Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism
(The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization)
By Menachem Kellner
Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2011, 343 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 1, 2011
Anyone, of any religion, agnostic, or atheist, wanting to understand the truth about life, the ideas taught by the great philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), should read this splendid easily comprehensible book first published in 2006, reprinted because of its popularity in 2007, with the first paperback edition in 2011. The book is a National Jewish Book Award Finalist. Readers will learn how most people are being deceived today.
Maimonides' generation, very similar to our own, was misled to believe in a kind of mysticism that distorted the truth of Judaism. This worldview was taught by people such as the Spaniards Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141) before him and Nachmanides (1194-1270) and Moses de Leon (1250-1305), the author of Zohar, after him. Maimonides fought against these alien notions, which Kellner describes as "debased and paganized."
Kellner highlights that most people think they are reading Maimonides correctly, but they are wrong. "(A)ll, or almost all, of Maimonides' writings must be understood as esoteric, addressed simultaneously to several audiences…. Maimonides chose to write in such a way that his true opinions could be teased out of his writings, but not by everyone," not by people who lacked a proper education and background, and the majority who have been so misinformed and deluded that they can't read the truth without feeling threatened and angry. Kellner discloses these Maimonidean truths, such as the following.
Nothing is inherently or objectively "holy." If it were possible to create a Holiness Geiger Counter and place it against things, times, and places that people imagine are holy, such as the Bible, Talmud, Israel, Jerusalem, Sabbath, the Hebrew language, rabbis, it would not click. Holiness is not supernatural. Holiness exists in what people do with the object. The Sabbath, for example, becomes significant only when Jews observe it as it should be observed. Thus holiness is not restricted to any people or religion.
The author of the mystical book Zohar contended that God needs Jews to observe the biblical commands. Maimonides had a realistic view. The Bible is not the human goal or end in any sense of these terms; it is a means to an end. The purpose of the Torah is three-fold: to provoke the learning of true ideas, improve the individual, and society. If the Navaho Indians rather than the Israelites discovered the truth about God, the Torah would have been revealed to them and it would have contained their history, and practices congruent with their culture, but with the same three-fold goal. Thus, people who spend their entire day studying Torah and Talmud have missed the point.
Knowledge of science is important, necessary for existence, because knowing how the laws of nature work helps people improve themselves and society.
The Basic Command
Maimonides discusses thirteen basic principles of Judaism but, as indicated above, he wrote for two audiences, and he only felt that an intellectual Jew or non-Jew need to observe the first five, which can be distilled into one: Strive through the study of the laws of nature to know as much as possible about God. "This is the case, I submit" writes Professor Kellner, "because in his eyes halakhah (the law) is an instrument, not an end."
Halevi held the outrageous, illogical, xenophobic view that Jews are biologically superior to non-Jews. Thus even if non-Jews convert to Judaism since their biology is unchanged, they remain inferior. Maimonides not only rejected this racist notion, but said that a non-Jew can merit the world-to-come.
Sacrifices, prayers, and many customs
Nachmanides contended that God not only likes sacrifices, he needs them to exist (commentary to Leviticus 9:1). Maimonides wrote that God has no need for sacrifices and prayers, but he allowed Jews to have them as a concession to their "primitive" insufficiently developed understanding. See my "An important Understanding of the Bible" in www.booksnthoughts.com.
Nachmanides (commentary on Leviticus 4:2), Halevi, and many pulpit rabbis today state that "sin" is an objective deforming reality; it diminishes, stains, and changes the nature of the soul as Oscar Wilde portrayed it in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Maimonides, more realistically, saw mistakes, purposeful or inadvertent, as only mistakes that can be remedied on a human level, without the intervention of the divine. People who do wrong should first recognize that what they did was wrong and something that could affect their future behavior; then decide not to do the act again, and develop habits of behavior that will help assure that if the chance arises again to do the wrong, they will act reasonably.
Demons and angels
The foremost Bible commentator Rashi and Nachmanides (commentary to Leviticus 16:8) believed in and stood in daily fear of demons. Maimonides rejected this and other superstitions. Most Jews believe in the existence of angels, but not Maimonides. It is somewhat insulting to imagine that God needs helpers. Maimonides defines angels as anything, including the forces of nature such as rain and snow, that carries out God's will.
Professor Kellner recognizes that Maimonides failed to persuade Jews to his rationalistic views. His only success, and this too is only partial, is that many Jews today realize that God has no body. Yet, when questioned closely many of today's Jews seem to hold on to many wrong notions with the corporeal God at its basis. There is even a synagogue prayer that describes God wearing tephilin (phylacteries). Pulpit rabbis continue to stress the need to observe Jewish law as an end in itself and almost daily add legal details that make Judaism harsh, unfriendly, restrictive, overly somber. They speak about the "holy Zohar" as if the book was divinely inspired and as if its radically mystical ideas are true. And they have created an enchanted world and mythasized and midrashized Judaism by their continual insistence that the ancient myths and Midrashim should be taken as literal facts, even though Maimonides wrote clearly that anyone who does so is a fool.