The Guide to Serving God
(Torah Classics Library) By Abraham the son of Maimonides (Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam)
Translated by Rabbi Yaakov Wincelberg
Feldheim Publishers, 2008, 614 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 1, 2011
This is a new translation of the mystical book by Abraham the son of the great philosopher Moses Maimonides, who was a rationalist. The book has a thirty-five page introduction and preface describing Abraham's book and Rabbi Wincelberg's understanding of his relationship with his father. The book has a Hebrew and English translation of its original Judeo-Arabic text and clarifying footnotes on virtually every page. This is the second translation of Abraham's book. The first was done by the scholar Rabbi Dr. Samuel Rosenblatt, and the quotes herein are from the Rosenblatt book.
Rabbi Wincelberg contends that Abraham "reflects his understanding of (his father's) teachings." He only saw "two major themes in this work that ostensibly (emphasis added) suggest that (Abraham) veered from his father's path to forge his own; namely the ideal state toward which one should strive and the importance of abstinence." However, he insists, Maimonides actually had the same views as his son. Rabbi Wincelberg attempts to prove this by citing some passages by Maimonides out of context and effectively turns the great rationalist into a second grade mystic. He goes so far as to say that Maimonides' works are a "background" for those of his son who "elucidates and expands upon his father's teachings." He supports his view by changing and softening various terms in Abraham's book, such as "union with God" becomes an "encounter," as if the mystic only reads a book; "faith" is "reliance," and "solitude" is "retreat."
Abraham, the only son of Maimonides, was born in 1186, when his father, who was born in 1138, was forty-eight years old. Maimonides died in 1204 when Abraham was seventeen years old. Most scholars, such as Rabbi Dr. Rosenblatt, say, contrary to Rabbi Wincelberg, that Abraham was unlike his father. He followed the philosophy of Sufism, a name given to Moslem mystics around 800 C.E.
Sufism focuses on an inner life, a passive escape from the hardships of the outer world. Sufists attempt to realize themselves through mystical contemplation, a feeling of blissful ecstasy, a sense of one's own nothingness, an awareness of union, meaning joining, with the divine, and an idea of the oneness of everything.
Maimonides focuses on the development of a person's intelligence and the acquisition of knowledge. He states that the purpose of the Torah is to teach true ideas and aid people in improving themselves and society. His son focuses on the soul and contends that the goal of the Torah is to perfect the soul through ten kinds of ethical conduct and have "union with God." Abraham's father would have cringed at the mystical conception that it is possible to have a "union with God" – an idea that borders on the untenable notion that God is a physical being who can be approached.
Abraham concentrates on pietistic behavior rather than the acquisition of knowledge, which are the prime consideration and life goal of his father. He minimizes knowledge. The purpose of knowledge, Abraham writes, is "to acquire humility (and) not pride, because they (the learned) see that their scholarly attainments, even though they be considerable, are very slight in relation to what is greater and more perfect than they."
Abraham disparages the human body. Perfection, he says, lies in the disassociation of a person from his body and bodily needs; while his father sees that perfection lies in understanding the body and using it properly.
Rather than actively striving to be all that a person can be, a positive goal-oriented focus, Abraham concentrates on the negative, near-passive state of humility. He writes that humility "consists in a human being's awareness of his contemptibility and (in his) consideration of his defectiveness in relation to him who is more perfect than he." Maimonides would never use these italicized terms.
Abraham sees humans fatalistically. People have little control over their lives. Their "constitution and character are not (things) that (they can) choose, but they are (matters of) grace from God." Thus, rather than striving for perfection, as his father proposes, he suggests that the pious pray for grace, for a gift from God, earned by humility and piety and not work.
How are people pious? By "accustoming the soul...to hear itself blamed and disparaged, and (by) eschewing whatever resembles that, and (by) restricting (one's) dress to what is necessary or less than that...(by) dwelling in modest places...(by) associating with the humble." Pious people must have pious thoughts; they must show their humility in their behavior. They must wear coarse, but not dirty, clothes, and eat bread without adding a relish that would make it palatable.
People, he says, must have faith. Maimonides rejects this notion. "Faith" is the acceptance as true of something that we do not know to be true, something that logic, common sense, experiment, or other scientific processes cannot show to be true. The Hebrew Bible does not mandate that a person have faith. It tells people to look, see, hear, and understand. The word "faith" does not appear in the Torah. The term emunah, used in Modern Hebrew for "faith," is in the Bible, but in biblical Hebrew it means "being steadfast."
But, Abraham stresses faith. "Trust in God," he writes, "is among the elevated paths, nay it is one of the fundamental principles of the law." He defines faith as "the affirmation of the belief that God, exalted be He, is the creator and the provider, and He that makes sick and heals, and that makes rich and poor, and (that) all the happenings of the world, general as well as particular, revert to Him, and (that) He is the author thereof who decrees and executes them, except for the matter of obedience and disobedience (of God)."
Abraham states that "true faith consists (in) reliance...in all matters upon Him, not upon any ordinary exertions, so that if he becomes sick and takes medicine, it be in his heart and his consciousness and his conviction that the useful medicine benefits him only through His determination...no benefit results except by His determination."
Maimonides teaches that people are harmed either by another person hurting them, damage they cause themselves (such as negligently cutting their finger), or the laws of nature, which are generally good for the world, but may not be good for the individual (as a strong wind cleans the air but may destroy a person's home). The world functions according to the laws of nature, not by God's constant interference.
Abraham felt differently. He says that adversity might be God testing the individual. Therefore, "one must undertake strenuous efforts and exert oneself and pray to God, and seek mercy from Him and rely upon Him for safety from the slightest injury." Adversity can also result from a lack of faith. A person who lacks faith but who works hard and uses only intelligence will not prosper.
"Solitude," according to Abraham, "is among the most distinguished of the elevated paths. It is moreover the way of the very great saints and by it did the prophets achieve union (with God)." The best way to achieve solitude is by leaving the city and isolating oneself on a mountain or desert or cave.
Abraham suggests that people spend at least a part of the solitude, especially at night, in prayer. He refers his readers to the practice of the Sufis of Islam, which he praises, to "practice solitude in dark places and isolate themselves in them until the sensitive part of the soul becomes atrophied so that it is not even able to see the light."
In summary, our translator states that Abraham held the views as his father. However, there are scholars who are convinced that Abraham was 180 degrees removed from Maimonides. The father was rationally minded. His son advocated the practices of mysticism, praised the mystic Islamic Sufis of his day, and incorporated a host of their "pious" behaviors into his life and teachings.