Steven T. Katz on Maimonides

Professor Stephen Katz on Maimonides

We gained a deeper understanding of Maimonides-both his life and his work-when Steven Katz, Professor of Jewish Studies at Boston University, visited in December.

Maimonides (1138-1204), also known by the acronym Rambam (for Rabbi Moses ben Maimon) was born in Cordoba, Spain. His father was a dayan, or judge, and Maimonides was raised in a learned environment at the height of Spanish culture. This environment was cut short, however, when an intolerant group of Muslims (the Almohades) overcame a tolerant group and his family had to convert or flee. They traveled to Morocco, and finally settled in Fez, where, as a teenager, he was introduced to Islamic philosophers and traditions. For a time he also wandered across North Africa and made a trip to Israel, which influenced him deeply. For him, as for all medieval Jews, Israel was more a magical than a real place. At this time, Jerusalem was under control of the Christians, which made travel there treacherous.

After Israel, he went to Egypt and settled there some time in the 1160s when he was between 23 and 26 years of age. Here he went into business with his brother, David, trading in precious jewels, silks and spices from the far east. Jews were prominent in this trade, traveling from North Africa to India, China and Afghanistan. His brother was quite successful and knew this business. Unfortunately, David died in a ship wreck in the Indian Ocean.

Maimonides following his brother’s death, became nearly dysfunctional for a year, then recovered his emotional equilibrium and took up the practice of medicine in his 30s. At that time, this meant reading the medieval physicians, doing an apprenticeship, hanging up a shingle and hoping for repeat business. He was a success and before long established himself both as a presence in the Jewish community and as a physician of renown. He married into a prominent family, which meant political and financial help. He and his wife had one child. Soon he became head of the local Jewish community, following his public criticism of how charity funds were dispersed. He also became the physician to the vizier, who was second only to Saladin the Great. We examined a reading which showed how he worked incredibly long days-full time for the vizier then saw his own patients while almost always involved in his writings. He wrote his philosophical and medical work in Arabic, his halachic works in Hebrew. He began to write at 23 and in his 20s wrote a book on logic, another treatise on the calendar (an important aspect of Jewish life), his famous rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah and more.

Philosophy and Law

Maimonides introduced a philosophical conversation into the principles of the law (halachah). For example, in his 13 principles of faith, he raises philosophical issues in a way that differed from the usual format of rabbinic commentary, which traditionally laid out a law and commented on it. For Maimonides, the law (halachah) needed to be interpreted in a philosophical sense. Otherwise he felt it would become a dry legal document, missing what matters.

His Guide for the Perplexed was written as a response to his friend and disciple Joseph, was intended only for intelligent readers attempting to reconcile apparent contradictions between Jewish (biblical) and Greek (philosophical) thought. He notes that there were three groups of people who are the audience of the oral Torah tradition. Of the people who read the rabbis and the aggadah (Talmudic stories), some are literalists even though the things they believe are scientifically impossible. The second group takes the readings literally, but says the sages were fools with little knowledge of medicine or other science. The third group involves fewer, but wiser, people, who say that the sages were wise and that the stories don’t make sense at first because we don’t know how to read them. We have to puzzle out the esoteric as well as the exoteric meaning. In addition to positioning the rabbinic non-legal sources as riddles, he also positions them as metaphorical and argues that they contain metaphysical, not empirical, truth.
Uncovering Secrets
Organizing the Law (Halachah)

For Rambam, the biblical writings were books of secrets. Examining the Song of Songs, which many considered a love poem by a lovesick woman for her beloved, he said that in addition to its beauty as a poem, it was about God’s love for Israel. The God of Israel loves us in a mystical way. (This is also consistent with, if different from, Rashi’s interpretation that views the The Song of Songs as the secret history of Israel.) Here it should be noted that when the Rabbis at Yavneh discussed the canonization of the Torah, the majority of sages didn’t want to put the Song of Songs in, as it was too physical and sensual. R. Akiva, however, said that while the whole Torah was holy, the Song of Songs was the most holy. It became, in fact, the favorite of mystical authors for 2000 years.

Leading up to his great work, the Mishneh Torah, he wrote Sefer haMitzvot, an outline of all 613 commandments. He included in his list intellectual commandments. In Sefer haMitzvot he was also making an inventory that would later serve him well in the writing of his great halachic work, the Mishneh Torah.

Medical Writings

In his medical writings, Maimonides was very careful about the matters under consideration. In the 12th century you didn’t do dissections, you read the prior Greek and Arabic physicians. He also wrote, however, on kosher slaughtering and some of the insights he had into the nature of animals suggests he did anatomical studies because his knowledge was so precise. He wrote 10 medical tracts in all, all in Arabic. The first was a summary of the work of the famous Greek medical authority named Galen in which he criticized both Galen and Hippocrates. His third work was a book of medical aphorisms, taken from Arabic science. Translated into Hebrew, then Latin, it became a standard in medical school. He also became famous for his next work, a discussion of diabetes. The next work was about hemorrhoids. He warns against surgery and bleeding and denied that bloodletting had any value at all. At the request of the vizier, he wrote a book on sex. In his discourse on asthma, he suggested going to the desert and he discusses pollution and dirty air. His most famous work was his 9th-on poisonous snakes, bee stings and other animal bites. It was widely used in medieval medical schools. He also wrote a treatise on health regimens for the young vizier, who was overdoing it sexually. Maimonides, in effect, told him that many of his ailments were psychosomatic. Finally, he also wrote a pharmacopia, detailing over 400 prescriptions.

Mishneh Torah

In the Mishneh Torah, his very great halachic work of the whole of Jewish law, Maimonides argued that all statements had to conform with reason and correspond to truth. Even the Torah has to conform to reason. This was a remarkable and radical thought. The Torah, having been given by God, was, he argued, reasonable and we had to discover the reasons for its legislation.

Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah was an extraordinary work. It took ten years to write. While many people study his Guide to the Perplexed, the Mishneh Torah is the summary of his genius. Written about 1168 to 1178 when he was about 40, it is, Katz said, the most important book of Jewish law after the Mishnah and Talmud, in our history. It is comprised of 14 books, written in the Hebrew of the Mishnah.

The novelty of the Mishneh Torah is seen throughout its pages. Almost everywhere you open it up, there is novelty, Katz noted. Indeed, it is so all inclusive and wide-ranging that many people thought he was trying to replace the classical rabbinic Mishnah as the source of Jewish law, but that wasn’t the case.

The first two volumes of the work are about philosophical principles for reading the law (Bible and rabbinic sources). That marked the book as a work of philosophy. For Maimonides, you could not really understand Jewish law if you were not a philosopher. Interestingly, the book is written in the form of a code, not a commentary. It tells his opinion. It has extraordinary scope. Later, Joseph Caro, in the Shulchan Aruch (16th Century, Israel) would leave out discussion of laws Caro deemed no longer relevant. Maimonides, however, didn’t leave anything out. He discusses sacrifices and laws of purity and says that if you want to know what Judaism means in its fullest sense, you have to consider everything found in the Bible and the rabbinic texts. He does all this and, at the same time, puts together the philosophical and the halachic.

In a reading we examined, he gives “reasons” for the commandments. He believed that every commandment had a reason and it was our obligation to search it out. In an examination of the law of sacrifice, for example, he said the insight in the law was that we are all cheap and have a natural desire to be devious. This was not a legal insight, but a deep philosophical and psychological observation about human nature. Again, in a passage about the laws regarding the ownership of slaves, he notes that the law says you can have a slave, but the person who actually is a slave owner is violating the deeper ethical meaning of the law.

Ethical Essence of Law

For Maimonides, the real obligation of a Jew was not only to keep the law in its outward performance, but to keep the ethical essence of the law. In delving deep, he psychologizes and emphasizes various aspects of halachah. Some people were unhappy with this approach and burned his books. In the end, however, he won out. The Mishneh Torah is the classic commentary on Jewish law.

His philosophical material was central to his reputation. It was found in texts such as Ma’aseh B’resheit and those dealing with Merkavah, i.e. texts that deal with the mysteries of the book of Genesis and Ezekiel, and that are traditionally considered mystical texts. Maimonides interpreted as being related to physics (Genesis and Ma’aseh B’resheit) and metaphysics (Merkavah). The authors knew about philosophy, he argued. It is important to understand this to properly situate Maimonides who strongly believed that philosophy was inherent in Jewish tradition from its beginning and not a foreign (Greek) interpretation. So he calls Abraham and Moses philosophers in the sense that they knew the right way to read the basic religious texts.

Philosophy is the Key to a Jew’s Understanding of Jewish Tradition

Why is philosophy so important to him? Jews, in his view, had lost the ability to understand their own tradition because they didn’t know how to read the biblical text. When they studied their texts and then the science of the day, they’d find themselves confronted with serious intellectual contradictions. Or, if they read the texts too literally, they could find themselves with false beliefs. Maimonides felt a corrective was needed to these sorts of mistaken hermeneutical approaches.

As to his own method: Maimonides did not think that philosophy proceeds by equations or syllogisms. While there are some elements that can be produced by demonstration, most of philosophy, particularly the metaphysical issues under discussion, does not provide these types of knock down arguments. Moreover, the problems are compounded for Jews, because they are, while doing philosophy, also trying to protect Jewish tradition. So they do philosophy in unusual ways.

While many people said that the Rambam was a strict Aristotelian that is an error. He did say that everything that Aristotle said about all that exists from beneath the sphere of the moon to the center of the earth is undoubtedly correct-but that everything that Aristotle expounds with regard to the sphere of the moon and that which is above it, except for certain things, is something analogous to guessing and conjecture. Contrary to the belief of many, Maimonides held that Aristotle does not have knockdown arguments for these transcendent dimensions and we therefore do not have to accept his work regarding these domains as “truth” in the same way that we do in, for example, physics.

Not for Everyone

Maimonides was an elitist. He noted that people who were not serious learners did not need to worry about what he had to say. His audience was the person who was multi-talented and knew Torah, philosophy and science and asked how they could all be true. Even today, people may decide, for example, to give up Torah if it looks as if it can’t be true. Others turn their back on science in order to retrain their faith. Maimonides took the more complex road of trying to reconcile faith and reason, science and religion.

Torah on Many Levels

The Rambam worked from the key principle that the Torah has many levels. The simple reader stays on the surface while the real philosopher delves deeper. In order to convey his meaning to true philosophers and to keep it out of the hands of the ignorant, he writes the Guide in hints and contradictions so as to fool the simpleminded, as well as to point the ways to untangle the meaning if readers were smart enough to understand his hints. In some ways this approach honored the tradition set out in the Talmud (Hagiga) for dealing with mystical secrets so profound that they should only be taught to masters of the law, who were over 40, with the requisite spirituality. Maimonides, knowing this tradition, did not want in writing the Guide to violate the rabbinic principle that these ideas should not be taught in public. So you have to go through the book very carefully and figure out which parts go with what other parts. Often, this is done by bringing together the mention of particular biblical citations. For example, if he mentions a specific text in Genesis in different places, the reader is meant to bring those segments together to get at the full meaning of what Maimonides wants to tell him. Thus, using this method, the truth is simultaneously revealed and concealed.

In the Introduction to the Guide, we get a sense of his purpose. He writes that, just as the candle, which may not be worth much, lets us see the pearl, there may be deeper value in stories and parables. If you don’t know that a parable is a parable, it’s worthless, but if you unlock it properly it leads to the deeper meaning of the text. Most of us read the stories and don’t understand where the secrets are. To repeat the key point: He sets up the possibility of a non-literal reading of scripture and proceeds on the assumption that scripture cannot contradict what we know to be true.

Torah as Metaphor

For example, applying his non-literal method of interpretation, he considers Genesis, and the question of whether or not God has a body. Many people, he tells us, either think God has a body or they don’t believe in God at all. But he rejects this simple dichotomy. Instead, he looks at the specific biblical terminology used in Genesis, noting that the terminology we use for ordinary form in our world is not the terminology used for God in the Bible. This demonstrates that it is not this everyday understanding of physical form that is being referred to in Genesis. Instead, the Bible is using physical terminology metaphorically. If, for example, we want to say that God is great, we talk about something that is great in our world-i.e., the idea that God has an extraordinary palace. But, of course, God does not have a physical palace or a physical throne or a physical body that occupies this palace and sits on this throne.

His methodology is to compare all the uses of a word used in the Bible and to show that it is possible to interpret them metaphorically. For example, when we say that taking the lulav and etrog together brings unity to the world, we understand it as a metaphor. And if ritual is metaphorical, then, for example, eating matza or opening the door to Elijah at the Seder can be understood as actions that are messianic and that help define redemption.

Katz noted that this is where the Catholic Church got in trouble on the idea of transubstantiation. Maimonides, on the other hand, acknowledged the metaphor and the idea that you have to understand is that, in ritual actions, you are not literally doing the thing represented.

Maimonides points out that people have a remarkable instrument in their minds– their ability to conceive of things that aren’t “real” in the ordinary, empirical way. This ability to utilize metaphor was a special human capacity.

Is the World Eternal?

One famous and crucial discussion in the Guide takes up the issue of the eternity of the world. Both Plato and Aristotle argued for the existence of a Being who put the world in motion. God in Plato is a Being who molded reality (the Demiurgos) and in Aristotle God is understood is the Prime Mover. The question is, did creation actually arise in time or is the world eternal? In the Greek view, the world is eternal and the Demiurgos or Prime Mover did not create everything from nothing but rather merely shaped the always-existing primordial matter into our present world. Thus, Plato thought that there was creation, but not from nothing while Aristotle denies that the Prime Mover can make things happen as a result of his free decisions. For Aristotle, the Prime Mover doesn’t make choices in the sense of free choices. The Prime Mover only acts out of necessity. For Aristotle, it is impossible for God to change his mind as that would be an imperfection. It would mean that either he made a mistake or didn’t think the matter through as He should have originally.

Alternatively, In the Jewish view, there was a time when only God existed and the world did not exist thus there was a fundamental collision between Greek philosophy and the Bible.

In the end, Maimonides rejects the Aristotelian theory that the world is eternal.

Katz noted that he could have accepted the eternity of the world and interpreted it in a non-literal way, i.e., he could have treated it in the same way that he did the question of God’s body. But, in the end, he chose not to do this for at least two basic reasons.

The first is because in the case of the claim that God has a body, Maimonides thinks there is actually a logical demonstration that God can’t have a body. Since the demonstration exists, he is forced to use the non-literal way to confirm religion.

In the case of eternity, however, Aristotle and Plato were not able to demonstrate their view. It was just a conjecture. Therefore, it didn’t have the same authority and Maimonides wasn’t forced to reinterpret the Torah.

Furthermore, the discussion of God having a body was also not crucial because no essential principle of Judaism depends on God having a body. As regards the question of the world being eternal, however, the religious stakes are higher. And this because everything in Judaism depends on God creating the world in time. On this belief rests the belief in a God who can perform miracles. In turn, a God who can perform miracles has free will. And this is important because only if God has free will can he make a covenant with Abraham. Indeed, the Covenant, the Torah, even the rebirth of the dead in messianic times depends on God having a will that is free to do something that is not “natural”. Thus Maimonides makes creation such an important issue and in that differs so strongly with Plato and Aristotle.