Shiur #27: The Spiritual World of Those who Attain Truths

  • Rav Chaim Navon

Shiur #27: The Spiritual World of Those who Attain Truths



In the previous shiur we saw that in chapter fifty-one of Book III, the Rambam draws a sharp distinction between the spiritual world of the masses, who are meant to occupy themselves with the acquisition of knowledge, and the spiritual world of the exalted individuals who have attained truths. The masses must first attain an understanding of the physical and metaphysical truths. Those who have attained this knowledge have arrived at the complete truth, and from this point on their spiritual work consists of contemplating the Creator with fiery religious fervor.


One might say that the Rambam binds two books together into a single work: the "Guide of the Perplexed," comprising the greater part of the book, and a "Guide of the Knowers," set forth in the final four chapters. In this shiur we will look a little deeper into the spiritual world of those who have attained truths.


A.        Separateness (Perishut)


The prophets who achieve the most supreme level of Divine service are unique not only in their constant intellectual occupation with the knowledge of God, and not only in their fervor and passion for this knowledge. In the Rambam's view, the entire lifestyle of "those who attain truths" is different from that of other people. For instance, the Rambam reiterates several times in our chapter the need for these individuals to engage in meditation:


It has thus been shown that it must be man's aim, after having acquired the knowledge of God, to deliver himself up to Him, and to have his heart constantly filled with longing for Him. He accomplishes this generally by seclusion and retirement. Every pious man should therefore seek retirement and seclusion, and should only in case of necessity associate with others.


These individuals are required to live a life of seclusion, expressed first and foremost in retirement – i.e., keeping aloof from social contact – but also in asceticism. The Rambam presents Moshe Rabbeinu as a model of this ideal, in light of the testimony in the Torah as to the level that he achieved at the time of the giving of the Torah: "He did not eat bread, nor did he drink water…" (Shemot 34:28). The masses must follow the "Golden Mean," but the exalted individuals who achieve the highest levels of spirituality must emphasize asceticism and seclusion.[1] The reason for this is that until now they have focused on acquiring knowledge, but now they must concentrate on constant intellectual activity, unceasing contemplation of God – and this requires maximum severance from the material world.


It may be that the Rambam has the same position in mind in his formulation of the “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah”:


It is one of the foundations of our faith that God grants prophecy to man.


Prophecy rests only on a person who possesses great wisdom and is of strong character, who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard, but rather he – with his thoughts – overcomes his inclinations at all times. He must also possess a very broad and sound mental capacity.


A person who is full of all these qualities, and is physically healthy –


when he enters the Pardes and is drawn into these great and sublime concepts, if he possesses the mental capacity necessary to comprehend and grasp them, he will become increasingly holy, and will separate himself from the masses who proceed in the darkness of the time. He must continue and diligently train himself not to have any thoughts whatsoever about fruitless things or the vanities and intrigues of the times. Instead, his mind should constantly be directed upward, bound beneath the Throne of Glory, seeking to comprehend the holy and pure forms and beholding the wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, in its entirety, from the most elevated spiritual form down to the navel of the earth, deducing from them His greatness from them –


the divine spirit will immediately rest upon him. (“Laws of the Foundations of the Torah” 7:1)


We find here both the demand that the prophet devote all his intellectual might to the contemplation of God, and the guidance to "separate himself from the masses," etc.


The Rambam's position towards asceticism as presented in his Mishneh Torah is more complex than his denunciation of this principle in his Shemoneh Perakim, an introduction to Massekhet Avot. In the Shemoneh Perakim, the Rambam advances what has come to be known as his "Golden Mean" (even though the Rambam himself never uses that expression): a person should be neither stingy nor a squanderer, but rather generous; he should be neither afraid nor rash, but rather courageous; and so forth. However, the righteous sometimes deviate slightly from the middle path, in one direction or the other (such as, for example, a slight tendency towards seclusion and asceticism) – but only as a precaution against degeneration in the opposite direction (licentious indulgence). In contrast, what the Rambam says on the same subject in his “Laws of Traits” in the Mishneh Torah seems to imply that the righteous tend towards the extreme because this is the proper path; it represents a deliberate and praiseworthy effort to go beyond the letter of the law (“Laws of Traits” 1:5). In general, the Mishneh Torah seems to suggest that seclusion and asceticism are not the desirable path for ordinary people, but they are certainly recommended for the exemplary individuals who attain supreme levels of spirituality.[2]


B.        The Commandments


At the level of "those who have attained truths," even the purpose of the practical commandments changes and approaches their traditional significance. Let us examine the commandment of prayer, as an example. The Rambam wrote earlier on in Book III about the purpose of this commandment:


The ninth class comprises the general laws concerning religious rites and ceremonies, e.g., laws concerning prayers, the reading of Shema… The object of these laws is apparent; they all prescribe actions which firmly establish the love of God in our minds, as well as the right belief concerning Him and His attributes. (III:35)


Here the Rambam teaches that the point of the commandment of prayer is to inculcate proper faith and beliefs. The very repetition of proper beliefs, even if it is through repetition rather than through original thought, contributes to their firm establishment in a person's heart. However, in chapter fifty-one the Rambam offers a different view:


We must bear in mind that all such religious acts as reading the Law, praying, and the performance of other precepts, serve exclusively as the means of causing us to occupy and fill our mind with the precepts of God, and free it from worldly business; for we are thus, as it were, in communication with God, and undisturbed by any other thing. (III:51)[3]


Here the orientation is quite different. The main goal is not the acquisition of true knowledge and belief, but rather the actual contemplation of God and devotion to Him. The above excerpt from the Rambam is immediately followed by a paragraph that appears to be taken from a book of Mussar: the Rambam rebukes those who read from the Torah, or fulfill commandments, while immersed in everyday thoughts. Here he emphasizes that the intention, the focus, is the most important aspect of one's activity. Throughout the lengthy chapters of Book III, our impression has been that the essence of a mitzva is the social or intellectual benefit that it brings. The sacrifices, for example, are meant to combat idolatry. In order to achieve this sort of aim, there is no need for any special concentration or supreme cleaving to God. In our chapter, however, the picture is different.


The explanation for the difference is quite simple. Chapter fifty-one deals with people who have already achieved complete knowledge. For such individuals, the commandment of prayer has no importance as a way of achieving proper knowledge, for they have achieved it already. For them, the significance of the commandment changes: it becomes a way of focusing thought on God. When it comes to those who have "attained the truths," the Rambam comes back to the traditional view of the commandments. He no longer presents them as a mere means, but rather as acts that are an end in themselves: the pinnacle of closeness to God. As explained in the previous shiur, in the Rambam's view there is no value attached to religious passion in a person whose faith is deficient or whose knowledge is incomplete, since his passion is not directed to the true God. However, once he achieves a pure and proper faith, his fervor may be amplified and focused solely on God.


C.        Divine Providence


One of the difficult problems arising from the Guide is the contradiction concerning the concept of Divine Providence. In chapter seventeen, the Rambam stated explicitly:


It may be by mere chance that a ship goes down with all her contents, as in the above-mentioned instance, or the roof of a house falls upon those within; but it is not due to chance, according to our view, that in the one instance the men went into the ship, or remained in the house in the other instance: it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments. (III:17)


This tells us that Divine Providence does not interfere with the regular course of natural events. It acts only on the human intellect. God sends a person special insight that helps him to avoid accidents.


However, in chapter fifty-one, in describing the Divine Providence that protects these individuals, the picture changes. Commenting on Tehillim 91, the Rambam explains:


If you happen to meet on your way with an army fighting with drawn swords, killing thousands at your left hand and myriads at your right hand, you will not suffer any harm; you will behold and see how God judges and punishes the wicked that are being slain, whilst you remain unhurt… (Verse 14) may therefore be paraphrased as follows: “Such a man is well guarded because he has known Me, and loved Me."


Here we see that Divine Providence intervenes in a manifest way even in the natural course of events. While chapter seventeen suggested that Divine Providence acts only through special insight that is granted to a person, affecting only his thoughts, in chapter fifty-one we find Divine Providence deflecting arrows and swords from their paths in order to protect a righteous person deserving of such defense.




Many different solutions have been proposed for this famous contradiction:


  1. Some have suggested that in chapter fifty-one the Rambam is not describing any sort of miraculous Divine Providence. Rather, in keeping with his principle of Divine intervention through the human intellect, he means that God will warn the righteous individuals passing through a battlefield, such that they will be saved. However, it is difficult to accept this interpretation because a person who is armed with heightened awareness and who takes special precautions does not enjoy any noticeable advantage on the battlefield.


  1. Julius Guttmann (The Philosophy of Judaism) acknowledges that a contradiction does indeed exist and that we have no way of solving it, and therefore proposes that we adopt the view expressed explicitly in chapter seventeen.


  1. Those who read the Guide as an esoteric work in which the Rambam conceals, as it were, his true opinion through deliberate untruths, argue that chapter seventeen represents the Rambam's true view, while chapter fifty-one is intended merely to "appease" traditional readers. This proposal is problematic and strange; in previous shiurim we have already addressed the many disadvantages of the esoteric approach to reading the Guide.


  1. A different explanation – the most "traditional" of all the various solutions – maintains that the Rambam actually proposes two levels of Divine Providence. For most people, God's providence operates only via the intellect. But for the individuals who achieve the special level of service reserved for those who have attained truths, Divine Providence also operates through changes and upheavals in the laws of nature. According to this interpretation, the Rambam recognizes "hashgacha peratit" in the traditional sense, but he reserves it for exceptional individuals. This represents further evidence of the "religious" dimension of the final chapters of the Guide.


  1. Many scholars have interpreted the Rambam's words in chapter fifty-one to mean that the exceptional, intellectually perfected individual may not be saved from death if he walks through a killing field, but even if he is killed, this is not an evil in his case, since his adherence to God will live on. No evil can befall a person who exists at this level, for the only thing that matters to him is closeness to God. This view was taken by the 13th century commentator Shem-Tov ben Joseph ibn Falaquera, as well as by Eliezer Schweid (Ha-Rambam Ve-Chug Hashpa'ato, p. 156) and Eliezer Goodman (Mechkarim Ve-Iyyunim, pp. 300-301).



Support for this interpretation may be brought from the Rambam's words concerning Iyov's final and true position:


As soon as he had acquired a true knowledge of God, he confessed that there is undoubtedly true felicity in the knowledge of God; it is attained by all who acquire that knowledge, and no earthly trouble can disturb it. (III:23).


This interpretation is also supported by the Rambam's statement later on in chapter fifty-one concerning "death by a kiss." He describes this death as follows:


When the time nears for these perfected individuals to die, their knowledge of God is greatly increased. The joy in this knowledge and the passion for that which is known grow exceedingly great, to the point where the soul leaves the body… This form of death, which in truth is deliverance from death, was ascribed by our Sages to Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam…


Following this form of death,


The intellect of these individuals remains then constantly in the same condition… it continues for ever in that great delight, which is not like bodily pleasure.


For the perfected righteous individuals, even death itself is not a threat, but rather an elevation.


Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1]  It is in light of this that we should view what the Rambam says in Book II, chapter thirty-six, concerning a person who wishes to achieve prophecy: "The multitude must be considered according to their true worth; some of them are undoubtedly like domesticated cattle, and others like wild beasts, and these only engage the mind of the perfect and meditational man insofar as he desires to guard himself, in case of contact with them, from injury by those among them who are harmful, and to derive some benefit from them when necessary for his own essential needs." It is reasonable to posit that here, too, this guidance is directed towards the prophet, and – as we shall see in our shiur on chapter fifty-four – this advice pertains specifically to a prophet who is starting out.

[2] There are some commentators who maintain that the harshness with which the Rambam attacks the path of asceticism in the introduction to Avot is meant as a polemic response to the adoption of ascetic trends borrowed from Christianity and Islam. For an examination of the Rambam's position as reflected in the Mishneh Torah, see also his “Laws of Prohibited Sexual Relations” 21:11; “Laws of the Study of Torah” 3:6, 12.

[3] The Rambam comments that the forefathers and Moshe achieved an even higher level: they focused on God and contemplated Him not only while performing commandments and in their free time, but even while involved in bodily or social matters. The forefathers involved themselves in social leadership and matters of this world, but at the same time maintained their cleaving to God. One might have concluded, on this basis, that it is possible to be close to God even through one's worldly affairs, and not only through intellectual contemplation. However, the Rambam stays true to his approach and reaches the opposite conclusion: that despite the involvement of the forefathers in worldly affairs, their focus and attention was on God.