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Maimonides’ view on the proper way to worship God

In his Guide for the Perplexed, book 3, chapter 51, in the easy to read translation by M. Friedlander, Maimonides (1138-1204) tells readers: “The present chapter does not contain any additional matter that has not been treated in the [previous] chapters of this treatise. It is a kind of conclusion, and at the same time it will explain in what manner those worship God who have obtained a true knowledge concerning God; it will direct them how to come to that worship, which is the highest aim man can attain.”

Two things should be understood at the outset. First, Maimonides tells us in his introduction to his Guide that his book will contain two kinds of ideas: (1) those that are fitting for the unlearned, people who are unable to deal with intellectual ideas, who are unable to abandon notions they learnt as children, and (2) ideas designed to enlighten people who are intelligent, who not only know about Judaism by also secular studies. He warns his readers to read his book carefully and those who are intelligent should accept the latter ideas, not the notions set forth for the masses of the people, such as God needing to perform miracles, requiring angels to assist him, and God becoming angry when people act improperly. Guide 3:51 contains a section for intelligent people followed by one for the general population. As usual, as will be seen, Maimonides does not identify his audience for both sections.

The second thing that must be recognized and understood is that his statement that 3:51 contains nothing new should highlight for intellectual people that he wrote these words for the general public as a suggestion that they should ignore the first half of this chapter. He took this approach because what he is about to say would bother, perhaps even anger people in the general public. He recognized that thinking people would see through this ploy and approach the chapter knowing that it contains a new and very significant idea. 

  • As we will see below, Maimonides stresses that religious Jews who diligently observe the Torah commands and rabbinical enactments, who spend time reading or even studying the Torah and Talmud, and who devote hours to prayer, have failed to do what God wants them to do. It is important to observe the law, but the law leads one to proper behavior and proper behavior can only be done when one has knowledge of God as Maimonides explains the term. Maimonides stresses in his Guide 1:54, people can only know God by understanding the laws of nature that God created or formed, laws revealed in the secular sciences. “The knowledge of the works of God is the knowledge of His attributes, by which He can be known.” Thus, true worship of God requires Jews to study the sciences. This is the only way to gain knowledge of God. This is Maimonides’ explanation of Exodus 33 where Moses requested that God tell him what God is. God, in essence, tells Moses that he can only know about God by viewing what God did.
  • Maimonides presents his revelation of what is proper worship of God and that Jews are not doing what God wants them to do if they only spend their entire day studying the Torah and Talmud in Guide 3:51 by a parable. He compares people who worship God to people to people having a relationship with their king.
  • In the parable, humans seeking to do what God wants them to do are like people who are ruled by a king who is in his palace. Some of the king’s subjects are: (1) People who turn their backs to the palace. They are like the people who have false ideas about God. (2) Some never saw the palace. This describes most religious people. They “observe the divine commandments, but are ignorant” of secular studies. (3) Similarly, there are people who reach the palace. They go round and round it trying to find an entrance, but never find it. They symbolize individuals who devote themselves to the “study of the practical law. They believe in the true principles of faith…but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the law.” These are people who consider themselves to be very pious because of their refusal to engage in worldly affairs. By “practical law,” Maimonides means Torah and Talmudic law. By “philosophical treatment,” he and people of his time meant all the sciences. (4) The fourth group is a little better than the third who reject secular study. These represent people who study secular subjects, but not enough. (5) The final group are those people who in the simile enter the room where the king is present. They describe individuals who obey Jewish laws and study the laws of nature, the sciences.
  • Maimonides writes: It is necessary “by way of intellectual research [to know] God’s works.” “It by the intellect, which is the link that joins you to Him.” The more they “think of Him [know the sciences], the more they are engaged in His worship.” “The highest kind of worship to which we refer in this chapter, is only possible after the acquisition of the knowledge of God.”
  • Maimonides’ teaching that people should learn the laws of nature, the sciences, makes a great deal of sense. Maimonides tells us in Guide 3:27 and 28 that the purpose of the law, meaning the Torah, is to remove injustice, teach good conduct that furthers the well-being of society, and imparting truths that help improve individuals and society. Obviously, the knowledge of science, including subjects such as medicine, proper hygiene, philosophy, logic, physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, statistics, history, sociology, even weather forecasting, will help further these goals immeasurably.
  • Maimonides follows this discussion in Guide 3:51 with a long “Note” in which he tells readers that to strengthen the bond with God, people must engage in “reflecting about God.” He writes that we should read the law, pray, perform the precepts, free ourselves from worldly business, and other distraction. Read the Shema prayer with the intent to be more pious. Read the Torah with all your thoughts occupied with understanding what you read. When you do this do not let your thoughts be disturbed by your wants or superfluous things. Only “think of worldly matters when you eat, drink, bathe, talk with your wife and little children, or when you converse with other people.” These times “must suffice to you for reflecting on everything that is necessary as regards business, household, and health.” Nothing is mentioned in this “Note,” written for the general unenlightened population, about spending time studying the laws of nature.
  • This “Note” was obviously written for the majority of Jews who could not accept what he revealed previously. It contradicts what is in the prior section and contradicts Maimonides’ own behavior of spending a sizable amount of every day studying the sciences, devoting half of most days ministering as a physician to the health of the non-Jewish leaders of Egypt, engaging in community affairs, writing books on medicine, Talmud commentaries, Jewish law, answering questions of people assembled in his house and those who write to him, and otherwise educating fellow Jews.
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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