Shiur #26: The Parable of the Palace and the Special Duties of Those who Attain Truths

  • Rav Chaim Navon

A.        Concluding Chapters of the Guide


In the next few shiurim we will examine the final four chapters of the Guide (Book III, chapters 51-54), which are of special importance for understanding the Rambam's way of thinking. At the beginning of chapter fifty-one, the Rambam declares:


The present chapter does not contain any additional matter that has not been treated in the [previous] chapters of this treatise, but is rather a sort of conclusion.


Nevertheless, his "conclusion" illuminates many of the preceding chapters of the Guide in a new light.


The concluding chapters have aroused the ire of some of the traditional commentators. There was particularly fierce reaction to chapter fifty-one, for reasons that will become apparent. The commentator Shem Tov writes concerning this chapter:


Many of the rabbinic sages have said that this chapter was not written by the Rambam – and that if he did write it, it should nevertheless be buried, and is deserving of being burned.


Others, however, have viewed these chapters as the most "religious" part of the Guide. Rabbi Soloveitchik writes:


The philosophers and historians who have written about Maimonides generally do not deal with these chapters, though it is in them – and not in the Aristotelian chapters - that the real Maimonides is revealed... (On Repentance)


We might comment that in our times, academics who study the Rambam devote special interest to these final chapters.


Throughout the generations, commentators on the Rambam have struggled to explain in what way the Rambam is different from a believing, non-Jewish Aristotelian philosopher. In these chapters the difference becomes clear. The Rambam exposes some of his innermost thoughts and removes some of the camouflage surrounding his views. On one hand, this discovery sometimes deters traditional commentators; on the other hand, it clarifies the uniqueness of the Rambam among Aristotelian philosophers and the religious fervor that is concealed in his teachings.


B.        The Metaphor of the Palace


The part of this conclusion section of the Guide that is most difficult for traditional commentators to swallow is the famous "palace metaphor" that appears in chapter fifty-one:


A king is in his palace, and his subjects are partly in the country, and partly abroad. Of the former, some have their backs turned towards the king's palace, and their faces in another direction; and some are desirous and zealous to go to the palace, seeking "to inquire in his temple," and to minister before him, but have not yet seen even the face of the wall of the house. Of those that desire to go to the palace, some reach it, and go round about in search of the entrance gate; others have passed through the gate, and walk about in the ante-chamber; and others have succeeded in entering into the inner part of the palace, and being in the same room with the king in the royal palace. But even the latter do not immediately on entering the palace see the king, or speak to him; for, after having entered the inner part of the palace, another effort is required before they can stand before the king--at a distance, or close by--hear his words, or speak to him.


The parable describes people occupying differing positions of proximity to "the king." The Rambam, deviating from his usual practice, explains the meaning of his parable explicitly and clearly. The people who are "abroad" are


all those that have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition… I consider these as irrational beings, and not as human beings; they are below mankind, but above monkeys, since they have the form and shape of man, and a mental faculty above that of the monkey.


Those furthest from God are people who have no religious belief at all. Here we must recall that for the Rambam, religious faith means, first and foremost, metaphysical knowledge; hence, he refers here to people who have no awareness of, and devote no attention to, metaphysical questions. He defines two different levels of religious belief: one that is "based on speculation" and the other that is "received by tradition." There is faith that is acquired through rational thought, and there is faith that is accepted and handed down, with no independent thought; it is simply memorized and repeated. The Rambam is talking here about those who lack even this rote level of metaphysical awareness; they lack even a general, uneducated sense of existence beyond the material here-and-now.


Those who are inside the country but face away from the king's palace are


those who possess religion, belief, and thought, but happen to hold false doctrines, which they have either adopted in consequence of great mistakes made in their own speculations, or received from others who misled them.


It is important to differentiate between this group and the non-believers described previously. Someone who has no belief, in the eyes of the Rambam, is devoid of knowledge. Here, he is speaking of people who have some metaphysical awareness, but their views are erroneous. They are closer to God, for they  possess intellectual awareness, but in a different sense they are further away, for their intellectual position is not "zero" but rather "-1." This opens the door to the fundamental question of which is better: a person who has no faith at all, or someone who holds a faulty faith? Francis Bacon introduces his article on atheism as follows:


It were better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion as is unworthy of him… Plutarch says well in this regard, “Surely… I had rather a great deal men should say there was no such man at all as Plutarch, than they should say that there was one Plutarch that would eat children as soon as they were born.”


In other words, an absence of faith is preferable to a faith that is perverted or corrupted. This is not a simple assertion to make.


In any event, the Rambam does not address this question of principle. He arrives at his ordering of the groups from a completely different perspective:


Because of these doctrines they [who hold erroneous views] recede more and more from the royal palace the more they seem to proceed. These are worse than the first class, and under certain circumstances it may become necessary to slay them, and to extirpate their doctrines, in order that others should not be misled.


The harsh view towards this group arises mainly from the threat posed by their greater potential to lead others astray. Sometimes, social responsibility may dictate that they be put to death. The same approach is reflected in the Rambam's halakhic works. In the Mishneh Torah he writes:


Concerning Jewish traitors, heretics and apostates, the law is that they are to be eradicated and to be caused to descend to the pit of destruction, since they bring trouble upon Israel and sway the people from God. (“Laws of Idolatry” 10:1)


The third group in the parable consists of the masses of religious people:


Those who desire to arrive at the palace, and to enter it, but have never yet seen it, are the mass of religious people; the masses who are ignorant but observe the Divine commandments.


Here we arrive at the most sensitive and problematic elements of the parable. Since, tin the Rambam's view, man's ultimate purpose is perfection of the intellect, ignorant people who observe the commandments are far removed from the supreme level:


Those who arrive at the palace, but go round about it, are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law; they believe traditionally in true principles of faith, and learn the practical worship of God, but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the principles of the Law, and do not endeavor to establish the truth of their faith by proof.


This is the most controversial point in the parable, and perhaps in the entire Guide. In the eyes of the Rambam, scholars of Halakha who are not philosophers "go about the palace" but do not enter it! From what he says thereafter, it seems that those who involve themselves in philosophy are on a more exalted level than those who focus on Halakha. This assertion has produced astonishment in many traditional readers.


After having looked at selected aspects of the Rambam's thought in this series, we should not be all that surprised. We understand that Rambam is stating here explicitly that which he previously alluded to. In his view, the ultimate purpose of the commandments is to perfect one's thoughts and perceptions. If a person performs the commandments with great punctiliousness, and even if he possesses an unparalleled proficiency in the details of each and every mitzvah, but in terms of the ultimate goal he remains on a superficial level of repeating declarations of faith, then he is still far from achieving human perfection. While this assertion may offend many Jews who subscribe to traditional Jewish philosophy – myself included – it is altogether typical of the Rambam. Let us consider for a moment the explanation that he offers in his "Epistle on the Resurrection of the Dead" concerning the need to formulate the Principles of Faith. He writes there about certain advanced Torah scholars who, despite their erudition in matters of Halakha, genuinely remain in doubt as to whether God is corporeal or incorporeal. It is for such individuals, explains the Rambam, that he composed the Principles of Faith. The Rambam speaks with a certain disdain about the "Talmudists," those who engage in arguments over Torah and Halakha, but are completely ignorant of philosophy. In the Guide, the Rambam gives sharp expression to this view in his assertion that halakhic scholars who do not involve themselves in the philosophical principles occupy a relatively low level on the ladder of spiritual development.


Let us return to the parable. On the next level are those who are already focused on man's purpose, as the Rambam sees it, namely, contemplation of the a priori concepts, and especially of God:


Those who undertake to investigate the principles of religion have come into the ante-chamber; and there is no doubt that these can also be divided into different grades. But those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything that can be proved, who have a true knowledge of God, so far as a true knowledge can be attained, and are near the truth, wherever an approach to the truth is possible, they have reached the goal, and are in the palace in which the king lives.


Attention should be paid to the Rambam's careful formulation. Even someone who has "succeeded in finding a proof for everything that can be proved, who has a true knowledge of God, so far as a true knowledge can be attained" – even he is still only categorized as being "in the palace," but not as one who "sees the face of the king.” The Rambam goes on to elaborate upon the different levels among the sages:


My son, so long as you are engaged in studying the Mathematical Sciences and Logic, you belong to those who go round about the palace in search of the gate… When you understand Physics, you have entered the hall; and when, after completing the study of Natural Philosophy, you master Metaphysics, you have entered the “innermost court,” and are with the king in the same palace. You have attained the degree of the wise men, who include men of different grades of perfection.


As in other places, the Rambam lists the spheres of knowledge by levels of importance. Mathematics and logic, in his view, are auxiliary spheres that provide a person with tools for clear thought. They are not important in and of themselves, but rather as a means (and for this reason mathematicians are compared to scholars of Halakha, who have proper views in terms of tradition). Physics is on a higher level, since it brings a person to an understanding of the system and processes of the world. The Rambam, like all Aristotelians, viewed physics and metaphysics as existing on a single continuum: knowledge of the world leads to knowledge of God. And indeed, the next stage of knowledge is metaphysics. The metaphysical scholars, who are familiar with the Divine system as the Rambam perceived it, are in the "innermost court" of the palace.


However, we have yet to reach the highest level – those who meet with the king. In the Rambam's view, these are the prophets:


There are some who, having attained perfection in metaphysics, and devote themselves entirely to God, excluding from their thought every other thing, and employing all their intellectual faculties in the study of the universe, in order to arrive at the proofs for the existence of God, and to learn in every possible way how God rules all things - these form the class of those who appear before the king. This is the level of the prophets. One of these attained so much knowledge, and concentrated his thoughts to such an extent on the idea of God, that it could be said of him, "And he was with the Lord forty days," etc. (Shemot 34:28); during that holy communion he could ask Him, answer Him, speak to Him, and be addressed by Him, enjoying beatitude in that which he had obtained to such a degree that “he neither ate bread nor drank water” (ibid.); his intellectual energy was so predominant that all coarser functions of the body, especially those connected with the sense of touch, were in abeyance. Some prophets are only able to see, and of these some approach near and see, whilst others see from a distance, as in, “God appeared to me from afar” (Yirmiyahu 31:2).


In previous shiurim (15-16) we saw that the first difference between the prophet and the philosopher is the involvement of the former in social leadership, with the aid of his power of imagination. Here we see a more fundamental difference: while the prophet and the philosopher sometimes share the same knowledge, their attitude towards that knowledge is quite different. The philosopher is apathetic towards his metaphysical knowledge. For him, it is simply information; he accumulates it, but shows no personal connection to it. The prophet, on the other hand, gives himself entirely over to drawing close to God through his knowledge. He does not suffice with passive knowledge, but seeks to engage his thoughts in these Godly matters over and over, out of a sense of great personal connection and enthusiasm. For this reason the prophet attains a higher level. Only those who conduct themselves in this way are those who "behold the face of the King," and some even merit to speak with Him. This distinction between prophet and philosopher is surprisingly reminiscent of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi's formulation of the difference between "the God of Avraham" and "the God of Aristotle":


Now I understand the difference between Elokim and Ado-nai, and I see how far the God of Abraham is different from that of Aristotle. Man yearns for Ado-nai as a matter of love, taste, and conviction; whilst attachment to Elo-kim is the result of speculation. A feeling of the former kind invites its votaries to give their life for His sake, and to prefer death to His absence. Speculation, however, makes veneration only a necessity as long as it entails no harm, but bears no pain for its sake. (Sefer Ha-kuzari, IV:16)


The parable, whose first part aroused such strong controversy among the traditional commentators on the Rambam, thus concludes on a note that emphasizes the religious nature of the Rambam's philosophy. As the Rambam sees it, knowledge is not just cold rational information. For the prophet – the supreme figure who stands at the pinnacle of humanity – knowledge becomes a life quest; it involves the entire personality in drawing close to God, through an enthusiastic dedication to constant knowledge and awareness of Him.


To conclude our discussion of the parable of the palace, I would like to address one more comparison. The disciples of the Ba'al Shem Tov cite a parable which seems very similar to the Rambam's parable of the palace. The following is the version of the parable as retold by the Maggid of Polnoye:


I heard a parable from my teacher, of blessed memory, about a king who built several fences and walls, one inside the other, creating an illusion, all around the king. And he ordered that money be placed at each of the gates in the walls, and the more inward the wall, the more money was placed there – in order to test the agility and desire of his subjects, to see how each would exert himself to come and see him. Some returned home after receiving money at the gate in the very outermost wall; others returned home after the second, or third, gate, etc. But there were a small number who never entertained any desire to accumulate wealth, but rather sought to come to the king, and after enduring some tribulations they came to the king and saw that there was no wall or fence, but rather that it was all an illusion… And the meaning of the parable is clear: the great, mighty, awesome King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, hides Himself with several iron fences and walls… and these fences are foreign thoughts, and neglect of Torah and prayer… But those who possess knowledge know that all the fences and walls of iron, and all their coverings, are in fact part of God's own essence, for there is no place that is empty of Him; this being the case, it is merely an illusion of His hiding. (Ben Porat Yosef, Lemberg 5626, 94a)


Here, too, we have a parable that presents different levels of closeness to the king. However, there are important differences. R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye emphasizes that the closer a person draws to God, the greater the challenges that he faces. Perhaps he alludes here to the honor that such a person receives, which might deflect his attention from his goal: complete devotion to God. Another difference is that R. Yaakov Yosef does not speak of any special ability or supreme wisdom needed in order to approach the king; all that is required is the will and devotion to do so. The most important difference between the two parables is that according to R. Yaakov Yosef, those who achieve the deepest knowledge discover that in truth there are no walls and barriers; all is Godliness. In other words, the real difference is not between those who have succeeded in entering the king's palace and those who remain outside, but rather between those who still perceive the barriers and walls and those who understand that God is everywhere. From the highest point in this spiritual hierarchy, the hierarchy ceases to exist. This view is very far removed from that of the Rambam.


C.        The Special Service of those who Attain Truths


The Rambam defines chapter fifty-one of Book III of his Guide as "a sort of conclusion." Inter alia, this conclusion


will explain in what manner those who have obtained a true knowledge concerning God, worship Him; it will direct them as to how to arrive at that worship, which is the highest aim that man can attain, and show how God protects them in this world.


Following his parable of the palace, the Rambam goes on to describe this special worship; i.e., the religious life of those who have achieved the highest level – the prophets.


These supreme individuals do not rest on their laurels, but rather engage intensively in contemplation of God. A person's endeavor does not end with the attainment of the highest degree of knowledge. He is now required to invest further effort:


We will therefore return to the subject of this chapter, and exhort those who have attained a knowledge of God, to concentrate all their thoughts in God. This is the worship peculiar to those who have acquired a knowledge of the highest truths; and the more they reflect on Him, and think of Him, the more are they engaged in His worship…


Man's love of God is identical with His knowledge of Him. The Divine service enjoined in these words must, accordingly, be preceded by the love of God. Our Sages have pointed out to us that it is a service in the heart, which explanation I understand to mean this: man concentrates all his thoughts on the First Intellect, and is absorbed in these thoughts as much as possible.


We have already discussed the unique service that is the lot of those who achieve the loftiest levels of knowledge. But at this point all who view the Rambam as a cold, detached philosopher are in for a surprise. He asserts that the sages who achieve the level of prophecy are filled with religious fervor and are constantly engaged in active contemplation of God. A knowledgeable astronomer need not think about the stars all day long, but a knowledgeable sage must spend all his time concentrating on God. Metaphysical knowledge is not just information; it is an ideal and a goal. For the philosophers, as Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi so eloquently explains, "the denial of God's existence is (merely) the mark of a low standard of the soul which delights in untruth" (Kuzari, IV, 15). For them, too, man must know the truth – but this knowledge is devoid of the passion that calls for contemplation of God at all times, continuously, and to direct all one's thoughts and energy towards Him. This call is a manifestly religious one. The Rambam even identifies it with Chazal's teaching, "Service of the heart… this is prayer" (Mekhilta De-Rashbi, chapter 23): "And this I understand to mean that man concentrates all his thoughts on the First Intellect."


The Rambam emphasizes that this refined form of worship is reserved only for select individuals, for only they are capable of contemplating God in a manner that is true:


Those, however, who think of God, and frequently mention His name, without any correct notion of Him, but merely following some imagination, or some theory received from another person, are, in my opinion, like those who remain outside the palace and distant from it. They do not mention the name of God in truth, nor do they reflect on it. That which they imagine and mention does not correspond to any being in existence: it is a thing invented by their imagination, as has been shown by us in our discussion on the Divine Attributes (I,1). The true worship of God is only possible when correct notions of Him have previously been conceived.


Concentrated contemplation of God is proper occupation only for someone who has already achieved the level of perfect knowledge. In Book I of the Guide, the Rambam explained why there is no room for tolerance towards people who believe that God has a corporeal existence:


It is not proper to leave anyone in the belief that God is corporeal, or that He has any of the properties of material objects, just as there is no license to leave them in the belief that God does not exist, that more than one god exists, or that any other being may be worshipped. (I:35)


The purity of faith is more important than its depth. If a person's faith does not start out pure, he may be like someone who does not believe in the God of Israel at all, but rather some other form of divinity. If a person believes that God is a great green dragon, we should not seek to stoke and amplify his faith. His religious fervor is not directed towards God, but rather towards some foreign, misleading concept. The Rambam adopts a very strict position when it comes to mistaken perceptions in faith, regarding them as deviations from the true image of God.


It is therefore clear and easy to understand why the Rambam reserves religious fervor and focused contemplation of God only for those who have already achieved the proper foundation of knowledge. Until a person reaches true and complete knowledge of God, his faith is deficient, and his most urgent task is not to develop and deepen his religious fervor, but to clarify further its object – i.e., to purify his faith. We might illustrate this by imagining someone listening to the radio: if he is not properly tuned to the right channel, then the louder the volume, the greater the cacophony of static from which he will suffer. First he must locate precisely the frequency that he is looking for, and only then should he turn up the volume.


Despite what our natural religious instincts might suggest, the Rambam insists that the religious service appropriate to the masses is mainly intellectual inquiry, while religious fervor is appropriate only to the most exalted of scholars. Fervor that develops while one's religious consciousness is not yet properly developed may border on idolatry.


Translation by Kaeren Fish