The Remarkable Thinking of Maimonides

Micah Goodman’s “Maimonides” This is an important book. The following are some major points in it. The quotes are from the book.

Maimonides’ God:

Goodman states that Maimonides’ God is transcendental, meaning God is not involved in the daily activities of the world. God placed in the world the laws of nature, and then withdrew entirely from it. Maimonides wrote in his Guide that we cannot know whether God formed the world out of preexisting matter or out of nothing, and the Torah can support either view. God is “entirely indifferent to things that happen in the world.” This Maimonidean idea of God being transcendental, held by other Jewish thinkers as well, such as Abraham ibn Ezra, is significant in that it affects how Maimonides understands such things as prayer, revelation, prophecy, divine providence, reward and punishment, and more, as we will see.

Maimonides emphasizes that God has no body and is one, but we “may not attribute any description to God, nor speak a single word about Him. All that one may say about God is that He is not…. God is utterly different from the world…. This is the true core of the biblical revolution: making a partition between God and the world.” All that we can know is that God exists. We cannot even explain God’s oneness.

How to read Maimonides’ Guide:

The Guide of the Perplexed “was a bold attempt to set out a grown-up religion.” Maimonides tells us in the introduction to his Guide that he will be writing for two audiences: the common person who will be unable in most cases to discern his true views, and intellectuals who will realize that some of his statements were made, although not his true view, to not bother the masses.  Maimonides used this method to protect the average person from becoming agitated because Maimonides’ true views were entirely different to what they believed their entire life and upon which they based much of what they believed. Unfortunately, this method confused many scholars who were unable to distinguish when his statement was not his true view. “Most Rambam [Hebrew for Maimonides] scholars [but not all of them] agree that when there is a contradiction between a conventional and a radical view, the latter is the Rambam’s true opinion.”

Prophecy:

It follows, therefore, that God never spoke to anyone and prophecy was not a miraculous communication by God to a man or woman. Maimonides explains that prophecy is a natural event. Any person, even a non-Jew, who is highly intelligent and has a good imagination that aids him in communicating what he understands can be a prophet. A good prophet is a person who is moral. This understanding of prophecy is compatible with a stable natural world where the natural system is eternal.

Maimonides states that God can take away a person’s ability to prophesy, and this has led some readers of the Guide to suppose that God is involved in prophecy. But what he means is that nature, which God created, can stop prophecy, for example when a person is sick or depressed and cannot think well.

Goodman writes that a “static, unchanging God is a God that does not hear prayer, does not pay attention to individual human needs and does not redeem history, for all of these things assume change in God.”

Biblical stories:

Since God is not involved in the universe, Maimonides did not believe in miracles. He states    that “although many of the biblical stories did not actually take place in reality, they are still true – because the lessons that emerge from their parables are true.”

Evil:

God does not produce evil or stop it from occurring. Bad things occur to people because they brought it upon themselves, something others did to them, or because of the laws of nature which is good for the world as a whole but may harm people.

God does not protect us. “Our intellect, the godly within us, saves us from danger” when we use our intellect.

Messianic Age:

Consistent with his view that God does not change nature, neither the messiah nor the messianic age will be supernatural. The messiah will be a human who lives and dies as all humans, and the messianic age will be a time when Jews will live in peace and not be under the control of a foreign nation.

The True Jew:

The ideal Jew according to Guide 3:51, is one who knows philosophy not one who is a self-effacing saint who sits and studies the Talmud and who spend much time in prayer. Such a person doesn’t even come close to God. “The Rambam’s voice on this issue is barely heard today in traditional Jewish communities. Jews there believe that halakhah [the law] contains everything that is of real significance, and that [study of the law, especially the Talmud] halakhah is the only path to spiritual greatness.”

The Principle of Gradual Development:

In Guide 3:32, Maimonides explains that the Torah was unable to teach the Israelites the ideal behavior. It is part of nature that everything in this world develops gradually. Just as children, when born “cannot feed on dry food… until their limbs gradually and little by little become solid” and able to digest solid foods, it is the same with ideas.” Just as nature designs creatures that grow gradually and adapt to their developing needs, so too the Torah is attuned to the incremental pace of the Jewish people’s spiritual development. When the Torah was given to Israel, the Israelites were unable to understand why they should give up sacrifices that God neither needed nor wanted. Therefore, the Torah, which aimed to effect a fundamental change in the people’s relation to idolatry and primitive spiritual practices, was unable to prohibit sacrifices but, to use Maimonides’ word, “allowed” sacrifices to continue. The same applied to slavery and more than a dozen other practices which the Torah hoped the people would realize was not proper

What does the observance of the Torah do?

Observing the Torah is not designed to please God and it does not change nature, it does not cause rain; it transforms the person who fulfills the Torah teachings. The aim of the Torah is to teach some truths, including distancing people from false notion, and helps improve people and society [Guide 3:27].  It teaches that “Ideas that are not rooted in actions will not last” [Guide 3:31].

Are Jews “chosen”?

Maimonides “did not think Jews were inherently better than other people, but he did believe that the Torah was superior to any other body of spiritual teaching.” All people were created in the image of God. Maimonides “acknowledged that great spirits who are not Jewish can reach perfection and touch the truth.”

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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