Maimonides: An Expert in Kiruv

The term “Kiruv” has become very popular in recent years. It represents the ability to bring back Jews who had drifted away from traditional Jewish practices and ideas. Today there are a number of Jewish institutions that specialize in “Kiruv” and design their programs towards reaching out to the uninitiated with the hope that they will desire to return to their Jewish roots.

The great medieval scholar, Maimonides, is known as a genius in Jewish philosophy and Jewish law as well as being a great physician. He is not known as a Kiruv man, yet his approach to teaching Judaism makes so much sense. His approach has been successful at rekindling an interest in Judaism. I have known numerous individuals who openly admit that Maimonides brought them back to the fold.

The monumental work of Maimonides is known as Mishna Torah. In the fourteen sections of this book, a detailed explanation of the 613 commandments is given. It is the first section known as Sefer Mada, or Book of Knowledge that the author speaks to the newly interested student. He explains that becoming observant is a step by step process in the form of building blocks. The Rambam, as Maimonides is also known by, says that one should begin his quest by first studying the laws that deal with G-d. There are commandments to acknowledge G-d’s Oneness, His existence, and His uniqueness. There are also commandments to fear and love G-d as well as sanctifying His name and not desecrating His name. Before one can begin religious practices, he must have a clear understanding of Who it is that we are worshipping. He must understand the awesomeness of the Creator and our own smallness compared to His greatness.

Once we are clear on this relationship, we can move to the next level. The Rambam views knowing how to treat people as a prerequisite to observance. He lists eleven laws that deal with being a kind, respectful human being. Here he lists such laws as loving one’s fellow Jew as well as the convert as an essential foundation to one’s observance. We should not speak badly of another Jew behind his back. We should not hate another Jew in our heart. We should not take revenge. In short, step two is to “be a mentch” or a gentleman in your dealings with another person.

The third step is the realization and commitment one needs to have towards Torah study and Torah scholars. If we are going to take this Judaism thing seriously, then we must work on ourselves by studying the holy books on a daily basis. Similarly, we need to connect to Torah scholars for guidance.

The fourth step is not to get sidetracked along the way by that which is not Jewish. A beginner to Judaism might be vulnerable to cults, or amulets, or worshipping the graves of the dead. For this reason, Maimonides lists fifty one laws related to idol worship, or sorcery, or consulting the dead. These laws are meant to keep our new student of Judaism focused on what is Judaism rather than what is not Judaism.

The final foundational stage of the Rambam is Teshuva or repentance. At this point, it is essential for one to take a good hard look at himself. He needs to show remorse for his past sins and be able to forgive himself for his past indiscretions. Teshuva means coming clean with one’s past so that he now has a clean slate and does not take with him his own fears and traumas of what he had previously experienced.

Now that this individual has a pretty good concept of G-d and he has learned how to treat people and he makes Torah study a priority and he’s clear as to what is not Judaism, he is ready to move forward. When he adds to all of this his ability to be at peace with himself, he can now begin to adopt Jewish practices and rituals. Without these foundational concepts, Jewish observance will lack the meaning and intensity it requires.

This is the approach to Kiruv of Maimonides. It is logical and methodical and will give the new student to Judaism the tools to cope with life from a truly Jewish perspective. He is also more likely to stick with his Judaism as it has been presented to him in such a positive and pleasant manner. Maimonides truly was an expert in Kiruv.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for more than twenty years. He has been teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach, Old Katamon, Jerusalem, for the nearly seventeen years. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles.