revelation with the philosophical reasoning of the Greeks, whereas Maimonides does just the reverse by using biblical revelation where the Greeks fail to provide adequate responses to problems posed by certain passages of scriptures i.e. anthropomorphism, miracles, prophecy...

A. An Uncertain Dialogue
It is in a pervasive atmosphere permeated with notions of exclusivism and intolerance where each party claims absolute truth for itself leaving no room for the other's revelation of divinity that scholars undertake to bring a clear version of facts surrounding religious practice. All three faiths need to prove the other wrong in order to justify their own worldview. While Christians and Moslems overtly choose to condemn their religious counterparts Jewish apologists use a more subtle approach. Addressing their treatises to Torah students often in a very personal tone, authors such as Saadia Gaon, Yehuda Ha-Levi, Maimonides or Moses Cordovero seek to bring enlightenment to one who is already searching a better understanding of faith and revelation. By using general terms such as "misguided fools" they target their opponents without naming them and this is definitely the prudent thing to do when in a position of minority or dhimmi status.

The exercise rests nevertheless in proving that Jewish values are superior and rational without resorting to direct disputations over certain doctrines held by the other. The clever way out is to invent a dialogue with an objective third party and the wisdom of the sages of the nations serves just that purpose for Maimonides, whereas Ha-Levi devises a discussion with the Khazars in a fictional work not unlike the Book of Esther in concept. The Cabalistic approach is also quite creative as it draws from an esoteric source of knowledge conveniently "uncovered" by Moses de Leon.

This results, as goes the French saying, in "un dialogue de sourd" and although the works did not succeed in really convincing the other side to convert or to change worldview it did encourage further debate and soul-searching within the Jewish community. The stirring up of old and new ideas and developing new combinations of thought not only brought controversy it also brought progress.

B. The Common Cause
Upon looking at medieval history and in the spirit of the times we came up with a symmetrical illustration demonstrating the tensions which all three major religions had to deal with in the twelfth century. Maimonides was caught, as were all the thinkers and theologians of that period, in the triangle of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, as well as in the triangle of traditionalism, mysticism and philosophy. His solution rested in creating a code which encompassed all the Judaica cumulated up to his time in his Mishneh Torah. He also gave the Jewish world Thirteen Articles of Faith which were later inserted in the Jewish prayer book in the Yigdal and Anee Maamin.[3] By doing this Maimonides contributed to the reification of Judaism, yet in so doing and this is a paradox, he also helped to decentralise Jewish authority. Maimonides was after all a self-appointed scholar who had not been mandated by any body of Jewish scholars to do what he did. The fact that he undertook to set the record straight on his own did not necessarily win him any support amongst the more traditional circles. He was largely critiqued for not naming his sources in his Code and for treating some of the most celebrated passages of scripture as metaphors or allegories.

In a sense Maimonides was a Reformer, a free-thinker paving the way for other autonomous scholars to speak out and reinterpret scripture with or without the blessing of the yeshiva. Like Aquinas and Ibn Rushd, Maimonides was accused of reducing the Jewish faith to Greek philosophy sharing the same fate of becoming at once respected and controversial.

As we have seen, Christians, Moslems and Jews had a common enemy, therefore a common cause. They needed to counteract the influence of Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy before it undermined the religious authority of revelation and tradition inherent to the foundation of faith. Doubtless that the three groups cross-fertilised each other with their thoughts and reactions to the trends prevailing in their respective communities (i.e. heresies, mysticism or philosophy) nevertheless they each fought their own battles instead of rallying their efforts to fend their foe. Everyone needed a double-edged sword: Christians against both Jews and Moslems, traditionalists against both mystics and philosophers, philosophers against both traditionalists and mystics...and so on.

C. The Common Approach
It seems that no matter what author one reads of that era, and Maimonides is no exception, the world has to be divided into categories of people. The first category consists of the unlearned, gullible masses who are unable to grasp anything beyond day to day concerns and are easily confused, therefore should not be exposed to more knowledge than they need to know. Secondly there are those who are better educated but who lack refinement and who cannot grasp abstract concepts. Their knowledge is a limited one, yet they claim to be learned and dare criticise what they do not understand. Lastly there is the elite class, of a privileged few who truly have attained the highest level available to the human mind. This group alone, the nec plus ultra of society, understands the real meaning of things hidden to all others. Depending on whom one reads of course, the top class will either be philosophers, Cabalistic or religious authorities.

Nevertheless traditionalists, philosophers and Kabbalists alike agree that the text does not mean what it means, that it needs to be interpreted either through a long chain of authority, a genealogy of sages, a primeval knowledge stemming in antiquity which is pure and untainted. Thus traditionalists rely on rabbinical authority, the philosophising theologians on the Greek sages of antiquity, the Kabbalists on an oral tradition which has been received (mekkubal) through the ages.

This insistence on relying on past innovations to legitimise one's own innovations is a trend that seems to have survived until now as the cornerstone of academic learning. As if somehow survival of a text through time automatically conferred respectability and notoriety to it. Yet this reliance on precedent could just be an astute means to enable the scholar to bring about new ideas which would be swallowed more easily with the coating of credibility stemming from corroboration of earlier authorities on the matter.

It is sad to note that in relying so heavily on Greek (or outer) sources to corroborate the existence of the first Cause (itself non-caused) as revealed in the biblical narrative one only serves to prove that the text cannot stand on its own. In this case success breeds failure for if the Bible needs to be proven or demonstrated, then it is an incomplete work which can also be disproved by logical thought.

A. Maimonides and Kabbalists
Two schools of thought seem to prevail with regard to the nature of Maimonidean teachings. One school sees his work as exoteric while the other considers it to be esoteric. Shlomo Pines argues along the exoteric lines namely that Maimonides wrote "for the benefit of all the Jews who wish to have knowledge of the Mosaic laws. Maimonides evinces no desire to restrict the readership of these works to persons having special philosophical qualifications to intellectual perplexities."[4] The other reason Pines sets forth is that Maimonides' style is user-friendly and that the clarity of the ideas exposed in his writings are plain and simple thus easy to access. Pines nevertheless admits that Maimonides tried to limit the scope of his readers to those possessing philosophical knowledge and presented his work in an esoteric light.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to try and settle this matter. The point we are trying to make however is that Maimonides' approach is in many ways similar to that of the Kabbalists. The content may be different but the packaging and marketing is the same. By presenting their writings as being targeted for a select audience, both Maimonides and the Kabbalists succeed in attracting readers who want to belong to such a special group of readers or students. Both Kabbalists and the Rambam propose to decode or demystify difficult passages of scripture such as Maase Bereshit (Beginning) and Maase Merkabah (Chariot) and while they end up with different conclusions the mere fact that they claim to have an authoritative interpretation on a topic that seems to have been avoided by traditional teaching is enough to warrant further inquiry into their particular insight.

Another important aspect with regard to Maimonides and Kabbalists is the influence of Maimonidean thought on the latter. We have gathered from most of our readings that Maimonides' intent was to counter the rise of superstitious or mystical trends in Judaism with his reasonable arguments and that to him logic and mystical ecstasy seemed incompatible, although he did allow some room for prophetic mystery. However, according to Moshe Idel, Maimonides rather succeeded only in encouraging Kabbalists to further structure their own world-view.

It seems then, that Maimonidean thought provoked reactions from Cabalistic circles, to the extent that Abulafiah treated the "Guide" as an esoteric teaching containing "wondrous profoundness, together with secrets".[6]

Not only in Medieval times did Kabbalists try to enlist Maimonidean authority in their camp, but some modern scholars now go as far as saying that Kabbalists had more of a philosophical approach than did Maimonides. Thus Henri Atlan in his paper entitled "Mystique et rationalité autour de Maimonide" endeavours to demonstrate that rationalism is more evident in the Cabalistic system than in the Maimonidean one by comparing Nahmanides' argument for the non-corporeality of God against that of Maimonides.[7]

In concluding this section we see that rather than being enemies, Maimonides and Kabbalists are partners in a dialogue which serves to establish the main currents from which will arise new paths in the evolution of Judaism into a normative religion.

B. What Christians could have learned from Maimonides
As we have mentioned before in our introduction, the striking similarity between Maimonides' letter to Yemen and the Pauline epistle is remarkable. It is surprising that this matter seems to have gone unnoticed by most scholars of Maimonides. Actually the more we learn about Maimonides, the more we find that he had much in common with the apostle Paul. Although separated by many centuries, both men were learned in the science of their day and in halakhic teachings, both were respected in their own community and amongst the Gentiles, but most important of all both were familiar with the wisdom of the Greeks.

Furthermore, both wrote their letters in the same style from the opening remarks to the conclusion, including quotes from the scripture, recommendations, etc. We believe that a comparative study of the Letter to the Jews of Yemen and of the Pauline epistles would be of great enlightenment to those involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this section we would like to note that had Christians taken the time to do such a comparative reading in the past they could have gained a better understanding of the Jewish world-view and developed a more tolerant attitude toward their Jewish brethren.

The fact that both Paul and Maimonides have so much in common is not a mere coincidence, but rather demonstrates that both thinkers stem from the same tradition. Of course we realise, that both men did not see eye to eye on the Nazarene issue, however, they both had the same concerns for their community and felt the need to respond to whatever menace or persecution faced their brothers and sisters.

The Letter to the Jews of Yemen brings Christian readers to the realisation that Paul, was just a Jew among Jews. That his teaching might have been novel in Gentile circles, but that in his community he was just one of many Jewish intellectuals, trying to interpret scriptures in a significant manner, trying to bring Messianic hope to his oppressed people. He was just a simple rabbi, a Jewish scholar, one among many, and there was no reason why his version of the story should be held in any greater esteem than those of his brothers... Paul became the champion of a new Jewish movement which was then taken over by the Gentiles. Maimonides also became a champion of a new Jewish movement, which integrated faith and reason. Both men achieved much in their respective spheres, in their respective times. Had Christians taken the time to read Maimonides in this light they could have see in him a brother of Paul instead of an enemy.

C. Maimonides and the Ger Toshav
When looking at the universality of Maimonides we are faced with an apparent contradiction. In his Letter to the Jews of Yemen, Maimonides categorises Muslims and Christians as impostors, while in his Mishne Torah he seems to acknowledge that these "impostors" pave the way for a monotheistic understanding amongst the nations. The incongruity is explained by Friedrich Niewohner as follows:

Nevertheless, if the utmost achievement of the intellect is the coming to a knowledge of God then it can be said that indeed Maimonides left more room for universality in his thought that did his Christian and Muslim counterparts. Whereas conversion was the only path to salvation in Christianity and in Islam, Judaism recognised that there could be just people amongst the nations. The Noahide laws provided for the salvation of non-Jews. Thus Maimonides states in his Misheh Torah Melakim (18.2):

Of course Maimonides adds that one has a portion in the world to come only if one comes to the knowledge of God for its own sake and not because of any promise of salvation. Nevertheless, he opens the door to non-Jews within the context of Jewish theology and allows for co-existence with others in the covenantal relationship. He therefore admits that non-Jews could be open to divine revelation and develop a code of ethics that is in accordance with divine precepts. The passage that is most significant in this line of thought is the one dealing with the role of Christians and Moslems in paving the way for divine revelation as stated in Laws of Kings 9:4:

Although it is clear that Maimonides did not consider Islam and Christianity to be true religions, he nevertheless gave them some credit for their efforts at spreading some form of monotheism. Maimonides therefore conceded more credibility to these two religions than the latter ever did toward Judaism. He allowed them to have a part in God's entire plan for humanity, "His ways not being our ways". Although the Jewish people did not necessarily understand why these religions were allowed to co-exists alongside the true faith of their fathers, they nevertheless were invited to be tolerant through the possibility that God might have some hidden purpose for these Gentiles to accomplish. We find that this attitude is very noble on the part of Maimonides who was aware of the suffering encompassed by his people at the hands of Christians and Muslims.

Maimonides’ understanding that faith was not inherited biologically, but rather was the result of learning and seeking God ensured that even converts would become true heirs of Abraham. Therefore his approach was not exclusive but rather inclusive of all who would truly seek to please God with all their hearts. Given the above, we can conclude that Maimonides saw communion with God as the result of an individual's decision to serve God rather than as an adherence to a code of beliefs imposed by a collectivity. Thus long before the Reform, we see that the notion of voluntary association to the covenant is dawning in this great man's writings.

A. Maimonides Philosopher or Halachist?
We could not conclude this essay without looking at what David Hartman has to say about Maimonides. Whereas all the other authors seem to emphasise the philosophical contents of Maimonidean writings, Hartman emphasises the halakhic contents. Hartman awakens us to the fact that Maimonides was first and foremost a Jewish scholar before he was a philosopher. In other words if Maimonides had to choose between Torah or philosophy, he would chose Torah. Luckily for him, he did not have to make that choice since he refused to see either forms of knowledge as contradicting each other.

Hartman explains that Maimonides was not torn between Athens or Jerusalem, but rather sought a new Jerusalem. In his own words:

Therefore trying to polarise Maimonides either on the halakhic side or on the philosophic side is erroneous. Hartman contends that what Maimonides sought to do is to integrate philosophy and Jewish law rather than develop a dualistic system of religious conformity on one level and theoretical thought on the other.

In the same line of thought Leo Strauss cautions us that we should not read Maimonides with "modern suppositions" and that we should pay attention to the way we interpret medieval concepts so as not to read them out of their historical context. One example, is the term "philosophy". By modern standards, the Guide would not be considered a philosophic work, unless the term is given a broader meaning. He denotes that was what considered as philosophical teachings in the Rambam's era would be considered "opinions" in ours and that the Guide is neither a work of philosophy or of theology but rather a "true science of the law".[12]

Is Maimonides a theologian, a philosopher, a halakhist? The answers depends from the point of view that it is asked. We feel that Maimonides is probably all three although he probably considered himself to be mostly a scholar, a teacher and an author.

B. What did Maimonides accomplish?
What did Maimonides seek to accomplish after all. Moshe Idel has an interesting answer to this question.

Finally, a harsh criticism of the Rambam. One has to look long and hard to find someone who is willing to criticise this great scholar. It is true that in his day, Maimonides did create some controversy, and was highly criticised by co-religionists, but from the moment he was rehabilitated in the Jewish community, he was mostly praised and admired. We wonder, however, if Maimonides deserves Moshe Idel's comments, or whether Idel failed to heed Leo Strauss' recommendations about reading the medieval thinker out of context.

We have come to the conclusion that Maimonides did indeed innovate and permitted the furtherance of Jewish thought in many ways. For one thing, by writing the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides at least acknowledged that there were indeed Jews who were perplexed, confused and seeing a real contradiction between faith and reason. Although Maimonides did not provide all the answers to all the questions he nevertheless created a niche for intellectual believers to be able to hang on to their faith without falling into intellectual dishonesty.

Secondly, by codifying the law in his Mishne Torah, he gave his community a unique source to draw on in written form in lieu of scattered responsa and oral traditions. Not that the Mishne Torah superseded any form of cumulated Judaica, but rather provided a neat "data bank" containing the main information, along with commentary, a reference tool that would prove itself useful to pupil and teacher alike. Thirdly, Maimonides created the path for co-existence with Christians and Moslems by acknowledging that revelation could be attained through intellectual efforts. Lastly, Maimonides indirectly encouraged all those who opposed his views to articulate their own faith perceptions thus stimulating the whole Jewish community to rethink its Judaism. So yes, Mr. Idel may be right in saying that Maimonides succeeded in creating doubt and deep questioning. And this is the crowning achievement of his work, the fact that there is no finality to his arguments, only ongoing discussion, and this ongoing discussion is the ultimate proof that the Jewish community is alive and well.



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Birnbaum, Philip, A Book of Jewish Concepts, Hebrew Publishing Company, New York, 1964.

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Frydman-Kohl, Baruch, Covenant, Conversion and Chosenness: Maimonides and Halevi on Who is a Jew?, Judaism (Quarterly) Issue No. 161, Vol. 411, Number 1, Winter 1992.

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Katz, Jacob, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1961.

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Maimonide, Moise, Le Guide des égarés, Éditions Verdier, 1979.

Melber, Jehuda, The Universality of Maimonides, Jonathan David Publishers, New York, 1968.

Pegis, Anton C., ed., Introduction to St.Thomas Aquinas, Modern Library College Editions, New York, 1948.

Pines, Yovel, ed., Maimonides and Philosophy, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht, Boston, Lancaster 1986.

Robinson, Kaplan, Bauer, The Thought of Moses Maimonides, The Edwin Mellen Press, Lampeter, 1990.

Sarachek, Joseph, Faith and Reason, The Conflict Over the Rationalism of Maimonides, Hermon Press, New York, 1935.

Seltzer, Robert M., Jewish People, Jewish Thought, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1980.

Stillman, Norman A., The Jews of Arab Lands, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1979.

Twersky, Isadore, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1980.

Twersky, Isadore ed., Studies in Maimonides, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, England, 1990.


[1] Saadia Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, Introductory Treatise, paragraph II.

[2] Melber, Jehuda. The Universality of Maimonides, Jonathan David Publisher, New York. p. 62.

[ 3] Op. cit. p. 11

[4] Pines/Yovel, Maimonides and Philosophy, p. 1

[5] Idel, Moshe. Maimonides and Kabbalah, Studies in Maimonides p. 79.

[6] Ibid., p. 59

[7] see Atlan, Henri, Mystique et rationalité autour de Maimonide, p. 289-318, in The Thought of Moses Maimonides.

[8] Niewohner, Friedrich, Are the Founders of Religions Impostors?, in Maimonides and Philosophy, p. 234.

[9] taken from Michael P. Levine's article entitled The Role of Reason in the Ethics of Maimonides: or Why Maimonides Could Have Had a Doctrine of Natural Law Even if He Did Not, p. 290

[10] taken from Baruch Frydman-Kohl's article entitled Covenant, Conversion and Chosenness: Maimonides and Halevi on "Who is a Jew", p. 68.

[11] Hartman, David, Maimonides Torah and Philosophic Quest, p. 26

[12] see Leo Strauss, The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed in Maimonides a Collection of Critical Essays.

[13] Moshe Idel, Sitre 'Arayot in Maimonides' Thought, from Maimonides and Philosophy, p. 79