Maimonides as a Postmodern Jewish Philosopher

Some of my congregants often ask me: Who is your favorite Jewish philosopher? Typically, I answer that it depends upon which time period we are talking about. I am very fond of Philo of Alexandria, the celebrated Jewish philosopher, who was the first person to create a synthesis of Jewish and Hellenistic thought. Then again, there is Saadia Gaon, whose theological arguments and understanding of religious metaphor is strikingly modern. But of all the Jewish philosophers I enjoy the most, it is by far Maimonides. Maimonides believed  that as a faith, Judaism must do constant battle against the false ideologies that undermine true authentic faith.  In an age  such as ours, religion is often the source of considerable bigotry and intolerance. Here are  some other amazing features one discovers in Maimonides’s works:

(1) He attempted to replace the confusing arguments of the Talmud, many of which were never resolved, with his Mishnah Torah, but unfortunately forgot to include his footnotes!

(2) Maimonides also introduced a philosophical and coherent approach to Judaism in an age of religious narrow-mindedness

(3) He loved Greek and Arabic wisdom, often correcting these two traditions with superior or alternative ideas of his own; by modern standards he promoted interfaith dialogue.

(4) Maimonides fought against the proto-Haredi movements within the Judaism of his time

(5) For the most part, Maimonides did not care to take controversial stand when it came to criticizing Talmudic Aggadot (folklore), and the rabbis of his era who interpreted these stories literally (e.g., like the passage where “God wears phylacteries”). Unfortunately, toward the end of his life, Maimonides probably grew tired of people arguing about his theological ideas, and many considered him an heretic for denying (what seemed) the rabbinical doctrine of resurrection; finally he caved in to popular pressure and wrote an epistle to the Jews of Yemen that of course he believed in resurrection. I suspect he understood the doctrine as a metaphor for the afterlife, i.e., the soul is reborn into the realm of Eternity.

(6) Maimonides was also the first modern Jewish thinker to recognize that the forces of idolatry can infest even a truly monotheistic faith like Judaism. This insight alone makes Maimonides in many respects a postmodern theologian for the ages.

(7) Remarkably, Maimonides wasn’t afraid to even consider the possibility that the cosmos is eternal, and if such thing could be factually and scientifically proven, this would still not contradict the idea that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” For Maimonides, the Torah must be interpreted in such a way as to not contradict both common sense and science. When there is a conflict between a rabbinic interpretation or a scientific one (based on common sense and scientific observation), it is the latter that must be viewed as the more accurate possibility.

Thus he writes in “Guide to the Perplexed,” part two, chapter 25: “Know that we do not abandon the view of the world’s primordial nature because of the verses in the Torah which say that the world was created, for indeed, these verses do not tell us about the world being created more than other verses tell us about God being material, and the gates of interpretation are not sealed before us so that we can not escape the view of the world being created; on the contrary, we could interpret these verses [speaking of the creation of the world] just as we did with the verses speaking of God’s material nature – and probably it would be even easier. So we could also interpret these verses as indeed speaking of the world’s primordial nature [instead of the world being created], as we have done with other verses in order to reject the view of God’s anthropomorphic nature.”

It is clear from Maimonides’s words that “the gates of interpretation” remain open, and he could have either proven or disproven matters dealing with the main principles of the faith (such as the primordial nature of the universe) using his own interpretation of the same verses themselves! This is why it is said, “From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses,” and many rabbis still frown upon students learning this book in many of the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas.

(8) Maimonides definitely took a dim view of Jewish mysticism–especially the controversial Shiu’r Komah’, which he regarded as forgery and idolatrous work in his Responsa writings.

(9) Maimonides was one of the first Jewish thinkers to recognize the importance of theological language since the time of Philo and Saadia Gaon. Maimonides believed that a modern Jew had to understand the importance of religious metaphors–especially as it pertains to the Divine.

Maimonides argues that it is inappropriate to employ even all the attributes ascribed to God in the Bible, we may use them in the context we come to them, but it is unbecoming and even sinful to speak of God possessing human‑like characteristics. Human language always falls short whenever speaking of God. Words become devalued and cannot hope to contain the profundity of God’s mysterious Being and Presence. Human language falters and proves impotent.

(10) Maimonides (like Gersonides after him) had a uniquely psychological understanding of how revelation occurs as a visionary phenomenon.

Had Maimonides been familiar with the writings of Philo of Alexandria, I believe he would have spoken of him as ancient Judaism’s greatest thinker; he would have cited him profusely in the third part of his Guide.

(11) Maimonides as psychologist provides amazing prescriptions on realizing one’s inner potential; he is a Jewish behaviorist who believes that human transformation occurs through the practice of ethical actions rather than meditation.

(12) Maimonides in his Guide offers a negative theology of God that even agnostics and atheists might like. Maimonides in his Guide prefers meditation  to prayer or sacrifices. He writes:

The most apt phrase concerning the subject is the dictum occurring in the Psalms, “Silence is praise to Thee” (Ps 65:2), which interpreted signifies: silence with regard to You is praise. This is a most perfectly put phrase regarding this matter. For of whatever we say intending to magnify and exalt, on the one hand we find that it can have some application to Him, may He be exalted, and on the other we perceive in it some deficiency. Accordingly, silence and limiting oneself to the apprehensions of the intellects are more appropriate.[1]

Thus, Maimonides’s negative theology concludes with the mystical[2] ends with his via negativa is mysticism. Maimonides might well agree with the words of Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching: “One who speaks, knows not, one who knows speaks not”[3] and Maimonides’s thinking certainly has parallels in other Eastern theological works.[4]

The word “mystical” comes from the Greek word “muein” (“to close the lips”). Related to the word “mystery,” the mystical represents the secret teachings that are only for the initiated—clearly not for everybody. Thus, God’s own transcendence must always be something that is shrouded in Mysterium. Some scholars speculate and suggest the Greek word mysterion actually comes from the Hebrew word masteer ‑ hidden. The term “mystery” when used in this context, does not necessarily refer to an enigma, or a gap in our knowledge. Rather it refers to something that is inherently unknowable and inexplicable. No amount of knowledge can ever diminish or eliminate this sense of mystery. On the contrary, the more one is confronted by this experience of Mysterium, the more dazzled on is by its beauty and wonderment. Mystery, in the mystical sense of the term, is the source of all awe and lies at the root of true worship and devotion. It evokes questions that point us towards ultimate issues and demands from that we us search for ultimate answers. Maimonides himself speaks of this in the beginning of his Halachic magnum opus, where he wrote:

What is the path to attaining love and awe of Him? Whenever you contemplate His great, wondrous deeds and creations, and see through them His boundless, infinite wisdom, you cannot help but love, exult, and be filled with ecstasy—your passion leads you to want to know God’s great Name. That is what King David meant when he said, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” (Psalms 42:2).

Whenever you think about these things, you will immediately become awed-inspired and abashed. You will realize that you are but an infinitesimal creature, lowly and unenlightened, standing with a puny intellect before the Most Perfect Mind. David thus said, When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers … I ask: What is man that You consider him? (Psalms 8:4‑5).[5]

Maimonides teaches us that the true praise of God must come through the silence of a contemplative experience. Theological attempts to define God, risks creating a Procrustean type of theology where the pathways linking mind and heart are severed.[6] Cognitive faith (faith that is defined by solely intellectual criteria) inevitably leads to skepticism and spiritual coldness or worst—estrangement. Mystical experience cannot be properly defined because it is an experience of the Ineffable. Attempts to define the Sacred in purely cognitive terms diminish God of His own Mystery. There are no words can ever portray the wonder of the Divine reality. No theological discourse, however elevated and inspired by love’s passion[7] , can ever do justice in depicting God’s indescribable Being and Presence.[8]

If Maimonides were writing today, the Haredim would undoubtedly censure his works; he would most certainly blast the Lubavitcher movement (and other Hassidic movements) for venerating and elevating the Rebbe to an almost God-like status.

So if you are looking for a Jewish philosopher who combines Jewish ethics, theology, and Halachic pragmatism, let Maimonides be yours guide.

[1] The Guide (S. Pines’ translation, op. cit.) Chapter 59.

[2] For a fascinating article on Maimonides relationship to the Kabbalah, see Moshe Idel’s “Maimonides and Kabblah” found in Studies in Maimonides edited by Isadore Twersky (Cambridge MA., Harvard University, 1990), pp. 31‑81.

[3] The Tao Te Ching, translated by Ellen M. Chen (Paragon House, N.Y., 1989) p. 188 Hexagram # 56.

[4] It is intriguing to compare Maimonides to the Advaita Vedanta mystic and philosopher Shankara (7‑8th century C.E.). Shankara taught that Brahman (The Hindu name for God) cannot be described by word or idea, “It [Brahman] is the One as the Scripture says: ‘Before Whom words recoil.’” A comparison of Maimonides with Shankara goes far beyond the scope of this study. However, it is significant to note that both philosophers utilize common language. For example: Shankara characterizes Brahman as without form, unknowable by philosophical reflection, as free from all relationships with the illusionary world we live in. Like Maimonides, Shankara also advocates the via negativa when describing Brahman. Like Maimonides, Shankara describes Brahman as the Knower, the Known, and the act of Knowing. For an excellent summary of Shankara’s monistic teachings see Rudolf Otto’ classic study Mysticism East and West ‑‑ A Comparative Analysis of The Nature of Mysticism. (Originally printed by Macmillan Company , N.Y. 1932 reprinted by Quest 1987.)

[5] Maimonides, MT, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2.

[6] In Greek mythology, Procrustes was the evil innkeeper of Greek mythology who forced his guests, big and small to fit the bed they slept in—either through torture or by mutilation. Tall folks were cut short to size, while short people were stretched to fit. As a theological metaphor, procrustean theology attempts to mutilate and stretch truth by forcing data to fit preconceived notions.

[7] As one early 19th century Kabbalist explains, “Rational worship can only sensitize us to God’s radiance in the higher spiritual realms. True closeness to God occurs once we transcend the limitations of our reason through the commitment of the physical mitzvoth. For it is for that reason the soul descends into this earthly realm. Sheneir Zalman of Liadi, (1745‑1813) Torah Or, Parshat Noach (Kehot Publishers, Brooklyn, N.Y, 1985)

[8] Another one of Maimonides’s great mystical insights, the master speaks about the mystery of God’s consciousness of the world:

The Holy One blessed be He, recognizes His truth and knows it as it is. He does not know with a knowledge that is external to Him in the way that we know,. for we are not one. The Creator . . . is Unity Incarnate — one from every side and every angle, in every way of unity….You could even say that He is the Knower, the Known, and the process of Knowing. All exists within the Divine Oneness. We are utterly incapable of verbally describing what the nature of this reality is. Our ears cannot begin to understand, nor is it within the heart of humanity grasp this matter properly” (Maimonides, MT Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:10).