Rabbis invent a false Maimonides

The “Yeshiva world,” is comprised for the most part of schools where far-right rabbis teach Jewish students their view of Judaism, a religion that rejects secular studies as harmful and heretical. Many far-right rabbis respect Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, his code of Jewish laws, but not his philosophical Guide of the Perplexed because it is based on secular studies and encourages people of all religions to learn about the world. Some go so far to claim that Maimonides did not write the Guide, most tell their students not to read it. When they encounter a Maimonidean idea and write or speak about it, what they say does not reflect the brilliant teachings of “the great eagle,” but as Professor Menachem Kellner wisely states, what they see in Maimonides is a mirror where they see their own ideas, not those of the great sage.  

Reinventing Maimonides

Two highly respected experts on Maimonides, professors James A. Diamond and Menachem Kellner, wrote three and four articles, respectively, in the 2019 book “Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought,” in which they describe the views of eight rabbis, Naftali Tsevi Yehudah Berlin (1816-1893), Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943), Elhanan Wasserman (1874-1941), Aharon Kotler (1891-1962), Shlomo Aviner (born 1943), and Joseph Kafih (1917-2000). The following are some examples of how they all, except for Kafih, misrepresented Maimonides. 

Rabbi Naftali Tsevi Yehudah Berlin

James A. Diamond tells readers that Maimonides respected all people and even used ideas he learnt from the pagan philosopher Aristotle. But Rabbi Berlin was only tolerant of non-Jews and secular Jews, individuals whom he felt were involved in errant behavior, and he did so only because of his “deep seated aversion to communal strife.” While for Maimonides sacrifices is a pagan ritual from which the monotheist must be incrementally weaned, for Berlin it is a sign of spiritual virtue that is beneficial if it is regulated. He also disagreed with Maimonides view that all the biblical commands are rational and insisted that the opposite is true; they are all irrational. He rejected Maimonides’ teaching that all people, including Jews have a primary duty is to develop their intelligence and know God, and care for the needs of the community. Maimonides saw the goal of the biblical commands as practical: inculcating correct opinions, moral qualities and political civic actions, but Berlin focused only on the spiritual. Yet, despite the differences, Rabbi Berlin felt that Maimonides agreed with him. 

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Menachem Kellner tells us that Rabbi Soloveitchik also disagreed with Maimonides and devalued knowledge as aiding people. He insisted that religious behaviors not knowledge leads to love of God. He was influenced by Hasidim and by the idea that all the commands are irrational and argued that people must have faith that God knows what is good and obey the commands. Holiness to Maimonides depends on how people act on earth, but it is something unearthly to Soloveitchik. He insisted that when Maimonides spoke about knowing God, he meant believing in God.  He rejected the recognition by his friend Rabbi Chaim Heller (1879-1960) and his son-in-law Rabbi Isadore Twersky (1930-1997) that Maimonides meant what he said. He insisted that people must “surrender,” give “oneself up to God,” “merge with God.” Most significantly, the consensus is that Maimonides was emphasizing that it is important that all people of all religions develop their intelligence and knowledge by studying the sciences, use what is learnt to be all that the person can be and help improve society. But Rabbi Soloveitchik mischaracterized Maimonides and stated that Maimonides focused on Jews and encouraged Jews to surrender themselves and observe the halakha, Jewish law.

James A. Diamond wrote that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, like Rabbi Soloveitchik was mystical. He translated Maimonides’ philosophy into a new philosophical mysticism. Like the others and contrary to Maimonides, he argued that rational thought cannot adequately accommodate the “fullness of the holy” required by the Torah. He had enormous respect for Maimonides and considered his reworking and derationalization of Maimonides as a true natural extension of Maimonides’ thought.

In short, these rabbis could not conceive that a brilliant rabbinic figure like Maimonides could have had any idea that was contrary to the far-right notions they championed. So, they did not openly oppose Maimonides, but they forcefully promoted anti-Maimonidean notions and attributed them to Maimonides.

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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