A Maimonides Reader
(Library of Jewish Studies)
Edited by Isadore Twersky
Behrman House Publishers, 1972, 494 pages
ISBN 10: 0-87441-206-4
ISBN 13: 978-0-87441-206-2
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - October 30, 2009
Frequently, even scholars can't see what is quite plain to others. One cause of this blindness is "cognitive dissonance": people can't accept an idea because they are too committed to a different thought and they are unable to see that their view is dead wrong.
An example is the feelings that many children have for their parents. Although a father may have committed many wrongs, even hurting his children, his kids may be unable to see the wrongs. They may continue to insist that dad was a good man long after dad is dead and buried.
This also occurs in scholarship. If a scholar is so wedded to an idea, he may be unable to see that what he is reading states the opposite. This occurs even when the scholar is as knowledgeable as Isadore Twersky.
A Maimonides Reader
A Maimonides Reader is the classical introduction by one of the foremost Maimonidean scholars to the works of Moses Maimonides (1138-1204). Professor Twersky of Harvard University (1930-1997) offers a twenty nine page introduction to all of Maimonides' writings. The remaining pages are selections chosen by Professor Twersky, including Maimonides' letters, and his ideas about Jesus, which Christians censored. He introduces each section with additional short explanations.
Problems with the volume
There are two problems with the Reader. First, the professor omitted chapters from the Guide of the Perplexed that need to be read to understand this great philosopher. Twersky may have excluded these chapters because they discuss subjects of enormous contention. Or, he may have dropped them because he dislikes Maimonides' views on these subjects or he does not see their significance because of cognitive dissonance.
One omission is book 2, chapter 33 of the Guide of the Perplexed, which speaks about divine revelation. This chapter seems to say that Moses did not receive the Torah from God, but wrote it by using his own intelligence.
Another is 2:48, where Maimonides reveals that whenever the Torah mentions that God said or did anything, the section should not be understood as saying that God performed the act, but that it was a natural occurrence. Maimonides writes that the Torah ascribes the act to God only because God is the ultimate, although not the immediate cause of what occurred, since God created the laws of nature. While the Bible, for example, states that God caused Joseph to go to Egypt, God did not intervene and treat Joseph as an inanimate puppet, the events transpired according to natural law.
Twersky also did not include the chapters in book 2 where Maimonides says that prophecy is a natural and not miraculous experience; it is the use of a high human intelligence. He also drops the section where the philosopher states that "angels" are not heavenly beings; they are metaphors for the forces of nature. In short, he excluded sections that could ruffle the sensibilities of most people who have traditional understandings of these subjects and, perhaps, his own beliefs.
The unusual, even bothersome, idea of "essential truths"
A second problem is that in his explanations Professor Twersky offers his perspectives without alerting his readers that there is another, even radical way of understanding the great philosopher.
For example, Twersky states in his introduction that Maimonides explained how it is possible for anyone to believe that Jewish laws are divine rules given by God to Moses and passed on intact in an uninterrupted chain from one generation to another, when we see talmudic rabbis argue about the law, one deciding the case one way and the other rabbi resolving it in another way?
According to Twersky, Maimonides answers that there are two parts to the Oral Law, laws not explicit in the Bible. The first – a smaller number of rules – "are based solely on tradition (meaning, laws dictated by God that were transmitted from one generation to the next) – for example, the requirement that the tefillin, phylacteries, should be square and black (meaning, God said that the tefillin must be square and black). It also includes laws which are ascertainable by independent reasoning…for example, the interpretation of 'beautiful fruit' in Leviticus 23:40 as referring to the etrog, the citron, or the interpretation of 'an eye for an eye' in Exodus 21:24 as meaning monetary compensation."
Twersky accepts this statement as Maimonides' true belief. However, a careful look at this Maimonidean statement shows that it cannot be true, and Maimonides, being a genius, could never have thought it is true.
For example, contrary to what Maimonides states that there was never any disagreement about the tefillin, scholars know that there were disagreements that go back as far as the beginning of the Common Era. Maimonides certainly knew about the disagreements and that there was no unbroken single tradition. Therefore, he could not possibly have believed what he said.
Similarly, in regard to Maimonides' statement that "a beautiful fruit" is obviously an etrog, this is certainly untrue – what in "a beautiful fruit" suggests an etrog? This is an illogical statement, and Maimonides knew this.
In respect to "an eye for an eye," Maimonides himself wrote in his Guide of the Perplexed that the Torah meant what it said and the rabbis modified the biblical law. Yet, remarkably, Professor Twersky seems to accept this statement as Maimonides' true view.
The problem is that Professor Twersky refuses to accept the fact that Maimonides wrote some things that he knew were false. Maimonides recognized that the general population needed to believe these untrue ideas "for the sake of political welfare." To quote the bestselling novelist Dan Broun, "there is certain information to which the masses should not be privy" (The Lost Symbol, page 276), and the masses should be fed misinformation instead. Maimonides called these untruths "essential truths" – in contrast to "real truths" in 3:28.
Maimonides explains that the Torah also needed to teach some "essential truths," such as the notion that God becomes angry at people who disobey Him. This "essential truth" was taught to frighten people so that they would obey the divine decrees. Another "essential truth" is "the belief that He, may He be exalted, responds instantly to the prayers of someone wronged or deceived." God does not respond, but it is "necessary" for people to believe this notion to quiet their concerns, raise their hopes and be able to live without worry and at ease.
In 3:32, he also called such a false law a "divine ruse." Maimonides said this about sacrifices: God does not need sacrifices – he allowed them only because they were necessary as a concession to human needs. In ancient times, everyone felt they had to offer sacrifices to show God love and to petition His favor, and the Jews, who had the same mind-set, felt that they had to do the same.
In his work called Chelek and in his code of law Mishneh Torah, Book of Knowledge 10:5, Maimonides gives another example of an "essential truth" and "divine ruse," the notion of reward and punishment. As stated in the latter source: "when instructing the young…or the illiterate generally, we teach them to serve God out of fear or for the sake of reward (for this is the only way to control them), till their knowledge increases and they have attained a large measure of wisdom. Then we reveal to them this secret truth, little by little, and train them by easy stages till they have grasped and comprehended it, and serve God out of love (emphasis added)." What is the secret? There is no divine reward and punishment other than what is built into the laws of nature: good flows from good deeds and evil consequences follow improper acts.
These problems aside – the omission of some significant chapters and the failure to reveal that many of Maimonides' statements were never meant to be taken as real truths, only ruses – problems that may reflect the results of cognitive dissonance - people who use this Reader will be introduced to large segments of Maimonides thinking.