Maimonides after 800 Years
Essays on Maimonides and His Influence
Edited by Jay M. Harris
Harvard University Press, 2007, 343 pages
This volume of sixteen thought-provoking and very informative essays is a collection composed by Maimonides scholars to commemorate the eight hundredth year since Maimonides' death in 1204. The essays were composed for scholars; however, all but one were written in easily understandable English. The following are some of the many thoughts – too many to discuss in a review – considered by these scholars.
The fanciful words "divine providence" mean the guardianship, control and cares that God exercises over people and this world. Two significant questions are raised by the way that Maimonides handles this issue, an issue of great concern to many people. First, does Maimonides make intentional contradictory statements and thereby hides his true conviction from the general public who do not take the time or lack the ability to decipher the master's true view?
Second, does he think that God is not involved in protecting humans? We know that Maimonides writes clearly that God does not miraculously communicate to prophets; prophecy is nothing more than a higher level of intelligence? Is he consistent and contend that God is also not involved in caring for people? Friends and foes of Maimonides have debated these questions since they first read the master's Guide.
Interestingly, Samuel ibn Tibbon, the first individual who translated Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed from Arabic into Hebrew, was a philosopher in his own right and wrote commentaries on the Bible in which he sometimes differed with Maimonides. Ibn Tibbon, as a philosopher and translator who had to read and understand every Maimonidean word, recognized that the Guide contains "esoteric teachings," ideas that Maimonides hid within his Guide that he expected intelligent men with a philosophical background could uncover, and that Maimonides was convinced that God is not involved in the daily activities of this world, human and non-human.
For example, Maimonides states in 3:18 that "mankind alone (but not non-humans) is directly under the control of Divine Providence." This seems to be a clear statement that God does control and care for humans. But is it clear?
He also writes in 3:18 that since different individuals have different levels of intelligence, "The relation of Divine Providence is therefore not the same to all men; the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence." This statement seems to contradict the previous assertion; if God cares for humans, what difference does their intelligence matter? If intelligence is a factor in prompting divine aid and if God helps the needy, it would seem that He should help those that lack intelligence more than those who can think!
In 3:51, arguably one of the most important chapters of the Guide, Maimonides writes that Divine Providence is not care given by God; the words are, in essence, a metaphor that means: God is not involved. He gave people intelligence; if they use it they will live a better life.
How should people understand these seemingly contradictory contentions?
When Maimonides made his initial statement in 3:18, he meant that only human are "directly under the control of Divine Providence" because only humans have the intelligence that God gave them, and the more they use that intelligence, the better chance they will be "cared for."
In short, the first statement of 3:18 was composed as it was to give people who needed to depend on God the false assurance that God will help them, but he wrote the other statements to express his true view.
Reward and punishment
Another example of intentionally contradictory statements is Maimonides' account of reward and punishment. Maimonides speaks about the subject many times. One of the authors in this volume mentions his contradictory statements in a single sentence in his code of laws, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De'ot 1:7. Maimonides writes:
One who follows this way (being virtuous and just) brings good and blessing to himself, as it is said: So that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He spoke concerning him.
Maimonides' proof-text speaks of the Lord's reward, while Maimonides himself writes that people brings reward and punishment upon themselves. Which is it?
The volume's author reminds us that the careful intelligent reader of Maimonides' Guide will remember that the master taught in 2:48 that when the Torah mentions that God did something, it does not mean that God is the immediate cause of the event. It means that God created the laws of nature, but the described event was a natural non-divine phenomenon. God did not make the fish swallow Jonah; the fish naturally swallowed what it thought was food. So, too, God created a world where the laws of nature cause that the reward for a good deed is another good deed and the punishment for a bad deed is some other bad deed.
One author – building on Maimonides' view of prophecy and providence and the profound lesson of 2:48, and reading 2:33 carefully - takes the position that Maimonides "essentially informs us (in 2:33) that the specifics of Sinai (recorded in the Bible about the revelation of the ten Commandments) are based on a single person's account, no different essentially from every other recorded 'miracle,'" that should not be taken literally, but understood metaphorically.
Another author put it this way: Maimonides understood that "The Torah does not result from God directly creating audible words conveying specific commandments to Moses' hearing, as R. Saadia Gaon maintains, nor does it result from impressing of specific laws on the mind of Moses, the "voice" (mentioned in the Bible) conveying the laws being an external one. Rather, it is the immediate product of Moses' intellectual perfection, a perfection that involves a purely intellectual and perfect understanding of the order of the universe, and Moses' ability to frame a perfect law on the basis of his theoretical understanding."
The ultimate human goal
The translator ibn Tibbon recognized that Maimonides felt that people should develop their intellect and attain knowledge so that they can help people, even as Maimonides did himself many times in many ways. However, ibn Tibbon disagreed with the master and felt, in an almost mystical manner, that the ultimate goal of humans is to live a life of contemplation. Neither ibn Tibbon nor Maimonides says, like many Jews today, that Jewish observance of the divine commands, the mitzvot, is the basis for attaining immortality.
Does the Torah contain true ideas?
One of the authors in this volume contends that Maimonides felt that the Torah was written for the general masses and, therefore, does not contain the "real truth" that only an intellectual could understand. This is a provocative notion.
This author contends that this is similar to many of Maimonides' statements, as we discussed above. It is similar, he writes, to Maimonides' thirteen principles of Judaism, such as a belief in resurrection. The notion that after death the decomposed body and soul are reunited is an "essential truth" but not a "real truth." Maimonides wrote it for people who are afraid of dying. It is "a surrogate and, it is hoped, a pathway to a higher, conceptual understanding, in this case of immortality, which (unlike resurrection) is not temporal (something that happens on earth) but transtemporal." In other words, according to this author, the masses are taught lessons in the Torah that are wrong, but which could stimulate people to think and come to understand the truth.
This author has gone too far. He is obviously correct that Maimonides, like the Greek philosopher Plato, taught many "essential truths" that he knew were wrong, such as the notion that God cares for humans, discussed above. It is also true that the Torah does have "essential truths," "truths" taught to the people as a concession to their needs, such as sacrifices, slavery, and the law requiring the killing of evil sons. But it also filled with "real truths," such as the Sabbath, loving others as oneself, avoid idol worship of all kinds, not killing or robbing or adultery, and hundreds of other laws.
A careful reading of Maimonides' positions in this volume shows how different intelligent scholars understand the master differently. It also highlights that Maimonidean teachings – such as his view of prophecy, providence, angels, revelation and the ultimate human duty – are thoughts that the vast majority of people refuse to accept. This book confirms the opinion, mentioned by one of the scholars, that "Maimonides is admired more biographically – as a virtuous symbol of the ideal Jew/philosopher – than philosophically." His life, not his teachings, furnishes the Jewish model.