Shiur #29: The Rambam's Teachings for Our Generation

  • Rav Chaim Navon


We shall conclude our journey through the Guide of the Perplexed by considering the relevance of the Rambam's teaching for our era.


The introductory words above already demand some explanation: why should there be a need for any discussion as to the relevance of the Rambam's teachings in the Guide for our generation, any more than there is a need for such discussion of the teachings of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi, for example? The answer seems fairly simple. First, it is a fact that many students contend with this question and have trouble understanding in what way the Rambam's philosophy relates to our lives today. Second, the reason for the difficulty is clear: the Rambam's thought is more deeply imprinted with the stamp of his era than is the case among most other important Jewish philosophers. This produces a strange and saddening paradox. The Rambam is the greatest Jewish philosopher who has ever lived, and his teaching represents a pinnacle of Jewish thought; yet, precisely this teaching, despite its power and depth, requires careful scrutiny in order to identify which parts are relevant for our own times.


The most problematic aspect of the Rambam's thought is its grounding in the philosophy of his time, and especially the Aristotelian school. For this he is roundly criticized by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch:


His particular spiritual orientation was Arabic-Greek, and likewise his philosophy of life. He delved into Judaism [with an approach] from the outside, bringing world-views which he found existing elsewhere, and thereby compromised it. (Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Iggerot Tzafon, p. 68)


Aristotelian philosophy, which appeared in the Rambam's time to be on very firm grounding, became with time a rather more fragile foundation. Many elements of Aristotelian thought have become assimilated within accepted western thought, but there are also many parts of Aristotelian physics and metaphysics that have disappeared from the scientific and philosophical scene.


In this shiur we will attempt to show why the Rambam's thought has eternal value independent of the specific philosophical positions that he cites. Obviously, we shall not be able to exhaust the scope of the Rambam's teachings and their relevance today. Rather, we shall suffice with mentioning some major themes. Our focus will be on the Guide of the Perplexed, which is not only the Rambam's own greatest philosophical achievement, but also the greatest medieval work of Jewish philosophy.


A.        Specific Ideas and Concepts


The first area in which we can point to the relevance of the Rambam's teachings to our generation includes a long list of ideas with eternal relevance which the Rambam raises. Even though the essence of his teaching is largely shaped by Aristotelian philosophy, there are nevertheless some important elements that have stood the test of time and remain as relevant today as they were in his own time.


The task of isolating these concepts is problematic when it comes to such a systematic thinker. Most of the ideas that the Rambam raises are interwoven and interdependent, such that it is difficult to separate them from the central focus of his teaching. Nevertheless, there are some ideas which are not dependent, by definition, on the Rambam's Aristotelian positions, or whose connection with those positions is fairly weak.[1] The following are some examples:


  1. The Rambam's view of the relationship between prophecy and Halakha, as expressed in the “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah” and in his Introduction to the Mishna. The Rambam argues that there is no relationship between prophecy and Halakha, and erects an iron barrier between halakhic give-and-take and Divine inspiration.


  1. The Rambam's view of biblical exegesis, as expressed in chapter twenty-five of Book II of the Guide. The Rambam establishes there that if logic required us to believe that the universe had always existed, we would be able to interpret the plain meaning of the text accordingly. This is an important message concerning our understanding of the biblical text. Our study of the "peshat" cannot be limited to the linguistic realm; sometimes the literal meaning must be subjugated to reason. For instance, when the Torah speaks of God's anger – "va-yichar apo," or His patience – "erekh apayim" – we understand that God does not have a "nose"; rather, the text is using metaphoric language.


  1. The Rambam's approach to understanding aggadot Chazal is likewise just as relevant today as it was in his own time. In his introduction to Perek Chelek, the Rambam speaks of "three groups" (or "schools") representing three different approaches: there are those who understand the aggadot literally and accept them on this level; those who understand the aggadot literally and regard them with disdain; and those like the Rambam himself, who believe that the aggadot should be understood metaphorically. It would seem that even today, those who adopt this approach are "so few in number that they can hardly be called a 'school'…" (Rambam's Introduction to the Mishna, Rav Shilat edition, p. 144).


  1. The Rambam's view of the ideal in terms of character, known as the "golden mean," and summarized in the “Laws of Traits” and in the fourth chapter of his “Introduction to Massekhet Avot.” The Rambam's teaching in this regard is one of the classic formulations of Judaism's view of asceticism and pietism.


  1. The Rambam's discussion in the sixth chapter of his “Introduction to Massekhet Avot” remains the best text for studying the proper psychological approach of the believer to the commandments.


B.        Fundamental Positions


The Rambam’s philosophy is indeed greatly influenced by Aristotle – but not every Aristotelian position is necessarily to be rejected. It was specifically his knowledge of the philosophy of his time that led the Rambam to reveal principles which today seem integral to Judaism. Above, we looked at some relatively isolated ideas in the Rambam’s thinking that are still relevant today. We shall now examine some of his central and fundamental ideas which have become an essential part of our Jewish world-view.


1.        The most prominent concept in this category is God’s incorporeality. In the Rambam’s time, there were altogether respectable schools of Jewish thought that refused to accept this principle. From Ramban’s letter to the French rabbis who had banned the Rambam’s writings it appears that one of their claims against him concerned his assertion “that there is no Divine shape or form.”[2] Even before the Rambam, the Geonim had tried to combat the belief that God had some physical existence, but it was the Rambam who put a definitive end to such views in the Jewish world.[3] The Ritba composed a short work known as Sefer Zikaron, in which he defends the Rambam against attacks by Ramban in his Commentary on the Torah. The Ritba praises the Rambam for nullifying the erroneous and misleading belief in God’s corporeality. Rav Kook similarly writes that we owe the Rambam a debt of gratitude for setting forth in his Guide the proper and pure foundations of faith in God, and for placing the harmful idea that He might have any physical existence outside the bounds of Jewish belief.[4]


The problem is that the Rambam was “too successful” in this regard. He molded Judaism in the image of his own thinking, to the point where today we are no longer able to perceive the scope of the challenge that he faced, and the clarity and determination required to overcome it.


2.        Under the heading of “general concepts” or “fundamental positions” we might include the ideas that guide the Rambam’s approach throughout his philosophy. An example of such an idea is his abiding faith in the power of the human intellect. The Rambam regarded the intellect as the Divine image that is within man. At the same time, he recognized the boundaries of the intellect, which is unable to penetrate the depths of such questions as the purpose of the world, knowledge of God, or even the question of whether the universe was created or has always existed. One might propose a different set of boundaries between the powers and limitations of the intellect; one might suggest diminishing somewhat the realm that the intellect is able to encompass. Nevertheless, we are guided by the Rambam’s approach that the intellect is positive and not negative, and we give thanks to God for endowing man with his rational power. This position has ramifications, for instance, on our attitude towards Torah study as a way of drawing closer to God. It is difficult for us to draw close to God through the study of physics – as the Rambam did, but we can still use our intellectual power to achieve this closeness by studying Torah.


3.        Another fundamental position of the Rambam that has stood the test of time is the continuity connecting Halakha and Jewish thought. This continuity is embodied, first and foremost, in the person of the Rambam himself, who was both the greatest halakhic authority and also the greatest Jewish philosopher. The continuity is also embodied in his thought, which makes a place for Halakha within a philosophical life. Perhaps we might describe the relationship between Halakha and philosophy in the opposite direction: for many of us, Halakha comes before philosophy. This contrasts with the Rambam’s formulation of the relationship (as, for instance, in the famous chapter fifty-one of Book III of the Guide). Nevertheless, the very recognition that these two worlds are not separate from one another is part of the Rambam’s eternal legacy (as noted with wonderment by Rav Kook, in his Ma’amarei ha-RAY’H, p. 115).


In the contemporary academic world, enormous effort is invested in an attempt to break up the image of the Rambam. While no scholar has yet claimed, as Rav Ya’avetz did, that the Guide and the Mishneh Torah were written by two different people (see shiur no. 23), it is widely maintained that the “real” Rambam was the philosopher, while the Mishneh Torah was written for the masses. Such claims fail to encompass the stature of the Rambam who was able to combine Halakha and philosophy without relegating either realm to a secondary position.


C.        Identifying the Core of the Jewish World-View


The Rambam adopted much of the Aristotelian world-view, but not all of it. A careful comparison between his positions and those of Aristotelian philosophy shows the contours of the core of Jewish faith as the Rambam perceived it. It is fascinating to discover the points that the Rambam was willing to integrate into his Jewish world-view, even though they contradicted the prevailing Jewish view (such as, for instance, his position on Divine providence, as formulated in Book III, chapter seventeen). Even more fascinating is a review of the points that the Rambam was not willing to accommodate, even though their denial entailed tremendous intellectual effort to formulate a different foundation. These points show which concepts the Rambam views as the minimum boundaries of Jewish belief, the principles that cannot be compromised. Let us examine two of these principles:


  1. The Rambam’s negation of Divine attributes goes against the Aristotelian view. The Rambam establishes that God is supremely transcendental in relation to our perception: we cannot know anything about God’s essence, and therefore cannot assert anything about Him. Aristotelian philosophy, in contrast, did not hesitate to describe God: He is depicted as the “Primal Cause” as well as a unity of “knowledge-Knower-that which is known.” One of the most difficult questions in understanding the Rambam’s teachings pertains to the integration of these two ideas – which, in terms of philosophical tradition, belong to two completely different schools.


No matter how the above contradiction is solved, for our purposes the point is the Rambam’s insistence that we can make no assertions as to God’s attributes. Thus, the Rambam set down the important principle of the chasm separating God from man. The Aristotelian Deity is an integral part of the world. The Jewish God is transcendental and beyond our understanding and knowledge.[5]


  1. The Aristotelian Deity is impersonal. It is pure intellect, engaged solely in self-contemplation, with no interest in anything outside of itself. Its influence on the world is passive. The Rambam stubbornly resisted this view. The most prominent aspect of his battle in this regard is his denial of the view that the world has always existed, and his support for the view that it was created. This struggle represents the main subject of the beginning of Book II of the Guide. The Rambam emphasizes the connection between this question and the phenomenon of miracles. However, the fundamental issue goes beyond the matter of miracles. The Rambam refuses to accept the picture of a God Who is passive and apathetic. He describes God as the Creator of the world; as having deliberately decided to create the universe ex nihilo.


Another example is the Rambam’s view of prophecy. Like the Aristotelian philosophers, the Rambam views prophecy as a fundamentally natural phenomenon. However, he adds an important additional principle: God may withhold prophecy from a person who, according to all the natural laws, has achieved the level at which he should attain it (Guide,  II:32). Here, too, God is active. Prophecy is not an automatic process; God controls it.


An in-depth view of the Guide of the Perplexed reveals the Rambam as a fearless and determined warrior in the war of ideas of Jewish faith. His perceptions of Aristotelian philosophy were an important part of his world. However, beyond them there glows a fiery, powerful faith in the God of Jewish history and tradition.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  An example of an endeavor in this regard is to be found in Rav Soloveitchik's work Avoda She-balev, p. 42, in the discussion of the essence of "worship of the heart." Rav Soloveitchik quotes the Rambam's words in Book III, chapter fifty-one, and notes that neither of the elements that the Rambam discusses in this regard – rationalism and asceticism – is relevant to us. Nevertheless, the essence of his message remains eternally valid: the concentration of one's consciousness on God, and the aspiration for closeness to Him and adhering to Him. 

[2] Kitvei Ha-Ramban 1, Chavel edition, p. 345. Examples of views of God as occupying some form are to be found in a work known as Shi’ur Koma and in Ktav Tamim by the 11th century Tosafist Rabbi Moshe ben Chasdai Taku.

[3] Y. Lorberbaum notes the enormous influence of the Rambam on the academic world, too, which “erased” Divine corporeality from Judaism. See: Y. Lorberbaum, Tzelem Elokim, Jerusalem-Tel Aviv 5764, pp. 27-82.

[4] Ma’amarei Ha-RAY”H 1, p. 106.

[5] Cf. Ma’amarei Ha-RAY”H 1, p. 107.