Reinventing Maimonides

“Maimonides: Between Philosophy and Halakhah: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s lectures on the Guide of the Perplexed” is interesting because it shows the basic ideas of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thinking. But readers should not suppose that they will gain an insight into the teachings of Maimonides or even some of his teachings by reading the book. It contains Rabbi Soloveitchik’s subjective interpretations of the great philosopher’s Guide of the Perplexed. Complicating the book further is that it is based on a series of lectures delivered by Rabbi Soloveitchik in 1950-51, for which there is no lecture notes by the rabbi or any tape of the lectures. The book is based on the notes that a student who was not a professional transcriber took during the lectures. The student was, understandably, unable to record the rabbi’s lectures word for word, and only rarely succeeded in writing out complete sentences. Additionally, what the student wrote was his interpretation of what the rabbi was saying. The editor of this book fleshed out his understanding of these notes, adding his own ideas when the notes were skimpy, and correcting errors that he found in the notes. The book is, therefore, an interpretation of an interpretation.

Lawrence J. Kaplan who edited the book recognized these problems. He admits that he found instances where he was certain that the notes were wrong. He also admits, and this is significant, that the interpretations by Rabbi Soloveitchik “have been challenged by other scholars or, indeed, are rejected by the consensus of contemporary scholarship.” He states that “more than he [Rabbi Soloveitchik] was speaking of Maimonides, he was speaking of himself.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s underlying view

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s interpretations of Maimonides were prompted by his anti-rational ideology. While Maimonides is generally recognized as a consummate rationalist, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thinking, like that of many other rabbis, is driven by mystical notions. The human goal according to Maimonides is to be active and to acquire an understanding of the universe by the study of science. In contrast, the rabbi states Jews should become a “mystical-ecstatics;” they must “surrender,” give “oneself up to God,” “merge with God.” Additionally, while Maimonides generally shuns midrashim and offers realistic interpretations, explaining what the Bible actually says, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings abound in imaginative, sermonic explanations, far from the literal reading of the text that the rabbi is interpreting. Rabbi Soloveitchik does this in his reading of Maimonides. He offers mystical and sermonic ideas that are unlike the rational Maimonidean statements.

The importance of halakhah to Rabbi Soloveitchik

Most significantly, the consensus is that Maimonides was emphasizing that it is important that all people of all religions, not only Jews, develop their intelligence and knowledge by studying the sciences and using what is learnt to be all that the person can be and use that knowledge to help improve society. But Rabbi Soloveitchik states that Maimonides focused on Jews and encouraged Jews to observe the halakhah, Jewish law. Without any proof, he insists that Maimonides only focused on philosophy in his early years, but: “After all his adventures in the field of philosophy, he came back to Halakhah.”

Ignoring clear Maimonidean statements

Rabbi Soloveitchik seems to misread Maimonides’ Guide by selecting some of the sage’s statements and ignoring others that clearly oppose the rabbi’s mystical view. For example, in regard to this issue of the Torah’s purpose, the rabbi ignores Guide 3:28 where Maimonides clearly states that the Torah and its laws are a means to teach some truths, and improve individuals and society. “The reason of a commandment, whether positive or negative, is clear, and its usefulness evident if it directly tends to remove injustice, or to teach good conduct that further the well-being of society, or to impart a truth which ought to be believed either on its own merit or as being indispensable for facilitating the removal of injustice or the teaching of good morals.”

The editor Lawrence J. Kaplan states that it is surprising that Rabbi Soloveitchik does not address Guide 3:27 where Maimonides clearly states that man’s “ultimate perfection is to become rational in actu… knowing everything concerning all the beings that it is within the capacity of man to know.”

Giving unintended meanings

Rabbi Soloveitchik also gives Maimonidean statements meanings the sage never intended. For example, while Maimonides interprets the story of eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden as a parable in Guide 1:2, and states that it is teaching that people should develop and use their intelligence, that morals are only “essential truths,” that ethics is “a matter of practicability, not truth,” that “ethical virtues and deeds …serve solely as stepping stones to that purely intellectual perfection”, Rabbi Soloveitchik does not mention that it is a parable, seems to accept it as an actual occurrence, and sermonically suggests, without any support from the text, that Maimonides is talking about two different kinds of morality.

Guide 3:51 and 54 contradict the rabbi’s view

While Guide 1:2 and 3:27 and 28 are not well known, 3:51 is known by many people and it presents a difficult problem to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s interpretation. In 3:51, Maimonides derides the halakhist who Rabbi Soloveitchik argues Maimonides praises, “the jurist who believes in true opinions on the basis of traditional authority and study the laws concerning the practices of divine service, but do not engage in speculation concerning the principles of religion” have only “come up to the [ruler’s] habitation and walk around it.” In other words, the Jew who avoids the study of the sciences, who does not learn about life, who only spends time meditating on halakhah and performing ritual practices, does not come near to what Judaism requires. Rabbi Soloveitchik devotes pages arguing sermonically that the words do not mean what they plainly say.

Similarly, in Guide 3:54, Maimonides lists four kinds of perfections with the third, moral perfection, following (1) wealth and (2) physical health, but being lower than the fourth, intellectual perfection. Maimonides states that despite morality not being the highest perfection: “Most of the [Torah] commandments serve no other end than the attainment of this species of perfection. But this species [morality] is… a preparation for something else and not an end in itself. For all moral habits are concerned with what occurs between a human individual and someone else. This perfection regarding moral habits is, as it were, only the disposition to be useful to people; consequently, it is an instrument for someone else. For if you suppose a human individual is alone, acting on no one, you will find that all his moral virtues are in vain and without employment and unneeded, and that they do not perfect the individual in anything; for he only needs them and they again become useful to him in regard to someone else.”

In contrast, Maimonides continues in 3:54, intellectual perfection, is knowledge of reality. This is “the ultimate end; this is what gives the individual true perfection, a perfection belonging to him alone; and it gives him permanent perdurance; through it man is man.”

Summary

In short, Rabbi Soloveitchik would prefer to see surrender to God, passive study, and the observance of halakha as the ultimate Jewish goal, and he wants to read this idea into the writings of Maimonides. However, Maimonides own words contradict the rabbi’s view. Halakhah, according to Maimonides, is a “means” to the true objective which is to attain knowledge of reality. This is the human target, for Jew and non-Jew. Similarly, Maimonides taught that morality is good for the common man who is unable to gain knowledge, it helps create order in society, but it gives individuals no personal aim, no ambition, and does not aid people in making decisions in extraordinary situations. In contrast, knowledge improves individuals and gives them information to help them improve others and society in general. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s lectures on Maimonides is interesting, but it fails to enlighten us about the great sage, it serves as the editor Lawrence J. Kaplan wrote: “more than he [Rabbi Soloveitchik] was speaking of Maimonides, he was speaking of himself.”

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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