Science in the Bet Midrash
Studies in Maimonides
By Menachem Kellner
Academic Studies Press, 2009, 392 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 20, 2010
Professor Menachem Kellner is an expert on Maimonides. He writes clearly and logically in easy to read and vibrant language. He explains Maimonides correctly and states that he realizes that many readers may find that they disagree with the great philosopher or be convinced that he, Kellner, misunderstood him.
Kellner states that in interpreting Maimonides, he differs with Leo Straus who claimed that Maimonides was interested in one thing only, the development of a person's intelligence, that this is the ultimate goal of life, nothing else, not the observance or study of the Torah or the Talmud, not morality, and not helping others. He describes Straus' Maimonides as an unemotional Mr. Spock of the Star Trek TV series. He agrees that Maimonides emphasizes the development of the mind, but, contrary to Straus, he contends "that rational perfection cannot be attained without first achieving moral perfection."
Kellner points out, what many readers of Maimonides fail to grasp, that Maimonides did not express his true views openly. Like most ancient philosophers, he wrote for two audiences. He felt that the general public would see their own false notions in his writing, while the more intellectual readers would be able to mine the surface of his writings and discover his true views. He didn't do this to "hid these secrets from his fellow Jews, (nor) out of fear of reprisals." But exposing the general population "to these truths could only lead to perplexity (in the best of circumstances) or to falling away from observance (in the worst of circumstances), neither of which Maimonides had any interest in promoting."
Thus, for example, while Maimonides wrote "thirteen principles of Judaism" for the general population, he expected that his more astute readers would realize that only the first five, which deal with God, should be accepted literally. For instance, while he wrote that "the dead will live again," as item thirteen, he did believe in resurrection as most people thought, but that human intelligence will survive the body's death, as he writes in his work called Chelek. So what were Maimonides' true views about Torah, what a person should do, God, and this world?
Maimonides claimed that the laws "derived by the rabbinic sages from the Bible through the use of the ‘thirteen principles of biblical exegesis' were rabbinic in their authority (d'rabbanan), that they did not derive their authority directly from the text of the Torah (d'oraita). He maintained that the rabbis used the biblical language as "an asmakhta, or proof text, a kind of biblical hook on which to hang rabbinic law" even though the rabbinic law is not in the Torah. Yet, Maimonides stressed that Jews should observe these laws.
Science or Talmud study
But, contrary to view of many, Maimonides also stressed that Torah and Talmud study is not what God wants people to do. Maimonides felt that God expects people to understand the world and use it to improve their minds and society. The principle command of Judaism is to "love God" and this is only possible, Maimonides writes, by "knowing" about God's universe.
Kellner refers to Guide 3:51 and quotes the commentator Shem Tov who recognized that Maimonides disagreed with the rabbis who extolled the study of Talmud and who disparaged the study of science, rabbis who were passive and failed to improve themselves. The "philosophers who are engaged with physics and metaphysics have achieved a higher level than those who are immersed in Torah." Kellner emphasizes that "rabbinic studies (are) not an end in themselves, but a preparation for the study of wisdom." He writes that obedience to the 613 "commandments in and of itself does not gain one entry to the world to come."
Yet, as indicated above, Maimonides did not reject Torah, far from it. He was "convinced that one could and must live simultaneously in both of these worlds." But he must perfect himself so that he can practice "loving kindness, judgment and righteousness in the world." Maimonides was convinced "that obedience to the commandments of the Torah was the best tool available to bring one to moral perfection." But it is only a tool. In his commentary on Mishnah Makkot 3:17, Maimonides states that if a person "fulfills one of the 613 commandments properly and in a fitting manner (meaning that it brings him to perfection)…he merits the world to come."
Universalism and intelligence
Maimonides does not distinguish among people based on "their religion, race, gender, or place of origin, but only on the basis of their intellectual attainments." Thus, non-Jews can be prophets because prophecy is a high level of intellect developed by moral people who have a strong imagination that helps them communicate what they understand. Thus also, people are not protected by God; they are protected from danger if they use their intelligence. Jews are certainly not biologically superior to non-Jews. Jews were not elected by God. Jews are Jews, Kellner writes, as "a consequence of the fact that Abraham, so to speak, chose God." The Torah, he continues, "is ultimately addressed to all human beings."
Maimonides insisted that people should not rely on traditions. They must use their intelligence. He said that a person's eyes are in front of his head, not in the back. Religious ideas are, as Kellner writes, "more than a matter of trust, loyalty, and faith; it (is) also a matter of the affirmation or denial of certain propositions." Judaism, according to Maimonides, is a religion of reason. Indeed, as Kellner asserts: to "become an actual human being, to earn a share in the world to come, one must acquire knowledge of metaphysical matters, God and the angels. One must acquire knowledge: it is not enough to be able to recite things by heart like a parrot. One must be able to understand what one is saying." (The italics are by Kellner. By "angels," he and Maimonides mean "forces of nature.")
Maimonides also wrote that the Torah includes ideas that people "need to believe" so that they will behave, but these beliefs, while being "necessary truths," are not "real truths." In fact, startling as this may sound, "both the Torah and Maimonides teach as true certain doctrines which are actually false." An example is the well-known "necessary truth" of reward and punishment after death. But Kellner points out that Maimonides felt certain "that there is no punishment after death for the wicked (people simply cease to exist)."
Kellner writes: "These views, all held by Maimonides, were unacceptable to many Jews in his day." His books were burned in Montpellier in 1232 by, or at least, at the instigation, of Jews who opposed his doctrine. And, they "are certainly unacceptable to Orthodox Jews today."