Maimonides and Religious Language

Maimonides’ great work of philosophy (that he actually presents not as a work of philosophy but commentary), the Guide of the Perplexed, is an esoteric work in which Maimonides declares that he wants to disguise his true views (from the unlearned masses including rabbis who have not studied philosophy).  The question is what he was covering up and did not want to reveal. In my view, in the spirit of Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, Maimonides was a radical Aristotelian thinker and an agnostic.  He is very careful to cover up his Aristotelian viewpoints in the Guide (and his Aristotelian views actually appear very clearly in the Book of Knowledge of his law code), but strikingly he presents his agnosticism in the Guide in a fairly clear way.

Regarding the Book of Knowledge of his law code, Maimonides uses the term First Existent in relation to God (his one major work written not in Arabic but Hebrew so that there is no problem of translation) – a term that does not appear in the Bible.  Even though the term First Existent is not the exact term that Aristotle used in relation to God, the term is nevertheless Aristotelian in spirit.  The Aristotelian term for God is First Cause or Prime Mover, and it is clear that Maimonides’ term First Existent reflects Aristotelian rather than Biblical terminology.

In the Aristotelian conception, God is not conceived as a Creator, and God is conceived as devoid of conscious will.  In the Biblical conception, God creates the universe as an act of conscious will, and even more important God demands morality as God is conceived of as having conscious moral will.  That is, in the Biblical conception, God is conceived of not only as the Creator of the universe, but most importantly as a God of revelation and redemption – a moral God who demands morality (and a source of Torah and commandments).  In the Aristotelian conception of the medieval period in which Maimonides lived (as this was not necessarily the conception of Aristotle himself), God is conceived as a power devoid of conscious will and an impersonal source of creation or existence as well as truth, as the sun is an impersonal power and source of light (and the analogy of the sun is an analogy that Maimonides himself uses in the Guide of the Perplexed) – and, the universe is conceived as eternal flowing from God as an eternal source from which the universe (and also truth) is emanated, as light is emanated from the sun.

It is striking, and not by accident, that in the first 4 chapters of the Book of Knowledge of Maimonides’ law code that present fundamental principles of Torah God is presented as a source of existence and truth (as in an Aristotelian conception of God) – and not, as in the Biblical conception, in the main as a source of Torah (morality) and commandments.  The opening passage of the Book of Knowledge of his law code says:

The foundation of all foundations, and the pillar of all wisdoms, is to know that there is a First Existent and He has brought every existing thing into existence.  And every existing thing…exists only on account of His true existence.  If it were supposed that He does not exist, nothing else could exist.  But, if it were supposed that all other existing things do not exist, He alone would exist, and their non-existence would not imply His non-existence, since all other existing things are dependent upon Him, while He is not dependent upon them…Therefore, His true essence is not like their true essence.  This is what the prophet says, “But the Lord is the true God” (Jeremiah 10, 10).  He alone is the Truth, and nothing else is true like His truth.  This is what the Torah says, “There is none else besides Him” (Deuteronomy 4, 35).  That is, there is no True Existence besides His, like His.

I have highlighted and underlined the root words existence and truth that are repeated throughout the passage indicating that God is a source of existence and truth – and, glaringly absent from the passage is any mention of God as a source of Torah (morality) and commandments.  Indeed, in the first four chapters of the Book of Knowledge in which Maimonides presents material that he considers the essence of Judaism and religion there is no mention of observance of Torah and commandments, and no mention of God as a source of morality or source of Torah and commandments.

Maimonides in his law code, in the Book of Knowledge (Fundamentals of Torah 1, 9), argues that anthropomorphic language of the Torah describing God in human terms must be understood metaphorically – as the Torah is speaking in a language that human beings can understand (“the Torah speaks in a human language”).  In the Guide he goes even further and argues that we cannot say anything whatsoever of God even not of an anthropomorphic nature.  An idol of wood and stone is a visual representation of God – and, any verbal description of God is a verbal representation serving to define and limit God bordering upon idolatry.  We cannot say of God that God is good or merciful or any other description, and, we even cannot say that God exists (or that God doesn’t exist) – and, according to Maimonides (the Guide 1, 59), we must be entirely silent regarding God (except for what we read in the Bible and what is permitted to us by law to say as a part of formal prayers and blessings).

I personally do not identify with Maimonides’ Aristotelian views, and they are in my mind a distortion of the Bible and our tradition – but, the agnostic view that he presents in the Guide that we cannot know whether God exists or does not exist is a given today in the realm of modern philosophy in light of the arguments of Hume and Kant (and many are simply unaware that Maimonides presents such a view some 800 years ago).  In light of the arguments of Hume and Kant metaphysics has died (as the answer to any metaphysical question is always maybe yes, maybe no) – and I am very pragmatic in my orientation, which expresses itself for me in an anti-metaphysical conception of Judaism and religion.  Traditional Judaism is a religion in a pragmatic sense of a way of life of the Jewish people, and observance of tradition (law and ritual) then, for me, is due not to metaphysical reasons (Torah as the Divinely revealed word of God), but as an expression of Jewish identity and culture – and in a previous blog I discussed the position of Rava, a great Talmudic rabbi, who presents such an anti-theological conception (

However, where I part company with Maimonides regarding his agnosticism is concerning religious language.  A very strong argument can be made that Maimonides was actually a mystic (and it is not by chance that his son, Abraham, was a mystic influenced by the Sufis who were Moslem mystics).  But, Maimonides was not a mystic in a non-rationalistic sense – Shlomo Pines, one of the great scholars of medieval Jewish thought, terms Maimonides’ mysticism a form of rational mysticism.  Maimonides’ argument that we must be entirely silent regarding God is very characteristic of mystical approaches in which religious experiences cannot be described in language.  There are Jewish mystics, though, who do make use of poetic and metaphoric language in describing and speaking of God.

I am not a mystic and not mystical in my orientation – my orientation is rationalistic and pragmatic.  Yet, I do think that religious language is very meaningful as long as we understand that from a philosophic point of view we are using metaphors and speaking in poetic terms – in speaking of God we are not describing a metaphysical reality but speaking in poetic terms.  The poem Anim Zemirot that we say at the end of the morning Shabbat prayer service, and which came from medieval Jewish mysticism, reflects an alternative approach to that of Maimonides.  At the beginning of the poem it is written “I will tell of Your glory though I do not see You, I will conceptualize You (images and comparisons), and describe You, though I do not know You…they (prophets) described the power of Your works, they conceptualized You (images and comparisons), but not as You are (in reality)”.  In the continuation of the poem there are images of God that are very anthropomorphic describing God in human terms.  Both Maimonides and the poem Anim Zemirot begin with the same philosophic assumption that God cannot be known at all – and, yet, the conclusions or resulting approaches are diametrically opposed.  In the face of our recognition that we cannot know God, Maimonides argues that we must be entirely silent.  In the face of the same recognition that we cannot know God, the poem Anim Zemirot describes God in metaphorical and poetic language that is inspiring and that enables an uplifting religious experience.  By the way, Maimonides’ approach also enables a religious experience but it is one of silent, non-verbal meditation or contemplation, which is an influence of the Greek culture upon his thought and not a traditional Jewish way of worship.

I want to give two examples that such religious and poetic language as that of the poem Anim Zemirot enables religious experience – and such anthropomorphism (personification) of the poem is found in the Bible and Talmudic literature as well.  First, Rebbe Nachman, the great Chasidic (mystical) teacher, instituted the practice of seclusion in which one pours out one’s heart or soul as if conversing with a good friend.  It is an unanswerable question whether God actually exists or not, and conceiving of God as a good friend is merely an image and metaphor – in any case, whether God actually exists or not, the image of our conversing with God as a good friend enables us to have the psychological and spiritual experience of pouring out one’s soul, which is without question very healthy psychologically and spiritually.

Second, when we stand in prayer in Judaism in praying the Amidah (the standing prayer and central prayer of Judaism) we have a custom that we take 3 steps backwards and 3 steps forward before beginning our prayer, and we take leave of God as it were with 3 steps backwards.  The reason is that we are creating a religious experience as if we are standing before a King.  The experience that we are seeking is fear of God – a central concept of the Bible and the Jewish tradition.  Fear of God in the Bible is a moral concept and not a theological concept (and I write of this in my book on the Bible) – and does not presuppose the existence of God in a metaphysical sense.  The Book of Proverbs in the Bible gives a remarkable definition of fear of God – “fear of God is the hatred of evil” (Proverbs 8, 13).  Fear of God here in the verse refers not to theological belief concerning God but simply to the hating of evil – a moral conception of fear of God that even a secular person who does not believe in the existence of God in a theological sense can display; and, conversely one who believes in the existence of God theologically may lack fear of God in this moral sense.  Fear of God then is an emotional and religious experience in which we have a deep feeling of awe and fear that God forbid, as it were, that we should do something wrong or hurtful – that necessarily expresses itself in the refraining from wrongdoing.  By the way, love of God in the Biblical conception is love of goodness, and likewise (like the concept of fear of God) is a feeling and moral character trait – a trait that expresses itself in the doing of good deeds.

So, when we take 3 steps backwards and forward in beginning to pray in Judaism as if we are standing before a King it is not important at all whether such a God actually exists or not – and this is a question that is foreign not only to the Bible but also to the Talmudic tradition both of which are pragmatic in orientation. What is important is that we have the emotional and religious experience of “fear of God” and that we emerge from our prayers in some way a better person from a moral point of view.  The religious experience of fear of God is the ultimate goal of the prayer, and the religious and poetic language of the prayer is only a means to achieve the goal – and, this is a religious experience that is available even to a secular atheist, as the Biblical concept of fear of God is a moral rather than theological concept.  I also want to add that the poetry of the prayer (the religious language) and the customs (as if we are standing before a King) are the beauty of tradition – and without such poetry and beauty Judaism would be, in my eyes, very sterile and dry.

I once had a conversation with a Jewish woman who defined herself as an atheist, and without question was a truly God fearing person even though she would not have described her moral character as representing the fear of God – but, the Bible would indeed describe her moral character as representing the fear of God (“fear of God is the hatred of evil”).  Although an atheist, she said that she devotes 5 minutes each day to a conversation with God, much like the practice of seclusion of Rebbe Nachman.  She described this conversation as a fantasy, since she did not believe in the existence of God.  I asked her why she should describe such an experience as a fantasy – this is a very negative way (the cup half empty) of describing her experience.  I suggested that her experience can be described in a more positive way (a cup half full) as a religious experience in which her religious language in conversing with God enables the experience of pouring out her soul – and, such a religious experience is not dependent upon one’s theology, and is available to an atheist as well (as the religious experience and use of religious language does not necessarily presuppose that God actually exists or presuppose that one believes that God exists).

Note – I am the author of a recently published book on the nature of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical theology (and the nature of Biblical faith), Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham – .

About the Author
Jeffrey Radon is a teacher of Jewish studies and the author of the internet site - - a site devoted to Jewish studies in a democratic spirit. He studied over 10 years in yeshivot in Israel. He has a teaching degree as a teacher of Jewish studies from Achva (brotherhood) College, a small secular teachers' college in Israel, and a master's degree in Jewish philosophy (from Bar Illan University in Israel). He also has a master's degree in educational psychology (from the Israeli branch of Northeastern University in the United States), as well as certification as a marriage counselor and mediator.
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