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Maimonides might not be surprised rabbis misappropriated his teachings

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Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought by James A. Diamond and Menachem Keliner (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization)

During his lifetime and for at least a century afterwards, Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) was controversial. Some religious critics attacked his code of Jewish law, Mishneh Torah, for the alleged pretentiousness of its content and even for its name (literally, “Repetition of the Torah”). In its introduction, Maimonides wrote that now that he had written this code, those who wanted to know Jewish law would no longer need to study Talmud, since if they studied the Torah and the Mishneh Torah “they would have no need for any other book (that was written) between those two.”

His philosophical works, and particularly his magnum opus, The Guide of the Perplexed, came in for even harsher criticism from conservative religious thinkers for allegedly distorting Judaism by presenting it as compatible with Aristotelian philosophy. Such critics argued – and even today some scholars believe – that for Maimonides, ancient Greek philosophy was a more reliable source of truth than the revealed word of God in the Bible. Some of Maimonides’ Jewish opponents proposed bans on his works, while others even argued that they should be burned.

Opposition to Maimonides and his works waned over the years, but even in the 19th century, a maverick scholar from an Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Italy, Samuel David Luzzatto (also known by the Hebrew acronym Shadal), criticized Maimonides harshly, claiming, for example, that Maimonides promoted an unhealthy attitude to sexuality derived from Aristotle, not the healthier attitude of the Jewish tradition (Shadal’s commentary to Exodus 21:10).

In the 20th century, though, the situation changed, as we can see from Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought, a collaborative effort of two of the leading scholars of Jewish thought in our generation, Prof. James A. Diamond of Canada and Prof. Menachem Kellner of Israel. Diamond and Kellner analyze a number of the foremost Orthodox thinkers of the 20th century (and one from the late 19th), demonstrating that they have all appropriated Maimonides as their own, while changing Maimonides’ message with varying degrees of subtlety. Each thinker recreates Maimonides in his own image. As Kellner writes, “Both the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) and the ‘Leibowitzer Rebbe’ (Yeshayahu Leibowitz, 1903-1994), as is well known, considered themselves Maimonides’ contemporary spokesmen. The dovish Meimad movement in Israeli politics adopted him, as did their hawkish religious-Zionist opponents, while a pale kabbalistic hue colours the Maimonides of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993).”

Two leading thinkers of the 20th century, Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, can serve as examples of Diamond and Kellner’s findings. Rabbi Soloveitchik, the leading modern Orthodox rabbi in the United States in the 20th century, was the scion of a proud line of Lithuanian rabbis who took a hyper-analytical approach to the study of Talmud, often centring their interest on Maimonides’ teachings. Rabbi Kook (1865-1935), a modern mystic, was the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel.

As Kellner shows, Rabbi Soloveitchik hews fairly closely to Maimonides on many issues but deviates in interesting ways. According to Maimonides, the ultimate goal for all human beings is the perfection of the intellect – a goal that is not achieved through the study of Torah (although Maimonides certainly sees the study of Torah as important for other reasons). Rabbi Soloveitchik understood that according to Maimonides, “each and every Jew (who wishes to achieve intellectual perfection) would have to philosophize and investigate for himself” – but Rabbi Soloveitchik was uncomfortable with this elitist idea. Ironically, though, Rabbi Soloveitchik cited texts from Maimonides in his arguments to prove his own position.

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Rabbi Kook took an even more “creative” approach. Diamond describes “Rabbi Kook’s concerted subversion of Maimonides’ rationalist grounding of the … commandments to know, love and fear God,” preferring a mystical non-rationalist approach. The first mitzvah enumerated in the Mishneh Torah is to know that yesh sham (there is) a God. Rabbi Kook insists that God can be known in two ways: either through “knowledge that is acquired through things that are possible to know – that is, recognition of Him through His actions” or through “that aspect of knowledge which is impossible to know.” Maimonides, the rationalist, undoubtedly believed that God was known only in the first of these two ways. But Rabbi Kook, who believed in non-rational ways of understanding, read Maimonides’ description of the mitzvah hyperliterally: when Maimonides wrote “to know that yesh sham (there is) a God,” Kook suggests he was allegedly referring to another non-rational level of understanding that is “out there” somewhere, not here on earth. (Actually, the phrase yesh sham is standard Hebrew for speakers of medieval Arabic, like Maimonides, and does not refer to a different place or sphere of knowledge.) “This is an extraordinarily crucial exegetical move, for it anchors the entire Mishneh Torah in a Kookian model of homo religiosus, for whom an exclusively intellectual mould is stifling,” writes Diamond.

Carefully and convincingly, Diamond and Kellner show that Maimonides’ written words were repeatedly appropriated by Jewish religious thinkers in the 20th century to promote theological positions that Maimonides would never have subscribed to. But Diamond points out an interesting irony: many argue that Maimonides himself appropriated the philosophy of Aristotle, claiming that it could be integrated into rabbinic Judaism, a system very different from Greek philosophy. Maybe Maimonides would not be surprised, after all, to find that latter-day thinkers appropriated his words and used them to support theological approaches that differed from his.

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