Maimonides’ position on the soul is very complex and this subject remains of the more controversial topics of Jewish intellectual history. Certainly in his commentary to the Mishnah, Maimonides includes the belief in bodily resurrection among the basic tenants of faith listed in his famous Thirteen Articles of Belief.
However, in Maimonides’ most mature work, the philosophical tract known as “The Guide to the Perplexed,” the great philosopher stresses the belief in the soul’s immortality and says nothing about physical resurrection.
One might wonder: How consistent is Maimonides? Actually, one could answer that it all depends upon the specific target audience he was trying to educate. For traditionalists, Maimonides endorses the standard orthodox beliefs that everyone knew. This point is visibly clear in his famous essay on Resurrection where he defends himself against the accusation he “denied the existence of physical resurrection.”
Many scholars doubt whether Maimonides was really being truthful when he composed his letter; others think the text may have been a forgery. On the other hand, Maimonides sometimes expresses sentiments that he would never publicly endorse; the belief in resurrection could be one such example.
Maimonides reveals his most personal theological views regarding resurrection in his Guide to the Perplexed–not so much by what he says, but by what he does not say! If I understand Maimonides correctly, I think he never really denies resurrection; rather, he gives it a new understanding. Resurrection simply means that the soul is reborn into the world of Eternity after the body perishes in this world.
Maimonides’ sophisticated grasp of anthropomorphism and his rejection of scriptural literalism strongly indicates that the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval era also viewed resurrection as a metaphorical truth. One must remember that Maimonides was the first Jewish thinkers to engage in a process of de-mythologizing Scriptures, which often speaks in mytho-poetic language that can best be understood as metaphor.
If this conjecture is correct, Maimonides’ view certainly fits a more modern way of viewing faith; briefly stated, resurrection does not suspend the laws of nature, rather, it refers to a metaphysical journey where the soul returns to its original state of being. Physical death does not have the final word on the soul’s existence. By the same token, Maimonides (and especially Gersonides after him) generally interprets supernatural miracles of the Bible in naturalistic terms. Natural law within the universe remains inviolate. Continue reading “Did Maimonides really believe in a physical resurrection or not?”